DETROIT — Two short seasons ago, University of Akron safety Alvin Davis Jr. and quarterback Kato Nelson were young stars on a Zips football team that made a surprise late-season run to the Mid-American Conference East Division title.
On Tuesday, they were back at the home of the MAC Championship Game, representing the Zips during the league's annual Media Day festivities at Ford Field in Detroit.
Few expect UA players to be in uniform when the 2019 MAC champion is crowned in the Motor City on Dec. 7 based on this year's preseason media poll, which placed the Zips fifth in the East Division. First-year UA coach Tom Arth wasn't about to argue with his team's low poll placement, but he does see potential with now wily veterans Davis and Nelson at the controls on defense and offense.
“The first thing I wondered when I looked at the Akron team was do they have a quarterback? I saw Kato Nelson, and I knew we were good there,” said Arth, a Cleveland native and former John Carroll star signal-caller who spent the past two seasons as coach at FCS entry Chattanooga. “We've got a really talented quarterback that we've got to keep developing. He's nowhere close to being what he's capable of, but if we get him there, he'll be a really special player in this league and hopefully beyond.
“Alvin's been an exceptional leader in our program. The way he approaches the game, practice and preparation is pretty rare in college football. He holds his teammates to a high standard, and he sets that standard every single day. It's been awesome working with these guys.”
Davis (5-9, 190 pounds) jumped from second team to first team All-MAC last season, when he intercepted four passes — including two that he returned for touchdowns in UA's stunning upset of Northwestern. He was one of 46 FBS players named to the Jim Thorpe Award Preseason Watch List, placing him among the nation's elite defensive backs.
The Fort Lauderdale native plans to add to his interception total this fall, but is equally motivated by serving as the leader of what promises to be a young defense that lost eight starters from last year.
“I want to show things I haven't shown in previous seasons, be more of a vocal leader on the field. I want to be heard,” Davis said. “The new coaches know my athletic ability is there, but they want me to help the young guys learn the defense, get people lined up right every play. This is my defense, and we're going to make it roll.”
The Zips (4-8 in 2018) have rolled offensively at times in the past two seasons behind Nelson, a 6-1, 215-pound dual-threat quarterback from Florida who has churned out more than 3,800 total yards and 25 touchdowns during his collegiate career.
Nelson believes those numbers can be bettered significantly under the tutelage of Arth, who spent three years as a backup to legendary quarterback Peyton Manning with the Indianapolis Colts.
“He's a great offensive mind,” said Nelson of his new mentor. “Being in the [NFL], playing behind Peyton Manning, I'm really excited to learn from him. We're running an NFL offense. Now I can speak the NFL language, make all the calls and alerts and audibles that they make in the NFL, so God willing if I make it to the NFL one day, it will be an easier transition.”
Leadership provided by Nelson, Davis and other Zips veterans has made Arth's transition to coach at UA surprisingly smooth thus far, which could ultimately lead to a more successful season than most outsiders expect.
“It's been awesome the way they've accepted us, the excitement they've had since we got here,” said Arth of his upperclassmen. “It's been a lot different experience than when I went to Chattanooga. We had to work a lot harder to earn that trust there. We're not fighting an uphill battle here, we're all working in the same direction, pulling the same way. Since that's gone so well, we'll see progress a lot faster.”