Published: February 02, 2023

Transfers help Rockets beef up offensive line


Toledo had an obvious weakness in 2022: an oft-injured and, at times, ineffective offensive line.

So after locking up a talented recruiting class in the December signing period, head coach Jason Candle scoured the transfer portal for impact offensive linemen. He found them in Florida State’s Rod Orr and Rutgers’ David Nwaogwugwu.

“You reassess after December,” Candle said. “You get to this point in time and add a couple pieces, as we did today. Then you reassess again after spring ball and see if you have to add more from the portal.”

Orr, Nwaogwugwu, and high school seniors Jediyah Willoughby and Donivon Thomas joined a group of 16 December signees to form Toledo’s 2023 recruiting class.

Tight end CC Ezirim grayshirted last year.

Willoughby is a three-star wide receiver from Langston Hughes High School in suburban Atlanta, which went 15-0 and won the state championship last season. The 6-foot-1, 198-pound target also had an offer from Nebraska.

Thomas is a 6-foot-5, 220-pound defensive end from Chattanooga.

“A majority of our stuff has been done,” Toledo recruiting director Ricky Ciccone said. “There were some finishing touches here and there to the class for what we needed or guys that were still out there.”

Toledo’s class ranks seventh in the MAC, behind Buffalo, Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan, Ohio, Miami, and Northern Illinois.

UT also announced five local preferred walk-ons: kicker Brian Bishop (Central Catholic), quarterback Kaden Holmes (Fremont Ross), wide receiver WR Bryson Hammer (Fremont Ross), linebacker Trey Brueggemann (Bedford), and Tommy Huss (Bedford).

Transfers Orr, Nwaogwugwu, Shawn Munnerlyn (Rutgers), and Travion Ford (Missouri), and incoming freshmen Ezirim, Connor Walendzak, Sam Smith, RJ Johnson III, and Micah Cherry enrolled in January to take part in winter workouts.

“It’s going to be really hard for [a true freshman] to stick out athletically in a positive way,” Candle said. “A lot of time early enrollees stick out in a negative way. They make you scratch your head. Those guys should be preparing for homecoming, and the prom, and finishing their basketball season. But they’re here enrolled in school fighting over a tire with a 22-year-old grown man. It’s a little different world.

“So sometimes those guys stand out in a negative way. I don’t see anybody sticking out that way. I think the thing that gets missed is, are they emotionally ready to make the change? I credit all four of those guys with being emotionally intelligent and emotionally mature.”

Orr was one of the highest-rated offensive line recruits in the country in the class of 2021. The 6-foot-6, 300-pound tackle was ranked No. 22 at his position and a top-10 player in the state of Alabama. The Gadsden, Ala., native chose Florida State over offers from Tennessee, TCU, Oregon, Arkansas, and Ole Miss, among others.

Orr redshirted in 2021 and did not appear in any games during the 2022 season. He will have three seasons of eligibility remaining.

The 6-foot-5, 305-pound Nwaogwugwu, who’s played left and right tackle, was a three-star recruit and the No. 18-ranked player in New York in the class of 2018. He played three seasons at Temple, where he earned offensive player of the week honors twice, before transferring to Rutgers.

The Bronx, N.Y., native played eight games over two seasons for the Scarlet Knights.

Nwaogwugwu is a graduate transfer and will have one season of eligibility.

“We always want to have two-deep going into spring practice — 10 fully healthy bodies on the offensive line and eight fully healthy bodies on the defensive front. You want to practice two groups,” Candle said. “If you get a third, that’s a luxury. Bringing those two guys in at tackle solidified some depth issues and provides some great competition.”

Toledo has recent success with Power Five transfers elevating their game for the Rockets after a lack of playing time or the need for a change of scenery.

In the Candle era, linebackers Dallas Gant (Ohio State), Jonathan Jones (Notre Dame), and Jeremi Powell (Florida), defensive tackle Judge Culpepper (Penn State), wide receiver Matt Landers (Arkansas), quarterbacks Phillip Ely (Alabama) and Tucker Gleason (Georgia Tech), cornerback RJ Delancy (Nebraska), offensive linemen Brock Ruble (Florida State) and Ruben Carter (Florida State), and defensive lineman Earl Moore (Miami) have all flourished for the Rockets, with many of them earning All-Mid-American Conference honors and some progressing to the NFL.

“We don’t recklessly attack the transfer market,” Candle said. “We’re intentional in what we try to do, the needs that we have, and how someone fits the culture of our locker room. Once all those things are aligned, we say yes instead of throwing darts at the board and seeing what sticks.”

Toledo returns offensive linemen Nick Rosi, Vinny Scuiry, Devan Rogers, Kendall Major, and Tyler Long, a preseason All-MAC selection that missed all of 2022 with an injury.

Along with Orr and Nwaogwugwu, UT signed freshmen Mason Ludwig, Cole Rhett, and Grant Zimmerly.

“I’m really excited about our incoming players and especially excited about our returning players,” offensive line coach Mike Hallett said. “I’m excited to see where this room is going to go throughout the spring, in anticipation of a great 2023 season.”

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