The Akron Zips offense bottomed out once again in 2021, struggling through a rotation of quarterbacks, a constantly shuffling backfield and shaky protection along the line to crawl to a Bottom 30 offense in most every category (save for passing, which was 79th in the country.)
The Zips finished dead last in the conference in scoring offense, putting up a meager 19.2 points per game, while also being 106th in the NCAA in total offense, with 340.8 yards per game on average. It was an effort with few bright spots to be found.
The few bright spots which could be pointed to in in 2021 have disappeared, with Freshman All-American and all-MAC second team receiver Konata Mumpfield and back-half starter Zach Gibson (109-of-157 for 1,262 yards and 10 touchdowns with zero interceptions) both opting to transfer to Power Five programs this offseason.
This leaves a lot of uncertainty basically everywhere on the offense, though that’s honestly not too different from the last five years or so of Zips football. It will be up to first-year head coach Joe Moorhead to find this offense’s strengths as they navigate yet another rebuild season.
As mentioned. Zach Gibson departed for greener pastures, transferring to be closer to home at Georgia Tech after a stretch which saw him play in seven games with a 69 percent completion percentage while also having zero interceptions.
Kato Nelson, Akron’s long-time starter, spent his final year of eligibility once again trying to play through injury before being replaced by DJ Irons (who eventually was replaced by Gibson after suffering an injury of his own.)
Irons, a junior, will be the starter more or less by default in 2021 as the most experienced quarterback on the roster, finishing the season 78-of-120 for 892 passing yards and eight touchdowns, throwing four interceptions, while also picking up 309 yards and two touchdowns in five games of service. At six-foot-six, 215 lbs., Irons has prototypical size for a true dual-threat option under center, and should prove to be an imposing figure for opposing defenses assuming he improved over the offseason.
There’s an intriguing three-star in-state prospect in Dijon Jennings, who is currently the projected backup option, but at five-foot-11, 195 lbs., he could need a year to develop for the speed and physicality of the FBS game. Other QBs rostered include Ryan Jankowski (six-foot-five, 210 lbs.) and Jeff Undercuffler Jr. (six-foot-five, 240 lbs.)
The Akron running game returns more or less intact after the 2021 season, which is good for the sake of experience, but it’s a unit which still has a lot of room for improvement, finishing 10th in the conference with 123.2 yards per game last season.
All three returnees for the Zips are sophomores, with Jonzell Norrils (118 carries, 573 yards, three scores; 17 receptions, 153 yards, three scores), Blake Hester (65 carries 274 yards, two scores) and Anthony Williams Jr. (56 carries, 207 yards, one touchdown,) and will likely fight for starting duties— though Norrils’ three-down ability will be tough to beat.
One new name to keep an eye on will be Minnesota transfer Cam Wiley, a versatile athelte who saw reps as a receiver, back and a kick/punt returner as a Golden Gopher, finishing with 381 total yards and two touchdowns in the COVID season. Wiley was a three-star athlete who was a Top-10 prospect from the state of Nevada, and was second on the team ledger in rushing yards in 2020, so he has the pedigree to compete for time as quickly as possible.
Wide receivers and tight ends
The Zips are in a wide-open competition at all their receiver spots, losing 150 receptions, 1,901 yards and 13 touchdowns due to transfer or graduation over the offseason. Of the remaining wide receivers, you have to go down to the sixth-leading receiver of 2021 in Tony Grimes Jr., who finished with 14 receptions for 133 yards and one touchdown, to find anyone of note who can contribute immediately.
This presents a lot of questions for the offense as large, as it will be basically starting from the ground up for the Zips offense.
Luckily for Akron fans, the Zips were aggressive in trying to address the problem, finding two Power Five prospects in the transfer portal who should be immediate contributors in former Pittsburgh receiver Shocky Jacques-Louis and former LSU receiver Alex Adams.
Jacques-Louis, a six-foot, 180 lb. senior, is perhaps the most shocking addition, as he was a legitimate depth option for the Panthers over 45 games, amassing 83 receptions for 1,257 all-purpose yards and three scores. Jacques-Louis started eight games for Pitt in 2021, which will prove to be a nice addition for the receiver room in terms of senior leadership.
Adams played in 10 games at LSU over two seasons, and was once an attractive prospect coming out of high school in Mississippi, rated as a four-star prospect per 247Sports, holding multiple Power Five offers before going to LSU. The six-foot-one, 195 lb. receiver will have a shot at redemption in Akron to show he can hold up to that promise.
After Adams and Jacques-Louis, it’s every man for themselves, as a lot of unproven prospects will have to prove they’ve earned playing time, Grimes included. Other names which will compete for playing time include on-roster options Oran Singleton Jr., Shawn Naim and Timothy Scippio, as well as incoming freshman Bobby Golden, a three-star prospect from Florida who was their second-best recruit of their most recent class
Tight end is more settled, with returning all-MAC second-teamer Tristian Brank returning to the fold. It is actually Brank who returns all returnees in receiving yards and touchdowns, with 25 receptions for 269 yards and three scores. Brank, who stands at six-foot-four, 250 lbs., started all 12 games for Akron, proving himself a reliable option as an all-around end.
TJ Banks slots in as the backup tight end at present after transferring in from West Virginia. Banks, like Brank, has a reputation for being good in both the run and pass games, finishing his Mountaineers career with 10 catches for 92 yards and a score in 26 appearances. Nic Ognenovic also saw some playing time in 2021, pulling in one touchdown.