Briggs: You read it here first. Toledo football will be special in 2023

Go ahead, check the receipts.

A year ago, this blind squirrel predicted the Toledo football team would go 7-5 in the regular season, and, lo and behold, a nut was found.

Now, we’re back to push our luck.

My you-read-it-here-first forecast for the 2023 season? The Rockets will be … one of the very best Group of Five teams in the country.

We’ll see what that means, exactly.

But as teams across the land spent Wednesday imagining a bright future — just once, I’d love for a coach on national signing day to say, “We got worse today” — some schools can dream a little bigger than others.

Toledo is one of them.

When the Rockets won the Mid-American Conference championship in 2017 with a veteran roster headlined by record-setting senior quarterback Logan Woodside, it felt like a final chapter.

This time, their league title last season was more like a foreword.

Toledo brings back 16 starters and an outsized share of the MAC’s returning stars, including seven members of the all-league first or second teams: quarterback Dequan Finn, receiver Jerjuan Newton, right tackle Nick Rosi, linebacker Dallas Gant, cornerback Quinyon Mitchell, and safeties Maxen Hook and Nate Bauer.

No other conference program returns more than three such honorees. Reigning MAC East champ Ohio will have two, and one of them, quarterback Kurtis Rourke, is coming off a torn ACL.

What’s more, Toledo returns all-league-caliber center Tyler Long — a two-year starter who missed last season with a broken ankle — and came out a winner in the free-agent market.

UT doesn’t expect to lose a single starter to the transfer portal, and has lost just one contributor of note: wideout DeMeer Blankumsee (Memphis). Meanwhile, it’s brought in four potential instant-impact reinforcements from bigger programs, including offensive tackle Rod Orr (Florida State) and defensive end Travion Ford (Missouri), both former four-star prospects ranked among the top 25 nationally at their position in the 2021 class.

In a new football world more transient than a summer beach town — elsewhere in the MAC, 10 first or second-team players transferred — it’s hard to overstate what coach Jason Candle and his staff have achieved here.

With an assist from the Friends of Rocky NIL collective, they have built the rare Group of Five program capable of benefiting from the transfer portal.

“I would credit the culture of our team,” Candle said, “and the culture of our players and a locker room that really has rallied around each other.”

Of course, as with any team, the Rockets face no shortage of questions.

Among them: Can Finn recapture — and build on — the dual-threat magic he displayed when he was at full health last season? Can Toledo replace the production of the people eaters it loses on the defensive line? And what about the O-line? Can a unit that was held together with duct tape and baling wire last year stay healthy and productive?

Fair to wonder.

Still, for all the question marks, Toledo should have more answers.

Even its greatest weakness last season — the offensive line — could become one. The Rockets return four starters from a unit that came of age in their two December wins, welcome back Long, and welcome in two possible plug-and-play tackles: Orr and David Nwaogwugwu, a senior from Rutgers.

“I’ve got a lot of confidence in that group going forward,” Candle said, “probably more so right now at this time this year than I did at this time last year.”

Add it all up, and I think back on the quiet buzz I heard in the Toledo football building last year.

Privately, there was a belief the program was building toward what could be a special season in 2023.

I’ll admit: I rolled my eyes, thinking, “Yeah, yeah, how about you show us something this season?”

Well, the Rockets did show us something last year.

With the program at a crossroads after the 7-5 regular season, they beat Ohio in the MAC championship game, then Liberty in the Boca Raton Bowl, earning Candle — who is now 54-32 with two league titles in seven seasons at UT — a freshly signed contract extension.

Now, they’re after something more.

And not a whole lot feels out of reach.

“We’ve got great leadership and I think we’ve developed our guys well,” Candle said. “There’s a belief system and a new energy after winning the championship and seeing it through. We have reasons to be optimistic. I don’t think all these guys would have came back to sit here and tell you that we expect to be average. We expect to be playing to a really high standard and competing in every game that we have on the schedule next year.”

Nate Brown

General Manager

Nate Brown is the General Manager of Zags Collective, leading the charge to help amplify the opportunities for the Gonzaga student-athletes through NIL partnerships with local charities, fans and businesses. With over a decade of experience in the professional sports industry and as a former business owner in Spokane, Nate is a seasoned professional who knows what it takes to succeed. Most recently, he served as the National Sales Director for a prominent west-coast real estate company, where he was responsible for driving growth and retention. With a deep understanding of sales and marketing, Nate brings a wealth of knowledge to the table and is always seeking innovative ways to drive revenue and create partnerships.With a passion for ensuring the success of student-athletes both on and off the field, Nate is dedicated to providing the necessary resources to keep Gonzaga competitive on the national stage. He understands the importance of building and maintaining strong relationships with the community and local businesses, and works to maximize opportunities for Gonzaga’s student-athletes. As the son of two Gonzaga alumni, including a father who was a baseball pitcher and also a coach for the school, Nate has a great connection to the university and a passion for ensuring its continued success. Outside of work, Nate enjoys spending time with family, including his wife Jessica and their 16-year-old daughter Brooklynn and 12-year-old son Marcus. When not working or spending time with family, you can find Nate at any one of the amazing golf courses in Spokane, honing his swing!

Mike Smith

General Manager

Mike Smith joined Micconope 1851 in March 2023 and is excited to be the General Manager and looks forward to working with Blueprint Sports increase NIL revenue generation for Florida State University student-athletes. Smith comes to Micconope 1851 from Catawba College where he held the title as the Senior Director of Athletics, Development. Prior to working in Athletics at Catawba College, Mike served as the Associate Athletics Director for External Relations at Charleston Southern University. Smith has an impressive background in the collegiate athletics industry, having held senior level development and corporate sponsorship sales roles at The University of Southern Mississippi, Limestone University, the Sun Belt Conference, Florida Atlantic University, and with multimedia rights-holders Tele South Communications at the University of Mississippi, Learfield Sports at UNC Chapel Hill, and with International Sports Properties at Georgia Tech. Smith is a graduate of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina, and holds a master’s degree in Business Management from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In his new role here at Micconppe 1851, Smith will be responsible for raising major gifts for NIL deals as well as securing NIL corporate sponsorships for Florida State University student-athletes. Mike looks forward to helping ensure the FSU student-athletes have the resources and leadership opportunities to remain competitive nationally and positioned for success well beyond graduation. Mike is married to Katy Smith; the couple looks forward to relocating to Tallahassee, Florida, and becoming a part of the Micconope 1851 and Seminole family!

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