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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. 119: Akron

Akron has bounced back before — the city, that is. Once a factory town, defined by its rubber production at companies like Goodyear, Goodrich, Firestone and General Tire, Akron has seen its economy rejuvenated over the last decade thanks to its investment in polymer research. Perhaps the Zips can follow the same formula: times were tough last fall, when the team seemed to rebel against its first-year coach, but if the Zips can reload behind this staff’s stellar recruiting, maybe the future won’t be as bleak as it seems today. As at Memphis, profiled yesterday, the hope is that Akron — the team, that is — has fallen as low as it can go. Akron — the city and the team — hope that’s the case.

Conference
MAC, East

Location
Akron, Oh.

Nickname
Zips

Returning starters
13 (6 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 105

2010 record
(1-11, 1-7)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 118

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    at Ohio State
  • Sept. 10
    Temple
  • Sept. 17
    at Cincinnati
  • Sept. 24
    V.M.I.
  • Oct. 1
    at E. Michigan
  • Oct. 8
    F.I.U.
  • Oct. 22
    Ohio
  • Oct. 29
    Central Michigan
  • Nov. 3
    at Miami (Ohio)
  • Nov. 12
    Kent State
  • Nov. 19
    at Buffalo
  • Nov. 25
    at W. Michigan

Last year’s prediction

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. 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. 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.

2010 recap

In a nutshell The Zips hadn’t been this bad since 1994-95, the program’s final season under Gerry Faust and first under Lee Owens. Just how bad were they? Pretty bad: awful defensively, terrible offensively, the Zips were rarely competitive through the first two months — except against the F.C.S. — before mounting a slight run towards respectability in November. In its final three games, Akron lost in overtime to Ball State, played eventual conference champion Miami (Ohio) tight and beat lowly Buffalo, perhaps signaling that better days lie ahead. There were bigger issues than just on-field losses, however: there were losses off the field, as several players with eligibility left opted to leave the program rather than hang around.

High point Staring the program’s first winless season in nearly 60 years in the face, the Zips rallied together to defeat Buffalo, 22-14, to end the regular season. There’s something to be said of finishing the season on a high note, even if the victory was preceded by 11 consecutive losses.

Low point When did we know something was amiss? Try on the second Saturday of September, when the Zips lost in overtime, 38-37, to Gardner-Webb. This was a Gardner-Webb team that would finish 4-7 in the F.C.S. yet managed to outplay Akron, which would then go on to lose by margins big and small before knocking off the Bulls in the season finale.

Tidbit The Zips finished in the bottom 20 nationally in the following categories last fall: scoring offense, rushing offense, passing offense, total offense, punt returns, kick returns, punting, extra-points made, first downs, tackles for loss, interceptions, third down conversions, scoring defense, passing defense, total defense and fourth down defense. The Zips finished in the top half of the country nationally in only a handful of categories: 43rd in penalties, 37th in punt return defense, 47th in kick return defense, 58th in tackles for loss allowed and 25th in fumbles lost.

Tidbit (close-to-home edition) One Buckeye State program will play nine of its games in the State of Ohio, and no, it’s not the Buckeyes. It’s the Zips, who will cross the state border only to face Eastern Michigan, Buffalo and Western Michigan; prior to Nov. 19, the Zips play 9 of 10 games close to home.

Former players in the N.F.L.

4 LB Chase Blackburn (New York Giants), CB Reggie Corner (Buffalo), QB Charlie Frye (Oakland), WR Domenik Hixon (New York Giants).

Arbitrary top five list

Best players in Akron Aeros history — other options below
1. OF Manny Ramirez.
2. 3B Jim Thome.
3. OF Albert Belle.
4. P C.C. Sabathia.
5. P Charles Nagy.

Coaching

Rob Ianello (Catholic ’87), 1-11 after one year with the Zips. He arrived in Akron after serving five seasons at Notre Dame, where he coached the 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. 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 earlier 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) Curt Mallory’s tenure as Akron’s defensive coordinator lasted all of one season; he’s now at Michigan, coaching the secondary for Brady Hoke. Mallory will be replaced by former Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove, who brings experience, a prior relationship with Ianello — thanks to the pair’s work at Wisconsin — and significant questions about his ability to put a competent defense on the field. The last few years haven’t been kind to Cosgrove, both with the Cornhuskers and Golden Gophers, so the jury is out whether he can help Akron improve on the defensive side of the ball.

