I came out to watch practice today. I spoke with Manley Waller and Alex Allen.
Waller has always been thought of as a natural athlete. His mother, Gwen Torrence, was a world-class track star. His father, Manley Waller Sr., was an All-American track athlete at the University of Georgia.
The junior cornerback learned this summer that that perception might be holding him back. Defensive coordinator Curt Mallory told Waller that his athleticism will only take him so far. He must focus on the fundamentals, such as exerting the proper body motions in going from a backpedal to coverage.
Waller brings these new skills to camp, hoping to earn All-MAC honors and the status of a shut-down cornerback.
"If I can take away a team's primary threat, it makes it a lot easier for the coaches to call plays," he said.
Waller claims he has never been in better physical shape. He believes the entire team is in its best shape ever. Rather than spending the summer in their hometowns like usual, Waller says "everybody" was in Akron working.
Pass protection will be critical for Akron's defense. If the secondary holds up, Akron's talented front seven can be more aggressive.
Coach Rob Ianello has already solidified three of the four starting positions. Waller and fellow junior Diamond Weaver will play cornerback. Sophomore Josh Richmond will start at safety, along with either junior Doug Richardson or sophomore Jared Province.
I asked Ianello if he felt comfortable with his secondary. He paused before saying "yes." But he added a caveat: "They've got to get better. They've given up some big plays."
Ianello also mentioned two true freshman who could see time at safety -- Anthony Holmes and ShelDon Miller. Holmes "has a good nose for the ball," said Waller, who also played as a true freshman. Holmes made a quick impact by pulling down three interceptions in the first two days of camp. Miller, meanwhile, has shown strong fundamentals and a good attitude.
Overall, it's a relatively young unit. As I spoke with Waller, I got the sense he will be a great leader for the group.
"We just have to keep getting 2 percent better every day. That's our motto," Waller said. "Pretty soon, we will be 100 percent."
Alex Allen has an undeniable resume for team captain.
He has been in the program for five (going on six) years. He is the starter in a featured position. He works hard and can speak up when the time is appropriate.
Oh, and he's a college graduate.
Allen graduated after this summer session with a degree in business organizational communications. His sixth year of eligibility will allow him to delve into a master's program in exercise science.
Endurance has been a hurdle to Allen's career. He has suffered two major injuries. A running back with brittle bones or bad knees is like a boxer with a glass jaw. The question is: Has Allen been the victim of horrendous luck, or does his body not hold up to big hits like other running backs?
The NCAA awarded Allen a sixth year of eligibility. The way Allen spent his time waiting for the decision is a great illustration of Allen's character. He kept working.
"I was just out practicing every day, and they never told me to go home," Allen said.
Allen will share carries with a former high school rival. Nate Burney attended Cardinal Mooney High School, which pitted him against Allen's Ursuline High School annually. Burney was a junior when Allen was a senior.
"We didn't like each other in high school," Allen said. "Now we're like best friends."
Burney brings a different running style to the offense. At 5-foot-6 and 170 pounds, Burney is six inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than Allen.
"I think he's a great back," Allen said of Burney. "He's shifty. He's hard to find in the hole."
Regardless, most fans understand that the offense will rely heavily on Allen returning to the form he showed in 2008, when Allen trampled Syracuse for 103 yards. Allen's leadership is also a big plus.
After his graduation ceremony, Ianello allowed Allen a chance to address his teammates. The running back pulled out his Bible and quoted Ecclesiastes 9:11, which reads:
The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all
Allen provided that scripture in order to preach endurance to his teammates. "It's going to be a long season," he said. "You're not going to win the MAC Championship -- which is our goal -- in the first game."
Choosing that passage shows wisdom. There are dozens of motivational quotes in the Bible. No doubt Allen has those memorized, too. But he has been around for a long time. He knows that every team leaves camp energized. He recognizes that every team experiences hardship.
Only the team that endures that plays in December.
Ianello ended tonight's practice early. It concluded immediately after Patrick Nicely beat the defense deep with a perfect strike to Jeremy LaFrance for a touchdown. The coach was happy with today's "good productive work."
As camp winds up, Ianello wants to do more 11-on-11 practicing. The team ran 85 plays yesterday. Fans will get a chance to see a scrimmage on Saturday at 10 a.m. at InfoCision Stadium.
A Temple blogger interviewed me on my thoughts of the upcoming season. Scroll down a little to see my answers.
I plan to attend another practice on Thursday. After Saturday, the team will begin preparing for Syracuse.