Kick and punting teams were far from special for the University of Akron last season, and that’s a situation that has become a priority for Zips coach Terry Bowden to fix during fall training camp.
The Zips were last in kick return average last season in the Mid-America Conference with 16.6 yards per return average. One issue was finding a player who could return the ball consistently.
Nearly two weeks into this camp, Bowden said that he believes he has found his guy in senior defensive back Malachi Freeman.
Given his speed — Freeman ran track in high school — and his athletic prowess, he’s the natural choice. While at Nassau Community College, Freeman scored on a punt return, kickoff return and interception return during his two-year stint.
“Malachi Freeman would be our best,” Bowden said succinctly. “We have to have our best people on the field. We were last in the nation in kickoff returns. We were last in the nation in punting. When you lack depth, it shows up on your special teams.”
That it does, and occasionally kick returns were an adventure for the Zips. There were times last season when the coaching staff expected little more than touchbacks and were perfectly willing to take the ball at the 25-yard line to begin drives.
They also went through several returners, including now-departed running back Quentin Hines and current sophomore Hakeem Lawrence.
Things didn’t pan out.
One issue with Freeman: Bowden could be risking a key part of a defensive backfield that has looked more than capable as camp has worn on. Freeman shows the potential to be a lockdown cornerback; an injury to him could affect the defense overall.
“They want speed back there. There’s no concern on my part. I’m pretty much on every special team [unit],” the 5-foot-9 Freeman said after practice Tuesday. “It’s not difficult [getting back into it]. It’s just relearning how to read your blocks. That’s all going to come back to me. I just need some repetition.”
Freeman, by no means, represents the only option.
For locals who watched freshman Fransohn Bickley play for St. Vincent-St. Mary, they know the game-breaker ability that he possesses, and though he might appear slight to some, no one will question his desire, heart and blazing speed. Bowden said that Bickley’s ability might make him an option.
“He’s a young guy. It’s his very first game,” Bowden said. “Do you want him in there on the very first play of the game against Central Florida [in the season opener] in front of 50,000 people?”
For now, Bowden is not willing to take that chance against an opponent such as Central Florida on the road.
“As the season goes along you may be able to use a second-teamer,” Bowden said.
But the reality of football is that occasionally, wins and losses can come down to special teams.
“We have to win special [teams] as much as possible statistically, or not lose them,” Bowden said.
On the punting front
The Zips averaged just 33.5 yards net punting last season, something that Bowden hopes to improve this year with sophomore punter Zach Paul gaining some experience.
They brought in 6-foot-7 Australian Joel McLellan, but his chance to improve might not come until spring practice.
“He keeps getting better. He doesn’t have the leg right now,” Bowden said. “Right now, he’s learning what football is all about.”
Bowden hasn’t named his starting quarterback, but it’s evident how things are going right now.
“Kyle Pohl, because of his knowledge of the offense, is our clear No. 1,” Bowden said. He added that Nick Hirschman is taking great strides in learning the system.
Linebacker C.J. Mizell, a transfer from Washington State, had a required acclimation day at practice Tuesday, running with wide receiver Drew Phillips.
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.