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Secondary strength

By mrasor Published: April 23, 2007

The Buchtelite's Adam Ferrise wrote about the Zips' greatest asset: the defensive backs.
In that vein, my column talks about how the team's leadership has changed. (By the way, sometimes I write my column and I'm sort of lukewarm about the topic. This is a really fascinating transformation of the football team. And I believe it's for real.) ...
The ball joint of John Mackey's shoulder was chipped last season. With each tackle, the jagged bone ripped cartilage away from his socket.
The Zips safety played through torture.
So when Mackey tells his teammates they need to straighten up, they listen.
"They respect that guy," coach J.D. Brookhart said. "He played through pain nobody else would have played through."
Mackey's endurance may not have won the team an extra game, but it could serve as a turning point in Brookhart's tenure.
For the first few years, players lacked discipline. And the blame doesn't fall completely on the coaches. They could only do so much without leaders on the field to enforce the right way to play.
Coming into last year, Akron was the media's nearly unanimous choice to repeat as division champs. Then the team got blown out at Kent State and Toledo. And with a chance to earn a bowl bid in the season finale, Akron failed to score at home against Western Michigan.
"Everybody was out playing for themselves," one player told me.
It's a dirty little secret about mid-major football that you can recruit big-time talent with questionable intangibles, or you can pursue adequate players with good character. Rarely do the players with both attributes slip to Mid-American Conference teams.
After the season, Brookhart recognized his leadership vacuum. He asked Mackey to lead more vocally, rather than just through his example.
Coaches also set up a counseling session, hoping to create a few more Mackeys. The counselor explained how important it is for players to stand up to teammates when they aren't performing as they should, and to do it constructively.
Brookhart never could have expected the results.
"It opened people up," senior defensive back Davanzo Tate said. "No one takes offense (to criticism)."
On Saturday, I asked Brookhart to compare the leadership this spring to last season. Before I could finish the question, the coach emphatically blurted, "very different."
And it goes beyond having a cowboy senior quarterback or linebacker, which is the traditional conception of leadership in college football.
"You see younger guys saying something to older guys if they're doing something wrong," junior linebacker Doug Williams said.
Rodney Etienne, a sophomore defensive back, even corrected the fiery Mackey on an error this spring - a feat similar to negotiating with a grizzly bear.
Mackey loved it.
"Somebody needs to say when you need to get your head out of your ass," Mackey said.
Coming into this season, the Zips have several question marks. They are replacing almost the entire offensive line. They are razor-thin at defensive line. They will rely on an unproven underclassman at quarterback.
Two things are certain. First, leadership won't be an issue.
"You have a bunch of guys who care about this program and they speak up," Brookhart said.
Second, Mackey - despite not being the tallest or fastest safety you'll ever see - is a franchise player.
I asked Brookhart what Mackey means to the Zips. The coach wouldn't let me finish the question.
Men's soccer
Ferrise also wrote about the Zips progress this spring.
A couple freshmen could become major contributors on offense.

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