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2020 Mid-American Conference Football Season Preview: Akron Zips

Mettle-tested after an ignomous 2019 campaign, head coach Tom Arth and company return for year two of the Akron rebuild.

James H. Jimenez

A winless campaign has to test the strongest people and best plans.

For coaches and players who put in all the work and sacrifice to play the game, it has to be unimaginably tough not to walk off the field victorious even one time. But that’s what the Zips did in 2019, finishing with an 0-12 record.

Yet, as painful as it was in terms of win-losses, the 2019 season was not perhaps as much about the record as it was about rebuilding the Zips program, starting from its foundation. The foundation Arth was laying is evidenced by twitter hashtags which appeared shortly after his arrival and throughout the 2019 season: #OurWay and #HereToDevelop.

What #OurWay means is described briefly by coach Arth in The News-Herald article, written by Mark Podoleski, back in March 2019. In short, Our Way involves creating a culture in which players achieve their best results by establishing priorities (football, school, community) and approaching those priorities in a way to maximize their successes.

And while developing that culture primarily goes on behind the curtain, in meetings, practice, etc., there are plenty of signs outside of the culture change to show that Akron looks much more competitive in 2020.

Key Returnees/Additions

  • Kato Nelson, QB
  • Nate Stewart, WR
  • Jeremiah Knight, WR
  • Michael Mathison, WR/Returner
  • Cole Gest, RB (Transfer from Indiana)
  • Peter Hayes-Patrick, RB
  • Dylan Meeks, DE
  • Bubba Arslanian, LB
  • Jaylen Kelly-Powell (Transfer from Michigan)
  • JUCOs

Arth and company have recruited a significant number of players since his arrival, restocking the roster. According to online rosters, Akron leads the MAC East with 66 freshman or redshirt freshman on its current roster. In contrast, the average number of freshman or redshirt freshman on MAC East rosters this year is 39. And while we don’t know how many of these freshmen will make it on the field with any regularity, it is a significant pool from which players can be developed.

More on the radar for 2020, Akron added critical talent and depth via junior colleges and the transfer portal, which should upgrade position groups on both sides of the ball. These new players, along with returning players, should make Akron more competitive in 2020.

Perhaps Akron’s best offensive player, QB Kato Nelson, returns to lead the Zips in his senior season. Nelson emerged as a leader of the Zips at the end of his redshirt freshman year in 2017 when he started the last three MAC games, guiding the Zips to a MAC East title. After a loss to Miami in his first start, Nelson passed for four touchdowns and more than 300 yards to stun division leader Ohio, then guided Akron to win over rival Kent State to help the Zips clinch the title.

The offense ran though Nelson in 2019, where he combined for almost 400 touches passing and rushing.

Nelson and Akron will benefit in 2020 from improved skill position groups. Returning WRs Nate Stewart, Julian Hicks, Jeremiah Knight, and Michael Mathison combined for more than 1,400 yards receiving. Jonah Morris, who missed last year due to injury, returns. Morris started all 12 games for the Zips as a sophomore. JUCO George Qualls was added for 2020 and may push for immediate playing time after an impressive season last year at Butler Community College, where he caught 41 passes for 693 yards at 6 touchdowns.

The RB group looks upgraded for 2020. Indiana transfer Cole Gest (4.5 yards per carry, career) and JUCO Teon Dollard (6.9 yards per carry for 569 yards last year at Independence C.C.) combine with returning underclassmen Peter Hayes-Patrick and Micaiah Burton to create a more talented, deeper group.

Freshman DL Janirr Wade and JUCO Nazir Sy provide much-needed depth on the defensive line and may contribute immediately.

Bubba Arslanian, LB, returns and should be in the conversation for All-MAC honors in 2020 after logging 125 tackles last year.

The DB room has been transformed. The DB group gained valuable experience last year, with several playing significantly as young players. Some key players were added for 2020, and this group should be improved.

