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2019 Akron Zips positional preview: defensive backs

The defensive backfield returns a lot of production and opponents best beware of throwing their way.

NCAA Football: Akron at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

The defensive backfield is where the Akron Zips made their bread and butter in 2018, as the unit was crazy good at causing disruption, picking up nine interceptions for 206 yards and one touchdown. The Zips also finished 32nd in the country in average opponent passing yards per game (201.4), including an impressive 154.7 yards over the last three games of the season in a stretch which included Ohio, Bowling Green and South Carolina.

The offseason will see a significant loss of talent, with Darian Dailey, Denzel Butler and Jordan George, three of Akron’s top defensive backs by statistics, all graduating. The good news is that all-MAC corner Alvin Davis Jr. returns for his senior season and should help patch up a young and unknown positional unit.

That job will be mighty difficult, as there will be plenty of players transitioning from other postions to build up depth.

Key departures

  • Darian Dailey: 27 total tackles, two interceptions and two pass break-ups in 12 games (nine starts) in 2018
  • Denzel Butler: 36 total tackles, one tackle-for-loss, one interception, six pass break-ups, one quarterback hit in 11 games (five starts) in 2018
  • Reggie Corner, Jr. (transition to linebacker)
  • Jordan George: 70 total tackles, one tackle-for-loss, one interception, two pass break-ups, one forced fumble in 12 games (12 starts) in 2018
  • Kyron Brown: 48 total tackles, three tackles-for-loss, one sack, one interception, team-leading seven passd breakups in 2018

Key returnees

  • Alvin Davis, Jr.
  • Shawn Featherstone
  • Zaire Jacobs

Key arrivals:

  • Sammy Laster (transition from wide receiver)
  • Tyler Gilcrest (transition from wide receiver)

Alvin Davis, Jr., senior (Saint Thomas Aquinas HS, Fort Lauderdale, Florida)

  • 2018 stats: 75 total tackles, one tackle-for-loss, four interceptions for 149 yards, three pass break-ups, two fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles, two defensive touchdowns in 11 games (11 starts)
  • Career stats: 241 total tackles, two tackles-for-loss, five interceptions, 11 pass break-ups, three forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, two defensive touchdowns in 37 games (30 starts)

No player on the Akron roster returns with more aplomb than Davis, a first-team all-MAC selection at safety who made a name for himself on the national stage with a game for the ages against Northwestern, where he scored two pick-sixes in one quarter to help Akron steal a win on the road. That performance sealed him a national-best designator in interception return touchdowns and interception return yards.

Davis will return as the unit’s leading tackler (fourth on the team), the league’s leader in interceptions (four) and tied for the team lead in forced fumbles and fumble recoveries (both two), which makes him the focal point of the defense. What makes it all the more impressive is that Davis is holding down the safety position at five-foot-nine, 175 lbs., a decidedly unorthodox size for a hard-hitting safety. His relentless pursuit of the ball paces the defense and lends to creating momentum-changing chaos, which is what the defense relies upon to force close games.

Shawn Featherstone, redshirt senior (Penn Hills HS, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)

  • 2018 stats: two tackles in two games
  • Career stats: 108 total tackles, three tackles-for-loss, two interceptions, six passes defended, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in 27 starts (five starts)

Featherstone suffered a season-ending injury fairly early in 2018, which was unfortunate for him. One doesn’t want to be off the field when they can help it. But, in a way, being off the field in 2018 may have been the best thing to happen to Featherstone in anticipation of the 2019 season.

Assuming he’s fully recovered, Featherstone will be a prime candidate to start opposite Davis at the other safety spot, especially with the derth of options currently on the roster. In 2017, his last significant game action, Featherstone had a career season playing as a rotational safety, accumulating 67 total tackles, two interceptions for 86 yards, two pass break-ups, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a quarterback hurry.

One can assume that with more chances to see the field, Featherstone will have an opportunity to show his versatility, as the six-foot-two, 190 lb. prospect has shown punt return ability and special teams prowess in the past. He was named the Most Improved Player in spring drills prior to last season, so it’s safe to say if the old staff found potential in him, the new staff might be able to find use with him.

Jordyn Riley, redshirt sophomore (North Marion HS, Citra, Florida)

  • 2018/career stats: three total tackles in three games

The aforementioned derth of talent could prove to be a benefit for Riley, who comes into spring camps the most experienced corner currently on the Zips roster, with three game appearances and three tackles.

