The Akron Zips want a bowl game appearance and better yet a MAC Championship, after losing the final four games of the 2016 season to finish 5-7, and they’ll have a returning linebacker in Ulysees Gilbert III leading the way.
Gilbert enters his junior year as one of the brighter spots of a defense that allowed 225 yards rushing and over 33 points a game last year. The Zips gave up an average of 41 points the three games following a 10-point win over Ball State, before losing by six to Ohio the final week of the season.
Chuck Amato, the former NC State head coach and now in his fifth year with Akron as defensive coordinator, saw his group finish 114th in the country in total defense in 2016, the second lowest among any MAC program.
Gilbert was thrown into a starting role last season after coming off a freshman year in which he played on every special teams unit. Besides the Wisconsin loss where Akron was blown out by 44, Gilbert recorded double-digit tackles in every non-conference game, including 13 against Appalachian State.
The Ocala, Florida, native and former three-star recruit’s 122 tackles, 11.5 tackles-for-loss, and four sacks earned him a First-team All-MAC selection and a spot on the Bronko Nagurski preseason watch list, presented annually to the nation’s top defensive player.
Only two other players from the MAC were awarded that distinction.
What rides on Gilbert making another step forward in his progression is the overall performance by the Zips defense on a weekly basis. Akron is expected to finish 123rd in Defensive S&P+ this season, a signifiant drop from 2016 when they were at 107th.
The first test for Gilbert is this Saturday when the Zips play guest to Penn State in Happy Valley. He's stood face-to-face against a handful of respected running backs in his career, but none bigger than junior Saquon Barkley, a Heisman Trophy candidate who rushed for nearly 1,500 yards last season.
Akron also hosts the Cardinals and travels to Western Michigan on back-to-back weeks, two teams with arguably the best corp of running backs in the league. BSU’s James Gilbert had a breakthrough year in 2016 in which he rushed for 1,332 yards and 12 touchdowns on 251 carries. The Broncos have an robust duo in Jamuri Bogan and James Franklin, both were added to the Doak Walker Award watch list this offseason.
Gilbert needs to remain a force within the front seven. It’s hard to find another player at his level who’s as solid of a tackler as him or have the same ability to run down ball carriers in the open field. But he’s just one person, Akron need someone else to step up not named Alvin Davis, the cornerback who racked up 87 tackles last season as a freshman.
ESPN’s Football Power Index has the Zips the favorite in five games this year, including the final two at home against Ohio and Kent State. Gilbert isn’t a dime-a-dozen linebacker and if the team doesn’t want to waste his talent for another year, becoming bowl eligible is a must.