Redshirt freshman Corey Thomas and Jalen Hooks return as likely starters, along with sophomores AJ Watts and Randy Cochran, who combined for 17 starts as freshman. An infusion of experience from the JUCO ranks in Chu Ogbonna and Woobendy Guerrier should provide depth and competition. Finally, Jaylen Kelly-Powell, a four-star recruit who transferred from Michigan and has the talent to help offset the loss of Alvin Davis.

Key Losses

  • John Lako, LB
  • Alvin Davis, DB
  • Davon’te Jest, DT
  • Brandon Council, OL, transfer (Auburn)
  • Dustin Burkhart, WR, injury

The Zips return a majority of the defense, but lost three of their best defensive players at the end of the 2019 season, including their best defensive player in John Lako (graduation.)

Lako was the heart-and-soul of the Zips defense, earning First Team All-MAC honors in 2019. In his final season, Lako lead the Zips with 138 tackles, including 9.5 tackles-for-loss. Lako’s 64-yard interception return put a scare into 2019 MAC champion Miami, who held on to beat the Zips 20-17 in the penultimate game of the season.

Alvin Davis was a key player, adding physicality and much-needed experience. In 2018, his two interceptions for touchdowns keyed a stunning defeat of Northwestern, 39-34. While his 2019 stats may not have been as impressive as 2018, he still finished the year with 79 tackles, third best on the team. Davis also earned Third Team All-MAC honors in 2019.

Davon’te Jest was a quality MAC DT on a roster with depth issues on the defensive line. Jest was often hard to move out of the middle of the defense and appeared in 10 games in 2019.

WR Dustin Burkhart was a bright spot early last year, before an undisclosed career-ending injury. Burkhart appeared in four games, with a monster game against UAB with 8 catches for 217 yards.

The loss of offensive lineman Brandon Council is substantial. Council’s versatility at Akron was notable, playing multiple line positions. And Council’s transfer to Auburn speaks for itself about his talent. As of Week 2 of SEC pay, Council has made two starts at right guard for Auburn, rotating between both guard positions with ease.

How much the offensive line improves, especially with the loss of Council, is probably one of the biggest factors in how competitive the Zips are in 2020. Akron struggled on the offensive line in 2019, allowing an FBS-leading 58 sacks, and that was with Council (of course, not all the sacks were on the offensive line). The Zips have 16 offensive linemen for 2020, but 10 are freshman or redshirt freshman. Redshirt freshman LT Xavior Gray saw action last year and looks the part, standing at 6’9” and 300 pounds. Gray figures to have an opportunity to start.

Phil Steele indicates that the Zips may mix in more formations employing two tight ends, which may help run production and reduce sacks.

Schedule

DATE OPPONENT
Wednesday November 4, 2020 vs Western Michigan
Tuesday November 10, 2020 @ Ohio
Tuesday November 17, 2020 @ Kent State
Saturday November 28, 2020 vs Miami
Saturday December 5, 2020 vs Bowling Green
Saturday December 12, 2020 @ Buffalo

Outlook

The Zips appear to be in better position for future success based on the developments during the past year but its easier to see these developments translating into regular wins in 2021 vs the COVID-shortened season that is 2020.

COVID-19 wiped out all non-conference games for 2020, which is a shame for Akron because at least three of these were winnable games against Youngstown State, New Mexico State, and Massachusetts. Youngstown State, an FCS squad, finished 6-6 in 2019 and New Mexico State and UMass combined for a 3-21 record in 2019.

Akron’s 2020 schedule features five games against MAC East squads and MAC West power Western Michigan. The competitive gap between Akron and its fellow MAC East foes in 2019 was stark, with five losses by a combined 29-154.

Akron’s internal development and infusion of talent via freshman recruiting, the transfer portal, and JUCO will help close the gap, but the stability of the other MAC East programs (excluding Bowling Green) gives the opponents a significant advantage.

Akron will enter fall camp with more than half of its roster (listed online) yet to have any significant practice time as a Zip. By contrast, Ohio, Buffalo, Miami, and Kent State all return rosters significantly intact, with experience and depth. And while Akron is a more experienced squad overall than they were at the beginning of 2019, the Zips are still a relatively inexperienced team on the whole, with 66 freshman and redshirt freshman.