Junior quarterback Bruce Gradkowski and senior receiver Lance Moore are couch potatoes. Most nights they sit in the living room of the house they share with three other teammates and watch movies, game tapes or ESPN Classic. They do, however, get in some practice. ‚ÄúI have a couple of footballs,‚Äù says Gradkowski, ‚Äúand we‚Äôre always throwing them back and forth.‚Äù
No kidding. Last season Gradkowski and Moore connected 103 times, more than any other I-A tandem. Included in that total was a nine-yard fade with 43 seconds left that helped the Rockets knock off ninth-ranked Pittsburgh, 35‚Äì31, on Sept. 20. That game was the coming-out party for Gradkowski, who in his fourth start set school records for passing yards (461), completions (49) and attempts (62). For the year he hit on 71.2% of his passes (second only to N.C. State‚Äôs Philip Rivers), amassing 3,210 yards and 29 TDs with just seven interceptions.
Despite throwing for more yards (2,978) in his senior season than any other quarterback in the history of the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League--including Joe Namath, Joe Montana and Dan Marino--the Pittsburgh native was passed over by most Division I-A schools. Luckily, Toledo offensive coordinator Rob Spence, who had seen some tape of Gradkowski, showed up at one of his basketball games and was impressed with his athleticism. Spence felt that Gradkowski would be an ideal fit for the Rockets‚Äô spread offense, in which the quarterback frequently changes plays at the line. ‚ÄúBut,‚Äù says the coordinator, ‚ÄúI‚Äôd be nuts to say I expected he‚Äôd throw for more than 3,000 yards and 29 touchdowns.‚Äù
The numbers could be even better this year. Toledo, which has a Mid-American Conference‚Äìbest 37‚Äì12 record since 2000, has eight starters back from the nation‚Äôs 11th-ranked offense, including Moore (1,194 receiving yards in ‚Äô03), fellow wideout Steve Odom (838) and running back Trinity Dawson (999 rushing yards). Like Ben Roethlisberger at Miami (Ohio), Gradkowski could vault to national prominence if he can lead his team into the Top 10. ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt know if this is going to be his Roethlisberger year,‚Äù says Toledo coach Tom Amstutz, ‚Äúbut as a team I think we have the potential to do something like that.‚Äù --S.M.
2003 RECORD 8‚Äì4 (6‚Äì2, 2nd in MAC West)
FINAL AP RANK NR
RETURNING STARTERS 14
KEY RETURNEES (2003 stats)
QB BRUCE GRADKOWSKI (JR.)
Sixth in the nation in passer rating (161.5)
WR LANCE MOORE (SR.)
Led the country with 103 receptions
T NICK KACZUR (SR.)
Could be Toledo‚Äôs first four-time AllMAC pick
TE ANDREW CLARKE (SR.)
18 career TDs, school record for tight ends
LB ANTHONY JORDAN (JR.)
Made 11.5 tackles per game, fifth in MAC
Consecutive winning seasons for the Rockets, the longest streak in school history. The previous high was six, from 1967 through ‚Äô72.
Talk about big shoes to fill: Redshirt freshman John Greco is expected to replace 6'8", 353-pound AllMAC right tackle Erik Faasen, who wore size 22s. At 6'5", 315 Greco‚Äôs no shrimp, and he‚Äôll be asked to use that bulk to protect quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who was sacked only nine times in 12 games last year.
Sept. 4 at Minnesota
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†11 at Kansas
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†18 at Eastern Michigan
Oct. 2 BALL STATE
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†9 at Western Michigan
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†16 OHIO 2
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†3 CENTRAL MICHIGAN
Nov. 3 at Miami (Ohio)
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†10 at Northern Illinois ¬†¬†¬†¬†
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†23 BOWLING GREEN
JOE KRUPA/THE STAR PRESS/AP
Another big MAC season from Gradkowski (7) could make him the next Roethlisberger.