Players to watch

Good news, bad news with running back Broderick Alexander: he’s by far the most experienced running back on Akron’s roster, but he needs to show he’s healthy after missing all of last season following an Achilles tear. Reports from the spring said he’s ready to go, which is great news for a backfield looking to replace more than 1,300 yards of production lost following the graduation of Alex Allen and Nate Burney. Two young faces, redshirt freshman Jawon Chisolm and January addition Marvin Staten, will battle for snaps, and there should be plenty of carries to go around.

There’s a similar story at receiver. Any damage that was done in the passing game came about thanks to departed starters Jeremy LaFrance and Jalil Carter; the duo combined to make 62 grabs for 772 yards, which constituted the majority of Akron’s receiving totals. Wide receivers coach Frisman Jackson has his work cut out for him, but he did single out four players who stepped up their games during the spring.

One was sophomore Keith Sconiers, who played sparingly as a true freshman last fall but has thus far done a nice job stepping into the void left by the seniors’ departure. The Zips would also get a significant boost from having a healthy Antoine Russell — another sophomore — who could give this offense a deep threat; more big-play ability might come from former JUCO transfer Marquelo Suel, who redshirted last fall. Looking for a craftier possession receiver? Junior Anthony Meriweather will have the opportunity to grab that role, though like the rest of the receiver corps, he’s unproven.

The offensive line has an issue with numbers, but Akron can at least put together a starting group with experience, which should count for something. There will be some movement up front: Mitch Straight moves from left guard to left tackle; Patrick McCloskey from right to left guard; and Zac Kasparek will find a home at right guard after playing at all three interior spots last fall. That leaves Jake Anderson remaining at home at right guard and, most likely, Adam Bice replacing Mike Ward at center. It’s not a great group, nor deep — though five recruiting additions might help — but the Zips could be improved if injuries don’t become an issue.

Hasan Hazime will need to step up: not merely because he’s now a senior, but so to help the Zips replace fellow end Shawn Lemon, the team leader in sacks and tackles for loss. Hazime helped in those categories, finishing a distant second to Lemon, but he’ll need to build upon two successful seasons in the starting lineup to help Akron beef up a paltry pass rush hampered further by Lemon’s departure. So who replaces Lemon? It should be sophomore Nico Caponi, a second-teamer last fall who currently inhabits Lemon’s rush end spot.

It’s all about Brian Wagner in the middle. Yeah, he’s a bit smaller than your typical middle linebacker, but that doesn’t limit his production; Wagner led the Zips in tackles as a freshman in 2009 and then again last fall, nearly doubling his next-closest competitor. What does this say about Akron? Nothing too terrible, though it does point to a lack of strength and production along the interior of the defensive line. Senior Matt Little returns on the outside after making 46 stops last fall, with junior Troy Gilmer one option to replace Mike Thomas on the strong side. Thanks mainly to Wagner, but also due to some depth and recruiting additions — two incoming freshmen look promising — linebacker stands as the strength of the defense.

Defensive backs coach Kim McCloud says he’s not looking back at least season as he prepares his secondary for 2011, which is a wise move. He won’t like what he sees, not on film and certainly not on paper. So there will be some competition in the secondary, though you can rest assured that senior Manley Waller will start at one cornerback spot and junior Josh Richmond at free safety. As is the case elsewhere, however, Akron lacks the type of depth it might have after Ianello and his staff go through another recruiting cycle.

Sophomore Anthony Holmes played plenty as a true freshman last fall, leading Akron in interceptions with three while still learning how to play the position on the college level. The same could be said of fellow sophomore Bill Alexander, who ended the year right behind Holmes on the depth chart and will continue to make a push for increased playing time when Akron returns to the practice field in August. The Zips also need to get more at strong safety, where Kevin Davis — a senior last fall — and others brought little big-play ability to the table.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback It’s a three-horse race, and an open one and that, despite the fact that Akron returns starter Patrick Nicely. There’s a reason for the competition: Nicely struggled mightily last fall, completing less than 50 percent of his attempts four times and throwing at least one interception in seven of his last eight games. It’s not a coincidence that his best game — perhaps his only good game, give or take — came in Akron’s lone win, when Nicely threw three touchdowns without a turnover in the victory over Buffalo. If Nicely is to hold onto the starting role, he’ll need to beat out JUCO transfer Clayton Moore, who initially signed with Mississippi as a high school senior in 2009. Ianello also nabbed incoming freshman Zach D’Orazio during the most recent recruiting cycle, which does signal — if you look closely enough — an ability to identify and address positions of need in recruiting, which was considered Ianello’s forte when he was first hired. As for this competition, the edge might be for Nicely at this point, thanks to Moore’s inexperience in the system, but it’s hard to fathom Nicely remaining in the starting lineup if he doesn’t make a substantial improvement throwing the football.

