If there was one positive to the Akron Zips season in 2021, it was their passing defense, which finished the season 55th in the NCAA— and fourth in the Mid-American Conference— in the category, giving up 220.1 yards per game.
Whether the number is because teams opted to run the ball through Akron’s porous run defense or if it was because the Zips’ passing defense really was that legitimate (or some mix of both) should be answered in 2022, as most of the contributors to that effort return. On top of that, the Zips welcome a handful of transfers which should help that effort along.
Either way, the storyline to watch with this positional unit will be if it pulls the rope as expected, as a lot of the prospect on the defense lies in this unit maintaining its positive momentum.
We take a look at the expected contributors below:
Charles Amankwaa is the immediate first name mentioned for X-factor players on the Zips defense, as he was Akron’s leading playmaker in the 2021 season. Amankwaa picked up team-highs in pass break-ups (nine), interceptions (three) and forced fumbles (one), while also placing high on the team charts in solo tackles (34), total tackles (48) and tackles-for-loss (three), emerging as one of the MAC’s best defensive backs in that time.
He’ll line up alongside fellow returnee Ronald Jackson Jr., who had 33 tackles in 12 appearances (11 starts) last season, and another returnee in Jalen Hooks, who started in six of his seven appearances in 2021, compiling 32 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, a pass break-up and a quarterback hit. Chu Ogbonna (nine tackles in nine game appearances and three starts) could also see time at corner.
A newcomer enters the fold for the cornerback room in Power Five transfer Cam Threatt, who comes to Akron via Mississippi State after being a former three-star recruit who was Top 50 in the country at his position in the Class of 2019.
Threatt is amongst a number of different transfers who could see time at corner, including Memphis transfer Devonte Golden-Nelson and Eastern Kentucky transfer Jaden Woods.
The safety spots are a little more open this season, but Jaylen Kelly-Powell does return to the lineup to occupy at least after finishing second on the team in tackles (78 total), while also picking up one sack, tackle-for-loss, interception and pass break-up each.
For the free safety, West Virginia transfer KJ Martin (three starts in 15 game appearances) is penciled to be the starter. He has the athleticism to compete, being a former three-star recruit as a two-sided athlete, playing both quarterback and safety in high school before settling in on the defense. On-roster option DiMarco Johnson could also compete for the spot after a 35 tackle effort in 2021.
The ROVER position is much like a JOKER or STAR in other similar systems, essentially acting as the fifth defensive back/fourth linebacker in the 3-3-5 system. For a school such as Akron, which doesn’t have a lot of size up front, it’s in their best interest to instead be as fast as possible, and the ROVER will serve to be that player for Akron.
One possibility for the position is Tyson Durant (25 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack, one interception, one forced fumble and one recovery), who will also be in the mix for the strong safety role after a decent 2021 campaign which saw him find success in multiple spots.
The six-foot-three, 210 lbs. Duke transfer defensive back Nate Thompson has the size to be able to compete for the spot as well after three seasons of experience on Tobacco Road, with 85 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, two interceptions and a fumble recovery to his name.
Outside linebacker Corey Thomas Jr., who started his Akron career as a defensive back, could also see time at the ROVER as a “fourth linebacker” archetype, standing at six-foot-four, 225 lbs. and collecting 29 tackles, including 2.5 tackles-for-loss and two pass break-ups, in the 2021 season.
Depth options with experience after that are scarce at the safety spots after that, with former quarterback MyJaden Horton (eight tackles in two seasons), Sean Conroy (six tackles in 11 appearances in 2021) and Adetutu Daranijo (two tackles in 2021) fitting that bill for returnees. Other options, such as Rishard Hance, Joe Malchesky and Noel Roach are redshirt or special teams options.
The Zips faithful will have to remain hopeful the passing numbers from last season weren’t a mirage if they want the Zips to get past their 2-10 effort from 2021.
Having both outside corners return to the roster is a very encouraging sign for the Zips, especially as they will return dependable talents in rotation or in the slot, should they choose to utilize that on certain packages.
Safety play will ultimately set the tone, as it’s the last line of defense for a defense which was nothing to write home about. Running with three safeties should give Akron a chance to be faster all across the field, especially when taking the three-linebacker philosophy in mind.
They’ll certainly need that speed to contribute quickily, as they have a very tough non-conference road to plow before moving on to the conference schedule. A quick start would go a long way to helping the team develop confidence for the cold fall months.