I attended practice today -- or at least the last 15 minutes of it. (I fell asleep watching the PGA Tournament. As big of a golfer as I am, I acknowledge that TV golf's best attribute is a cure for insomnia.) Watching practice wasn't why I showed up, though. I wanted to talk with a couple of important young players.
Wagner intrigues me as a guy who isn't really a physical specimen. As the featured defender in Jim Fleming's defense, he stepped in and provided stats unseen since John Mackey -- as a freshman. "Going in, I really never had a plan," Wagner explained. "I tried to show the older guys I can play."
And he did. He earned a spot on the All-MAC Second Team and logged the second-most tackles in the conference, averaging 11 per game. "I just tried to hustle and have a nose for the ball," Wagner said.
An optimist, and perhaps a realist, sees Wagner as a sure-fire stud for the next three years. A pessimist would point to Kevin Grant, another linebacker who starred under Fleming as a freshman and who earned a spot on the Freshman All-American team. Grant had a good career at Akron, but he did not continue to accelerate after his first year, like fans hoped he would.
Coach Rob Ianello probably falls into the latter camp of thinking. He recognizes that Wagner is a great asset, but he is looking to make Wagner into an even better player. After watching tape of Wagner's first season, Ianello saw a player who could improve in pass defense and who needed to add some weight.
Wagner will start at middle linebacker, flanked by Mike Thomas and Troy Gilmer. After position changes by Sean Fobbs (DE) and Will Fleming (TE), Akron's once-ironclad linebacking corps can use a little better depth.
Ianello will call on two young players for some depth. Matt Little, a sophomore, is one. True freshman Jamar Williams also has impressed coaches and players with his great attitude and work ethic. He has made a lot of plays during camp, Wagner said. Ianello listed Williams as one of the true freshmen who is most likely to play.
Wagner, like all the Zips, is hoping for a revival season. Last year was a rollercoaster of great highs (i.e., beating Kent State, which Wagner said was "awesome") and deep lows. Wagner says he doesn't have personal goals for this year.
"We just need to win," he said. "I want to give Akron a team to be proud of."
If there is one constant in the MAC, it's that you have to pass well to win.
Akron has been inconsistent in that department since Luke Getsy graduated. Nicely showed off a strong arm and poise beyond his true freshman status in 2010.
If you're buying stock in players, it's time to empty the account into shares of Nicely. He is getting married this summer. It's a perfect love story. The groom: A 6-foot-4 smart kid with a rocket arm. The bride: The pro-style offense. The two had never consummated their relationship.
For years, people have told Nicely that he would fit best in a pro-style offense. In high school, he ran the spread. As a freshman, he operated J.D. Brookhart's "multiple" look offense that was basically a spread offense, as well.
Now that Ianello has come with the same offense that led Tom Brady and Brady Quinn to success, Nicely should be able to fully exploit his physical gifts.
But there have been growing pains. In the spring, it was excruciating to watch Nicely biff snaps from under center. Before the spring, Nicely had never taken a snap from under center. After months of fine-tuning, Nicely thinks he has nixed his problem.
Nicely is self-aware. He knew he had other attributes to strengthen, too. He worked on his footwork and timing with the receivers. Mechanically, he improved his balance when throwing, which he believes will reduce the balls that sail over their intended targets.
The Zips offense also must overcome the loss of Andre Jones and Deryn Bowser -- two top-tier receivers. Jeremy LaFrance showed his ability to be a No. 1 or 2 receiver last season. Jalil Carter is one player whom Nicely believes can surprise the conference.
Carter "is just plain and simple a freak athlete," Nicely said. "Once he gets his ball skills down . . . You're going to know his number by the end of the year."
Junior Gary Pride will likely play a role at receiver, along with sophomore Anthony Meriwether. If Akron needs depth or perhaps a spark at receiver, Ianello will not be reluctant to call upon true freshmen Keith Sconiers or Antoine Russell. Ianello mentioned Sconiers, Russell and Williams (the linebacker) when I asked him which of the true freshmen were likely to play.
There might be a question as to whether Nicely himself will start in 2010. Ianello said he has assessed both Nicely and fellow competitor Matt Rodgers, but the coach declined to say much more.
Nicely desires to get Akron back to a bowl game in 2010. Cognizant that a winning MAC team needs a sturdy quarterback, Nicely personally desires to earn at least Honorable Mention All-MAC honors.
Predicting the Zips to finish last in the division, the media doesn't share Nicely's confidence.
"They're basing their stuff off last year," Nicely said. "They're not in camp. They don't see how hard we're working. If we don't get to a bowl game with this kind of talent . . ."
-- Today was Akron's eleventh practice out of 30. The team focused on red zone offense today. "Although the offense made some plays, there were too many turnover situations," Ianello said. The coach has been very positive about the team's work ethic during these hot evening practices.
-- There is no question camp has a different feel this season than the prior four that I have covered. But (and this is a big "but") the question is whether this positive motivation can persist through a losing streak or through a string of injuries. New coaches always bring new energy. As I wrote a few months ago, the question is whether Ianello can maintain this level of focus and energy.
-- If you're champing at the bit to see Akron football, your opportunity will come next Saturday (the 21st). The Zips will open up InfoCision Stadium for a scrimmage from 10 a.m. to noon. The ZipsFest inflatables (etc.) will be there. Afterward, there will be a "meet and greet" and autograph session. Kudos to "Coach I" for another positive step in connecting with fans.
Men's soccer Women's soccer
The women's team played an exhibition game on the newly renovated Lee Jackson Field today. The Zips won, 1-0. Beforehand, I snapped some shots of the construction progress.
Showing the west endzone. The scoreboard has been moved from the northwest corner to the location you see.
I wanted to give you a look at the drainage system surrounding the entire field. The turf look immaculate. I can only compare it to the fairways at Firestone Country Club.
This is the east endzone. I think it was a brilliant plan to have the bleachers overlooking the bern, where the AK-Rowdies will dwell. That should be a nice place to sit for fans who want the rowdiest experience, but also want to be seated.
The south sideline is where the most drastic action is taking place. The old bleachers were ripped out (and split up and placed in the end zones). The old press box remains in place, but the field was moved to the northwest to provide room for construction of a brand new press box atop the bleachers. Underneath the bleachers are two team rooms. As you see, there are three big "steps" at the bottom. That is where the chairback seats will be located.