The Akron Zips were a frustrating group in 2022; lots of individual upside was mired in chemistry development issues early on, and the usual transitory malaise of a Year 1 build affected their performances, making Akron both an interesting case study and an excruciating watch.
That is, alas, the risk you take when you bring on nearly 45 transfers in a calendar year on all sides of the ball in an effort to get a quick turnaround going.
Through all of the trials and tribulations, however, when it worked... it really worked.
The passing offense improved immensely thanks to an immediate infusion of talent from Power Five schools, giving the Zips some unique matchup nightmares for MAC defenses to face. The rushing offense took some strides forward as well, though there’s still some work to be done there as the line settles in after a near-complete turnover last season.
The quarterback question which came about after the departure of Zach Gibson to Georgia Tech was answered fairly quickly as well, with JUCO product DJ Irons taking the job for his own and impressing when healthy.
The hope is that in Year 2, the offense finds whatever they latched onto in the second half of 2022 and turn some of those close losses into wins in order to stay relevant in the MAC East race past September.
With the pieces they currently have, it’s certainly possible. It’ll be up to them, however, to get there.
Let’s take a look at each of the position groups together:
- Steele Wassel (incoming recruit)
- DJ Irons
- Jeff Undercuffler Jr.
- Dijon Jennings
- Ryan Jankowski
There’s no questioning who’s going to start at quarterback in 2023: DJ Irons is expected to be QB1 when they open the season against Temple.
Irons, a redshirt senior, was one of the more interesting QB prospects in the 2022 season, throwing for 2,609 yards and 10 touchdowns (with seven interceptions), while rushing for 314 yards and four touchdowns in 10 appearances. That may sound fairly pedestrian by most standards, but as with everything, context is key.
The 2022 season was all about building up a foundation and functioning at an FBS level; there were a lot of arrivals and departures in an effort to immediately better the level of talent all around. Early on, Akron had a lot of chemistry issues which forced Irons to be a playmaker on the scramble. As the team got more comfortable later on, Irons also got more comfortable and the offense flourished, eventually finishing 18th in the country with 283.1 yards per game.
Unfortunately, Irons missed all of spring practices as he recovered from an injury suffered late in the 2022 campaign. His dual-threat ability and prototypical size (six-foot-five, 205 lbs.) are extremely hard to replace by one player, and Akron did suffer when he wasn’t on the field.
Graduate senior Jeff Undercuffler Jr. is a good short-stint starter and one of the better backups in the Mid-American Conference, but he has limitations which can affect how the staff calls the game. Last season, he had an admirable effort in relief, with 791 yards and five touchdowns in five appearances— though he did also have five interceptions.
Redshirt freshman Dijon Jennings seemed to be the favored QB3 in spring practices, taking snaps as a starting QB for Team Roo due to Undercuffler’s elevation, finishing 3-of-5 for 47 yards and a touchdown.
Akron’s offense will go as far as their quarterback; with their receiver corps being a strength of the team, a good signalcaller should be able to take advantage as long as they hit their targets on time. When it worked last season, it really worked, a could be seen by the connection between Irons and Alex Adams late in the conference season (more on that later.)
- Cam Wiley (transfer portal)
- Anthony Williams Jr. (transfer portal)
- Jonzell Norills (transfer portal)
- Dae’Vontay Latimer (not listed on 2023 roster)
- Anthony Stallworth (not listed on 2023 roster)
- Lorenzo Lingard Jr. (transfer from Florida)
- Drake Anderson (transfer from Arizona; not listed on spring roster)
- Clyde Price III
- Charles Kellom
- Blake Hester
Another year, another clearing of the running backs room to try and get more variety in the room. We discussed it a bit in Akron’s “What’s New?” piece, but the backfield has been a work-in-progress going back to the prior regime.
Moorhead’s first swings of that bat in that regard were Minnesota’s Cam Wiley and Kansas State’s Clyde Price III.
The good news is both Wiley and Price were major contributors, dragging Akron out of the basement by virtue of being competent backs in their roles. Wiley was the team’s leading rusher, with 487 yards and five touchdowns, with Price right behind him with 309 yards and seven touchdowns. Both transfers were also contributors in the receiving game, combining for 53 catches for 260 yards and a touchdown.
The bad news is two-fold: the team was still under 90 yards as a unit last season, and Wiley has transferred out, with two other depth pieces also entering the portal and two more after that departing the roster, leaving Akron pretty shallow for backs.
The coaching staff hopes that quality will overcome quantity, especially with Price III and 2021 contributor Blake Hester still on the roster, bringing in two running backs from the Power Five ranks once again this offseason, with Arizona’s Drake Anderson and Florida’s Lorenzo Lingard Jr. joining the team for the 2023 season.
Anderson and Lingard have similar stories; both were buried in the depth charts at their respective schools due to a combination of roster stacks and injuries. Both players then transferred to another school and tried to break through, but struggled to do so. Now, Anderson and Lingard hope to show they can contribute as the main guy here in Akron— whether that’s as the starter or as part of a rotation.
Anderson has more in-game experience, with 1,311 yards, six touchdowns in five seasons between Northwestern and Arizona, but Lingard comes to Akron with more pedigree and name recognition. A former Gatorade Player of the Year in Florida in 2017, Lingard was a five-star prospect who was chased by all the major college football powers before choosing Miami [FL] out of high school.
