Akron made history as the first ever program to jump from what was then called Division I-AA to Division I-A (now the Football Bowl Subdivision) back in 1987, eventually joining the Mid-American Conference in 1992.
Over that time, the program has graduated a number of successful professionals, most notably defensive end Jason Taylor, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2017. Other names to have etched their name in football lore after their time in Akron include Dominik Hixon, Ara Parseghian, Chase Blackburn, Victor Green and Dwight Smith.
The NFL Draft is a bit of a different animal, however, as Akron has only seen 17 players selected in the event since 1941 for a team whose history dates back to 1891. The first Akron Zip to be drafted was in the days Akron still went by the Zippers, as tackle Mike Fernella was selected by the Philadelphia Eagles in the 22nd round.
There are several Zips who found their way into the NFL going the undrafted route who pulled down snaps as of 2021, including linebacker Justin March-Lillard, receiver/kick returner JoJo Natson, cornerback Kyron Brown and offensive lineman Isaiah Williams.
With our purview only looking over the last five drafts, there’s only one selection to talk for the Zips, who have been in two separate rebuilding eras in that timespan between the sundowning of the Terry Bowden era post-MAC title game appearance in 2017, and the short-but-brutal Tom Arth era, which saw exactly zero draft selections and only one UDFA move on from the program.
LB Ulysees Gilbert III
Drafted: 2019, sixth round, 207th overall, Pittsburgh Steelers
Gilbert was a boom stick ‘backer in the Zips defense for four seasons, with his peak performance being his junior season in 2017, which helped the Zips grab an upset MAC East division title over in-state peer Ohio. Gilbert had a career-high 140 tackles, a career-high three interceptions, tied a career-high in sacks and scored a defensive touchdown that season, securing first-team all-MAC honors for the second season in a row.
Gilbert left the Rubber City as one of the best to ever wear the blue and gold, finishing his illustrious career with 358 tackles, 28.5 tackles-for-loss, 8.5 sacks and three defensive touchdowns, while being selected to three all-MAC team selections (second-team in 2018), and playing in every game he was eligible for from his true freshman season.
Gilbert was eventually drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2019, and has found a place as a special teams contributor and rotational linebacker, with 25 tackles over three seasons. 2021 was his first full year on the roster, making appearances in all 17 games after dealing with season-ending back injuries in his first two years.
He is in line to keep his role in 2022 and is currently rostered.