Tidbit (name edition) Moore shares his name with the actor who played “The Lone Ranger” on the wildly popular television show from 1949-57.

Game(s) to watch

V.M.I. is a must-win, especially with the strong possibility of an 0-3 start. It’s also vital that the Zips reassert themselves at home, particularly in games against Central Michigan and Kent State.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Better days may lie ahead, if you trust what recruiting experts say about Ianello and his staff. Even if Akron out-recruits the MAC, however, there’s still a matter of preparing this team for each Saturday; the Zips seemed ill-prepared a season ago, against good opponents and bad, though the team’s play in November was good to see. Perhaps that play carries over to 2011, though we’ll need to see a longer period of solid play before expecting much from this team. There are significant issues to address on both sides of the ball, such as the wherewithal of the both lines, questionable depth in the secondary, some questions at quarterbacks and a dearth of offensive skill players. Will Moore be the answer at quarterback? He can’t fare much worse, to be honest, but he still needs to outplay Nicely to earn the starting nod. What of the defense? Depth remains an issue, but Akron really needs to place a focus on not just making stops but making plays: this defense won’t dominate, so forcing turnovers and getting to the quarterback — major problems last fall — should be a primary goal. Don’t expect miracles in 2011, and don’t even expect a widely improved team in the win column. I said last summer that it might take more than one year for Ianello to rebuild this program; it will clearly take at least two years, we can safely say.

Dream season Ianello follows a blueprint set forth by Mike Haywood at Miami (Ohio), to a slightly lesser degree. The Zips don’t vault to the top of the MAC, but rebound from a disastrous 2010 campaign to finish 6-6, 5-3 in conference play.

Nightmare season More of the same: 1-11, with only a win over V.M.I.

In case you were wondering

Where do Akron fans congregate? As has been the case for years, your best option is ZipsNation.org, the leading non-profit Web site covering Akron athletics. It’s likely the best site covering Akron athletics regardless of the financial bottom line: you can also check out the Akron Beacon Journal, but the paper does devote much of its coverage to Akron’s terrific men’s soccer team.

Word Count

Through two teams 5,133.

Up Next

Who is No. 118? The conductor of the symphony in the city housing tomorrow’s university holds a Doctorate in Performance from the University of Illinois, a Master of Music from Michigan State University, and a Bachelor’s from Murray State University.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Pete says:

    New Mexico State! Great read as always.

  2. Jack says:

    How about this for an arbitrary top 5 list?

    Top 5 Musical Acts from Akron:
    1. Devo
    2. Chrissy Hynde
    3. The Black Keys
    4. David Allen Coe
    5. James Ingram

    (I had to look up the last two, but not a bad top 3, eh?)

  3. Noefli says:

    Top 5 words or phrases only sportswriters use:

    1) Ensuing
    2) Largely devoid
    3) Lightly regarded
    4) Highly touted
    5) Bereft

  4. wildcat6 says:

    Pete is right – it’s New Mexico State, and the conductor of the Las Cruces Symphony is Lonnie Klein.

    Without google, I don’t think 99.99% of college football fans would’ve solved that one. I’ve been in the classical music world for more than 30 years (with degrees from Northwestern Univ. and the Eastman School of Music, teaching at College of William & Mary) and I was stumped.

  5. Brandon says:

    Jack,

    You need to put the Black Keys as the number 1 musical act from Akron.

  6. Chippewayne says:

    That is an awesome postcard. Looking forward to the Chippewa preview — real soon, I hear from sources close to psr.com

  7. The Dogman3 says:

    Enjoyed the article about Akron , but you forgot Andy Alleman and , Jason Taylor among others who played for Akron, in the NFL.Keep the articles coming.Best regards.

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