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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 105: Akron

The bustling city of Akron. This place will burn when LeBron leaves for greener pastures.

J.D Brookhart went 13-11 from 2004-5, his first two seasons at Akron, but 17-31 in the four years since. It should therefore come as no surprise that Brookhart was asked to step down at the end of the 2009 season. He was given a long leash, as is every Akron coach — commendable — yet the Zips illustrated little progress over the past few years; if anything, last year’s 3-9 finish represented a sizable regression. His replacement, Rob Ianello, is a former Notre Dame assistant with strong recruiting ties through the Midwest. Unlike Brookhart, however, Ianello’s resume does not include an award-winning stint as a Xerox salesman. Wait, that’s probably a good thing.

Conference
MAC, East

Location
Akron, Oh.

Nickname
Zips

Returning starters
14 (6 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 93

2009 record
(3-9, 2-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 106

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Syracuse
  • Sept. 11
    Gardner-Webb
  • Sept. 18
    at Kentucky
  • Sept. 25
    at Indiana
  • Oct. 2
    N. Illinois
  • Oct. 9
    at Kent St.
  • Oct. 16
    at Ohio
  • Oct. 23
    W. Michigan
  • Oct. 30
    at Temple
  • Nov. 6
    at Ball St.
  • Nov. 17
    Miami (Ohio)
  • Nov. 26
    Bufffalo

Last year’s prediction

There is no doubt that Akron is among the most talented teams in the MAC – especially on offense – and a team that, on any given Saturday, can beat any conference opponent. However, I can’t place them higher than fourth in the East, ahead of only Kent State and Miami (Ohio). Why? Because of a below-average defense, a unit that leaves me no reason to believe it will be any better this fall than it was a season ago, when it ranked among the bottom three in the conference in rush, pass efficiency and total defense. I can’t see this team doing any better than 6-6. More likely, I see a repeat of last fall’s 5-7 mark.

2009 recap

In a nutshell The defense was bad, the offense worse. First, the defense. Akron allowed at least 28 points per game for the third consecutive season, highlighted by a four-game stretch to end the year in which the Zips gave up more than 35 points per game. The defense was prone to folding late, allowing 106 points — nearly a third of its total — in the fourth quarter. Perhaps this inability to remain stout through all four quarters can be blamed on the overwhelming inconsistency of an offense that scored only 231 points, a program-low since 1995. This offense did little well, if anything at all: 118.4 yards rushing per game (94th nationally), more interceptions than touchdowns, woeful on third down and horrific — I’m not sure if this is too strong a word — in the kicking game.

High point Akron mounted only a pair of victories over F.B.S. competition – with one coming against winless Eastern Michigan. So, for the first time in the history of the Countdown (this disaster just turned three), a team cites a win over Kent State (by eight points at home) as its high point of its season. Congratulations?

Low point Only one loss (by four at Buffalo) came by less than 12 points. Akron was outscored by 304-134 in its nine losses, though three of those defeats – Penn State, Indiana and Syracuse – came against B.C.S. conference competition.

Tidbit Akron started the 2009 season losing seven of its first eight, the program’s worst start since going 1-7 to open 2002. Akron has started 1-7 three other times since 1961: in 1997, 1995 and 1994.

Former players in the N.F.L.

8 OG Andy Alleman (Indianapolis), CB Brandon Alderson (Tampa Bay), LB Chase Blackburn (New York Giants), CB Reggie Corner (Buffalo), QB Charlie Frye (Oakland), WR Domenik Hixon (New York Giants), WR Andre Jones (Kansas City), LB Jason Taylor (New York Jets).

Arbitrary top five list

Where LeBron will play in 2010, from most likely to least
1. Cleveland Cavaliers.
2. New York Knicks.
3. Chicago Bulls.
4. Los Angeles Clippers.
5. New Jersey Nets.

