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2019 Akron Zips football positional previews: quarterback

Kato Nelson has held down the QB1 position since late in his freshman year, but a new coach could mean some unpredictablity.

MAC Championship - Akron v Toledo Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

The Akron Zips had a serviceable season in 2018 when healthy, starting the season 2-1, including a massive upset over a ranked, defending Big Ten champion Northwestern squad, which was the first time in 124 years the program had beaten a Big Ten football team.

It had the potential to be a better record too, as the Zips had a previously scheduled game vs. Nebraska, who finished 4-8 in Scott Frost’s first season as head coach, cancelled due to weather (to much acrimony) two weeks before the upset in Evanston, Illinois.

And then... they went on to win two games (against two teams with a combined record of 3-21) in the next eight to end the season and close the curtains on the coaching career of Terry Bowden.

So, what went wrong, exactly? Well, quarterback health had a lot to do with it. Kato Nelson, the starter, was injured on-and-off throughout the season, Alex Ramart, a former fourth-stringer, proved to be an ineffectual replacement. The QB room in 2018 was forced into this situation because Nick Johns moved to tight end during spring drills and Robbie Kelley sustained an injury in the offseason which required surgery.

But the past is the past, and now under new head coach Tom Arth, the QB depth chart could prove to be wide open going into 2019. The good news is no one departs this offseason, pending one current harship waiver. The bad news is that there could be a lot of uncertainty past Nelson on the depth chart.

Key departures

  • None

Key returnees

  • Kato Nelson
  • Alex Ramart
  • Robbie Kelley
  • Drew Hodgson

Kato Nelson, redshirt junior (Flanagan HS/Hollywood, Florida)

  • 2018 statistics: 159-of-303 for 2,151 passing yards, 18 touchdowns and 8 interceptions; 121 rushes for 303 yards and one touchdown in 11 games played (11 starts)
  • Career statistics: 229-of-443 for 3,140 passing yards, 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions; 216 rushes for 503 yards and two touchdowns in 20 games played (16 starts)

Nelson, listed at six-foot-one, 215 lbs., has been the mainstay of the Zips offense at quarterback for the better part of a season and a half after overtaking Thomas Woodson at the end of the 2017 season. Nelson led the Zips to a near-improbable run to the MAC East title that season, picking up huge wins against then-division leader and rival Kent State to secure the division for the first time since 2005.

In his first full season at QB1, Nelson was serviceable, showing a willingness to take risks, even if it resulted in lopsided performances. His mobility and athleticsm grants him the ability to improvise when a play breaks down, but he was failed by a line which struggled to keep him upright for most of the season and a running game which granted him limited ability from a playcalling standpoint.

Nelson was an average quarterback by league standards, finishing right in the middle of most charts in completions (7th), attempts (6th), passing yards (7th), passing touchdowns (7th) and passing efficiency (7th). But what could be telling for him moving forward is his completion percentage, which came in at a meager 52 percent, good for 10th in the MAC. That isn’t quite the performance one would want for a player who was #3 in the MAC for total plays from scrimmage.

All this said, Nelson is the likeliest quarterback for the Zips moving forward due to his game experience and potential for growth in his second season as the assumed starter. Nelson has flashes which show you his skill, but he’ll need to wrangle them together more consistently to help lead the Zips passing attack.

Alex Ramart, redshirt sophomore (Foster HS/Richmond, Texas)

  • 2018/career stats: 9-of-32 for 61 passing yards, one touchdown and six interceptions; six rushes for -11 yards in four games (one start)

Ramart had one shot at a start for the Zips in 2018 against Eastern Michigan, holding Akron’s bowl game life in his hands, and didn’t do very much with it. In his only start, he went 4-of-11 for 29 yards and three interceptions.

Ramart was the primary backup in 2018 due to the forementioned depletions in the QB depth chart and looked every part of the redshirt freshman that he was, with wildly inaccurate throws and a poor decision making.

A six-foot-three, 220 lb. QB, the former two-star prospect from Texas was a player of the year in the competitive Class 5A category in his senior season, his third as a varsity starter. He went 6,803 yards and 79 touchdowns over those three years, so there’s potential there. He’s likely still a developmental prospect who will fight to be QB2 or QB3 during spring ball.

Robbie Kelley, sixth-year senior (Rochester HS/Quincy University [NCAA D-II], Springfield, Illinois)

  • 2017 stats (last recorded season): 12-of-26 for 179 yards and two touchdowns in six appearances
  • Career stats (between Quincy and Akron): 193-of-333 for 3,145 yards, 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 18 appearances (10 starts at Quincy.)

Kelley, who was projected to be QB2 in 2018, didn’t see the field due to an injury suffered in the offseason, and spent the year rehabbing. It certainly was not an ideal situation for the Akron QB room this past season, as they experienced a derth of experience behind Nelson after the loss of Nick Johns (transition to tight end) and Kelley.

That said, Kelley provides the most experience of any of the remaining QB’s, bringing with him a full season as a starter at Division II Quincy University, where he led an upset of FCS foe Drake in his first game as a starter, broke season records in passing yards and touchdowns and threw for scores in all but one game he played in. He finished his Quincy career going 185-of-319 for 2,966 passing yards, 23 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

The six-foot-two, 215 lb. pro-style thrower has a decent arm and could push Nelson for the QB1 spot if things somehow go south in Nelson’s development as a quarterback, but he’ll more likely be QB2 going into the opening week.

Other rostered QB’s

  • Drew Hodgson, redshirt freshman (Dublin Coffman HS/Dublin, Ohio): One career appearance, no stats collected. Honorable mention All-State (Ohio), first-team All-Ohio Capital Conference in his senior year. Highlight video can be found here.
  • T.J. DeShields, redshirt freshman (West Branch HS/Berea, Ohio): no career statistics. A three-sport athlete in high school, pursued football as a preferred walk-on. First-team All-NBC and second-team All-Northeast Ohio in football as a senior. Father Walt is a former MLB player.