The first question put to coach Terry Bowden during his introductory press conference in December was how would he change the losing culture at the University of Akron after back-to-back 1-11 seasons under former coach Rob Ianello.
If the metric to judge that change is wins, then Bowden accomplished little in his first year as UA’s coach. The Zips finished 1-11 again.
If it involves statistics and near misses, then Bowden, his staff and their new systems on offense and defense showed some reasonable progress.
“I don’t think you ever get out of it until you start winning some games, but I do believe that the culture has changed in that the players play with a great sense of spirit, attitude and effort and we were in so many games,” Bowden said during an interview in his office Tuesday afternoon.
Bowden would have viewed two or 12 wins a success for a program that’s been wandering the desert for three seasons now. Instead, he guided a series of near misses and a lone victory against Morgan State, a member of the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly Division I-AA.
The Zips did play some good teams close. Bowden did say that the evolution of a team from bad to good included: losing big, losing by a little, breaking through with a couple of wins and then becoming a consistently good. Early in the season it appeared as if the Zips skipped the first step and went to the second as they played Florida International, Bowling Green, Ohio and others close.
But they didn’t win. Part of the problem was a lack of depth and some key injuries on defense (defensive lineman Nico Caponi, linebacker Justin March, defensive end Albert Presley) and an offense that struggled during the latter part of the season.
There were bright spots.
“I think [quarterback] Dalton Williams because we didn’t have a clue what we were going to do with this quarterback in the system we were running and just hoped that this I-AA backup could come in here and manage our offense,” Bowden said.
Williams gave the Zips the leadership they needed early on in the process, completing 326-of-522 passes, setting a school record with 25 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions.
Bowden said that the defense continued to grow throughout the season despite injuries. They definitely found a nose tackle in Cody Grice, and Caponi and the defensive line gelled until the aforementioned injuries.
But in assistant head coach and defensive coordinator Chuck Amato’s defense, speed and depth is needed. Although the Zips have redshirted some talent on the defensive side of the ball, more is needed. Without Caponi during a three-game span, despite its best efforts, the line opened up like a sieve, allowing Mid-American Conference backs to accumulate huge chunks of yardage.
It’s not difficult to discern what will be the emphasis for the team that has just 13 scholarships to use for the class of 2013. Eight of those are spoken for with early commits. Bowden’s staff began the arduous recruiting period after the UMass loss in an attempt to fill those remaining slots.
There are musts for those slots, Bowden said.
Among them are a defensive lineman, a linebacker, at least one cornerback and hopefully two. The key is building depth at every position.
“If we can get a junior college quarterback that is good enough to help us, it would be a nice mix between our two freshmen and Kyle [Pohl] and create some competition,” Bowden said.
Just one more thing
Depth is the focus, but there is also a need for that one difference maker, a playmaker.
Bowden doesn’t hesitate to mention the name of Kent State’s Dri Archer. He covets a player of Archer’s skill level, a player with the ability to change the direction of a game with special play as Archer has done so many times this season for the Golden Flashes.
“I think [the KSU coaching staff] agrees without No. 1 they might have a couple of losses,” he said. “You would love to get [a player like that], but the other part [depth] has to be done.”
For all the progress that the offense made this season, that playmaker was glaring in its absence. He will be needed to help Pohl transition to the starting role at quarterback.
Despite the talk of providing competition, there’s little doubt that Pohl is Bowden’s guy to run the team next year. The 6-foot-3 Pohl has a strong arm that he put on display in his three-plus quarters of playing time against Toledo in the season finale.
Although he struggled in the second half, he showed enough for Zips fans to be optimistic.
He’s not a pure pocket passer, showing the ability to extend or make plays with his legs. He might get competition, but Bowden’s primary problem will be adapting his offense to Pohl’s skill set.
“I do see Kyle Pohl as the quarterback of the future,” Bowden said. “The one we definitely want to work with. He has all the ingredients we need, offensively.”
Back to work
Questions surrounding where Bowden and his staff go from here began the minute they returned from Thanksgiving break.
Most of the class of 2012 redshirted, with the notable exceptions of running back Hakeem Lawrence and wide receiver Omani Davis.
The coaching staff is beginning the process of measuring and cataloging all of the physical attributes of the players expected to play next season.
“With only 13 scholarships coming, the improvement has to come right there,” Bowden said. “The difference has to be right there in that group of guys.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. 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.