Coaching

Rob Ianello (Catholic ’87), entering his first season with the Zips. He arrives in Akron after serving five seasons at Notre Dame, where he coached the Fighting Irish wide receivers and served as the team’s recruiting coordinator. If you are familiar with Ianello for one reason, it is in this latter capacity. Widely recognized as one of the nation’s top recruiters — if not the best recruiter in the country altogether — Ianello was responsible for reeling in countless numbers of Notre Dame’s highly-touted recruits during the Charlie Weis era, helping the team rebuild a roster largely devoid of talent following the firing of Ty Willingham late in 2004. Ianello also carried the assistant head coach tag during the 2009 season; after Weis was fired, Ianello took charge of a program still unsure of its bowl future. Though the Irish eventually decided not to participate in postseason play, Ianello led the staff through a difficult period of uncertainty prior to Brian Kelly’s arrival in December. His experience in the Midwest includes two separate stints at Wisconsin. From 2003-4, Ianello coached the U.W. tight ends and served as the recruiting coordinator. An early stint, from 1990-91, saw Ianello hold only the recruiting coordinator title. Are you seeing a trend here? There’s more: Ianello held the same position at Arizona from 1994-96 and from 1997-2002, coaching the Arizona wide receivers during his second stint in Tucson. Here’s what we know about Ianello: he can recruit, potentially helping Akron keep some of the deep talent in the Buckeye state at home; he can aid in the development of Akron’s young offensive skill players; and he has experience under some well-known names in the coaching profession — Barry Alvarez, Dick Tomey and Charlie Weis. Let’s see if his resume will translate into success with a program tired of spending each season lagging behind in the MAC.

Tidbit (coaching edition) What do Ianello and my mom have in common? Both earned a degree from the Catholic University of America. That’s it. True story: I was offered a free ride to Catholic coming out of high school, but declined. I have no regrets.

Players to watch

The Akron offensive line is strong enough to question why the running game struggled so mightily a year ago. It is especially solid on the left side of the line, where senior tackle Corey Woods and senior guard Mike Ward — he might also play center — constitute one of the better blindsides in the MAC. Ward’s potential move to center could alleviate concerns about how Akron will accustom itself to the new center-quarterback exchange; after spending the last handful of seasons in a shotgun-heavy offensive system, the Zips will run the pro-style offense Ianello helped install at Notre Dame. Akron must replace 2009 starter Elliot Bates, with last season’s understudy, sophomore Adam Bice, one of the contenders to man the middle of the offensive line.

No position on offense is as deep as running back, where Ianello will have multiple options to work with. Sophomore Broderick Alexander returns after making three starts a year ago, when he finished second on the team with 192 yards rushing. Senior Alex Allen added another 188 yards and a team-best five touchdowns, and will figure heavily into the mix for carries. Word out of spring practice was that Allen looked better than he has at any point of his career with the Zips. Dale Martin and LeVon Morefield will also press for work out of the backfield, giving Akron four players with the ability to take over as the lead running back; perhaps this will allow Ianello to go with the hot hand on a week-to-week. While the group is deep, make no mistake: Akron must get a better performance from its ground game.

The move to a more traditional offense will take its toll on the Akron quarterbacks, which as a group — as noted — is more familiar with a more wide-open system. The good news in this case is that both potential starters are young, having spent only two or three years in Brookhart’s offense, and thereby more likely to take to Ianello’s tutelage. I said there are two contenders for the starting role, but as of now, there’s only one: Matt Rodgers is still recovering from a knee injury, and might not be at full health until practice resumes in August. Sophomore Patrick Nicely started the final seven games of 2009 for the Zips, completing 120 of his 222 attempts for 1,349 yards and 6 touchdowns. Not bad numbers for a true freshman, though again, Nicely –  or Rodgers — must accustom himself to the new offensive philosophy. Ianello has not named a starter as of yet, wanting to give Rodgers a fair opportunity before making this important decision.

The defense is led by perhaps the best trio of starting linebackers in the MAC. Sophomore Brian Wagner could end up being the best linebacker in the entire conference — if he’s not already in the conversation. As a freshman, the middle linebacker led the Zips with 132 tackles (7 for loss), 2 interceptions and a sack. Wagner has already shown himself to be a complete player, leaving me excited as to what he can achieve for the Zips as he continues to gain experience on this level. If Akron can make strides on defense, Wagner is a defensive player of the year candidate. He’ll again be joined in the starting lineup by Sean Fobbs (41 tackles, 6 for loss) and Mike Thomas (71 stops, 2 interceptions), giving Akron a solid base with which to build around its new 4-3 defense.

The defensive line also returns a number of past contributors, though the Zips must get an improved pass rush from its front four. The team made only 11 sacks in 2009, the 118th-worst total in the nation. Shawn Lemon, should his cellphone-related issues be fully behind him, is one player Akron will count to anchor the defensive front. He had three sacks last fall, tying junior Almondo Sewell for the team lead. Sewell will start at a more traditional tackle spot in 2010 after leading all Akron defensive linemen with 53 tackles in Brookhart’s 3-3-5 scheme. Junior Dan Marcoux is another likely starter at tackle after making six starts in 2009. Joining Lemon at end is junior Hasan Hazime, whose eight tackles for loss last fall paced the team, as well as fellow junior Shane Snead and senior Deni Odofin. The line might not be as strong as the terrific linebacker corps, but when combined, they give Akron a very good front seven.

