Audacity is the mantra of the 2016 University of Akron football team.
In being audacious, coach Terry Bowden and his staff are hoping to give the school’s football program something it hasn’t had or been close to in more than a decade — sustained success.
That’s the key to ensuring that UA’s football program starts to build a tradition that attracts talented athletes with character who perform well on the field and in the classroom and, more importantly to some, win.
“Our players expect to be able to win every football game,” Bowden said. “Our players want to go out there and try to win them all.”
After a season that concluded with the Zips winning their first bowl game, the internal and external expectations have significantly evolved. UA last produced consecutive winning seasons in 2004 (6-5) and 2005 (7-6) under then coach J.D. Brookhart. After that, the program began a descent into mediocrity.
It’s taken Bowden four seasons to turn it around and, after a win in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, UA seeks to not just maintain last season’s success (a tie for second place in the Mid-American Conference’s East Division) but improve by challenging for a conference title.
“I do believe this team has the talent to compete with our conference and that’s what our team does,” Bowden said after Friday’s practice. “We’re going to take them one game at a time. We’ve got to win one game before we get to our second game and we’ve got to win four before we get to our conference. But because of bowl games and because of the way things are, every game is critical to our success in reaching our goals.”
How will the Zips stack up? Considering the amount of talent lost on the offensive line, linebackers and specialists, it’s difficult for an outsider to say, but Bowden remained consistently confident throughout the summer.
The offense, with a new quarterback in Thomas Woodson, struggled at times last season. They ranked ninth in the MAC in scoring offense, 11th in overall offense, sixth in rushing offense and 11th in passing offense. There’s reason to hope that could change significantly for the better.
Given personnel losses, it will be hard for the nation’s No. 3-ranked rushing and 15th-ranked overall defense to match last season. But defensive coordinator and associate head coach Chuck Amato isn’t conceding anything.
“I don’t care. Our expectations are high,” Amato said. “Our standards have to be set high and we’re just going to be next man up. Is it going to be easy to do what we did last year? Why can’t we? Who says we can’t? Our standards have already been set. We have to do better than we did last year.”
Here is a breakdown as the Zips prepare for Saturday’s opener against VMI at InfoCision Stadium at 6:30 p.m.:
Quarterbacks: The only question here is whether freshman Kato Nelson is red-shirted for the coming season. Woodson will be the starter, and he should continue to evolve. For the Zips to have more success, his accuracy (53 percent last season) must improve. He’s dropped weight and looks more mobile in the pocket. That will also help with the few run plays called for him.
Running backs: Warren Ball, a senior transfer from Ohio State, is the likely starter. He looks the part at 6-foot-1, 232 pounds. In limited practices and from talking to teammates, he is the real deal. He’s a smart, patient runner who will wait for his line to establish blocks to get the yardage available to him. He also has the strength to break tackles and the speed to burst through a hole and dash toward the end zone. Sophomore Van Edwards, a speedster will likely get some carries to spell Ball.
Offensive line: There will be no success without the line — an entirely new group with limited experience — stepping up. Bowden likes their overall athleticism and it seems clear that they believe that they’ve developed the chemistry necessary for success.
Wide receiver: Logically speaking, Woodson should go from having an average unit last year to one that could open eyes this season. Jerome Lane Jr. (20.3 yards per catch) had a breakout year after switching from defense to offense. The problem last season was that after defenses learned that they’d have to double-team him, no other UA receiver stepped up to complement him. This season, the Zips have 6-foot-3, 190-pound junior speedster Austin Wolf and transfer JoJo Natson, another speedster, with the ability to turn a short gain into a big play.
Defensive line: A strength of the team last year, UA is looking for a strong season courtesy of ends Jamal Marcus and Se’Von Pittman. Amato contends that for the defense to be successful, the line has to maintain its level of play from last year.
“To make it all go, the line’s the group that’s got to set the tone. If they’ll set the tone, everybody will be good,” Amato said.
Linebackers: The talented group from last year will be replaced by a huge question mark. Along with the defensive line, the front seven powered the UA defense last season. That may or may not change this year. Is it a concern?
“Yes and no,” Amato said. “Yes, because they’re young. No, because there’s a lot of talent and potential which doesn’t win games, but they’ve really come a long way from the spring and they got a lot to learn last year from three people that were really intelligent. We’ll show up. … the line has to pick up the slack.”
In this group, watch out for Ulysses Gilbert III.
Defensive backs: UA is loaded in the defensive backfield; so much so that they will have plenty of options should the linebackers need some support. The four corners, DeAndre Scott, Bryce Jones, Larry Hope and Kyron Brown, are all good enough to start according to their position coach Otis Mounds.
Amato agreed: “We have four corners who are really good football players and they’ve been around for a while.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Zips blog at www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ.