Gator County donned our camouflage gear, plastered our faces with mud and left the comfort of Gainesville to travel deep behind enemy lines this week to learn more about Florida’s opponent, the Toledo Rockets.
Now that the dramatic introduction is out of the way, let’s explain what this series will be about and why it is an important exercise each week. As following a team is a full-time job, there is no way that a Florida reporter can begin to pretend that they know everything about the opponent each week. So in an effort to give you the most comprehensive coverage on not just the Gators, but about their opponent as well, we will be speaking with one of the “enemy” (Ryan was actually a very nice guy) beat reporters each week to discuss the teams strengths, weaknesses, matchups and to get a prediction as well.
This week we spoke with Ryan Autullo of the Toledo Blade to breakdown how the Rockets matchup against the first SEC team they have ever faced. He gives us an in-depth preview of what to expect from the team across the field and how they stack up against the Gators.
Nick de la Torre: Hey Ryan, how are you?
Ryan Autullo: Really good.
ND: I appreciate you taking the time out to talk with us.
RA: Yeah, I’m ready to finally see some football rather than talk about it.
ND: Aren’t we all.
ND: Well, let’s jump right into it. From talking to some Toledo players this week I’m not getting a sense that Toledo is intimidated about playing a big program like Florida. Have you gotten that sense from being around the team?
RA: Yeah, I think so. They’ve been in big arenas before; they played Ohio State two years ago in Columbus and came within an eyelash of upsetting them. Now, that was not a good Ohio State team, they went 6-7 but I think at that point of the year they were pretty decent. Last year they go to Arizona out west and Arizona is not Florida, but it is a BCS program and Toledo took them into overtime. Yeah, I think they’re confident; they’ve got a lot of firepower back on offense and it’s the first game of the year so you better be confident, right?
ND: Going through the stats it seems like Bernard Reedy is not just a big part of the offense, but a big part of the team as a whole, returning punts, kicks and even running the ball out of the backfield as well. What does he bring to the team and how do you think he will factor in against Florida?
RA: Well, they can line him up in the slot and get him some mismatches there. He’s tough to tackle, he’s small — he’s listed at 5’9” – and he’s still effective in the return game. He had four touchdowns last year and three of them came in consecutive weeks. Toledo upset Cincinnati — Cincinnati was 5-0 and nationally ranked at the time — without scoring an offensive touchdown. Reedy had a big return after a Cincinnati score. He’s just very dynamic, very electric. In the bowl game, Toledo’s No. 1 running back David Fluellen — who had just about 1,500 rushing yards last year – was hurt and they moved Reedy into the backfield. He’s very versatile, very fast, quick and you could argue that he’s the best skill player on the team, although, that’s very arguable because there are some very good ones.
ND: Absolutely, you mentioned Fluellen and Toledo has a senior quarterback back in Terrance Owens, but who are some of the other players on offense that Toledo will really look to on Saturday?
RA: Alonzo Russell was a freshman last year that had 960 receiving yards. So he’s a nice complimentary part to Reedy, he’s a bigger receiver at 6’4”, and had some pretty good offers coming out of high school. He needs to be a little more consistent. Now that’s unfair to say about a kid who was just a freshman, he had a very fine freshmen season but if he’s going to take the next step, he’s gotta put more four and five catch games together rather than a six catch performance one week and a one catch performance the next. He’s a very nice player, a nice big threat. They have a couple of young freshmen receivers and one of them is Rodney Adams, who is actually from Lakewood High School, the same high school as Bernard Reedy, and he had some big-time offers. He was committed to Florida at one point and there were some academic issues, I think they backed off. Alabama had an offer out to him and some other big ones. I never really got a straight answer about him, suffice it to say there were some academic issues but Toledo stayed on him. He’s on the two-deep, I wasn’t sure if they would play him right out of the shoot or not, but it appears they will. Another receiver, Corey Jones, who’s the backup receiver at slot, is very dynamic in the same mold as Reedy. So I think the receiving position is loaded. The running back spot, Fluellen and behind him there are a lot of guys with potential who just haven’t done a whole lot yet because either they haven’t had the reps, or simply just freshmen. It’s a very potent offense and the offensive line is very good too.
ND: The offensive line returns four-of-five starters correct?
RA: Correct, and two of them are really good. They’re being touted as NFL prospects. Zac Kerin, the center and three-year starter, and Greg Mancz, the right guard who’s also a three-year senior. They’re the best of the bunch. It’s a line that I think can be pretty effective on Saturday.
