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2019 Akron Zips Football Key Storylines

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

It’s been quite a busy offseason for the Akron Zips. Former head coach Terry Bowden resigned after a 4-8 campaign in 2018, ending a seven-year tenure in Akron (and what many thought would be his coaching career prior to his becoming a GA at Clemson.)

The school took its time in finding a replacement, eventually going with Chattanooga head coach Tom Arth, a former NFL quarterback who was known as an excellent builder and recruiter, especially in the Ohio area. Arth cut his teeth at his alma mater John Carroll, a nearby Division III school, going 40-8 as the coach of the Blue Streaks before getting hired on to lead a rebuilding effort at Chattanooga.

In the interim, much of the team’s senior leadership graduated or moved on to the professional level, including five of the team’s top 10 tacklers and the team’s leading receiver. This leaves Akron as a program effectively on the rebuild, just two seasons after advancing to the MAC Championship and winning the MAC East division in spectacular fashion.

Needless to say, there will be a lot of storylines to watch going into the 2019 season.

Tom Arth debuts as an FBS head coach

Prior to arriving in Akron, Arth had exactly 0 days of experience being on an FBS coaching staff. All of his coaching experience thus far has been at the Division III or FCS levels, where the scholarship situations and style of play all work very differently from college football’s highest level. Arth admitted as much that the changes have been an adjustment for him in an interview during MAC Media Days, but Akron hired Arth based on potential.

Arth was a two-time Ohio Athletic Coach of the Year (2013, 2016) at John Carroll and rebuilt a program which had effectively been stagnant between 5-5 and 6-4 for the five years prior to his arrival into a perennial contender, never finishing outside of the Top 25 in his four seasons as Blue Streaks head coach.

Even at Chattanooga, where his coaching record as less than impressive (9-13 over two seasons,) Arth still managed to reel in some of the top recruiting classes in the Southern Conference, a notoriously tough FCS league. So, the optimism surrounding his ability to create quick turnarounds is certainly warranted.

Akron is banking on that ability to build on the foundation of their previous work and do two different tasks: 1) to take Akron into the modern age of college football on the field and 2) re-instill local pride into an Akron program which had depended on a lot of out-of-state talent to field a football team. Arth, an Ohio native who grew up 30 minutes outside of Akron and played his high school football at St. Ignatius, could be just the person to reboot the program.

He faces a tall task, all told, as his first game in 2019 will be against former NFL coach Lovie Smith at Illinois.

Alvin Davis leds a last hurrah

Davis, a senior this upcoming season, is one of the last defensive leaders remaining from the Bowden classes and will very likely lead a young defense into battle in 2019. Daivs has received a lot of attention in recent years as one of the best players in the Mid-American Conference, and now, in the final year of his collegiate career, the ultra-talented safety is garnering national attention.

Davis was named to the pre-season All-MAC First team by Athlon Sports and Phil Steele, and was tabbed as a selection for the Jim Thorpe Award Preseason Watch List for best defensive back in college football. The accolades are well-earned, as Davis finished first-team All-MAC in the 2018 postseason awards after a 77-tackle season that also included four interceptions, two interception returns for touchdowns, three pass breakups, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

His leadership is going to be absolutely essential in shaping the work habits and energy of a suddenly young defense, which lost seven of its twelve leading producers to graduation, and could well shape how the season goes for the team from his safety spot. As a player, having a coaching change in your final season can be difficult. If Davis can find a way to persevere and help others on the team understand the defense being installed, it’ll go a long way in helping the future of the roster.

Who emerges at the running back position?

Akron’s running game was, in a word, ineffective last season. Van Edwards Jr. graduated out of the program in the offseason, leaving Deltron Sands as the (assumed) RB1 going into fall camps. The Zips had a paltry 2.8 yards per rush in 2018, finishing with just five touchdowns over the entire season for an offense that was dedicated to establishing the run to open up the passing game.

QB Kato Nelson was the second leading rusher by yards gained (558), which finished just behind Edwards’ net gain (564), not a great position for a starting RB to be in. Edwards averaged about 50 yards per game on the ground, with Sands contributing about 11 yards per game as a change-of-pace back. That simply won’t cut it at the FBS level.

