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2019 Akron Zips Football Season Preview

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It's the dawn of a new day in the Rubber City, as the post-Bowden era begins in earnest. 

NCAA Football: Akron at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

For all of the criticism Terry Bowden took as coach of the Akron Zips in his nearly decade-long tenure, there is one thing which is simply undeniable: he left them in better condition than he found them in.

Now, the Zips will seek to build upon the foundation Bowden left, while at the same time hoping to modernize their game, hiring former NFL QB Tom Arth from Chattanooga, an FCS power from the Southern Conference. A native of northeast Ohio, Arth, the former John Carroll QB, returns to his old stomping grounds to prove his reputation as an offensive guru and help Aron break the ceiling they seemed to have hit just a bit too much in recent years.

Akron’s schedule will still have a trace of Bowden’s fingerprints on it, as two of the four out-of-conference games are against two Alabama-based programs (UAB and Troy), with other games scheduled vs. Illinois and UMass. Akron also has a fairly easy road to plow in the conference, hosting MAC East favorites Ohio and Buffalo, and defending the Wagon Wheel on home turf.

Tough patches could include a rare early-season conference game vs. Central Michigan on the road and a pre-November matchup with NIU in DeKalb.

The Zips finished at 4-8 in 2018 in an injury-plagued and generally down season, a year removed from the team’s first division championship and MAC Championship appearance since 2005. The hope is that in 2019, Arth can instill some motivation into this transitional roster and get them to at least compete for bowl eligibility.


Key Losses

  • Ulysees Gilbert III (graduation, Pittsburgh Steelers draft pick)
  • Jordan George (graduation)
  • Kyron Brown (graduation, New York Jets UDFA)
  • Brian Bell (graduation, Oakland Raiders tryout)
  • Jamal Davis II (graduation, Houston Texans UDFA)
  • Walter Brady (graduation, Oakland Raiders tryout)
  • Kwadarrius Smith (graduation, Tennessee Titans UDFA)
  • Brock Boxen (graduation)
  • Darian Dailey (graduation)

The defense will easily suffer the most from the offseason departures, as six of the eight prospects the Zips who declared for the NFL Draft were on defense. Five of those six prospects who landed on rosters were on defense, including two of the team’s leading tacklers in Gilbert (6th round pick of the Steelers) and Davis (UDFA signee of the Texans.)

Davis and Brady were important parts of the defensive end rotation, while Gilbert (85 tackles) and Bell (82 tackles) held down linebacker positions. The secondary also loses several dependable pieces in the backfield, as safety Jordan George (70 tackles) and corner Brown both graduate out of the program. Between all those prospects, the Zips stand to lose a good majority of their defensive production. To put things in proper context, the defense will stand to lose their second, third, fifth, sixth, seventh, eleventh and twelfth-leading tacklers. Not great!

The losses aren’t as bad on the offense, which loses receivers Kwadarrius Smith and Mykel Traylor-Bennett (Oakland Raiders tryout) and starting running back Van Edwards, Jr.

Regardless, a lot of the Zips’ former leadership will be gone with the new season, which means there will likely be some struggles in the early part of the season, as this relatively young team will have to gel together while it finds new leaders and gets a feel for the new coaching staff.

It would also be remiss to point out the entire previous coaching staff is gone, and with it their offensive and defensive philosophies. It’s very likely the Zips will no longer focus on a conservative, pro-style offense and a base defense, which will result in some potential scheme fit issues down the road.


Key Returnees

  • Kato Nelson
  • Andre Williams
  • Jeremah Knight
  • Julian Hicks (transfer from Central Michigan)
  • Alvin Davis Jr.
  • Brandon Council
  • Josh Ward
  • Deltron Sands

For as much as the defense loses in production, the offense will return a lot of its familiar names, which will certainly be a boon for an offensive-minded coach such as Arth.

Kato Nelson returns as the likely QB1 after playing hurt for much of the 2018 season. He finished the year going 159-of-303 for 2,151 passing yards, 18 touchdowns and 8 interceptions, with 121 rushes for 303 yards and one touchdown in 11 starts. He’s likely the most experienced skill player to return on the offensive side, and was serviceable even despite the nagging injury concerns, finishing seventh in passing completions, yards, touchdowns and efficiency, as well as third in total yards from scrimmage amongst qualifying MAC QB’s.

Andre Williams (46 receptions, 649 yards and six touchdowns) and Ohio State transfer Jeremiah Knight (6 rec., 113 yards as a walk-on redshirt freshman, named pre-season first-team All-MAC by Phil Steele) are likely starters at receiver after showing off great potential towards the tail end of last year. Williams is an explosive athlete and will likely be the feature receiver in a pass-happy offense. Knight received a scholarship this spring for his performance and improvement in 2018 after coming to Akron as a walk-on from Ohio State, which goes to show the faith that the new staff has in him to be an immediately productive member of the offense.

