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Thursday, October 28, 2004 - Page updated at 12:31 A.M.

UW Football
Holy Toledo: Look who's a healthy Husky now

By Bob Condotta
Seattle Times staff reporter

DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Joe Toledo celebrates with Robin Meadow, right, and Brad Vanneman after registering his first career touchdown pass against Oregon State.
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Joe Toledo shouldn't be hard to find.

At 6 feet 6, 285 pounds, he's about the most statuesque tight end in UW's illustrious history at that position.

Yet there Toledo was, roaming down the middle of the field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum seemingly unmolested last Saturday, hands held high in the vain hope a pass would come his way. Alas, just two did on a day when little went right for the Huskies' offense.

"He was open a few other times, and we just couldn't get the ball to him for a variety of reasons," said UW tight ends coach Scott Pelluer.

Maybe UW quarterbacks simply aren't used to seeing Toledo out there just yet.

In one of the more bittersweet ironies of this Huskies season, it is Toledo — whose career was thought in doubt a few times during the last 12 months because of a back injury and other ailments — who is still standing while many of his teammates have fallen.

"I think he feels good for the first time in a long time," said UW coach Keith Gilbertson.

Saturday

UW @ Oregon, 4 p.m., FSN

And that, in turn, is allowing UW coaches to finally see the potential that made Toledo one of the most highly sought-after recruits in Washington's Class of 2001.

Toledo, who played high-school ball at La Costa Canyon High in Encinitas, Calif., basically had his pick of schools. Ohio State wanted him. So did Nebraska, where Toledo spent much of his childhood before moving to California in high school.

When Pete Carroll became USC's head coach following the 2000 season, he made Toledo a recruiting priority. One night, Carroll and USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow spent two hours in the Toledo living room, selling the virtues of the program they planned to run for the Trojans.

But by then, Toledo was already feeling like a Husky, sold on the program's seemingly vast future — UW was just weeks removed from the Rose Bowl title at the time — and on its tradition for turning out NFL tight ends.

"But I don't think he regrets not going to USC," said his father, Chris Toledo. "He's just the type of personality to deal with things as they come."

That's a trait that's been well-tested during his time at UW.

Just weeks after arriving on campus in the fall of 2001, Toledo broke his foot in a practice drill and ended up redshirting the season, beginning a freakish run of injuries.

After playing in every game as a redshirt freshman in 2002 — often as a second blocking tight end alongside Kevin Ware — Toledo underwent shoulder surgery.

Toledo recovered in time to start the 2003 season but began feeling the effects of a back injury just a few games in. Toledo described the injury as a disk problem in his lower back.

"I'm not really sure what caused it, if it was lifting or what," he said. "It just kind of crept up pretty much out of nowhere."

He tried to play a few weeks later against USC, but then suffered a groin injury. The two ailments combined to keep him sidelined the rest of the season and throughout the spring while some wondered if he would ever play again.

"I have to say it crept into the back of my mind that there's a chance I won't be able to play again," he said. "But it kind of fueled me in the offseason to work hard."

Toledo spent the summer working with a personal trainer — yoga and Pilates were part of his regular routine — and came back saying he felt ready to go.

Still, he took it easy through much of fall camp and didn't play in the opener. Once he got into games, it took a while to adjust. He dropped a couple of passes against Stanford that garnered some criticism.

"A lot of people around here don't think I have very good hands," he says in reference to that game. But he rebounded to make UW's best catch of the season two weeks ago against Oregon State, a diving grab in the end zone for his first career touchdown.

He has six catches in the last three games which — indicative of UW's passing struggles of late — is two more than anyone else on the team in that time.

Interestingly, just as he seems to be hitting his stride at tight end, he says he's mulling over switching to offensive tackle, a position some schools recruited him to play out of high school. Toledo says it might help UW fill the void next year left by the departures of Khalif Barnes and Ryan Brooks. He also thinks, given the fact that he could easily bulk up over 300 pounds, that it's where he may best have an NFL future.

For now, though, he's simply glad to be playing anywhere.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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