Sands, a former Oregon State transfer, is the returning back with the most experience, but he will be pushed by Keyondre White, a rising true sophomore who led the Zips in rushing against South Carolina (13 rushes, 56 yards) and gained the trust of the coaching staff by season’s end. Both backs bring something to the table that could prove valuable for the Zips moving forward; Sands has kick and punt return ability and generally proved to be a capable third-down back in 2018, while White was more of a pure north-south runner who excelled at finding holes.

You can also look for Peter Hayes-Patrick to get some touches or compete for RB1. One of Arth’s first commits, Hayes-Patrick was once a four-star recruit per Rivals and a three-star recruit per 247Sports, making him one of the highest-rated Zip recruits in program history. He gained 849 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns despite a five-game suspension in his senior season due to an investigation into his transfer from Timber Creek HS to Winter Park HS.

In Arth’s pass-oriented offense, it will be key to have a semblance of a rushing game to help be able to keep opposing defenses honest. Akron absolutely has to improve over their 95.2 yards per game in 2018 to be able to remain competitive in games, and the RB battle in camps will help to solidify the future of that position.

A double-edged sword of a schedule

The 2019 Akron Zips schedule could either be one of the most favorable in the league or one of the most unforgiving, depending on how a few results go.

The out-of-conference schedule doesn’t include a ranked Power Five team this year (which is probably good news at the moment), but it does give Akron an opportunity to extend its Big Ten winning streak to two with a matchup against a decent, but not overwhelming Illinois squad in Urbana-Champaign.

The most interesting part of the schedule is *after* that opening game, with UAB and Troy coming to the Rubber City and the Zips traveling to UMass for a visit to an old friend. UAB and Troy are both Alabama-based programs which have had better results in peer conferences (C-USA and the Sun Belt, respectively) than Akron in recent years, immediately making the Zips underdogs in both games.

Sandwich a business trip to Mt. Pleasant for a conference game in Week 3 vs. Central Michigan, and there are plenty of landmines for the Zips to fall upon.

The rest of the conference season is extremely forgiving to the Zips, who avoid traveling to major players in the title races (only having a pre-November road game vs. NIU to really worry about) while hosting most of the title favorites (Ohio and Buffalo) and their main rivalry game (Kent State) within the confines of InfoCision Stadium.

The thing about forgiving schedules is this: if you start slow or lose a game you shouldn’t lose at home, you’re going to be in major trouble. Having home-field advantage should be a boon against the tougher teams on the schedule, but if they find themselves struggling badly, Tom Arth’s honeymoon might end quicker than most realize.

It’s a schedule where Akron could go 2-10 or 7-5 depending on how they gel in-season, and that’s not necessarily a great feeling to have as a fan.

How does the program change post-Bowden?

The one over-arching storyline to watch that won’t have an immediate resolution is how the program itself changes over the course of Arth’s tenure at Akron.

It was clear towards the end of Bowden’s tenure that the culture around the program had largely atrophied. Or if not atrophied, it at the very least stagnated. Fan excitement just wasn’t there, and the on-field product, which suffered from looking old and was slow to change, fell apart at the end.

This isn’t to say that Bowden’s tenure was a failure; if anything, Bowden’s ability to create something from nothing, especially considering the university’s financial situation should be lauded. Akron was a laughingstock of a program prior to his arrival, with just five six-plus win seasons and one bowl game between 1995 and 2012. Bowden took his lumps at first, but eventually got Akron to two bowl games (with one victory), a MAC East division title and a MAC Championship appearance. He only dipped below five wins in three of his seasons at the helm (the first two seasons and the final season) and kept the Zips competitive, which is really all he was asked to do.

Bowden set up a certain expectation in Akron, and it will be up to Arth to take the mantle and bring the program to new heights. Already, there’s been a distinct change in how Akron presents itself via social media, talking about development as a team and representing home (through the tags #OurWay and #HereToDevelop), an explicit acknowledgement that maintaining the status quo is no longer the way to keep going.

Arth has also been known to take unconventional approaches in how to build his teams off the field as well, including hiring etiquette coaches, getting rid of study tables and replacing them with an “academic council” akin to in-team tutors and more.

It is this attention to detail and willingness to think outside the box that attracted Akron to Arth, and will be a key part of understanding the program’s future beyond 2019.