[caption id="attachment_266687" align="alignnone" width="1440"] (Photo: © UTRockets.com)
We're back!!! It's been a long college football offseason, but it is finally game week and up right now is KSR's first scouting report of the 2019 Kentucky football season. Much like we did last fall, these weekly posts will tell you everything you need to know about the upcoming opponent. From program history, to coaching background/philosophy, offense, defense and special teams breakdowns, betting trends, advanced stats, and keys to the game. You will find out everything you need to know about the ballgame on Saturday. First up is MAC powerhouse Toledo.
Nuts and Bolts
Jason Candle is entering his fourth season as the head coach at Toledo, but he's been there much longer than that. The Mount Union alum started as a wide receiver coach for the Rockets in 2009 before becoming the offensive coordinator in 2012. After Matt Campbell left Toledo for Iowa State, the Rockets decided to promote from within. It's worked out pretty well.
The young head coach will turn 40 in November and through three-plus seasons he has 28 wins and a MAC title under his belt. The Rockets have consistently been one of the best offensive programs in the Group of Five and they have been in the conference title hunt every year under Candle's watch. The former Division III wideout is a future Power Five head coach and is continuing a strong winning tradition at a proud program.
The Rockets have been to bowl games in eight of the last nine seasons and have seen many coaches move on to bigger and better things. Matt Campbell left for Iowa State and Tim Beckman departed for Illinois, but neither won a MAC championship. Jason Candle got that done in year three. Have you heard of guys named Gary Pinkel and Nick Saban? They too have won big at Toledo. This is a very good football program.
This will be the first ever meeting between the two programs, but it will not stay like that for long. The Rockets and Wildcats will meet three more times in the next 10 years after Saturday's matchup. Get ready to make the road trip to Toledo in 2028 when the Rockets host UK in the Glass Bowl for the season opener.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is a 11.5 point favorite with a total of 62. That's a projected final score around 37-25. Since 2016, Kentucky is a paltry 3-14 against the spread when favored and 0-6 against Group of Five competition. Under Jason Candle, Toledo is a consistent 19-20-1 against the number but they are just 3-5 against the spread as an underdog.
Since Jason Candle took over the play-calling duties at Toledo, the Rockets have averaged at least 31.5 points per game in each season and have twice led the MAC in scoring. Candle kept it rolling when he became the program's head coach and in his first season the Rockets put up 38 points per game, averaged 7.2 yards per play, and finished 10th in S&P+'s adjusted offensive ratings. He's one of college football's best offensive coaches.
In this scheme, the Rockets run a modern day spread offense with tempo involved. On Saturday, you will see the quick hitting dart run that Chip Kelly made famous at Oregon. You will see multiple RPOs and zone read actions. There are even some option elements such as a midline read sprinkled in. Toledo wants to spread the field and make opposing defenses guard in space.
Last season the Rockets put up 40.4 points per game and that ranked ninth in the FBS. Off that offense, the Rockets get six starters back and will once again be in position to lead the MAC in scoring. Last year, Toledo was forced to play two quarterbacks due to injury. After ending the season with Illinois transfer Eli Peters at quarterback, incumbent starter Mitchell Guadagni won the competition in camp.
The Akron area native started seven games for the Rockets last fall and put up some very impressive numbers. The 6-foot-2 and 210-pound dual-threat redshirt senior averaged a robust 8.8 yards per attempt, rushed 513 yards (8.6 per attempt) on non-sack carries and was responsible for 16 touchdowns. He only had three turnovers and was very successful when healthy. However, his runs come specifically on scrambles.
Don't be surprised if you see zero designed QB runs from Toledo, but Guadagni could tote the rock 10-12 times if UK is undisciplined with their pass rush. The class of 2015 recruit was one of college football's best scramblers last season.
If you're looking for a weakness in Guadagni’s game it happens to be with holding the football too long. In seven games last season, Mitchell Guadagni had an ugly sack rate of 12.4 percent. That's not winning football. If he struggles at all, don't be surprised if Jason Candle throws pocket passer Eli Peters into the fire. The junior gets rid of the ball fast (3.6 percent sack rate) but is not near the rushing threat (only 13 non-sack carries in six starts)
Next to whoever is behind center in the backfield will be two very valuable options. One is a name Kentucky fans are very familiar with and the former mid three-star recruit in the class of 2017 could be the MAC's best running back.
After redshirting in 2017 in Lexington, Koback made the move to Toledo and put up 917 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns on just 153 attempts. He averaged six yards per pop and was one of college football's best big play backs. He was exactly the type of player Kentucky thought he was coming out of high school.
Off the bench, Shakif Seymour is a redshirt junior from Cleveland who provides the offense with a nice pass catching option. The six-foot, 215-pound back recorded 14 grabs last year. He's no slouch when given carries after posting 565 yards and five touchdowns as Toledo's short-yardage option.
