Can healthy, hungry Zips bounce back?
Injuries were no small part of the Akron Zips fortunes in 2016, so a key to moving up the MAC East standings this season will be avoiding the injury bug -- or at least being able to plug in quality replacements when injuries do occur.
Akron was out to a 4-2 start last year, but it . . .
2016 OVERALL RECORD: 5-7
2016 MAC RECORD: 3-5 (TIE, 3rd MAC East)
2017 MAC MEDIA PREDICTION: 4th, MAC East
The Zips will also will be looking for some "big play: threats among the receivers after losing Jerome Lane and Jo Jo Natson.
Other key questions for UA revolve around production from the offensive line and
getting more stops from the defense. Akron was ninth among MAC teams in stopping opponent third down conversions. MAC Defensive Player of the Year Ulysses Gilbert is certainly a cornerstone upon which to build.
● Through the majority of the season, offensive coordinator A.J. McElwee's offense was one of the most explosive units in the MAC. Althouhg injuries curtailed its effectiveness late in the campaign, they still managed 27 points and 387 total yards in their 12 games.
● As the 2017 season begins, the offense will again be led by Thomas Woodson. Before he was injured in the Appalachian State game, he was off to an outstanding start. He came back late in the season against Ball State. However, after the win against BSU, Woodson had nagging injuries the remainder of the season. In eight outings last season, Woodson completed 60.3 percent of his passes (146-of-242 for 2079 yards with 18 touchdowns and just six interceptions).
● Should Woodson gets hurt or falter, look for redshirt freshman Kato Nelson and redshirt sophomore Nick Johns to get the call. The wild card could be Johns, who started his collegiate career at Virginia and left after the Cavaliers coaching change. He enrolled at UA in January and participated in the spring activities with effectiveness throwing the deep ball.
● The running game averaged 132 yards per game. Van Edwards returns after registering 492 yards and three touchdowns. Another option is Manny Morgan, who had 417 rushing yards. Both flashed solid individual performances during last season -- Edwards against Western Michigan and Morgan against Marshall.
● The big addition to the running backs, however, is the return of Warren Ball. The grad student came from Ohio State, where he was a part of the 2014 National Championship team. He came to UA last season and had over 100 yards in his debut against VMI before injuring his knee in the loss at Wisconsin. The Zips petitioned the NCAA, and it granted a sixth year to Ball. If he stays healthy, he could be a big boost to the UA running game.
● The 2016 receiving corps had the home run threats of Jerome Lane and Jo Jo Natson. Both are gone from the program, with Natson graduating and Lane passing up his final two seasons of eligibility for the NFL . He is trying to make the New York Giants as a free agent.
● Fifth-year senior Tra’Von Chapman moves from the quarterback position, where he had been for three years, to the wide out. He appeared very comfortable in the new role this spring -- both in drills and the game itself.
● The returning wideouts have shown some speed and good hands. Junior Kwadarius Smith briefly flashed his talents last season. He had just six catches, but one was a 40-yard touchdown in the win over Marshall. Redshirt senior A.J. Coney will see more time, as well.
The possession receiver of the group is senior Austin Wolf, who had 36 catches for 550 yards and five touchdowns. Look for seniors Kevin Gladney, Franshon Bickley, and sophomore Jason Grossman to also see time
● The offensive line allowed 25 sacks a season ago. Bringing experience and depth to the 2017 table, there is potential for better results. Akron backs four starters, led by seniors C LaVonne Gauthney, LG Stephen Ericksen, and RT Jovann Letuili. Add to that junior Kyle Ritz at RG. The left tackle position is a battle between sophomore Trevor Brown and junior Undrea Bullard.
● The UA defense had a lot of growing pains a season ago, when it allowed 466 yards and 33.6 points per game. Coming into this season, defensive coordinator Chuck Amato hopes last season’s painful experiences will help the Zips defense put up some better numbers.
● Seniors Darius Copeland, Deon’Tae Moore (20 tackles and a sack) and Ibrahim Camara (30 tackles), will be joined by junior Brock Boxen who is coming back from a season-ending injury. In just six games he posted 23 tackles (4.5 TFL, and two sacks).
● The linebackers are anchored by reigning MAC Player of the Year, junior Ulysses Gilbert. He led the team with 122 total stops, 11.5 TFL , with four sacks and three pass breakups.
● Sophomore James King ( a transfer from Miami-FLA), seniors Andrew Hauser (39 tackles), DeMarcus Lloyd (21 tackles and an interception), and junior Brian Bell (61 tackles four for losses) round out the second line of defense
● The secondary is led by senior Zach Guiser who in just nine games had 61 tackles (26 solo) with a sack, an interception, and a pass breakup. Sophomore Alvin Davis had a sold freshman season, finishing second on the team in tackles with 87 (51 solo) and a fumble recovery. Look for junior Jordan George (32 tackles and an interception); Kyron Brown, who led the defense with three interceptions, and juniors Daruis Dailey and Shawn Featherstone (39 tackles) to have an impact this season.
● The Zips kicking game should be strong with the legs of juniors Tom O’ Leary and punter Nick Gasser returning. O’ Leary was second on the team with 69 points and nailed 10-of-11 field goals.
It was a solid return for O’Leary, who missed his first two collegiate field goal attempts at Penn State and did not see the field until the 2016 opener against VMI. He also was 39-of-42 on extra points
● Gasser averaged 37.7 yards per punt a season ago with two kicks over 50 yards (53 his season high) and 22 downed inside the 20-yard line.
In the return game, look for Edwards, who averaged 23.8 yards per kick return last season, and A.J. Coney to fill the void left by Natson’s departure.
This is Terry Bowden’s sixth season at UA, and for a variety of reasons, the Zips have been inconsistent. .
The 2017 season starts in ‘Happy Valley” against Penn State. The rest of the non-conference schedule serves up home tilts against Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Iowa State before UA heads to Alabama to meet Troy.
The MAC schedule opens on September 30 at Bowling Green. Among Akron’s MAC home contests is preseason East favorite Ohio and arch rival Kent State. The road schedule, will be very challenging with preseason favorite Toledo, Western Michigan, Bowling Green and up-and-coming Miami .