University of Akron football coach Terry Bowden will be the first to confess that the best way to build a stable, winning college football program is to recruit top-quality high school players.
Recruits make up the backbone of any program. But when colleges endure what the Zips have in three consecutive 1-11 seasons, attracting good players becomes even more of a challenge than normal.
Though not the case in Bowden’s first year of actual recruiting this past offseason, in prior years it was a problem.
Bowden said the program probably lost 45 players during the coaching maelstrom that existed during the transition from J.D. Brookhart to Rob Ianello to Bowden and his staff.
That kind of attrition would put any program in the hole, let alone a mid-major like UA. It forces coaches to rely on transfers and fifth-year seniors to fill the holes.
Sometimes that works out — see quarterback Dalton Williams last year. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Occasionally teams will get lucky. By that metric, Bowden and his staff must hold a pocket full of rabbits’ feet considering some of the players they brought in this season.
They can point to a number of successes that have helped make the team more competitive.
Offensively, Henry Orelus, Zenel Demhasaj along with Joe McNamara have worked to stabilize the offensive line — the right side in particular.
“All of them are probably not playing as much as they want to, but they’ve held together as a team,” offensive line coach Alan Arrington said. “This team is just trying to win games.”
Defensively, linemen Moses McCray, Nordly Capi and C.J. James shored up a line that lacked depth last season. The result is a defense that ranks fourth in sacks in the Mid-American Conference.
“McCray isn’t a vocal leader, but he brings it,” defensive coordinator Chuck Amato said after Thursday’s practice. “They [the entire defense] are banged up, but he brings it.”
And then there’s the matter of James, who remains in limbo because of an NCAA eligibility issue which cost him the past two games. The team is hoping he will return soon.
Amato likes to spread the praise around to his entire line rotation and deservedly so given their collective performance thus far this season. The defensive line reached a high point last week in the loss to Northern Illinois when it held the MAC’s best to a 1-of-15 third-down conversion rate and held that offense to more than 100 yards below its combined averages for rushing and passing per game.
“I tell those linebackers every time you make a tackle you ought to go kiss [the defensive linemen] because they’re keeping people off of you and allow you to go do your job,” Amato said.
They have created something missing in Bowden’s first year — depth.
“They’ve really contributed,” he said. “Most of them have really contributed. It means a lot to them being part of this program and turning it around, and they mean a lot to us.”
“The one thing we didn’t have was depth. It’s awesome. It’s awesome,” he said of the current situation.
Unfortunately for the Zips, the presence of the transfers hasn’t shown up in the win column. Given the remainder of the Zips’ schedule that could change, but the experience the transfers have brought to the program is beneficial.
Arrington said that experience is invaluable for players who are not getting playing time.
“They feed off one another and they’re learning different things,” he said.
They also allow UA to build toward the future with players that they hope are solid and are redshirting.
“The fact that you can redshirt some people, that’s critical,” Bowden said.
More on James
The case of James remains a perplexing one as his eligibility issue gets sorted out. There’s little doubt of his impact on the team. When he was forced to sit down beginning with the Ohio game, he held the lead in tackles for loss with six and that remains the case with the team prepared to take on Miami this Saturday in Oxford.
“It’s big,” Amato said. “And like anything else, somebody has to step up. We’re going to miss him for his intensity and his production.”
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.