Imagine if your team was returning seven defensive starters from a squad that won a conference title.
You’d be feeling pretty good about your chances to reclaim your spot as the best defense in the league and repeat as champions, right?
I’m sure that’s how Toledo is feeling entering the 2023 campaign.
The Rockets ranked first in total defense in the MAC last season, allowing 326.2 YPG, and were third in scoring defense surrendering 25.1 PPG. That number is a little skewed by a 77-point outburst Ohio State hung on them in Week 3.
Outside of that game, their defense was fairly consistent for the rest of the season and showed up when it mattered most, holding Ohio to just seven points in the MAC championship. Sure, Ohio was depleted with the loss of Kurtis Rourke but still boasted plenty of firepower.
Leading that consistency was linebacker Dallas Gant, who paced the team with 116 tackles and added five passes defended and two forced fumbles. His 8.3 tackles per game were 10th in the conference. OLB Adrian Woliver will also be back after recording 24 tackles, six TFLs, and 4.5 sacks.
Jackson Barrow is another quality returner who started in three games at weakside linebacker and finished with 31 tackles and 2.5 TFLs.
The biggest playmaker on this defense, however, is cornerback Quinyon Mitchell. In his freshman campaign, he earned First Team MAC honors, was selected Second Team All-American by Phil Steele, and was a Third Team All-American by the Associated Press. His 20 pass breakups broke a program record and his five interceptions were second in the league. Mitchell also added 41 tackles and 3.5 TFLs.
Four of those five interceptions came in one game and also featured two pick-6s:
Toledo’s other starting CB in Chris McDonald will also be back. The senior posted 41 tackles, six pass breakups, and one pick last year. Andre Fuller and RJ Delancy III will continue to provide depth after strong seasons. Fuller started in two games and had 18 total tackles and three PBUs, and Delancy recorded 23 tackles and three passes defended in four starts. He also had six tackles in the MAC championship.
Also returning in the secondary will be safety Nate Bauer. The senior was a Second Team All-Conference selection and whose 61 tackles ranked fifth on the team. Bauer also added four TFLs, two interceptions, and four PBUs.
Nickleback Zachary Ford is another critical returning piece and finished 2022 with 58 tackles and seven passes defended.
There’s plenty of talent that will be back on the defensive line for the Rockets, as well. Judge Culpepper was a starter and secured 44 tackles last year while adding four TFLs and one sack. Cavon Butler appeared in six games and had 14 tackles, but missed the second half of the season with an injury. Darius Alexander is another key returner on the line and had seven TFLs and three PBU last year.
This is just most of the production that will be returning for this Toledo defense next year. There are still other guys who made plays throughout the season and should have more opportunities to do so.
Toledo put seven players on the 2022 All-MAC teams — the most of any program — and has three of them returning in Gant, Mitchell, and Bauer. The seven returning starters don’t include a handful of other guys that started sporadically throughout the season.
It won’t be much of a surprise if there are new faces in the 2023 All-MAC teams, and this defense picks up where it left off.