Something to prove: UT senior defenders eager for new seasonWritten by Mike Bauman | | email@example.com
Heading into 2011, it was clear as to why the Rockets were tabbed as the favorites to capture the Mid-American Conference title in the league’s preseason poll. Toledo had nine starters returning on offense and eight on defense after finishing 8-5 in 2010 and reaching its first bowl game since 2005.
Prior to UT’s 2011 season opener, however, that number of returning defensive starters dropped to seven following a torn labrum suffered by senior free safety Mark Singer, which cost him the entire season. Singer was a top-five tackler for Toledo in 2010, also registering two interceptions.
By week two, the Rockets’ defense was down to six returning starters after junior linebacker Dan Molls suffered a lower leg injury during practice. By week seven, only four returning defensive starters from 2010 remained following injuries to junior defensive end T.J. Fatinikun and junior strong safety Jermaine Robinson against Eastern Michigan, with Fatinikun’s dislocated elbow sidelining him for the remainder of the season.
Despite the injuries, multiple defensive lineups and departure of its head coach prior to facing Air Force in the Military Bowl, the Toledo defense persevered. UT finished the 2011 season as the No. 3 team in the country and No. 1 team in the MAC in turnover margin, helping the Rockets capture their first bowl victory since 2005 with a 42-41 win over the Falcons in the Military Bowl.
“Adversity’s going to make everyone stronger, and it definitely played a role into some of the guys coming back for this season,” said Molls, who finished third on the team with 70 tackles in 2011 despite missing six games due to injury. “It really kind of created that spark for our defense.”
This year, Molls will be one of seven seniors starting on UT’s defense and one of five returning starters from 2011. The other seniors slated to join him in the starting lineup are the aforementioned Fatinikun, Robinson and Singer — the last received a medical redshirt to come back and play this year — cornerback Byron Best, linebacker Robert Bell and defensive tackle Danny Farr.
“We’re just hungry,” Molls said. “It’s our senior season, and we really want to make a statement this season.”
Even though he only played the first six games of 2011, Fatinikun showed the league enough in those contests to garner Third-Team All-MAC honors. At the time of his injury, the Perrysburg grad was leading Toledo and tied for third in the MAC with 7.5 tackles for loss to go with a team-high 2.5 sacks.
“It’s a lot of playmakers out on our field now on that defensive side of the ball,” Fatinikun said. “We’ve got a lot of speed and a lot of strength, and I think that’s one thing we’re going to be able to showcase a little more with our schemes now.”
This year’s unit is led by new defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Tom Matukewicz. Known to the players as “Coach Tuke,” Matukewicz comes to UT after spending the last four seasons at MAC West Division rival Northern Illinois, where his most recent position was linebackers coach.
At NIU, Matukewicz helped the Huskies earn a MAC West title in 2010 and a MAC Championship in 2011. In each of his first two seasons at Northern Illinois, the Huskies also ranked No. 1 in the MAC in total defense.
“One of the things that was really important for us once the season got over [with] is putting our kids in the best position to have the right leadership around it, and I was able to keep so many of our staff members that have helped us be successful,” Toledo head coach Matt Campbell said. “But one of the great opportunities was the opportunity to go get somebody to lead this defense, and there’s no question we found the right guy.”
Bell, who finished second on the team with 78 tackles last season in his first year as a starter for UT, echoed Campbell’s sentiments.
“You might get a couple laughs, but he’s all about his business and he likes to have fun when he’s doing it,” Bell said of Matukewicz. “He always says, ‘If you don’t have fun today, it’s your fault.’ ”
With new leadership, experience and a MAC Championship as the goal, fun is just what the Rockets’ seniors expect to have on defense this season.
“The main thing I can tell you is just ‘Watch out’ because everybody’s flying to the ball,” Bell said. “That’s all I can say.”