Meet college football's 2017 small-school darling QB and coach

TOLEDO, Ohio – When Toledo coach Matt Campbell left for Iowa State in November 2015, uncertainty took over the Rockets program. Amid the ensuing fog of chaos, Toledo quarterback Logan Woodside and four other Rocket players went to athletic director Mike O’Brien with a plea – hire offensive coordinator Jason Candle.

For Woodside, the visit to the athletic director’s office came at a critical juncture in his career. He’d redshirted during his third year in the program after losing the starting job in a close battle with Alabama transfer Phillip Ely. Poised to finally start in 2016, he wanted his coach and confidant to ensure a strong finish to his circuitous career.

Soon after, O’Brien called Candle back from Ames, Iowa, to hire him. And with Candle calling plays and Woodside finally under center as the full-time starter in 2016, he led the nation with 45 touchdown passes and launched the Rockets to a 9-4 record. “They have a special bond, a special relationship,” O’Brien said. “They’re joined at the hip.”

Logan Woodside finished second nationally in passing efficiency (183.3) last season. (AP)

Rising coaches tend to have a defining player in the early stages of their career, one they’ll always be intertwined with as they chase greater glory on highest stages. At Boise State, Chris Petersen had Kellen Moore and his 50-3 record as a starting quarterback. For Urban Meyer, that was Alex Smith leading Utah to an undefeated season in 2004. There’s Teddy Bridgewater with Charlie Strong at Louisville, and Houston’s resurgence the past decade can be tied to dynamic duos of Case Keenum and Kevin Sumlin and Greg Ward Jr. and Tom Herman.

Could a big season for the Rockets push Woodside and Candle on a similar trajectory? Toledo is the heavy favorite to win the MAC, which would end a drought of league titles that spans back to 2004. (That team featured Tom Amstutz on the headset and Bruce Gradkowski under center). The Rockets’ title hopes start with Woodside, who emerged as a Heisman Trophy candidate in 2016. He finished second nationally in passing efficiency (183.3) and fourth nationally with a 69.1 completion percentage.

One NFL scout considers Woodside, who is 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, the best quarterback prospect to come out of the MAC in recent seasons. Woodside’s arm strength, production and accuracy are compelling, as the scout considers Woodside a fourth- or fifth-round pick with a chance to raise his stock with a big season. “I’m really intrigued by him,” the scout told Yahoo Sports.

There’s an argument that Woodside could end up with bigger passing numbers in 2017 than the 4,129 he put up last year. The Rockets lost star tailback Kareem Hunt, a third-round pick by the Kansas City Chiefs, and have a surplus of wide receiver talent. Both Cody Thompson (first-team All-MAC in 2016) and Jon’Vea Johnson (second-team All-MAC) are proven commodities, while redshirt sophomore Diontae Johnson has been the buzz of summer camp. As a group. Toledo’s receivers are above the grade of many Big Ten programs. “Those are three of the best receivers,” Woodside said, “in the entire country.”

Woodside has emerged as a program poster boy for his patient path to stardom. He calls redshirting during his junior year “the hardest year of my life.” But Woodside is the son of Jason Woodside, a former Kentucky State Police trooper whose various duties included leading SWAT teams into buildings and jumping out of helicopters. “When he made his commitment, he committed,” Jason Woodside said. “He’s going to be a man about it and stick with what he chose. We didn’t even really talk about [transferring].”

As Logan Woodside bided his time as a redshirt in 2015, he didn’t pout, tortured the starting defense on scout team and worked on the nuances of reading defenses and getting better command at the line of scrimmage. “Two years in a row, I had to tell him he got beat out,” Candle said. “Most guys would have said, ‘The hell with you, I’m transferring.’ There’s a lot of resolve there. No question.”

The book “Grit” by Angela Duckworth sits on Candle’s office desk. The book’s subtitle doubles as a summary of Woodside’s career: “The power of passion and perseverance.” The book has become a favorite in sports circles, including that of Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens. It summarizes the ethos of Candle, 37, a second-year coach with a 10-4 career record. Candle played and started his coaching career at Division III Mount Union under the legendary Larry Kehres. (Kehres finished his career with a 332-24-3 record, the best winning percentage – .929 – all time in college football. Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne is second).

Part of Candle’s personality edge comes from starting his football journey in Division III, and that underdog drive has kept him in synch with Woodside. “We’re alike in a lot of ways,” he said. “Logan has got a really big chip on his shoulder. He plays that way. He competes that way. Our team is like that. Our city is like that. He’s a good representation of what the culture of our locker room is.”

PODCAST: Pete Thamel on the Year of the QB

Candle’s reserved personality is the antithesis of the last hot coach to blow through the MAC, flamboyant former Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck. (He left for Minnesota last year after an undefeated regular season). Candle’s low-key demeanor can best be encapsulated by his deflection of a question about his own future to the players he’s coached. He mentioned coaching NFL standout Pierre Garcon at Mount Union at age 24 and both Ely and Woodside at Toldeo. “Great players can teach coaches an awful lot if they’re just willing to listen and watch,” he said. “A lot of coaches get caught up in scheme and, ‘This is my system, and we’re going to recruit to my system.’ I think your system better be who your players are or you’ll have a new job pretty fast.”

As Candle and Woodside head into their final year together in 2017, their harmony goes only so far. For years, Woodside would blare Drake in the quarterback room only to have Candle come in and change it to Bon Jovi. While their music may not be in synch, their goals are. “The perfect ending would be a MAC championship,” Woodside said. “I’m excited to go out and have fun one last year with my seniors. It’s something I’m always going to remember.”

A league title would be a giant step toward Woodside and Candle being linked in lore for years to come, as 2017 could go a long way in determining the trajectory of their ascent.

More college football coverage from Yahoo Sports: