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2020 Mid-American Conference Football Key Storylines: Akron Zips

The Zips need to find a way to do something they haven’t done since October 27, 2018: win.

James H. Jimenez

The Akron Zips head into the 2020 season on a 17-game losing streak. Akron’s last victory was a 17-10 win over Central Michigan on October 27, 2018, in a season which ultimately was lost to the ether.

Every MAC East team has weathered a terrible stretch. With exception of Bowling Green, every other MAC East squad has had to bounce back from at least one winless season at some point in its MAC history. And for Bowling Green, its 12-36 record in the last four years is one of the worst stretches in its otherwise proud history.

And its here where the Akron Zips find themselves entering 2020: looking for a way to end a brutal streak.

So, the key storyline for Akron starts with the following question:

Where on the shortened schedule can Akron find a win in 2020?

Before the schedule was reduced to six games this year, you could point to several chances for the Zips to get back on track. Akron’s original schedule called for a home game in the season opener against FCS squad Youngstown State, who finished 2019 with a 6-6 record. Tilts against New Mexico State and former division-mates UMass also looked promising for the Zips prior to the COVID shutdown as well, with the original out-of-conference schedule going a combined 3-21 in the 2019 campaign.

Akron was UMass’ only victory last year, but the Zips were at least competitive in that game, ultimately losing 29-37 after three turnovers and the loss of starting QB Kato Nelson to injury (although the backup Zach Gibson did play well in relief).

The elimination of the non-conference schedule leaves Akron with less obvious opportunities for wins, not only because of the number of games being halved, but also because of the increase in quality opponents.

Of course, Akron’s MAC West draw is perennial contender Western Michigan: nothing like trying to break out a skid against one of the favorites to win the MAC West. But as bad as it looks at first glance, there could be an opportunity here. Western Michigan has to replace four key players from last year’s offense so the Zips might catch WMU at the right time, while its reloading (WMU key offensive players lost in 2019: QB Jon Wassink (3,000 yards passing), LeVante Bellamy (MAC Offensive player of the year, 2019, Denver Broncos practice squad), TE Giovanni Ricci (642 yards, 8 TDs, Carolina Panthers practice squad), and WR Keith Mixon (50 receptions, 500 yards).

Turning to the MAC East, it doesn’t get a lot easier, as the MAC East figures to have at least four teams that could win the MAC East title in 2020, Ohio, Buffalo, Miami, and Kent State. The number of title competitors leaves little room for an easy win.

But Akron has some things going for it. Akron’s game against Kent State is a rivalry game and those games are often a toss up, despite the records. Also, even in down years, any squad can find a way to win some of their MAC schedule. Last year, the Zips, 0-10 record in tow, rolled into Yeager Stadium, nearly upsetting eventual champion Miami before losing 20-17.

Akron should be better than they were in 2019, particularly on offense, which could lead to some wins.

Who will emerge in 2020?

In most of the MAC East games last year, Akron’s defense kept them in the games. In four of its five MAC East games in 2019, Akron was outscored by a total of 26-102, or by an average of 7 to 26. (In the 5th MAC game, Akron lost to Ohio 52-3, but this was probably an outlier).

26 points allowed is a decent MAC performance and should generally keep a team in games. So how can Akron close this deficit to start getting some wins in 2020?

I don’t see significant improvement coming from coming from the defensive side in points per game allowed in 2020. The Zips do return some key experienced players like tackling machine LB Bubba Arslanian (125 tackles last year,) and the overall talent of the defensive back group should be improved with the recruitment of two JUCO cornerbacks, four-star transfer safety Jaylen Kelly-Powell, and a slew of returnees. Akron does also return some young depth on the defensive line which logged action in the 2019 season and should have some improvement as a result.

However, these gains seem offset in 2020 by the loss of their best two defense players to graduation, LB John Lako (First-Team, All-MAC) and DB Alvin Davis (Third-Team, All-MAC). 217 combined tackles between Lako and Davis last year isn’t easy to replace, but the senior leadership both players displayed will be perhaps the hardest thing to replicate on a squad which is one of the youngest in the MAC.

