Optimism and the University of Akron football program have had a loose association with one another for several years.
After an early season win against James Madison, a string of losses followed, and it looked as if the Zips were in for another 1-11 season.
Then something changed. Close, gutsy losses began to turn into close gutsy wins. The Zips won their final three games, bringing the Wagon Wheel back to UA after a 16-7 victory over archrival Kent State, and ending the season with an upset of Toledo.
The 5-7 record represents a turn in the right direction after several years of occupying a spot in college football’s Siberia. The potential shown in the near-upset of Michigan makes Zips football relevant.
It’s also bearing fruit, locally, as coach Terry Bowden and his staff have solidified local relationships. They have been able to recruit and land local players, who might have had the option to go to other Mid-American Conference schools.
Last year’s additions of linebackers Deonte Moore (Kenmore) and Jerome Lane (Firestone), both of whom redshirted this year, and of Fransohn Bickley (St. Vincent-St. Mary), the team’s freshman offensive player of the year, added a local flavor. Bowden is adding more local seasoning in two of Bickley’s former teammates, defensive standouts Newman Williams and Travonte Junius, who both gave oral commitments to the Zips this fall.
With other potential signings and some momentum heading into the offseason, there’s every reason that optimism and the Zips might be getting closer.
Beacon Journal/Ohio.com Zips reporter George M. Thomas spoke with Bowden about this season and peered into the future during a recent interview.
Q: Was this season a success relative to what you expected when you got here?
A: I will say this. I wanted to make sure that we continued to get better and better and I felt like we did that. Now, that being said, what shows you’re getting better besides just looking at the video. I would say the five wins was a huge indicator that we were getting better. What I’m trying to say is we’re going to get this program to where we can compete for the championship.
Q: How do you avoid taking a step backward?
A: We’ve got to work as hard as we can. If you look historically back at Akron, Akron has not been able to sustain that kind of movement. It immediately goes back, so we have to work our fannies off and realize that we’re half way there or part way there and we have so much to do because over the years Akron hasn’t been able to get to the winning level and repeat the next year.
Q: Is that a Mid-American Conference trait or an Akron trait?
A: I would say in football over the past 25 or 30 years, most of the teams in our conference have several years where they have led the conference or won the division and had a little more success than we have. With Akron, since 1987 it’s been a tough journey.
Q: How do you flip that?
A: I think what we have to do is put the whole picture together. The university made a commitment. We see that with the indoor facility and the new stadium, the staff we brought in and now we have to continue to work, work, work toward that goal of building a program up. You don’t know how long it’s going to take, but he has to keep on pushing. I keep thinking to when Brady Hoke [current Michigan Wolverines coach] went to Ball State and had no winning seasons then all of a sudden had six and then he won 12. Then Pete [Lembo] came in and carried that forward. I think the key is we have to keep working hard, keep focusing on recruiting and development and move forward.
Q: Why are more local players looking at your program now?
A: I will say this talking about recruiting locally and making a commitment to recruiting locally. We made a commitment to get the best local players even if other places weren’t recruiting them. For example: Fransohn Bickley. Because of his size, he is an extraordinary athlete being overlooked by Division I teams. We looked at where he was and what he can do and, of course, knowing the people around him a lot more we said we’re going to go out there and do what other people didn’t do, offer one of our local players. He becomes our freshman offensive player of the year. ... We need to attract the best ones, not the ones no one wants. If you can’t get the best players locally, it’s a winning formula because of what it does for your local community. I also believe it because of what it means to win that Wagon Wheel and what it means to win in the community. All of those things are understood by local kids.
Q: What do you think of quarterback Kyle Pohl’s play this year?
A: Kyle made great progress. He made incredible progress, and by the end of the year, his hard work and development put him exactly where you’d want him to be. There were tough days in the process because he can’t just learn to be a starting quarterback by osmosis. He had to learn it on the field against some pretty good teams. Then having to play half the season with a sprained ankle, limiting his ability to protect himself in a lot of ways put a lot of pressure on him, but I was extremely pleased with the progress to where the last couple of games he really began to take over for us. Now, do I still want to see him improve his vocal leadership? I still want to see more Tom Brady out of Kyle Pohl. That’s from a personality standpoint. ... What I would like Kyle to do is continue to transform his demeanor from quiet to transferring that on the sideline, on the bench and in the huddle that leadership role to others which I think he will do.
Q: Will you need someone other than Zach D’Orazio to step up at the wide receiver position?
A: You’re always looking for a great playmaker at wide-out and tailback. ... Yes, we need to have that go-to guy. Our system hasn’t presented that to us. None of our receivers are in the top 10 in the conference because we rotate. ... But very well in the offseason we may challenge our receivers: ‘You know what if we’re playing three wideouts in a formation, we want the top three to play every snap except the one or two snaps [others] get and show me who needs to be No. 1.’ That’s one thing you need to do, establish No. 1 go-to guy. Then, two, everyone in this conference is looking to bring in that one guy that’s just a difference maker; one guy who is just a notch above at tailback and wideout.
Q: Is that guy on the roster?
A: Where we have the guy on our team? I’m not sure we don’t have that guy on the team. In the offseason, we need to make it clear to each running back and every wideout that there’s going to be a No. 1. Now [Jawon] Chisholm’s going to be No. 1 at running back, but we have some guys who are pretty dang good and they’re going to get a chance to say ‘OK, let’s go find a No. 1 at that position.’ Usually you’ve got one playmaker that’s better than everybody else. We need to establish in the offseason if we have that on our roster and, two, continue to go out there and recruit that individual at both positions.
Q: The defense started out rough this year. Were you surprised at the way they jelled toward the end of the season?
A: It’s what we expected. I was not surprised, but I was pleased. This is the direction we have to go. Offense is nice, but you have to play great defense. Especially, I thought [cornerbacks coach] Terrell Buckley did a great job. They played a little more zone than man and got their eyes on the ball and made some big interceptions and started really just developing. Offensively, statistically we really went down, but in a lot of ways once we started seeing the way the defense played, there was really a conservative effort. Let’s not turn the ball over. Let’s keep field position and our main objective at this point in the program is to win a close ball game. What we allowed Dalton [Williams] to do out there, really sling it around [in 2012], we really pulled in our reins. [This season] if we have to punt, let’s punt because our defense is playing good.
Q: You lose several key players on defense, a shutdown corner in Malachi Freeman and his running mate on the other side, Emmanuel Lartey.
A: We have Dante Williams coming back and Bryce Cheeks coming back. We’ve got some solid ones coming back. ... We have to continue to bring in players at the level we had. Our secondary had 13 interceptions, and that’s a good number.
Q: C.J. James gave you plenty of speed from the outside — do you expect Se’Von Pittman will be able to help at that position and will the depth you found continue on the defensive line?
A: Se’Von will be ready to go and Nordly Capi, who got hurt, will be back and [Nsmesoma] Okafor is back. Alphonso Horner, who had a bad back and really had to struggle to survive this past year, had lower back problems that he played on. We’ve got some linemen coming back, and of course, Se’Von can play inside and outside.
Q: You were almost bowl eligible. Do you think you would have gotten a bowl bid based on a win against Michigan?
A: I have no idea, but I would say the fact that those kids would have been able to say we became bowl eligible, that became pretty relevant. ... That’s would’ve, should’ve, could’ve. That’s how close we are.
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.