After 3 consecutive 1-11 seasons, the Zips look to be headed in the right direction under Terry Bowden, winning 5 games and coming within a score in 3 others. A 4-1 finish, which included wins over Kent State and Toledo, will give the program a boost heading into 2014.
Last season’s offense was a step back from the previous season, but there was a drop in turnovers. Part of the reason for the shortfall of points was quarterback Kyle Pohl, who struggled at times in his first full season as a starter, but looked good enough to suggest he should be better in 2014. The running attack was slightly improved, although Jawon Chisholm continued to fall short of a 1000 yards, gaining 869 as the early offensive problems limited his carries. The Zips dropped 6 points per game from the previous year, but when you win 4 more games, do many notice?
Akron will need to score more points if they want to compete, and that will start with Pohl, assuming he holds onto his job. Incoming freshman Chandler Kincaid could be one to watch in camp. Whoever starts at quarterback will have a solid bunch of receivers to throw to, led by tight end Zach D’Orazio and receivers Franshon Bickley and LT Smith. Chisholm will be back for one last hurrah, and Conor Hundley will help form a nice 1-2 punch on the ground. The pair combined for nearly 1300 yards on the ground, while Chisholm is also a useful member of the passing attack. The biggest concern for next season may be the offensive line. Last year’s unit saw 4 guys start every game, but both tackles are gone, as is the majority starter at left guard, Henry Orelus. Left tackle Jarrod Pughsley was one of the best of the best in the conference and will be missed. Akron doesn’t have the depth yet to just slot in the next bunch of linemen, and this should be a particular focal point in camp. Expect massive JUCO Scott Boyett to take one of the tackle spots.
The big improvement last season was on defense, with the Zips knocking nearly 50 yards rushing per game off their 2012 total. The secondary also improved over the second half of the season as Akron became something of a force in the conference. The reason? Six senior starters split between the defensive line and secondary, and some experienced underclassmen smattered throughout the unit. Now the trick is building on last season’s success.
Now the depth-test begins – depth Bowden really hasn’t had a chance to build up in just 2 years. The defensive line loses 4 players who started 25 combined games, although not one of them made it through the entire season unscathed. Returning is the sole lineman to start all season, all-MAC defensive tackle Cody Grice, who had 7.5 tackles for loss with 2.5 sacks. Colorado State-transfer Nordly Capi didn’t match his all-MWC standard from 2012, but he will be back next year. The linebackers were the class of the unit, with Jatavis Brown (1st team!) and Justin March both earning all-conference love. The pair combined for 187 tackles on the season and both are back. Three different guys started in the middle, with Nick Rossi seeing the bulk of the time, and all 3 are back. This could be a stellar unit if one guy could step forward and hold down the full-time job. The secondary wasn’t far behind in terms of quality, with cornerback Malachi Freeman making the all-conference team. Freeman made 67 tackles, 3 interceptions and broke up 12 passes. Like the line, the secondary had a senior presence. Freeman’s gone, as is corner Emmanuel Lartey and strong safety Anthony Holmes. The only returning starter is free safety Johnny Robinson (no, not that one), but a bunch of others picked up experience covering for injuries.
Punter Zach Paul was one of the best in the MAC as a sophomore, but kicker Robert Stein hit just 9 of 16 field goals. The coverage units were excellent, but the Zips own return teams were poor. The special teams blocked a solid 4 kicks.
Both specialists are back, but Stein has to be better. Still, he hit his last 4 and made a 51-yarder, so there is hope. Both return teams need a shot in the arm, and the coverage units need to maintain their excellent play, but this unit should be good in 2014.
Can Akron continue to build on their momentum? The smart money says yes, although next year’s team should be different to the 2013 edition. The offense should be better, and may need to be with the losses on defense. The MAC is always pretty tough, with any team capable of rising to occasion on any week. Playing into their hands may be the loss of a number of key senior quarterbacks, which could give the Zips the chance they need.