Where I do see the team improving significantly is on offense. Considering Akron scored a lowly 7 points a game in 2019, it can’t get much worse with a season of familiarity under their belts.

Yet, if QB Kato Nelson can avoid injury this year, this would probably go a long way in helping Akron move in the right direction. Nelson was injured parts of last season, but threw only 6 interceptions in 279 attempts. By comparison, the remaining Akron QBs threw 8 interceptions in 54 attempts. (Though it has to be noted reserve QB Zach Gibson looked good against equal competition in relief vs. UMass.)

I’ll be interested to see what Akron can do to reduce negative plays and sacks. In 2019, it looked like everyone had a hand in the sack issue, not just the offensive line. At times, the QBs held onto the ball too long or didn’t find open receivers, RBs missed blocks, WRs did not get separation. A primary look at the tape will indicate plenty of problem areas blocking-wise for the Zips to work on in the offseason. The point is that there is opportunity across the board for Akron to reduce negative plays, and it starts with figuring out that aspect.

Moving on, the RB group should be much more productive in 2020. The addition of Indiana transfer senior Cole Gest and JUCO recruit junior Teon Dollard add some much-need experience and skill. Gest and Dollard are three-star players according to 247Sports, and have about 200 carries for over 1,000 yards in their college careers, showing the ability to handle the pressure of being an FBS back, something which wasn’t extremey apparent in the 2019 stable. Sophomore Michiah Burton returns and should be improved in his second season. Akron’s offense would benefit by running the ball better and I think they will with this group.

Notably, however, the Zips will likely lose promising redshirt freshman running back Peter Hayes-Patrick, who recently entered the transfer portal and no longer appears on Akron’s online roster. Hayes-Patrick, a recruit from Trry Bowden’s last recruiting class, was a three-star recruit according to 247Sports and had offers out of high school from ACC schools Florida State and Georgia Tech.

The WR group is bolstered by getting 6’4” Jonah Morris back in the picture. Morris was a quality starter in 2018 after transferring in from Indiana back in 2017, but missed all of 2019 with a training camp injury. The addition of JUCO George Qualls Jr. also improves the group. Qualls Jr. dominated last year with almost 700 yards and six touchdowns at Butler Community College.

Sophomore WR Michael Mathison will be fun to watch in 2020 and may turn out to be the Zips most explosive player. Mathison played in 10 games in 2019 as a freshman and had 688 all-purpose yards. Mathison showed some big-play ability, especially on kick returns. Add these to a number of returning WRs, led by Nate Stewart, who led the team with 529 yards in 2019, and CMU transfer Julian Hicks, I think you’ll get more out of this group.

Will the offensive line be better in 2020? Probably, but it’s hard to say for sure. Sacks and turnovers just crushed Akron’s offense in 2019: 58 sacks, with a minus 15 turnover ratio led the FBS on both counts. For what was already an incredibly hard road to trod considering the derth of available talent, the Zips didn’t make it easier on themselves with needless drive-killing pressures and forced turnovers. Complicating the picture is the transfer of Brandon Council to Auburn, who was probably their most talented and versatile lineman.

On the plus side, four starters return and should be better with a year in the system under Arth. Also, there is help on the way with the recruitment of promising players in the last two classes who look the part, led by redshirt freshman LT Xavior Gray (6’9”, 300lbs). Akron has focused offensive line recruitment, with 10 redshirt freshman or freshman on the roster.

The question will be just how much Akron decides to rotate through a suddenly crowded line room or otherwise adjust their scheme to try and create time for plays to develop.

Phil Steele points out in his preview magazine that we might see more double tight end looks in 2020. The Zips added 6’5,” 250-pound JUCO TE Brycen Yarmo for 2020 and get back 6’3,” 240-pound move TE Maverick Wolfley from injury too. Adding nearly 500 pounds to the front line could help block some folks, as well.

Overall, 2020 could prove to be a season full of development and growth once again. Coach Tom Arth was brought along to build the program back up from the foundations after the previous staff had more or less striped it for parts. A win in what will prove to be an extremely demanding schedule could prove to be the catalyst to get the program moving in the right direction for 2021.