Alvin Davis, a Jim Thorpe Award watchlist prospect, returns to anchor the secondary after a breakout 2018 season where he led the nation in interceptions (4), with 149 interception yards and two interception return touchdowns. Daivs was also a banger from the safety position, recording 77 tackles (second-best on the team) and forcing two fumbles (recovering twice.) Josh Ward transitions from linebacker to defensive end after a 2018 season which saw him accumulate 33 tackles, 7.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks, and two forced fumbles. He’l fill in the void left by Walter Brady’s graduation.

Brandon Council, a six-foot-four, 325 lb. right tackle, will return to anchor the line after his 2018 campaign ended early due to injury, helping to stabilize a line which struggled to help move the ball last season. Deltron Sands, the former Oregon State Beaver, will likely be the starter at halfback thanks to his speed and catching ability, though his injury history will leave many to wonder if it’ll be another year of questions in the backfield.


What’s New

The entire staff has turned over and will be installing what Arth and company have dubbed “The System”, which has a reputation for re-tooling players’ football IQ. Coach Arth brought his offensive and defensive coordinators with him from Chattanooga during the transition, ensuring his belief in versatility will be front-and-center.

Arth told the Akron Beacon-Journal his main driving philosophy for roster building on both sides will be “built on maximizing the talent and potential of each player”, promising multiple personnel groupings and formations. His main driving motivation is belief in his systems, as he emphasizes finding fits, as opposed to relying solely on talent. This even extends to outside the football field, as he was known to bring in etiquette coaches (amongst other things) to teach players the nuances of being a professional, how to depend on others, and how to set excellence as an expectation.

Arth has a reputation as a program builder, taking a struggling John Carroll University to a 40-8 record over three seasons after the Blue Streaks struggled to reach a .500 record in five season prior to his hiring. Arth’s JCU teams never finished the season outside the Division III Top 25, and held two Top 5 positions in 2014 (5th) and 2016 (3rd). At Chattanooga, Arth was known to be an excellent recruiter, finishing at the top of the Southern Conference recruiting rankings in both season as head coach.

His energy and his program-building prowess will be key for helping Akron to re-establish itself as a player in the northeast Ohio region after neglecting the area under Bowden, who had a preference for southern pipelines, especially in Florida and Georgia.


The Schedule

Date Opponent Previous result or last available result
Sat., Aug. 31 @ Illinois Sept. 21, 1996 (L, 38-7)
Sat., Sept. 7 vs. UAB First meeting
Sat., Sept. 14 @ Central Michigan* Oct. 27, 2018 (W 17-10)
Sat., Sept. 21 vs. Troy Sept. 23, 2017 (L 22-17)
Sat., Sept. 28 @ UMass Nov. 7, 2015 (W 17-13)
Sat., Oct. 12 vs. Kent State* Oct. 20, 2018 (W 23-20)
Sat., Oct. 19 vs. Buffalo* Oct. 13, 2018 (L 41-17)
Sat., Oct. 26 @ NIU* Nov. 1, 2018 (L 36-26)
Sat., Nov. 2 @ BGSU* Nov. 17, 2018 (L 21-6)
Tues., Nov. 12 vs. EMU Nov. 10, 2018 (L 27-7)
Wed., Nov. 20 @ Miami Oct. 6, 2018 (L 41-17)
Tues., Nov. 26 vs. Ohio Nov. 23, 2018 (L 49-28)

Akron’s schedule, as mentioned in the introduction, has potential if Arth can find the pieces that fit his system and the players adjust in time. It’s favorable in home matchups and avoids a lot of intra-divisional pitfalls on the road. That said, they didn’t exactly produce against said opponents in 2018, going 2-6 against conference opponents in 2018.

The schedule in the non-conference is a little volatile as well. It features no FCS programs, but it does bring in two programs from peer conferences which performed better in 2018 and includes trips to a Power Five school in Illinois and to independent UMass, which had a similar season to Akron last year. It’s not the stoutest OOC schedule, but it includes plenty of landmines should the season start off on a slow foot. Thrown in an early conference game against CMU in the midst of it and Akron could be looking at a hectic situation to attain bowl eligibility if they can’t come out with more wins than losses.


2019 Outlook

The Zips were picked to finish fifth in the MAC East at MAC Media Days, which is about where they should be slotted. They’re a roster which will have to find itself throughout the season as much of its senior leadership has moved on and Arth and the rest of his staff will have to get their bearings under them in their first year at the FBS level.

The dynamics of team fit will be the biggest indicator of the team’s success. The schedule is totally do-able, as they avoid surefire losses for the most part (i.e. Wisconsin) and get a majority of its tough games on home turf. This is a schedule that could go anywhere from 4-8 to 8-4 depending on how quickly the team can come around in its development.

Coach Bowden lifted Akron from perennial laughingstock to a team that consistently competes in his seven years at the helm, building the program up in terms of facilities and on-field play. It’ll now be up to local boy Tom Arth, who grew up 30 minutes away from campus, to get Akron from playing for bowl eligibility to competing for division and conference titles. Year One might not be that year, but the lessons learned from it could go a long way in getting there.