He hasn’t been able to see the field much at either of his stops, but his size is immediately apparent at six-foot, 205 lbs., and by all accounts, he seems to be an eager learner.
There’s a lot of mystery surrounding the new guys, but Price III isn’t to be forgotten in this equation. Price was the team’s most all-around running back in 2022, just as capable in the receiving game as he was in the running game, overtaking Wiley by season’s end as the starting rusher. At six-foot-one, 215 lbs., he’s a difficult matchup as well for defenses, adding to his versatility.
Lingard was the highlight back in the spring game (six carries, 24 yards; two catches for 14 yards), but this will be a battle which lasts well into fall camps. If the room can reach its most full potential, it could give Akron the balance it needs to be a truly dangerous offense.
- Tony Grimes Jr. (transfer portal)
- Shocky Jacques-Louis (graduation)
- Shawn Naim (transfer to Vanderbilt)
- Clayton Bone (not listed on 2023 roster)
- Jalen Knight (not listed on 2023 roster)
- Jameel Williamson (not listed on 2023 roster)
- Jax Smith (incoming recruit)
- Dakota Thomas (transfer from Western Kentucky; not listed on spring roster but participated in spring game)
- Alex Adams
- Daniel George
- Bobby Golden
- Caleb Anderson
- Myles Walker
- Jasaiah Gathings
The Zips’ strength in 2022 was on the outside, and that will once again be a strength in 2023, as both Alex Adams and Daniel George, the team’s #2 and #3 receivers respectively last season, return to the fold.
Adams (LSU) and George (Penn State), along with the since-departed Shocky Jacques-Louis (Pitt) were both vital additions in the receiver room for last season, and once they established rapport with DJ Irons, were a combo who were hard to stop.
Adams was especially revelatory, turning into a true contested catch savant at the X position, securing 63 catches for 850 yards and nine touchdowns in 2022. Adams exploded in MAC play, with a one-month stretch where he finished with over 100 yards and six catches minimum in every contest, collecting 32 catches, 566 yards and five scores in that time.
Daniel George was an important valve in the offense as well, finishing second on the team in receptions (67) while averaging 11.84 yards per catch. His role opposite is a very important one considering the amount of attention Adams’ success from 2022 will grant him going into this season. George was often depended on to convert first downs or otherwise pick up gains in the intermediate areas, with Adams more of a big play threat and Jacques-Louis expected to make plays in the middle of the field.
There are a handful of names to look at moving forward for the third and fourth receiver positions as well. Western Kentucky transfer Dakota Thomas made his presence felt immediately with a one-handed touchdown reception during the spring game to go along with 44 yards overall, while Myles Walker (four catches, 58 yards, one score) and Bobby Golden both caught scores as well.
Thomas had 17 catches for 203 yards and two touchdowns for the Hilltoppers prior to joining Akron’s roster. Walker and Golden, meanwhile, have been in Akron since their respective arrivals, and are looking to break into the regular receiver rotation.
If the third and fourth receiver roles get nailed down before the start of the season, the Zips receiver corps has the potential to be one of the best units in the MAC, and should elevate the performance of the offense assuming the line shores up and DJ Irons stays healthy.
- Caden Clark (not listed on 2023 roster)
- Marquell Darnell (not listed on 2023 roster)
- Tristian Brank (transfer)
- Jacob Schaffer (not listed on 2023 roster)
- TJ Banks
- Nik Ognenovic
- Brycen Yarmo
- Grant Gainer
The entire passcatching unit saw shuffling, and tight end was no exception. To make room for other players on the roster, Akron appears to have departed with half of their tight end room from 2022, making for a slim depth chart heading into the 2023 season.
Losing Tristian Brank to the transfer portal is a bit disappointing for depth purposes, but the coaching change affected his playing time, so it’s understandable. The former 2021 second-team all-MAC selection entered the transfer portal this offseason after a campaign which saw him pick up 16 catches for 153 yards and a touchdown.
The good news is all four returnees were on the roster last year, so there’s no real need for an acclimation period. Both starters will retain their spots once again, with former West Virginia Mountaineer TJ Banks being the primary target. Banks returns as the team’s third-leading receiver, with 21 catches for 175 yards, and showed decent blocking skills as well.
Nik Ognenovic wasn’t a major passcatching threat, but did carve out a role as a secondary blocking tight end. The former three-star tight end prospect stands at about six-foot-five, 260 lbs., so he’s certainly more than capable of such a role and could make for a fierce matchup downfield in certain scenarios.
Redshirt senior Brycen Yarmo and redshirt sophomore Grant Gainer will be backup options at the position in 2023. Yarmo, who stands at six-foot-five, 245 lbs., has the most experience of the two, with 17 games and three combined starts in 2020 and 2021. He did, however, miss all of 2022, which puts him behind the eight-ball. Gainer is a smaller, more vertical-oriented tight end at six-foot-two, 240 lbs., appeared in four games in 2022.
This is the second in a series of Akron football previews, with our next piece addressing offensive line. Please look forward to that! If you missed the first part, you can read that here.
Akron’s season kicks off Saturday, September 2nd at 2 p.m. Eastern time in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where they are set to play the Temple Owls.