(Editor note: Adams was committed to Florida at one point last season but academic concerns left him out of the class.)
ND: Toledo runs a “spread offense” but it’s a more balanced spread offense than people may think. When you see “spread offense”, people think of Texas Tech and throwing the ball 70 times a game or something like the spread option that Urban Meyer runs. Does Toledo’s balance between the run and pass in their offense help Ownes hit short quick passes as well as open up running lanes for him and Fluellen?
RA: Yeah, I think all of that. It is a very balanced offense. “Spread” is such a broad term, there’s so many different types of spreads. Toledo has had a 1,000-yard rusher the past three seasons. They want to establish the run and the run helps the pass, the pass helps the run. I think you’re probably going to see them with shorter passes, trying to get somebody to miss and get downfield for 5-to-7 more yards. Last year against Arizona they really struggled, the receivers did, getting open down field and the philosophy shifted at some point later in that game with shorter passes and trying to attack the perimeters a little more. Toledo knows precisely what they’re going to do on offense because Florida is breaking in a lot of new guys. A new defensive coordinator but I imagine it is going to look very similar. I don’t think the coaches always know what’s going to happen and a lot of times the team that wins is the team that adjusts best on the fly.
ND: Moving on to the defense, it’s hard to miss the youth on that side of the ball. 14-of-22 players on the two-deep depth chart are either sophomores or freshmen. Is that because recruiting has gone well and those players have stepped up, or are the numbers eschewed on defense?
RA: It’s a combination of everything you said. When Campbell took over, I think his recruiting philosophy was different than Beckman’s. They want bigger defensive backs and linebackers with longer wingspans than maybe the guys that Beckman was bringing in. So you’re seeing the guys that the new regime brought in replacing some of the old guys on the depth chart. But there was a little bit of attrition, six defensive linemen graduated from last year, so you were going to be young there regardless. I think it’s a little bit of everything, the young guys are pretty good in some cases and the staff preferred the young guys to the veterans in some cases. So I think it’s a little bit of everything.
ND: Florida lost Jon Bostic last season so they can sympathize with this one. Toledo lost Dan Molls — a middle linebacker who led the country in tackles (166) last season — how are the Rockets trying to replace him.
RA: They’re going to replace him with a guy named Chase Murdock, a sophomore who played sparingly last year. They were hoping to create a competition; they had another second year guy who they redshirted last year, Jaylen Coleman from Pittsburgh. But he suffered a knee injury in camp so he’s gone indefinitely. They’re a little thin there at linebacker. I don’t think they’ll replace Molls in the sense that he tackled everything that came his way, but he wasn’t a great athlete or a great violent hitter and they think that Murdock may have a step up on Molls in those two categories, but he’s not as experienced.
ND: How do you think the humidity and heat at Florida will factor into the game?
RA: The heat and humidity is always going to be an issue, I thought Toledo handled that pretty well when they went out to Arizona and then went out to Wyoming and handled the altitude the next week. The humidity is not going to be the biggest issue, it’s going to be the four and five star athletic freaks and 88,000 people screaming in The Swamp.
ND: How do you feel that the sophomores and freshmen will handle playing in front of a crowd like that? They’ve never played on a stage this big or this bright.
RA: I don’t think you’re ever prepared for it. Even if you’ve been in that environment before, I don’t think you’re fully prepared to be a three-touchdown underdog in a very difficult environment, the humidity, just the magnitude of it all and the fans screaming. That’s a lot on a player’s shoulders whether you’re a fifth year senior or a true freshman. Toledo has a defensive lineman who just turned 18 on Sunday (starting DE Marquise Moore). They’re going to be wide-eyed and it’s going to be a heck of a challenge.
ND: Are you ready to make a score prediction?
RA: Yeah, I’m not good at these and even worse at giving a specific score. I’ll just say that I don’t think Florida covers the spread that was 23.5 the last time I saw it, but I would be a fool to not expect Florida to win. I think it’s probably going to go similar to the opener last year against Bowling Green. Bowling Green hung with Florida. For your audience that may not know, Bowling Green and Toledo are separated by about 30 minutes up here and are big rivals in the MAC. I think it’s going to go something like that. I would expect Toledo’s defense to struggle. I would expect Florida’s defense to struggle at times but ultimately, I think that depth will probably be key and I think Florida probably wins it by two touchdowns but it will be competitive into the second half.