The Akron Zips defense was amongst the worst in the country in 2021, but with the offense as dysfunctional as it was, their performance could perhaps be a bit understood. The Zips gave up nearly 40 points per game, while also allowing 469 yards per game, placing them 125th and 122nd in the country in both categories, respectively.
There is, to say the least, a lot of work to be done in order to get the defense to look respectable. It is an effort which will start with the front seven, which brings back a lot of solid contributors who have often been betrayed by a general lack of confidence from the previous staff.
Four starters return in the front seven, all of them upperclassmen, while at least one transfer also brings years of starting experience, making for an experienced unit which could spark a turnaround with the right coaching.
The Zips did not generate a lot of sacks in 2021, picking up 15 sacks as a team. That will certainly have to change in 2022, and a new defensive voice, combined with a lot of shot-in-the-arm transfers, could be just the thing the Zips need in order to turn that part of their game around.
Former Syracuse transfer Zach Morton is the lone returnee with stats to speak of at the defensive end position, finishing the year with 33 tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss and one sack. Former Florida State product Curtis Fann Jr. and former Cincinnati product Angelo Howze could see time as EDGEs in certain situations, with both players seeing lots of playing time in 2021
Everyone else who will be in the rotation for playing time at the end positions are transfers from other colleges. Perhaps the most intriguing of these is former Wyoming defensive lineman Victor Jones, who picked up 72 tackles, including 10.5 tackles-for-loss as a Cowboy. Devon Robinson transfers in from Memphis via Mississippi State, providing Power Five size at the position at six-foot-six, 295 lbs. as a former three-star prospect.
The Zips utilize a nose tackle in their defense, and this season should have battles for starting reps, as no spot is quite assured along the defensive line.
2021 starter Bryce Wilson will have first dibs after collecting 22 tackles. Fellow roster returnee Nazir Sy will also see time at the position, whether that’s as a starter or in the rotation after picking up 11 tackles from the nose position.
Logan Hawkins should also be in the mix at the nose, with 11 tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss and a sack in 2021, with appearances in all 12 games, including one start.
Another Syracuse transfer who will fight for time is Curtis Harper, who picked up 43 tackles, six tackles-for-loss and three sacks in 33 appearances for the Orange while playing at various spots along the line, primarily at the nose.
There’s not really a lot settled here quite yet, so fall camps will do a lot to clear up how the rotation looks here.
The strongest unit on the front seven is the linebackers, as the 3-3-5 highlights the Zips’ inherent speed at the position. It’s a position group laden with upperclassmen with experience in the two-deep, with two of their three starting backers returning after good campaigns in 2021.
Jeslord Boateng, a former Michigan State transfer, made himself known to opposing MAC offenses in 2021, leading the Zips with an 80 tackle, 4.5 tackle-for-loss, 1.5 sack effort in 11 appearances (10 starts.) Boateng was one of the surest tacklers in a league full of them, averaging eight tackles per conference contest. He’s got the inside track at the interior linebacker position.
Joining Boateng in the ILB ranks is Andrew Behm, who appeared in 11 games for the Zips, starting six (mostly in the place of Bubba Arslenian.) He’ll be a key rotational piece after finishing 2021 with 63 tackles (third-best on the team), one sack and a fumble return, and could even push for starting time if Arslenian is slow to recover from his season-ending injury.
Speaking of Arslenian, he’s back for a sixth year with the Zips after the last eight games of 2021. When at the top of his game, Arslenian is an excellent run-stopping backer with great gap discipline, standing amongst the leaders in over his last two seasons as a starter. 2021 saw Arslenian finish with 43 total tackles in just four contests before his injury, maintaining the pace he had in his second-team all-MAC campaign in 2020 (74 tackles in six starts.)
For outside backers, the Zips are calling upon a former conference rival for help, bringing in Buffalo transfer Tim Terry. Terry is a former three-year starter with 45 appearances for the Bulls, with 23 tackles (including 1.5 tackles-for-loss) with a fumble recovery in three starts over 10 games in 2021.
Everything else behind Terry is a bit of a mixed bag, with expected contributors Reggie Corner Jr. and Brandon Bischoff no longer on the roster. Two transfers could find themselves in the mix, with former Boston College Eagle Emmett Hanna (six-foot-two, 205 lbs.) and Coffeyville [KS] CC JUCO product Antavious Fish (six-foot, 230 lbs.) on the roster, while on-roster backer Zach DiLauro (12 appearances, five tackles in 2021) has the most experience of the remainder of the roster.
There’s ultimately nowhere to go but up for the Zips defense, and they should have some pieces in key parts of the defense which should help to make the transition from Arth to Moorhead easier.
Should Arslenian come up to full health and pair with an already-emergent Boateng, there can be some reason to hope for a good effort in 2022, as it would mean Akron is keeping sound in the second level of the defense.
The defensive line, however, will need to improve and quick for Akron to have any hope. Even just an average-to-middling sack and pressure rate could elevate the Zips’ defensive performance immensely.
From there, they could help a promising secondary develop and get more opportunities for making plays. The front seven will be a fascinating watch in 2022, as it could be the difference between two wins and five.