So what’s the rub? It’s this: the Akron secondary will be a work in progress. This is especially the case at safety, which due to Carter’s position change lacks any player with significant playing experience. In fact, only three players currently listed at safety stepped onto the playing field in 2009: Jared Province, Josh Richmond and Doug Richardson. Richmond, who played in all 12 games, making nine tackles, is the most experienced returning safety on the roster. He ended the season as Wayne Cobham’s reserve at free safety, and is the favorite to step into that open position come September. Incoming freshmen like Anthony Holmes and ShelDon — particularly Holmes — will have the opportunity to earn immediate playing time, thought that is not necessarily a good thing for the back end of this Akron defense. Conversely, the Zips look to be in fine shape at cornerback. Junior Manley Walker, though undersized, is worthy of all-MAC consideration. His three interceptions a year ago tied for the team lead. While Miguel Graham — also with three picks — must be replaced, sophomore Marvasse Byrd is ready to step into the starting lineup. One word of caution: Byrd, like Walker, lacks prototypical height for the position. It is likely worth noting, though the MAC does not typically star the bigger, taller receivers that populate the nation’s stronger conferences.

Position battles to watch

Wide receiver Akron has a sure thing in senior Jeremy LaFrance, whose 43 receptions for 520 yards led the team a year ago. And that’s all the Zips have at receiver: one sure thing. From there, the roster is littered with unproven, inexperienced options, leaving this position a major question mark entering the summer. For an idea of how dire the receiver situation may be, take note that senior Jalil Carter, the likely No. 2 at the position, started the final seven games of last season at strong safety. Akron has had a noted track record when it comes to moving players from the secondary to wide receiver — Andre Jones, last year’s starter, for instance — but such a move smells of desperation. (Notice I didn’t say reeks.) From there, Ianello will look to junior Curtis Brown and sophomores Anthony Meriwether and Nadir Brown; one has to step up if Akron is to improve in the passing game. The Zips do have a few talented freshman arriving in the fall, but expecting one — or more — to make an immediate impact may be asking too much.

Game(s) to watch

A tough September yields to a potentially solid November. The Zips conclude the season with Miami (Ohio), Ball State and Buffalo, with the RedHawks and Bulls coming at home.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Ianello is not the kind of coach capable of a one-season turnaround, and I believe the university understands this. Instead, thanks to his talent in recruiting, Ianello is a hire designed to pay dividends down the road, perhaps as early as year two but more likely an additional year down the road. Which is a good thing: most programs are unwilling to take a chance on a coach without coordinator experience, trading the potential for immediate success for a coach who might fit best over the long haul. I think Ianello is a good long-term fit with the Zips, as his debut recruiting class — one landed over a short period of time — certainly indicated. Yet I don’t think his first team will be very good, unfortunately. There remain many questions on offense, beginning at quarterback and extending to a thin receiver corps. The defense is strong through the front seven, but there remain concerns in the secondary. Also hurting matters — at least in 2010 — is a deep MAC East, a division with a clear top two and, in Kent State and Bowling Green, a pair of teams looking to build upon satisfying 2009. I think Akron is good enough to remain out of the East cellar, but I don’t have the Zips finishing higher than fourth in the division. If Ianello can continue to excel in recruiting, Akron won’t be down for long.

Dream season Ianello has what it takes, at least in 2010: 8-4, 6-2 in the MAC, and second in the East division.

Nightmare season The Zips struggle, making little improvement on either side of the ball. All rookie coaches have leeway, however, even after a 2-10 finish.

In case you were wondering

Where do Akron fans congregate? Seeing that my dad works in the non-profit field, I’m a big fan of ZipsNation.org. The university may certainly operate on a for-profit basis — seeing how often I was prompted to sign up for season tickets on the Akron athletic site — but Zips Nation is not about the almighty dollar. Just football, baby.

Up Next

Who is No. 104? Our next school counts among its alumni a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, a current U.S. Senator, one half of a Grammy Award-winning country music duo and a former Baltimore Orioles first baseman, among others.

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Comments

  1. Freakville says:

    La. Tech? Think the’re gonna be that bad?

    Paul: Went back and forth on the Bulldogs. Feel they’re going to take a year to round into the new system.

  2. [...] back? Buffalo (No. 108) and Louisiana Tech (No. 104) are two; while Arkansas State (No. 106) and Akron (No. 105) were not great last fall, I think both will continue to struggle in [...]

  3. Zip Watcher says:

    Great writeup! Thanks for the plug. Free lifetime membership for you!

    Go Zips!

  4. [...] forum on the web can be found at ZipNation. An even earlier preview of Akron can be found at PreSnapRead, where the Zips are ranked at [...]

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