In 2019, the Toledo Rockets finished 102nd out of 130 teams in scoring defense. They nearly bottomed out by surrendering 32.2 points per game, one year after giving up 30.5 per – which was “good” for 84th. The issue? Apparently it was the team’s former defensive coordinator, because since then, the Rockets have finished 36th and 28th respectively, dropping their average down to 21.8 PPG allowed in 2021.
As for 2022? Toledo has surrendered just 10 points. Not per game, but total! Take a bow, Vince Kehres. You deserve a ton of credit. Kehres was hired as the team’s DC in 2020, leaving his head coach position at Division III Mount Union. If the name and/or school sounds familiar, it is for good reason. Kehres won two DIII championships in seven seasons as the HC of the Purple Raiders, compiling a 95-6 overall record.
For a coach at any level, that is pretty impressive. However, Vince Kehres was not even the most successful Mount Union coach in his own family. Not by a long shot. His father Larry won 11 DIII championships during an absurdly-dominant 27-year run in Alliance (OH), while concurrently serving as the school’s athletic director for most of them (1985-2020). The elder’s .929 winning percentage is the best in CFB history, earning him a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame (2017 class). But as impressive as the Kehres family is and was, you’re probably asking me to get back to the Toledo Rockets. Say no more...
Toledo HC Jason Candle brought the younger Kehres aboard in 2020, due in part to their familiarity with each other. Coach Candle was a player at Mount Union, before joining their staff in 2003. He then moved on to Toledo in 2009, but maintained a strong relationship with the Kehres family and reached out when he needed a DC for his own coaching staff. Both likely acknowledged that the MAC was a big step up in competition for Kehres, but the Rockets couldn’t get much worse than they were in 2019, so the band was reunited. And it has been a successful venture for all parties involved.
In addition to bringing his own scheme and ideas, Kehres has helped to develop some fine football players. Safety Maxen Hook led the team with 96 tackles last year after making just two appearances in 2020. Desjuan and Dyontae Johnson – not related, despite wearing No. 1 and No. 2 and having very similar names – combined for 156 tackles and 20.5 TFL last year, and have been a huge part of the defensive rebuild. And Tycen Anderson became a fifth-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
With the exception of Anderson, all of those players returned to Toledo and have helped the team jump out to a 2-0 start this season. But none of them are this week’s Defensive Player to Watch. That title belongs to Jamal Hines, a Cincinnati native and disruptive force of nature for the Rockets.
Hines was originally committed to the University of Cincinnati before flipping his pledge to Toledo in January of 2017. It might seem odd now, but the Bearcats were struggling under Tommy Tuberville at the time (can you believe this man is a ****ing senator now!?), while the Rockets were competing for MAC titles. Hines joined the team in 2018, and was listed as a 6-foot-2, 216-pound defensive end... 2-1-6. But despite his small-ish stature, this true freshman contributed right away. He played in 12 games, starting 10, and finished with 49 tackles, 9 TFL (third on the team), and 2 INT. The groundwork was laid for a productive college career, and Hines has not slowed down since.
From 2019-2021, Hines earned First, Second, and Third-Team All-MAC honors — making a jump up each season. Along the way, he also grew an inch and packed on 35 pounds, while diversifying his impressive skillset. In Toledo’s somewhat amorphous 4-2-5 defense, he has been used primarily to create pressure in the backfield, but the fifth-year player is also fairly adept at dropping into coverage. So he is now listed as a DE, but it really comes down to semantics, as he can fill multiple roles. However you want to define him as a player, just don’t leave out the fact that Hines is wildly disruptive.
Listed as a full-time OLB in 2021, Hines had a monster season. He finished third on the team in tackles with 88, and added 15 TFL and 9.5 sacks (led the team in both categories). But perhaps more impressivemis the fact that he finished in a tie for second with eight passes defended. Not bad for a big man. His positive momentum has carried over to 2022, as he is currently second on the team in tackles, behind former Buckeye LB Dallas Gant.
Hines is going to be a factor against the Buckeyes, and in all likelihood, he will not be the only one, because this Toledo team has a number of impact defenders. But the Rockets are still facing what could (hopefully) be a healthy Ohio State offense. Hines will need to be at his most disruptive, and receive plenty of help, if Toledo is going to remain competitive throughout. I will have my eye on him regardless, watching intently to see if he and his teammates bring the MACtion to Columbus.