Is Toledo’s regression to the middle of the MAC on Jason Candle or circumstance?

Jason Candle took over the Rockets program after Matt Campbell was hired by Iowa State in 2015. Toledo did not hesitate to hand the reigns over to Candle. Matt Campbell was hired away on November 29 and Jason Candle was announced on December 2.

The first two seasons went really well for Candle. In 2016 the Rockets went 9-4 and won the conference the next season finishing 11-3 including the bowl game. Since 2017, the results have been trending in the wrong direction. The Rockets finished 7-6 and 5-3 in the MAC in 2018, and are 6-5 with a 4-3 record in the MAC this season. The Rockets have only finished 5-3 twice since 2010 and will finish worse than that for the first time in that stretch if Central Michigan beats them on Friday.

So what gives? Is it possible for Candle to be showing who he really is after Matt Campbell guys and culture filtered out of the program? Are there other reasons for this regression? Most importantly, is a bounce-back on the horizon?

I’m going to put a small disclaimer in the article right here. When 4-4 in conference games and still being bowl eligible feels like a disappointment the Rockets are in a good place. Jason Candle was believed to be the next coach poached from the MAC. Should that be the case? How do we distinguish Candle’s success from Campbell’s?

Get the Recruits

It is undeniable that Jason Candle can recruit. If nothing else is going right, Toledo has the talent to be in every MAC game. Going by 247 Sports recruiting rankings, since Candle took over with the 2017 class, Toledo has had the highest total score and the #1 recruiting class every year.

The 2018 class was second in average recruit rating but had more athletes signed than Western Michigan. According to the 247 Sports team roster ratings, the Rockets and Broncos are neck and neck at the top with a bit of a gap between them and the third-ranked team.

It does seem that the biggest recruits that are in the program are in the last two classes, so they may not have had time to develop and see the field quite yet. The current class is high on quality players but only ranks fifth due to five decommitments over the year. Five is a lot but Candle has closed in past years with big recruits.

Based on recruiting alone, Toledo should not be negative in point differential in conference games. There is a bit of a lag between recruiting well and performing well but there was high-level performance with other coaches recruits. So what gives?

So Candle can get the recruits, can he build them up?

Admittedly, without being attached to the program or paying super close attention, this is harder to see changes. The best way that I have to find this is statistical growth. The actual best way to see this is to be at practices and watch players improve week to week and year to year.

On offense, the quarterback position has shown progression until the season is ended by injury. Mitchell Guadagni was completing passes at a 65% rate and 9 yards per attempt. His backups after leaving the Bowling Green game have not done as well. That’s really to be expected. The starters are the starters for a reason.

At running back, the sophomore transfer Bryant Koback has been great for two seasons. With his age, he should continue to be a productive running back for a couple more years.

To finish the passing game, the receivers are all new this year. Last season the Rocket’s top three seasons were all seniors. All three are all on NFL rosters right now. This season, none of the top receivers have meaningful experience. Their numbers may also be artificially low due to the injuries at quarterback.

Youth Movement on Defense

On the defensive side of the ball, their best defenders were sophomores Saeed Holt and Jamal Hines. Holt and Hines are leading the team in tackles for loss with 10.5 and 8.5 respectively.

The player that leads Toledo in total tackles was a wide receiver two seasons ago. That is pretty undeniable progression.

The upperclassmen that are playing well this season, individually, have either shown some steady progression or have been playing at a high level for a while.

Looking at the defensive stats as a whole, a couple of things stood out to me. Shockingly low sack numbers as a team and defensive backs have a ton of tackles for loss. Not the position I would expect to carry that stat. Also, a low number of turnovers forced, but a decent number of opportunities which is all they can control.

I’m not sure I’m going to hold the player’s feet to the fire on these issues because…

The Gameplanning may be suspect

So far we’ve established that Toledo has high level recruiting. Toledo has at least average and not problematic player development. So why the regression from the top of the MAC?

When Jason Candle was hired, he hired the offensive coordinator from FAU. Brian Wright’s best offensive season at FAU was ranked 88th per S&P+. Wright was the offensive coordinator from 2012 to 2015.

At the same time, Candle hired Brian George as his defensive coordinator. George comes from Kent State where he was the defensive coordinator from 2013 to 2015. He trended the right direction in his three years at Kent State. His defenses ranked 94th, 77th, and 30th. That’s pretty solid, especially at Kent State under Paul Haynes.

So with those two established coordinators helping out Candle, a former offensive coordinator himself, you might expect Candle to have a heavy hand in the offense to keep it on track and the defense will be fine.

The defense was never fine to make a long story short. They started better than an average G5 program at 55 and have gone the wrong direction, currently at 117th. The offense has had steep regression too. After being 10th in 2016, the offense currently sits at 78th.

Outside of two games where the Rockets scored a combined 21 points, the offense has not been the issue. Regression and all. It’s no doubt the season goes much better with Guadagni running the offense. They can get a little bit of a pass.

Defensive Woes

The defensive stats and overall performances suggest that the plan is tough to execute. There is a distinct lack of sacks from the front seven. It’s clear that George wants the safeties involved in run support and pressuring the quarterback.

Two safeties combine for 17 tackles for loss. A linebacker leads the team in tackles, as they should. Jordan Fisher, the former wide receiver, is the only linebacker in the top six in tackles. They either run a heavy rotation, very few linebackers or plays routinely get into the second level.

The scores suggest plays are too often stopping 8 yards downfield.

The defense has allowed 34.7 points per game in the conference. That’s highest in the MAC West and only Bowling Green and Akron had worse conference seasons on defense.

Turning the Tide

I’m not sure there are easy solutions. It certainly looks like the farther away from Matt Campbell’s tenure the more regression there is. The offense could be a victim of circumstance, but the defense has no excuse.

The talent should be there. In Candle’s position, you have to consider a change at defensive coordinator.

Regardless, if Candle can make the adjustments and win 10 games at Toledo again, my guess is that’s his last season in Toledo. With current trends that doesn’t seem right around the corner. If it were to happen, that would be all his own doing. I’m not sure what a P5 opportunity would want to see more of.

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