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2019 State of the Program: Akron Zips

As the sun sets on the Bowden Ball era, Zips fans should look forward to the great potential on the roster.

Illustration: James H. Jimenez | Photo: Reese Strickland (Getty)

Welcome to our latest installation of State of the Program, a wide-ranging look into each and every MAC football program and how it’s currently functioning. If you missed out on previous versions, you can always catch up using our 2019 Preseason Coverage storystream at your own leisure.

This time around, we’re discussing the Akron Zips, a program which has had recent ups and downs, but has shown flashes of potential.

2018 was a rough season for a number of reasons. The Zips, seeking to defend their 2017 MAC East division crown, had their first game vs. Nebraska cancelled due to weather, an issue which ended up being a storyline throughout the season. Akron did manage a stunning upset of Northwestern, but followed it up with three straight losses, resulting in a 2-3 start to the season. After picking up wins in the next two games against CMU and Kent State, the Zips would go on to lose five-in-a-row to fall out of contention for a bowl game, ending the season at 4-8.

Terry Bowden would resign after the season, leaving behind a legacy of establishing expectations for a program which has largely been an afterthought in the college football world since becoming the first I-AA program to jump up into the Division I-A level in 1987.

Now, with a new staff in place and a relatively young and moldable roster in place due to graduation attrition, the Zips look forward to developing into a contender in 2019.


Assessing the talent pipeline

The Akron Zips have done a decent job in placing players in the NFL over the last few seasons. This offseason alone, they placed six players on NFL rosters, including a draft pick in Ulysees Gilbert III (sixth round, Pittsburgh,) three UDFA signings (Kwadarrius Smith, Kyron Brown and Jamal Davis II) and three training camp invitees (Brian Bell, Brock Boxen and Mykel Traylor-Bennett.)

JoJo Natson (Rams,) Jatavis Brown (Chargers) and Justin March-Lillard (Cowboys) have latched on to NFL squads in recent seasons and are currently rostered. That success isn’t limited to the NFL; Shawn Lemon (Toronto Argonauts) and Almondo Sewell (Edmonton Eskimos) have found success playing professionally north of the border.

In terms of recruiting, the last two seasons of talent acquisition has been (how do you put this delicately?) abysmal. They ranked dead last in the MAC in recruiting per 247Sports in 2017 and tenth in 2018, with an average rating of 0.77 and 0.79 (approximately high two-star) in those seasons. That put Akron at 131st and 127th in the nation, respectively. The fact that Akron has managed to pump out NFL-ready talent despite those numbers show that they have really worked on developing those prospects, but seeing those numbers can’t make you feel *good*.

To compare, Tom Arth’s two classes at Chattanooga ranked second in the Southern Conference and 151st and 139th in 2017 and 2018, respectively, while averaging about the same average rating of talent, making Arth one of the top recruiters in the FCS level despite a lack of experience. It stands to reason that once Arth figures out the scholarship situations at the FBS level, he can improve on those numbers.


There’s a new sheriff in town

Tom Arth’s coaching record is short and sweet. He spent four years coaching at his alma mater John Carroll University, where he once played quarterback and led the team to its last playoff appearance prior to his homecoming as coach. The former protege of Peyton Manning led the Blue Streaks to a 40-8 record, never finishing outside the Top 25 in the final Division III rankings. He finished in the Top Five twice and earned Ohio Athletic Conference Coach of the Year honors twice (2013 and 2016.)

Arth was then hired on to start the rebuilding process at Chattanooga after Russ Huesman left to coach at Richmond. The results were not immediate for Arth at Chattanooga, as he went 9-13 in his two seasons with the Mocs. Despite the on-field results and the face that he had to recruit student-athletes in places he had no real connections to, he recruited two highly-ranked recruiting classes. Akron came calling after the retirement of Bowden, and Arth jumped at the opportunity to return home, precisely what Akron was looking for in a coach. At 38, he’ll enter his first year in Akron as one of the youngest coaches at the FBS level.

