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2022 Non-Conference Opponent Primer: Akron Zips

The Zips start the new campaign with a new head coach at the helm, and a lot of ground to make up over a tough schedule.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 20 Kent State at Akron

It’s another season of change in Akron, as Tom Arth’s local, down-home approach was pitched in favor of experienced X’s and O’s leadership in the form of Joe Moorhead, whose extensive college resume includes stops at Penn State, Mississippi State and Oregon.

It’s Moorhead’s second stop as a college head coach— and his second stint in Akron, where he was previously an assistant on the 2005 MAC title team— and he will inherit a roster which could use some tender love and care.

It hasn’t been a great time for the Zips since the departure of program legend Terry Bowden, who is now leading the resurgence at Louisiana-Monroe, as they have only mustered up three wins in the last three seasons.

2022 will not be an easy year between roster turnover and getting acclimated to new playbooks, and the prospective non-conference schedule certainly doesn’t help matters, as it will be an uphill battle from the word go.

Thursday, Sept. 1: Akron vs. St. Francis (PA) Red Flash

JD Cavrich - SFU Athletics

The St. Francis (PA) Red Flash, of Loretto, Pennsylvania, present themselves as Akron’s first opponent in the 2022 slate, also marking the Zips’ lone home game of the non-conference slate.

SFU went 5-6 (4-3 in NEC play), including a season-opening loss to EMU in 2021, but did alright for themselves statistically, outscoring opponents on average by a margin of 22.9 to 19.0, with three of their losses being by a combined five points.

They rostered a fairly balanced offense last season, with 1,939 total passing yards and 1,610 total rushing yards, while scoring 30 total touchdowns.

Redshirt junior Justin Slowinski will likely lead the Red Flash at QB after securing the starting job misdseason, completing 90 passes for 1,165 yards and 12 touchdowns, with just one interceptions, while also adding a rushing touchdown. Kahtero Summers and Brandon Lisenby return as the top receivers, with the duo combining for 80 receptions, 1,145 yards and 11 touchdowns. Do-it-all running back Marques DeShields will be the X-Factor for the Red Flash offense, as the first-team all-NEC back collected 767 yards and four touchdowns on 167 carries while also catching 20 balls for 228 yards and two touchdowns.

Defensively, the Red Flash is led by defensive back Greg Reddick, the 2021 NEC Defensive Rookie of the Year and an FCS Freshman All-American. Reddick picked up 45 tackles, 10 pass breakups, two forced fumbles, two tackles for loss, and an interception in 2021, starting all 11 games as a third-year freshman.

Redshirt sophomore Donnell Brown anchors the defensive line at the edge position, pulling down 46 total tackles, including 8.5 tackles-for-loss, five sacks, one forced fumble, six QB hits and four pass breakups. His 2021 campaign earned him all-NEC second-team accolades as a speed rusher.

Typically, FCS games are glorified scrimmages for most teams in the FBS level, but Akron is not your typical FBS team at present, entering Year 0 of a new cultural rebuild. SFU was very nearly playoff caliber in 2021 if the ball bounces a different way once or twice, and with some development this offseason, they could once again make noise if they so desire.

Joe Moorhead and his staff will have to make sure the Zips don’t get cocky about the level of competition ahead of this one; the last thing their rebuild needs is a season (and tenure) opening loss to what is, statistically, a middling FCS teams in a weak conference.

Saturday, Sept. 10: Akron at Michigan State Spartans

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - Pittsburgh v Michigan State Photo by Adam Hagy/Getty Images

The Spartans were a firm contender in 2021 under third-year head coach Mel Tucker, with prolific running back Kenneth Walker III, a relatively unknown transfer from Rutgers prior to his move to East Lansing, winning Walter Camp Player of the Year and the team as a whole finishing 11-2 with a win against Pittsburgh in the Peach Bowl.

It’s a feat they’re looking to repeat once again in 2022, and the Spartans have the depth to make another deep run, especially at positions of importance on both sides.

Gone are Walker, defensive end Jacub Panasuik (who was a top five edge in QB pressures) and clutch kicker Matt Coghlin, who leaves as the school record holder for career points and field goals, with three game-winning kicks to his name. But the pieces which remain should avail themselves without contributors of that caliber.

Despite uneven numbers in the 2021 season (the Spartans led the Big Ten in sacks, but finished 11th of 14 programs in third-downs allowed), the defense is still a force to contend with, as eight starters return, including defensive tackle Jacob Slade, whose 33 QB hurries led the Big Ten for defensive tackles, and leading tacklers Cal Haladay (96) and Xavier Henderson (94.)

Transfers from several other Power Five schools are bolstering positions of strength all over the Spartans roster, with defensive back Ameer Speed (Georgia), and defensive tackles Jacoby Windmon (UNLV) and Aaron Brule (Mississippi State) expected to get major reps.

The offense also looks to be relatively similar at the skill positions, with former WMU commit Payton Thorne returning to take snaps at QB after amassing 3,233 yards, 27 touchdowns, 10 interceptions in 2021. Thorne was also the team’s third-leading rusher, with 82 carries for 181 yards and four touchdowns. Jayden Reed, who played for WMU in 2018 prior to transferring to MSU, also returns as the team’s leading receiver after a 1,026 yard season on 59 receptions, scoring 10 times.

Replacing Walker, however, will be hard. No other MSU back scored a touchdown in 2021, with Jordon Simmons mustering 278 yards on 70 carries. It’s a position which Tucker felt urgent enough to fill quickly, bringing in Jalen Berger from fellow Big Ten program Wisconsin and Jarek Broussard (Colorado) to push Simmons and Elijah Collins (18 rush, 102 yards) in camps.

