Saturday, Apr 21, 2018
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David Briggs

DAVID BRIGGS

Fresh off championship year, can Toledo football become championship program?

The play was White 14 General, and with nothing cooking midway through Toledo’s spring football game Friday night, the marching orders arrived.

Technically, the call — a reverse pass from receiver to quarterback — featured a run option, too. But let’s not kid ourselves: Desmond Phillips, a junior receiver from Miami, did not throw 28 touchdowns as a prep passer for nothing. Come hell or two-high coverage, he was flinging it.

Phillips took the reverse handoff, spotted Eli Peters streaking open toward the end zone, and hit him in stride for an 18-yard score.

Just like that, the Rockets’ quarterback derby had a new — if self-appointed — entrant.

“If you ask him, he’s still the best quarterback on the roster,” coach Jason Candle cracked.

A source close to the situation confirmed.

“I tell those guys all the time, I’ll take all of your jobs,” Phillips said, smiling.

He was kidding. Wait, right!?

In any case, a receiver throwing one of the night’s two touchdown passes underscores the uncertainty confronting the Rockets.

Toledo, long the nation’s top mid-major bridesmaid, last year bounded over the Great Wall and won its first MAC title since 2004. Now comes the harder part.

Doing it again.

And with a fresh cast that counts one career completion between their quarterback contenders — only a cool 758 less than the record-setting last guy, Logan Woodside.

If Toledo showed it can be a championship team, Candle can prove this season he has a championship program.

“For years, we’ve been walking into the stadium, going into practice, and looking up at the press box saying how we wanted to put a year up there,” he said, nodding toward the row of championship seasons recognized on the face of the suites. “It’s really easy to look up there now and say, ‘Man, there it is,’ and get enamored with it.

“But the rest of the teams in our conference and the people we play, they don’t care what we did last year. It’s a new year. We’ve got to turn the page.”

If you asked me today, I’d put Toledo as the league favorite.

Yes, there are curious first graders who have less questions than these Rockets. They lose a lot, including their leaders in passing, rushing, and sacks, along with two all-league offensive tackles and two of their top three tacklers. And the schedule does no favors, with trips to top division challengers Western Michigan and Northern Illinois — which returns most of its league-leading defense — and a taxing nonconference lineup that includes Miami and Fresno State, both coming off 10-win years.

CBSSports.com counted the Rockets among its five teams least likely to win 10 games again in 2018. Bulletin board material!

Still, I’m not sure there is anybody in the conference I’d pick ahead of them. They bring back a lot, too — a lights-out receiving ensemble, a deep group of running backs made deeper if Kentucky transfer and Springfield grad Bryant Koback receives a hardship waiver to play immediately, a stacked secondary — and have a plug-and-play production line unmatched in the league.

From a talent angle, Toledo is the Ohio State of the MAC, its recruiting classes rating first or second in the league nine of the past 10 years. This year, the Rockets signed a group 247Sports.com rated 65th nationally, putting them ahead of several power-conference programs and behind only Cincinnati (53) and South Florida (60) among their Group of Five peers.

That doesn’t guarantee championships. Toledo knows this better than anyone. But regardless of the scale of player turnover, good, stable coaching mixed with great recruiting does guarantee a place in the hunt, along with the benefit of the doubt.

That includes with the quarterbacks. Neither junior Mitch Guadagni, whose spring-game pairing with the starting receivers suggests he will be given every chance to win the job, nor the sophomore Peters especially impressed Friday. But you can read more in a coloring book than from a puffed-up exhibition. Both former three-star prospects are bright with big arms. Besides, given the depth of offensive playmakers, the Rockets do not need their signal caller to be a star, just effective. 

Toledo will be fine. At least it better be. 

The university is not paying Candle more than $1 million per year for one championship season. It is paying him to build a championship program. 

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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