The Zips had a season to be forgotten in 2021, ranking dead last in the conference in scoring offense (19.2 points per game,) while also being 106th in the NCAA in total offense (340.8 yards per game.)
The offensive line was also the worst in the country in sacks allowed, allowing opponents to bring down the quarterback an incredible 63 times for 355 yards, an average of over five sacks per game. It was a number so impressively bad, the next-closest team (Liberty) had 12 less sacks given up, while also allowing one less sack per game.
This doesn’t really bode very well for Akron going into the season on paper, but a year of development is still a year of development, and all five starters from the final game of 2021 are expected to return to the lineup for Akron, giving first-year coach Joe Moorhead an experienced line to work with.
The Zips coaching staff will have a pair of dependable tackles to work with this season, as sophomores Xavior Gray and Owen Murphy are expected to claim starting duties once again in the upcoming season.
Gray is an especially exciting prospect, standing at a massive six-foot-nine, 330 lbs. on the left side of the line. Gray brings size and experience, with 15 starts in 20 seasons over three seasons. But he also brings some in-and-out performances, finding himself out of the starting lineup in place of the six-foot-five, 270 lb. Ronan Chambers about halfway through the season, before reclaiming the spotr before the end of the year. Chambers picked up five starts in eight appearances in 2021, and could potentially be in the mix to start at either tackle position under a new staff.
On the opposite side, the six-foot-six, 300 lb. Owen Murphy saw the start in all 11 of his appearances at the right tackle spot, adding on five starts from the 2020 COVID season. Murphy also has positional versatility, with guard experience dating back to his playing days at St. Ignatius [OH] HS.
Sophomore Caleb Herring, who has 10 game appearances over two seasons, should also see some rotational time at the tackle spot, standing at six-foot-seven, 320 lbs.
Other players will likely either redshirt or fight for third-string backup spots, as this is a very young offensive line which has only one junior out of 16 prospects.
The interior of the line will be key in the run game, but they still need a lot of work in the passing game if they want to reach their full potential.
They’ll at least have a decent chance at it, as all three interior starters return to the fold for the Zips— and they’re all young as well, currently listed as true or redshirt sophomores, meaning there is room for growth from a unit which was promising, but raw in 2021.
Perhaps the most interesting part of how this interior came together is they all swapped around mid-season, with Week 5 serving as a pivot point.
Tony Georges, the projected starting center for 2022, started 2021 as the right guard, with former right tackle Alex Robarge taking his place. A similar situation happened on the left side, with 2021 Week 1 center Ryan Beckman shifting to left guard, while Georges took the center spot over.
The odd man out was ultimately Jordan Daniels, who was the 2021 Week 1 left guard and ended up being a rotational piece from Week 5 onwards. He projects as a backup at the center position this season— though, he could also reclaim a guard spot, given the wide-open nature of the unit under a first-year staff.
All that chaotic redistribution could have a lot to do with why Akron struggled in protecting the quarterback or helping the run game last season, as the unit averaged less than four yards per play.
This season should hopefully see more stability for the Zips, and the Akron coaching staff certainly believes they have the pieces in place with which to build a foundation upon, and part of that rebuild will have to be in attitude, as Moorhead and his staff have emphasized the mental aspects of playing the position in camps.
One intriguing name to look out for in terms of newcomers is Houston transfer Max Banes, who saw 23 appearances in three seasons for a perpetual top team in the American Athletic Conference. Banes is the most experienced offensive lineman on the roster by age and appearances, and stands at six-foot-five, 310 lbs., which means he should have an immediate impact on what Moorhead and staff intend to do offensively, whether that’s as a starter or a rotation piece.
This was an offensive line which flashed promise in the running game in spurts over the last two seasons, finishing 56th in the NCAA in rushing explosiveness— but also 107th in expected points added per play.
In order to help the offense grow, the line will absolutely have to improve in the passing game, as it was hard for them to get going due to the sheer amount of negative plays they accumulated last season.
The Zips offensive line is notably large, averaging nearly six-foot-five, 306 lbs., showing up big even in the interior, so there is certainly the physical tools for this unit to develop into something workable. If this line can get to even an average level of play, it would be a great benefit to the Zips as the other offensive positions look to develop as well.