One of the few bright spots on the University of Akron football roster can be found with the linebackers, and that is despite losing two key members of that unit after their eligibility ended.
With the loss of Troy Gilmer and Kurt Mangum, last year’s leading tackler, coach Terry Bowden and associate head coach and defensive coordinator Chuck Amato easily could have been worried.
That isn’t the case.
They’ve found their probable starters in outside linebackers — junior Justin March and sophomore Jatavis Brown — and junior middle linebacker Nick Rossi.
“We lack that experience so we have to practice and get better every day,” Bowden said. “I do believe in the top six or seven guys here we have much more talent than we opened up with last spring.”
Judging from conversations, it’s clear that Amato expects that crew to be the heart of his attacking defense.
“They have to be the leaders of the team,” he said Friday after practice. “They have to be playmakers.”
And they have to do it while not being a finished product.
Bowden expresses confidence that his coaches will have the linebackers — he calls them a more athletic unit than last year — ready to go by the time the season rolls around, but right now, inexperience is their enemy.
He expects March to lead the way.
“Everybody has to play with that fast motor like Justin March,” Bowden said. “Justin isn’t the biggest guy, but he has that type of motor. The problem is when younger guys haven’t had a lot of playing time, they lack consistency.”
It’s a situation that Rossi can use to his advantage in the spring. But by no means is anything etched in stone. Like a lot of positions related to spring football, no one knows who will eventually stay or go, and C.J. Mizell, a signee from the 2013 recruiting class, is supposed to join the team in the fall. He is finishing course work needed to get his two-year degree.
Ultimately, the competition only serves to make the Zips better.
Offering a challenge
Less than a week into practice, Bowden and his staff are not thrilled with the Zips’ effort.
Apparently bad habits from the offseason have continued during spring practice, and it is most apparent with the defensive line.
“Some of the players are practicing pretty hard, but I still have a bad taste in my mouth from the lack of effort in our offseason program,” Bowden said. “They like to play football on Saturdays, but they don’t like to prepare to play football.”
Connor Seeman, a senior defensive end from Copley, is taking advantage. This week Seeman spent much of his time working with the first unit in place of Albert Presley.
Seeman might make his way into the defensive line rotation.
“Presley in the offseason program wasn’t up to our expectations, and Seeman?” Amato asked. “He does pretty doggone good. It’s a case of Seeman taking advantage of an opportunity.
“We feel like he’s a guy who can be in the rotation,” Bowden said. “He is a guy that, because of his work ethic, has given us that kind of effort we need and consistency.”
Presley, who can be ferocious off the edge, is by no means out of the Zips’ plans.
“It’s going to take a lot of hard work by some people, and Presley’s one of them, to convince me that he has the mental toughness to play hard every day,” Bowden said.
That might sound harsh, but it reflects a reality as Bowden and his staff go about building his program.
“Nobody has a position earned,” Amato said. “They have to earn it. It’s not going to be given to them. If they think it is, they’re crazy. If we get everyone here signed and eligible, we could have a pretty good looking defensive front seven.”
This morning’s practice session from 9 a.m. to noon is open to the public and will include a half scrimmage.
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.