At wideout, Toledo lost their top three pass catchers who combined for 131 receptions last season. The top returnee is slot receiver Desmond Phillips who recorded 27 grabs in 2018. He'll likely be the top target this year. The Rockets get Danzel McKinley-Lewis back from injury after he collected 23 receptions on Toledo's 2017 MAC championship team. Look for tight ends Reggie Gilliam (preseason first-team All-MAC) and Drew Rosi to factor into the passing game. Both are excellent blockers and will be needed due to lack of proven receivers.
On the line of scrimmage, Toledo was dealt a huge blow when all-conference center Bryce Harris was ruled out for the season
due to a knee injury. The Rockets have now moved guard Luke Doerger to center as they shuffle around to replace the loss. It's a big front with everyone checking in at least 295 pounds led by huge left tackle Cameron Bell (6-foot-8, 335 pounds).
Brian George has been Jason Candle's defensive coordinator ever since he became the head coach and last year the Rockets fell off a cliff. After finishing 55th and 54th on S&P+ in defense the first two seasons, the Rockets slipped all the way to 102nd. Toledo ranked 84th in scoring defense and 78th in yards per play allowed. Toledo was able to force 21 turnovers, but they were awful in red zone defense (96th) and gave up a ton of big plays.
In George's 4-2-5 scheme, the Rockets recruit speed and want to force the issue. Expect for many risks to be taken and quite often the Rockets will leave their secondary in some tough spots. They want to get the ball back to the offense as fast as possible and that's exactly how they play.
On the line, Toledo has an emerging star that became a force in his true freshman season.
Jamal Hines is a 6-foot-3, 250-pound defensive end from Cincinnati who recorded 49 tackles, 15 run stuffs, and two interceptions in 2018. He needs to develop a pass rush, but he should provide quite a challenge for UK's tackles. At the second level, Jordan Fisher is a high ceiling Mike linebacker who notched 59 tackles, 4.5 run stuffs and three forced fumbles last year. The former tight end brings some athleticism to the position.
Those are some proven pieces, but the Rockets are also very young inside. They will be challenged by UK's offensive line.
The strength of this defense is in the secondary with 40 starts returning from last season. At the Sam linebacker spot, the Rockets use a hybrid safety and DeDarallo Blue plays the most important position on the unit. The Tampa native will play a huge part in Toledo's run defense in addition to covering running backs, tight ends, and occasionally slots. The Rockets have to get more than 41 tackles, 4.5 run stuffs, and three pass-breakups from the hybrid player.
At corner and safety, Toledo has a ton of experience. Kahlil Robinson is the only senior and he's the squad's top returning tackler with 69 stops. Tycen Anderson, a former UK recruiting target, seems to be the group's best player at strong safety and was voted team captain. Both Justin Clark and Samuel Womack have potential at corner.
Special Teams Breakdown
Per S&P+, the Rockets ranked 26th in special teams last year behind a reliable kicker and an electric return game. Toledo returned three kicks for scores last season and were one of college football's best teams in non-offensive touchdowns. The problem is that starting placekicker and return men are all gone.
At punter, Bailey Flint was really good and opponents only put up eight yards per return. He's is one of many Australians punting in college football. After that there are a bunch of questions, but Danzel McKinley-Lewis put an impressive 13.1 yards on seven returns last season. Reggie Gilliam is one of the best kick blockers you will see in all of college football.
Keys to Victory
Kentucky enters Saturday's tilt a double-digit favorite, but standing in their way will be a pesky Group of Five program. There are a few things UK must do well to beat Toledo.
- Entering the season, UK's offensive line is the best position group on the team and Saturday they will be up against a defensive front with a lot to prove. Expectations are high for UK's passing game in 2019, but this is still a run heavy offense. If Kentucky establishes its will early and gets the running game going, that should mean some easy plays in the pass game developing for Terry Wilson and Co. The strength needs to be the strength.
- Toledo runs a modern day spread offense and they do a great job by forcing opposing defenses to play in space. That means Kentucky's secondary will be challenged early and often. The young players are going to get beat at times, but they need to minimize their mistakes as much as possible. Try not to bite on fakes in the run game and always be ready for the sideline deep shots. This is a team that feeds off big plays and they could really get rolling if they hit on a couple.
- Ball security, ball security, ball security. On offense, Kentucky should have their way with what will likely be a mediocre defense. However, Toledo is good at forcing turnovers. A recipe for an upset is forcing takeaways and creating extra possessions. UK must not give a good offense too many chances.
- Without center Bryce Harris in the lineup, Toledo has some major questions on the interior. Quinton Bohanna, T.J. Carter, and Calvin Taylor, Jr. have been lauded this entire month. This group needs to dominate the line of scrimmage.
Best hair in college football? Toledo freshman linebacker Joe Smith is making a run at the title.
[caption id="attachment_266931" align="aligncenter" width="478"] (Photo: © UTRockets.com)
That's enough for the scouting report. Let's MACtion!!!