Akron is going to have a tough time facing the Spartans in Week 2, given the talent gap, but if there’s a currently weakness for the Spartans, it could be the rushing game, as only two offensive linemen return in 2022 and the lead back role could still be in flux.

Saturday Sept. 17: Akron at Tennessee Volunteers

TransPerfect Music City Bowl - Purdue v Tennessee Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Josh Heupel inherited a relatively hopeless situation in Knoxville in his first year as Tennessee head coach, but much like he did at UCF in the wake of Scott Frost’s departure for Nebraska, Heupel made the best of it and turned out a 7-6 season in a tough-as-nails SEC.

Performances throughout the year was up-and-down, as should be expected for a program in the middle of a culture-based rebuild, but the pieces for something potentially good are definitely there, as 14 starters return between the offense and defense.

QB Hendon Hooker, a former Virginia Tech Hokie, took over the starting job from fellow transfer Joe Milton early in the season after the latter’s struggles against BGSU and Pittsburgh, finishing with 2,945 yards, 31 touchdowns and three interceptions in 2021, while also finishing second on the team in rushing with 616 yards and five touchdowns on 166 attempts. Both QBs return in 2022, this time with Hooker as the surefire starter.

All but one offensive lineman return as well for the Vols, while top back Jabari Small (796 yards and nine touchdowns on 141 rushes) and compliment back Jaylon Wright (85 rushes, 409 yards, four touchdowns) should provide a tough run game for opposing defenses.

Receiver is a more varied picture, with Cedric Tillman (64 receptions, 1,001 yards, 12 touchdowns) returning, but Velus Jones Jr. (selected by Chicago in ‘22 NFL Draft) now off the roster. Several underclassmen will vie for the second and third receiver roles, including returnees Jalin Hyatt and Jacob Warren. There could be a bit of a dip in performance here as the Vols figure things out.

Defensively, the Vols return both their leading tacklers in linebackers Jeremy Banks (128) and Aaron Beasley (84), while pass rush expert Byron Young (11.5 tackles-for-loss and 5.5 sacks in 2021) return to disrupt the backfield. Safety Jaylon McCullough, who led the Vols with three interceptions last season, also returns, leading a defensive backfield with two other returning starters which will look to develop via baptismal fire after a 2021 campaign which saw them torched for 273.2 yards per game.

The Vols are also relatively settled in on special teams, with kicker Chase McGrath and punter Paxton Brooks (career-best 44 yards per punt in 2021) returning to the roster.

Akron is the second MAC team Tennessee will face in 2022, and the last non-con opponent they face before the SEC conference slate, so Akron cannot afford to slip up if they hope to catch Tennessee unawares.

Saturday Sept. 24: Akron at Liberty Flames

LendingTree Bowl - Liberty v Eastern Michigan Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The Liberty Flames sparked national conversations in 2021, with NFL Draft hype centered around Malik Willis en-route to an an 8-5 season which ended in a walloping of EMU in the Lending Tree Bowl. The Flames also led the realignment conversation at the Group of Five level, committing to Conference USA effective 2023 in a surprise move over the college football offseason.

This season will see the Flames’ final effort at an FBS independent schedule, as they’re set to face three Power Five opponents in Wake Forest, Arkansas and Virginia Tech, and fellow independent (and future Big 12 member) BYU.

Akron will find themselves traveling to Lynchburg in late September, and the 2022 version of the Flames will be a very different unit from last year’s team, to say the least.

Gone is Malik Willis, who was selected in the third round by the Tennessee Titans after a year of first-round speculation. In comes Utah via Baylor transfer Charlie Brewer, whose five years of prior experience as a starter should be a major stabilizing force for Hugh Freeze’s offense.

Brewer will have a decent passing offense to work with, as three of the offensive linemen from last season return, with two transfers filling in the other gaps. Former Campbell Fighting Camel Caleb Snead transfers in to his hometown program after a 1,000+ yard season which saw him score 10 touchdowns. He’ll line up alongside 2021 leading receiver Demario Douglas (52 receptions, 701 yards, six touchdowns) and CJ Yarborough, who returns from an announced retirement to focus on ROTC duties.

The running back outlook is more murky. TJ Green returns as lead back in the run game after a 75 rush, 477 yard season which saw him find paydirt four times. The Flames averaged 180.8 yards per game rushing in 2021, good enough for 46th in the NCAA, but a lot of that was led by Malik Willis, who had well over twice the carries and almost three times the yards of Green on his own. It’s hard to know what the rushing attack will look like without a dual-threat QB at this time.

Defensively, there will be a lot of moving parts, as both starting linebackers and interior defensive linemen graduated out of the program. The Flames were 11th in the country in total defense in 2021, so losses of this size can’t be underestimated. To make up for it, former edge Aakil Washington (27 total tackles, 5.5 tackles-for-loss, 4.5 sacks) will be at outside linebacker, with JUCO transfer Mike Smith Jr. occupying another LB spot.

There will be plenty of competition for open spots, especially at the defensive tackle spots.

Javon Scruggs, Liberty’s best defensive back, returns to his strong safety role and looks to buoy a passing defense which ranked sixth in the country in 2021 with all-new pieces around him as underclassmen and position converts (most notably Quinton Reese) will have to break in to the rotation.

Special teams were pedestrian for Liberty in 2021, and look to be so again in 2022.

Outside of St. Francis, Liberty presents itself as the only real chance Akron might have of pulling off an upset, especially as the Flames will be in the midst of a massive change of philosophy. The Flames will be coming off a road game against a Power Five opponent, so the Zips could catch Liberty tired— or alternately, extremely motivated.