Looking back at the Akron Zips’ 2017 stats on their own, it’s sometimes difficult to see a team that won seven games, took the MAC Eastern Division title and participated in a bowl game.
However, wins and losses don’t always follow the stat sheet and UA found ways to win -- such as surviving a deluge at Western Michigan to win the next day. The Zips also scored a late touchdown to defeat Buffalo by one point and nipped Ohio in a shootout to secure the Eastern Division title.
As head coach Terry Bowden begins his seventh Zips season, . . .
AKRON 2017 RECORD: 7-7 (6-2 MAC) Eastern Division Champions – lost to Toledo in 2017 Marathon MAC Championship Game 45-28 – lost to Florida Atlantic in the 2017 Boca Raton Bowl 50-3
2018 PRESEASON POLL: Fourth in the Eastern Division
HEAD COACH: Terry Bowden – 25th season overall 171-106-2 (seventh at UA 31-44)
⚑ The Zips offense under offensive coordinator A.J. McElwee averaged just 316 yards per game and totaled just 310 points overall. Bowden believes there will be improvement, especially if sophomore QB Cato Nelson can continue his progress.
⚑ The sophomore started five games completing 50 percent of his passes (70-of-140) for 989 yards with eight touchdowns and just two interceptions.
⚑ “We’re thrilled now that Cato is our starting quarterback,” Bowden said. “He… has all the ingredients. … He can throw the football like it is supposed to be thrown (and) he’s elusive. He can run if he has to extend a play.”
⚑ Behind Nelson is fifth year senior Robbie Kelley who showed some promise in games last season along with redshirt freshman Alex Ramari.
⚑ The running game was non-existent a season ago after Warren Ball broke his leg in a heartbreaking loss at Troy. To take pressure off Nelson, the Zips must establish the run, and Bowden is confident in the team’s ability to establish a ground attack.
⚑ “In northeast Ohio, I’ve learned the hard way, you better be able to run the football,” Bowden said. “We’ve got the best group of running backs since I’ve been here. If we’re going to be a contender … we better run the football.”
⚑ Senior Van Edwards is the leading return yardage leader with 343 yards. Look for fourth-year junior Deltron Sands to be featured in the backfield. He is a scat back type of a runner and broke off some big plays before being lost in the Miami game due to a leg injury.
⚑ The receiving corps is led by senior Kwadarrius Smith. The transfer from Missouri has flashed big play ability and fotaled 34 receptions, 726 yards and seven touchdowns in 2017. Mikael Traylor-Bennett was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. If the senior can stay healthy, he can be a second deep option joining Smith.
There is a significant drop off in experience after that, but look for sophomore Nate Stewart, sophomore Andre Williams, and junior Jason Grossman to get their chance to break into the starting lineup. The tight end position could also benefit from the work of senior Newman Williams and junior Brandon Junk.
⚑ The offensive line allowed 38 sacks a season ago, but it looks to be a strength in 2018 thanks to senior RG Kyle Ritz and fellow senior RT Undrea Bullard. Sophomore LG Brandon Council gained confidence in every game a season ago, along with junior LT Trevor Brown. One key addition this season will be at center where sophomore Bryce Pederson steps in.
⚑ To say that UA’s 2017 defense was a “bend but don’t break” group is an understatement. The Zips allowed 392 points and 442.9 yards per game. However, this group was toughest on third down, allowing the opposition to convert just 34 percent of their third down opportunities. Perhaps more importantly, Akron registered 19 interceptions and posed a turnover margin of +7.
⚑ “I don’t care what anybody says, turnover margin is the most important statistic,” Bowden said, noting his squad led the conference in turnover margin in each of its last two bowl appearance seasons.
⚑ As the 2018 season begins, the defense will operate under new leadership Akron has replaced departed defensive coordinator and associate head coach Chuck Amato, who announced his retirement in January after 45 years of coaching.
⚑ On the field, Akron’s defense will be led by senior LB Ulysses Gilbert. The 2016 MAC Defensive Player of the year had another solid season in 2017, leading UA in tackles with 141 (45 solo). In addition he had five sacks, three interceptions (including one for a touchdown), as well as 9.5 tackles for loss, four pass breakups and a fumble recovery.
⚑ In the 4-3 defensive alignment, the Zips have three strong men up front in seniors Jamal Davis, Brock Boxen (who is coming back from an injury that cost him his 2017 campaign(, as well as Bryan Reinke. The key man up front is Davis, who was fourth in tackles with 69 (39 solo). He led the team with 15.5 tackles for losses, as well as two sacks.
⚑ Joining Gilbert in the linebacking corps is senior Brian Bell who registered 57 tackles (33 solo) and 4.5 tackles for losses a season ago. Jjunior John Lako, who has had a meteoric rise from walk-on to starter in just two seasons, owned had 69 stops (35 solo) with a sack and a pair of interceptions
⚑ Besides Gilbert, the strength of the defense is the secondary, led by junior free safety Alvin Davis. He finished second on the team in tackles with 83 overall (55 solo, along with two pass breakups and an interception. Another player to watch is senior rover back Jordan George, who finished third in tackles with 71 (43 solo) and led the Zips with five interceptions and had three pass breakups.
⚑ A third backfield member is senior CB Kyron Brown He was one of the top defensive backs in the MAC, with 49 total tackles and two interceptions -- returning one for a touchdown. Look for senior FS Jamal Baggett and CB Darian Dailey to contribute in 2018.
⚑ The Zips return both kickers in 2018. Senior punter Nick Gasser averaged 42.2 yards per kick a season ago with 16 of his punts traveling 50 yards or more.
⚑ Fifth year senior PK Tom O’Leary looks to improve on 2017, when he connected on just three-of-seven field goals. He was two of six between 30 and 49 yards.
⚑ In the return game, Edwards was the leading kickoff returner a season ago averaging just 19.7 yards per return. Look for sophomore Andre Williams to get the first crack at punt returns.
⚑ The Zips have one of the toughest non-conference schedules in their history at the FBS level, beginning September 1 at Nebraska in Scott Frost’s first game as head coach of the Cornhuskers.
⚑ After the home opener (the 10th at InfoCision Stadium-Summa Field) against Morgan State, UA heads back on the road for games at Northwestern and at Iowa State before opening MAC play on October 6th.
⚑ UA will make the short trek to Kent State in late October to battle the Golden Flashes for possession of the Wagon Wheel Trophy. Akron must visit two (Buffalo and Ohio) of three teams above it in the MAC East preseason poll. UA will make the short trek to Kent State in late October to battle the Golden Flashes for possession of the Wagon Wheel Trophy. In addition, MAC West Division favorite Northern Illinois comes to InfoCision Stadium for a night game on November 1.
⚑ “Our goal this year is “finish the climb.”We’ve won the East. We’ve won two our of three bowls (over) the last three years. We won (against) our rival three years in a row. But we aven’t won the MAC. We have to go finish the climb. … Especially our seniors, … they want to finish the climb and win that conference championship.” -- Head coach Terry Bowden.