When asked what the primary difference is for his football team as it prepares to begin spring practice Tuesday, University of Akron coach Terry Bowden did not hesitate with his answer.
“We know what we’ve got, what we’re working with and we kind of know exactly where we need to start in the spring and what we need to do to get better,” he said during a phone interview Friday. “Last year we were just trying to find out where to put people and putting an offense and defense together.”
The position switching is likely done, for now, and Bowden and his staff can go through spring practice with a clear set of goals to improve the Zips’ fortunes in the win-loss column coming off three consecutive 1-11 seasons.
There are holes to be filled for sure.
On offense, the Zips lost quarterback Dalton Williams, offensive linemen Adam Bice and Mitchell Straight and leading receiver Marquelo Suel.
Defensively, they bid adieu to starting cornerback Avis Commack, linebackers Troy Gilmer and Kurt Mangum and defensive end J.D. Griggs.
In Bowden’s spread offense, the quarterback position remains the key and the job belongs to sophomore Kyle Pohl as practice opens. Pohl didn’t get a lot of playing time last year, getting most of his snaps during the season finale against Toledo, but showed flashes of potential.
“The thing that I like about Kyle Pohl is that he’s a natural leader,” Bowden said. “The day we started workouts in the winter, we never had to ask him to step out front. He’s more of a quieter leader than last year’s quarterback [Dalton] Williams. What he’s got to do is be that leader — confident leader from Day One — and build the confidence in everyone around him.”
Building that confidence begins with the offensive line.
Bowden acknowledged that size remains an issue for both lines this year, especially with the loss of Bice and Straight.
“When I say it’s a small team, the number of offensive linemen and defensive linemen is small just as their physical size,” he said. “We have to improve the strength and bigness of our line, but we also have to improve the depth. That is what we did in the offseason.”
On the offensive line, the Zips will turn to senior Jarrod Pughsley, who returns to his left tackle spot, to fill Bice’s leadership void, and there will be an added expectation that Green’s Dylan Brumbaugh (6-foot-5, 287 pounds), redshirt freshman Mike Casimos (6-2, 271 pounds) and junior college transfer Cedric Brittnum (6-6, 330 pounds) can come in to shore up the offensive line.
Brittnum is the most intriguing prospect. In game footage, he towered over opponents and flattened most of them easily.
Griggs will be missed on the defensive line, but associate head coach and defensive coordinator Chuck Amato will get the final year of service from Colorado State transfer C.J. James. A highly touted prospect out of Orlando, Fla., who didn’t completely live up to the hype at Colorado State, James has the potential to help the entire line get better.
The linebacker corps features a mixture of youth (Jatavis Brown, 5-11, 203 pounds), experience (Justin March, 6-0, 203 pounds) and some new blood in junior college transfer (Jon Selby, 6-1, 210 pounds). There will be positions available to those willing to take them.
Among the wide receivers and defensive backs, expect a scrum.
With Suel’s departure, a slot position is open, a spot that will likely be filled by quarterback-turned-receiver Zach D’Orazio.
That’s not to say there won’t be competition. Bowden loved the way that 6-5 senior receiver Jerrod Dillard (nine touchdowns) came on during the season.
In the defensive backfield, sophomore Bryce Cheek is a player to watch.
As important as all of these elements are, there’s little doubt the Zips must improve on special teams.
They have to find a kick returner and they have to find consistency in their kicking game.
Consistency is the overriding theme for the spring.
The Zips showed spirit in most games last year, but it didn’t translate to the win column.
Barring injury, Bowden knows what he wants on both sides of the ball this season.
“I want to know who my 11 starters are,” he said. “I don’t want any slash positions in the spring. I told the defense and the offense we’ve got to compete. I don’t want guys happy to get reps. I want one guy to win the job and get the majority of the snaps and that toughness and competition to make us better on both sides of the ball.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Zips blog at http://www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.