Akron has placed a great amount of faith in Arth’s ability to build a program, and he’ll be building it from the ground-up after years of “Bowden ball,” which placed faith in a more classic philosophy on offense and defense.

Arth’s offense is predicated on the passing game, with a pocket passer throwing to multiple talented receivers. Akron is certainly set there, with Kato Nelson returning at QB and the duo of Andre Williams and Jeremiah Knight at WR. Although Nelson isn’t a pure pocket passer, his ability to run the ball as effectively should be a huge value for the system Arth hopes to employ, especially if Nelson is given the green light to create audibles (an issue which apparently affected on-field performance last season.)

Arth never got the opportunity to make the offense work on a consistent basis in Chattanooga, with ill-fitting personnel and a defense which was forced to see the field, often affecting in-game situations. His offense at John Carroll indicated he ran an extremely balanced offense in an ideal world; his 2016 national semi-final squad passed for 2,929 yards and 31 touchdowns, while running for 2,503 yards and 30 touchdowns. That 2016 squad averaged 32.9 points per game and 388 offensive yards for a 5.6 yards per play average.

Arth’s defense, a carryover from his days at John Carroll now taught by former player under Arth-turned-coach Matt Feeney, dubbed “The System”, seeks versatility and the ability to be as multiple as possible, not committing to a certain scheme on a year-to-year or even a week-to-week commitment. It certainly sounds like the complete opposite of the Zips under former defensive coordinator Chuck Amato, where players very often had set roles and played in base alignments. Perhaps the most important indicator that Arth and staff will make adjustments to fit said system is the move to convert former safety Alvin Davis Jr. to cornerback.


What’s the mission?

The 2019 season is all about development.

The social media team has done a great job showing as much; most every Akron football post ends with the tag #OurWay and #HereToDevelop. It’s not a lie, either. Arth is there to instill a new system that relies on development, both on the field and off. As with most developmental projects, the team will have to swallow a few lumps before finding success.

The schedule ahead of the 2019 season certainly helps with the theme of development. There are no major guaranteed loses in the non-conference schedule, though some will say Illinois is simply too talented to lose. There’s also plenty of winnable games against UAB and Troy at home, as well as UMass on the road.

The Zips get all the tough hitters of the conference season at home as well (mainly Ohio and Buffalo) and only have to face NIU on the road, which is dodging a major bullet for the most part. It’s a schedule that’s soft enough to be able to make plenty of mistakes in installing two brand new playbooks and figuring out who fits where with a roster made up almost exclusively of players who fit a different scheme, yet hard enough to be a challenge for players to experience personal growth and development within the system.

The Zips were picked to finish fifth in the MAC East by media, and considering last year’s results, combined with uncertainty about the new staff, it’s about right in terms of reasonable expectations. Arth is in Akron to rebuild over the long haul, and Rome wasn’t built in a day. Akron reaching four to five wins is a perfectly reasonable standard. If the Zips can reach six, it’s a cherry on the sundae.


Is Akron better than they were five years ago?

Yes.

Some fans might not feel that way, considering the Zips went 4-8 in 2018, but here’s the thing about that: the fact fans were unsatisfied with the 2018 season, rather than apathetic, shows that the program is in a better place.

When Terry Bowden took over the program, they had come off a 1-11 season under Rob Iannello, who won two games in his entire tenure as Zips head coach. Bowden went through two 1-11 seasons with mostly Iannello recruits before competing for bowl eligibility in every remaining season afterwards, only finishing lower than five wins once (2018.) Bowden also got Akron into two bowl games, winning one and got the Zips a MAC East Division championship for the first time in over a decade.

The facilities are now in place thanks to Bowden’s insistence and the depth of developed talent on the roster should really help Arth find fits for his new schemes, even if some of the later recruiting classes are a bit lacking. There’s certainly a lot more optimism surrounding the program than in recent years, and part of that has to do with bringing home a native son in Arth and a renewed emphasis on winning back northeast Ohio. But as I said to start this preview, the most important thing that happened over the past five seasons was the establishment of expectations by Bowden after decades of failure and apathy.

It’s those expectations that Akron will now seek to surpass in the post-Bowden era.