Akron went 5-7 last season but wasn't far off from playing in a bowl game contending for another winning record. Terry Bowden’s team came up short in large part because of an injury to its quarterback, an inability to run the ball and a defense that struggled in all aspects. Quarterback remains a bit of an uncertainty entering this season, but the potential is there for the Zips to be dangerous on offense. The defense is led by one of the best linebackers in the country but needs several others to emerge. If the defense can figure things out and the key playmakers stay healthy on the other side of the ball, Akron could find itself in the same position it did last season – contending for the East crown.
Previewing Akron Football’s Offense for 2017
Scoring has not been an issue for the Zips with Thomas Woodson at quarterback. They averaged 33 points in the seven games the 6'1", 233-pound senior started and completed in 2016. However, Woodson missed all or most of five games last season due to a shoulder injury. He’s still recovering from surgery and will not be able to throw until June. Nick Johns, a transfer from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, joined the program in January and ran with the starters during spring practices.
Senior Tra’Von Chapman, who started three games at quarterback last season, has been moved to wide receiver as Akron looks to replace its top two targets from 2016 in Jerome Lane (early NFL Draft entree) and JoJo Natson.
The Zips have not had a 1,000-yard rusher in Terry Bowden’s five seasons as head coach. Warren Ball, a graduate transfer from Ohio State who rushed for 181 yards on 25 carries in the first two games last year before suffering a season-ending injury, could become the first if he’s able to stay healthy. Ball was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA.
Four starters return up front for Akron, headed by 300-pound junior right guard Kyle Ritz.
Previewing Akron Football’s Defense for 2017
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The Zips took a dive last year defensively, surrendering 33.6 points and 466.0 yards per game after a dominant 2015 defense (21.5 ppg, 331.5 ypg) led the program to eight wins and its first bowl victory in the FBS era.
The Zips have an anchor to build around in linebacker Ulysees Gilbert, a 6'1", 225-pound junior who earned first-team All-MAC honors last season after leading the team in tackles (122), tackles for a loss (11.5), sacks (4.0), quarterback hurries (eight) and forced fumbles (two).
Three other starters return on defense, including seniors Darius Copeland and Zach Guiser. Copeland, a 6'1", 266-pound end, had 4.5 sacks last season. Guiser was fourth on the team with 53 tackles in nine games at safety.
Akron will need some other returnees and recruits to bolster a weak rush defense that permitted 224.7 yards per game on the ground last year. The Zips also need more defensive playmakers after producing a MAC-low 16 sacks and forcing just 14 turnovers in 2016.
Previewing Akron Football’s Specialists for 2017
Akron lost a weapon in the return game in Natson, who brought a pair of punts back for touchdowns last year. Van Edwards was one of the better kickoff returners in the MAC (23.8 ypr), and is back for his junior season. Junior Tom O’Leary took advantage of his chances last season by converting 10-of-11 field goals. Junior punter Nick Gasser struggled, averaging just 37.7 yards per attempt with a net of 34.4, second lowest in the MAC.
Despite Woodson’s injury and their struggles defensively, the Zips were a dropped pass in the end zone away from playing in the MAC Championship Game last season. They fell 9–3 in the regular-season finale at East Division champ Ohio University with converted wide receiver Tyrell Goodman playing quarterback.
Bowden has built a program that’s stable enough to survive most personnel losses, but the quarterback situation is a concern since explosiveness at that spot is so crucial in the high-scoring MAC. If Woodson can’t go, Johns will likely become the man, and he joins the program with a reputation as a strong pure passer.
With Gilbert leading the way as an upperclassmen, and a well-respected coordinator calling the shots in Chuck Amato, Akron’s defense will improve at least to some degree. If the signal-caller situation gets settled, the Zips could compete for the MAC East Division crown once again in 2017.
National Ranking: 109
MAC East Prediction: 3
(Ulysses Gilbert photo courtesy of gozips.com)