Western Michigan and Akron are programs in different stages of development, both with significant questions to answer as the 2020 season begins.
Akron enters the second year of a major rebuild, under coach Tom Arth. The Zips have been busy reshaping their roster during Arth’s tenure, with at least 70 players who are freshman, redshirt freshman, or transfers on the 2020 rosters. Suffice it to say that now is the time for Zip fans to spend a few dollars ordering that game program in order to learn the players behind those jersey numbers.
Akron comes into this one looking to establish the foundations of its program and end a 17-game losing streak dating back to October 27, 2018 (a 17-10 win over Central Michigan).
Western Michigan enters the contest looking to reload, primarily on offense, in order to be contend in a competitive MAC West division. The primary question for the Broncos is: are there still enough horses in the barn, particularly on offense, to contend in 2020?
According to 247Sports, since Lester took over in 2017, WMU ranked third on average in MAC recruiting. And while rankings can have limited value individually, I have more faith in the accuracy of rankings in the aggregate, over time. I think WMU has some players ready to step in to fill some of the production lost to graduation in the offseason.
When Western Michigan has the ball
Western Michigan enters the contest with huge holes to fill in its “skill position” groups for 2020, losing incredible talent and experience to graduation. QB Jon Wassink is gone, along with 6,400 career passing yards and 50 passing touchdowns. Gone too are 2019 first-team All-MAC performers RB LeVante Bellamy, TE Giovanni Ricci, OL Luke Juriga, and specialist/WR Keith Mixon.
The good news for WMU for 2020 is that they have what projects to be one of the best offensive lines in the MAC, led by 2019 second-team All-MAC players guard Mike Caliendo and left tackle Jaylon Moore. Despite the loss of Juriga, WMU should be able to win the majority of the battles against Akron’s front seven.
And dealing with the Broncos’ offensive line doesn’t get any easier for Akron, who recently lost senior starter DE Dylan Meeks to the transfer portal. Meeks was second in tackles among returning Akron defenders in 2019. The loss of Meeks means Akron will be replacing four starters in the front seven in 2020.
Akron has some returning players in the front seven like future All-MAC LB Bubba Arslanian, home-grown DT Eric Bentley, and senior DT Ja’quize Cross, who should all be improved this year. And I think junior college transfer redshirt sophomore Nazir Sy could be an important player going forward. With Butler Community College last year, Sy had 47 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
The future looks bright for Akron’s front seven but developing four starters and depth makes this a tough matchup in week one for the Zips.
WMU’s offensive line should provide Wassink’s replacement, redshirt sophomore QB Kaleb Eleby, the kind of time in the passing game and room to establish the running game that will ease Eleby’s transition to starter.
And while Eleby’s experience is limited, but he did get four valuable starts to close out 2018 when Wassink was lost to injury.
Additional good news for Eleby is the returning talent at WR. WMU features WR Skyy Moore, who burst on to the scene as a freshman, earning first-team All-MAC honors. Also, the Broncos will likely send D’Wayne Eskridge back to the wide receiver group after a year with the defensive backs. Eskridge was explosive as a WR in 2018 for the Broncos, where he caught 38 passes for a 20.4 yard average.
Moore and/or Eskridge should hit some explosive plays in this one given their experience and talent and against an Akron secondary in flux after all of the personnel changes from 2019 (though I think the Zips’ secondary will be improved this year).
When Akron has the ball
What Akron’s offense might look like is anyone’s guess after all the roster changes leading up to the first game.
Two offensive linemen with significant experience are no longer on the roster but appeared to have some eligibility going into 2020. Junior Hunter Corne started 24 games at left and right guard during the past two years and senior Austin Sample appeared in 10 games in 2019 with one start. It is unclear why these players no longer appear on the roster.
In October 2020, a few potentially key contributors hit the transfer portal. WR Jonah Morris entered the portal along with RB Peter Hayes-Patrick. Morris missed all last year with an injury but was a starter in 2018. And Hayes-Patrick was the lead rusher in yards-per-carry (3.4) among backs with significant carries in 2019.
Four redshirt freshman offensive linemen are reportedly expected to start or log significant time against WMU including Ryan Beckman, Jordan Daniels, Xavior Gray, and Owen Murphy. This offensive line group will be anchored by senior center Bryce Peterson (24 starts at guard and center). These redshirt freshman pass the eye test, averaging 6’5” and 288 pounds. However, the obvious issue is game experience, where the group appeared in a combined five games in 2019, led by LT Gray, who started two games with four appearances.
Akron’s newly-minted offensive line will be making its debut against the a WMU front seven returning some experienced, top-tier MAC talent. The Broncos are led by 2019 MAC defensive player of the year, LB Treshaun Hayward. Returning also is second-team All-MAC DE Ali Fayad and DT Ralph Holley, who have appeared in a total of 59 games. Hayward, Fayad, and Holley combined for 13.5 sacks in 2019.
Complicating the picture on offense for Zips fans is that no starter has been named at QB. Coach Arth announced a QB competition going into fall camp and no public statement has been made about who will get first crack at the job. I’d have to think Kato Nelson, with 31 career appearances, figures to be the front runner, if healthy, especially with as many as four redshirt freshman are on the offensive line. Arth recently confirmed that Nelson is available after offseason surgery on his throwing shoulder.
The WR, TE, and RB groups look upgraded compared with 2019 and should be able to make an impact if the young offensive line comes together. One guy we wrote about last year who is now back from injury and ready to go is TE redshirt sophomore Maverick Wolfley. I think Wolfley can win some battles in the rushing game as a blocker and the passing game and I’d like to see if he emerges this year as more of a threat in the passing game.
Akron liked to run a number of 4 to 5 WR sets in 2019 but I see that as tough sledding here against WMU this week, asking a young offensive line to win a lot of one-on-one battles against veteran defenders. There may be an opportunity early in the season to hit some plays against WMU’s secondary, which replaces two starters, but Akron will need to find time to throw.
I’d like to see the Zips move the pocket with Kato, giving him some designed perimeter runs and boots to lessen the pressure on the offensive line and make easier reads. I think Kato did well with those types of plays in the 2017 MAC East title run.
- Where: InfoCision Stadium - Summa Field, Akron, Ohio
- When: Wednesday November 4th, 6:00 p.m. Eastern time
- Weather: 58 degrees, sunny.
- How to watch: The game will be broadcast exclusively on ESPN3 via the ESPN App. A valid cable subscription may be required.
Games are won and lost in the trenches and WMU should win the trenches in this one. WMU features talented, experienced, proven players on both sides of the line. And experience counts more than ever because of limited practice time due to COVID. There is a chance that WMU could lose this one if the new offensive skill players commit turnovers but I think the new offensive players will be solid in week one.
Akron’s roster overhaul looks promising but lacks experience, especially on the offensive line, so it will be tough to execute with the consistency needed to beat a contender like WMU. And the Zips will have a new starter in at least four of the front seven on defense, which will again contribute to some inconsistency in execution. Akron has some solid talent in the skill positions on offense and will be able to make an impact to the extent that the offensive line’s performance allows.