Riley, a five-foot-ten, 190 lb. prospect, played two ways in high school and was recruited at both wide receiver and defensive back. Riley is an intriguing propsect, choosing Akron as a two-star athlete, as they were his only FBS-level offer. Riley also had offers from North Carolina Central, Charleston Southern and Florida A&M. His junior year was the highlight year on defense, with 51 tackles, four interceptions, two defensive touchdowns and a fumble recovery. A highlight tape can be found here.

Zaire Jacobs, junior (St. Thomas Aquinas HS, Miami Gardens, Florida)

  • 2018 stats: 28 total tackles, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble in nine games (two starts)
  • Career stats: 32 total tackles, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble in 12 games (two starts)

A two-star prospect coming out of powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas (FL) HS, Jacobs has found himself a consistent part of the Zips defensive plans, whether as a rotation player or on special teams. A listed safety, Jacobs could be a part of the safety rotation or be moved to a hybrid role in Tom Arth’s amorphous defensive system.

Behind Davis and Featherstone, Jacobs has the most returning experience in the way of appearances and starts, finishing 2018 with 28 total tackles, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble, including two starts.

Standing at five-foot-eleven, 195 lbs., Jacobs could slip into either role, although the competition would likely be wide open were he to tried out at corner. That said, he could be forced to play there, as the coenerback position suffered the loss of all three starters at the position.

Other rostered names at defensive back and safety

  • Hugh Cade, redshirt senior (Butchel HS, Akron, Ohio): Stands at five-foot-eight, 165 lbs. Playd in all 12 games in 2018, primarily on special teams. Recorded two tackles. Played all three phases in high school, collecting 46 tackles, three interceptions, seven pass break-ups and two fumble recoveries as a defensive back.
  • Jeffrey Lubin, redshirt sophomore (South Broward HS, Hollywood, Florida): Stands at six-foot-two, 185 lbs. No career stats. Three-star prospect by Scout, two-star recruit by 247Sports, held seven offers before choosing Akron, including Iowa State, Pitt and Rutgers.
  • Kelvon Blackmon, sophomore (Roosevelt HS, Kent, Ohio): Stands at five-foot-ten, 180 lbs. Made the roster as a walk-on tryout this spring. An athlete at Roosevelt HS, Blackmon recorded 15 total tackles, two interceptions, one fumble recovery and one blocked field goal as a sophomore. Also played slot back, receiver and quarterback. Highlights can be found here.
  • Adetutu Daranijo, freshman (St. Thomas Aquinas HS, Fort Lauderdale, Florida): Stands at five-foot-ten, 200 lbs. Early enrollee in Jan. 2019, a three-star prospect per 247Sports. Chose Akron over 17 listed offers, including Cincinnatti, Fresno State, Missouri and UCF. Listed as safety. Also a track athelte, has a listed 4.4 40-yard dash time. Highlights can be found here.
  • Tyler Gilcrest, redshirt junior (Hoban HS, Akron, Ohio): Stands at five-foot-ten, 195 lbs. Originally recruited as a defensive back, converted to receiver in 2018 before moving back this spring. Three tackles in his Akron career. Had 62 total tackles, three interceptions and three forced fumbles his senior season at Hoban, with 19 interceptions over his prep career.
  • Rich Hall, redshirt freshman (Coconut Creek HS, Pompano Beach, Florida): Stands at six-foot-one, 200 lbs. An early enrollee last season, took a redshirt in 2018. Played cornerback, linebacker and safety in HS, collecting 75 total tackles, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. A two-star prospect per 247Sports, gained 30 pounds and moved to safety in Akron.
  • Jalen Hooks, sophomore (Harding HS, Warren, Ohio): Stands at six-foot-two, 195 lbs. Listed as safety. A three-star recruit at receiver per 247Sports, had nine tackles and an interception as a high school junior. Played all 12 games as a true freshman and recorded two total tackles.
  • Sammy Laster, redshirt sophomore (Miami Central Senior HS, Miami Gardens, Florida): Stands at five-foot-eleven, 175 lbs. Third position change in three years at Akron, converting from wide receiver in 2018. Previously recruited as linebacker, now listed at safety. No recorded stats over two game appearances.
  • Dayvon Robinson, redshirt sophomore (John F. Kennedy HS, Paterson, New Jersey): Stands at six-foot-one, 200 lbs. A four-year letterwinner at Kennedy HS, Robinson was all-county, all-district and all-league as a player. A scholar athlete, Robinson earned acdemic scholarships to attend Akron.