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2019 Akron Zips football positional preview: defensive line

Akron graduates the vast majority of its defensive line production this offseason. What does Tom Arth have to work with in 2019?

Akron v Iowa State Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

For all of their struggling last season, the thing you could say the most about the Akron Zips in 2018 is that they certinaly fought on defense, which can be credited for winning the the Zips games at some points of the season, including that miracle upset of ranked Northwestern on the road, in which they scored three defensive touchdowns in 11 minutes to seal the deal.

The defensive line, though not the primary focus of Akron’s defense under Terry Bowden, played fairly well, generating enough pressure to let the linebackers play in space in the 3-4 scheme Akron employed.

The potential problem in 2019 is a game of numbers: 36 starts, 184 tackles, 34 tackles-for-loss, 11.5 sacks and nine pass breakups graduate from the defensive line between four players, which makes up essentially all of the defensive line’s production.

In terms of returning starters, two had stats at their primary postions to speak of, but have only one start in 23 combined games in 2018 behind them. (Josh Ward, listed as a linebacker on the 2018 roster, started 11 games at defensive end.) This has required multiple position changes in spring camps to create depth, as the current roster hails three defensive ends (with one added this spring) and five defensive linemen (with three seniors.)

It’s hard to project exactly what the defense will look like under Tom Arth and defensive coordinator Matt Feeney, and even they have a hard time committing to a description, but what we do know is the personnel that Akron currently has.

Key departures

  • Jamal Davis II: 82 total tackles, 16.5 tackles-for-loss for 72 yards, 5.5 sacks for 37 yards, six pass breakups, six quarterback hits in 12 games (12 starts) in 2018
  • Walter Brady: 30 total tackles, 5.5 tackles-for-loss for 25 yards, 1.5 sacks for 16 yards, one quarterback hit in 12 games (one start) in 2018
  • Brock Boxen: 29 total tackles, four tackles-for-loss for seven yards, 1.5 sack for three yards, three pass breakups in 12 games (11 starts) in 2018
  • Brennan Williams: 43 total tackles, nine tackles-for-loss for 39 yards, three sacks for 24 yards, four quarterback hits, one forced fumble in 12 games (12 starts) in 2018

Key returnees

  • Justin Sampson
  • Davon’te Jest
  • Josh Ward

Key additions

  • Dylan Meeks (transition full-time from tight end to defensive end in spring 2019)

Davon’te Jest, senior, (Forest HS/Ocala, Florida)

  • 2018 stats: 15 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack, two fumble recoveries in 12 games (one start) at defensive tackle
  • Career stats: 29 total tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss, two sacks, two fumble recoveries in 21 games (one start)

Jest, a rotation piece at defensive tackle in 2018, finished 16th on the team in total tackles, and is the top returner as a primary defensive lineman, which speaks to how shallow the depth chart is. At six-foot-one, 300 lbs., likely slots as the starting nose tackle should Akron stay in a 3-4, or could be the most experienced defensive tackle in a 4-3 or likewise formation.

But if there is one indicator of his potential, you can look to his high school statistics. Jest, a two-star prospect, was a first-team All-State nose tackle prospect and garnered Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in his district, picking up 238 total tackles (including 82 his senior season), 88 tackles-for-loss and 30 sacks in his high school career.

Justin Sampson, junior (St. Vincent-St.Mary HS/Akron, Ohio)

  • 2018 stats: 12 total tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss for 20 yards, 1.5 sacks for 11 yards and one quarterback hurry in 12 games (no starts)
  • Career stats: 19 tackles, 5 tackles-for-loss, four sacks, one forced fumble and one quarterback hurry in 24 games

Sampson, a two-times consecutive recipient of the Harry “Doc” Smith Award for most outstanding player in a year class (i.e. outstanding freshman), was a key rotational piece for the Zips at defensive end and will likely be in the battle for the stating defensive end spot opposite Josh Ward.

Sampson, who stands at six-foot-two, 230 lbs., finished 18th on the team in total tackles, but with a lot of turnover, there should be plenty of room to eat for whoever picks up the starting spots. As a high schooler, the two-star prospect per 247Sports collected 13.5 sacks as a defensive end his senior season, earning AP First-Team All-Inland District and Defensive All-Star selections in 2016.

Josh Ward, redshirt senior (American Heritage HS/Del Ray Beach, Florida)

  • 2018 stats: 33 total tackles, seven tackles-for-loss for 34 yards, four sacks for 31 yards and two forced fumbles in 12 games (11 starts)
  • Career stats: 61 total tackles, nine tackles-for-loss, 5.5 sacks, one pass defense, three forced fumbles in 38 games (12 starts)

Despite being listed as a linebacker in the first half of his career, Ward has seen the vast majority of his play at the defensive end spot, and a corresponding roster move has finally made that offical, as Ward comes into 2019 as the most expereienced defensive lineman with 12 starts and 38 games played overall for the Zips.

Ward, who stands at six-foot-two, 240 lbs., a former high school linebacker, has great acceleration and pursuit tactics, finishing third on the team in sacks (four) and fourth on the team in tackles-for-loss (seven), making him the top returning defensive lineman in terms of production. He’ll will likely be Akron’s main catalyst of pressure along the defensive line in 2019.

A four-year letterwinner at American Heritage HS, Ward was a MaxPreps All-American as a senior, with 82 tackles and 24 sacks in a state championship campaign.

Other names rostered:

  • Dylan Meeks, junior (Dr. Phillips HS/Orlando, Florida): Stands at six-foot-two, 250 lbs. Has played in every game in two years with no starts in all three phases of the game. Move to defensive end made permanent in spring 2019. Finished with five tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss, one pass breakup and one QB hurry in 2018.A distinguisded MAC Scholar Athlete and Academic All-MAC selection in 2018.
  • Andy Jean-Baptiste, redshirt senior (Miami Edison Senior HS/Miami, Florida): Stands at six-foot-five, 275 lbs. Suffered a season-ending injury just four games into 2018 after taking a redshirt in 2016 and not registering stats in 2017. Registered six tackles and a fumble recovery.
  • DeAndre Brimage, junior (East HS/Akron, Ohio): Stands at six-feet, 290 lbs. Had five tackles in six appearances in 2018. As a high schooler, was selected to the 2016 AP All-Inland District and the 2016 Akron Beacon-Journal All-Star teams. Registered 51 tackles, nine sacks, 21 tackles-for-loss and a defensive TD as a HS senior.
  • Michael Stuhldreer, senior (Grosse Point South HS/Dakota College at Bottineau [NJCCA], Grosse Point, Michigan): Stands at six feet, 280 lbs. At Dakota College, had 29 total tackles, three sacks and five tackles-for-loss.
  • Logan Hawkins, redshirt freshman (Penn Trafford HS, Harrison City, Pennsylvania): Stands at six-feet-two, 270 lbs. Recipient of the “Rise and Grind” Award in 2018.