Familiar sounds filled InfoCision Stadium at the University of Akron on Friday afternoon.
A grunt here. A yell there. Clapping over there coupled with the occasional thud of a football being kicked or caught.
But there was little denying the differences as coach Tom Arth, in his first season at UA after replacing Terry Bowden last December, led the Zips football team through its paces on the first day of training camp. But the general sense was that of liberation.
“It’s definitely a relief to get back to football after all the summer workouts and work we put in,” quarterback Kato Nelson said after the team’s practice.
“It’s exciting to be here,” Arth said after the first practice, which was conducted without pads. “There’s been a lot of hard work and a lot of progress made to get to this point and it’s exciting to be here now. I think it’s important for our players to realize the opportunity they have and how close we are to our season."
And their feet are being held to the fire — literally and figuratively — to start camp. With the temperatures peaking in the low 80s in the area, the stadium field is significantly hotter on such a day.
“Everyone was complaining about their feet burning. People were spraying water on their feet mid-practice, but it was intense,”defensive back Alvin Davis said. “It’s going to be a long camp, but we’re going to get through it because we’re holding each other up.”
Nelson, 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, the presumed starter heading into the season, noticed.
“I thought we started off a little slow,” Nelson said. "Offensively, I thought we made a lot of mistakes. I thought I made a lot of mistakes, but like I said, there’s a lot we can improve on.”
Arth, sounding very much like a coach, called the weather’s effects a good learning experience for the team.
“I think our guys felt it,” he said. “They felt the first day and they felt the heat and they allowed it to affect their mentality. We have to be tougher and we have to be able to push through that adversity that we face and I didn’t think we handled that as well as we could have.”
It won’t be the first or only challenge the team faces in the ensuing weeks. But Arth, understanding intangibles are as integral to a successful program as is talent, said bonding on the field represents the team’s primary test.
“I think we have a close group of players. I think they get along really well. I think they’re friends. I think they hang out,” he said. “But I want to see us become a team and develop that trust in one another, the ability to count on one another through thick, through thin through all of the adversity we’re going to face — to really find our purpose as the 2019 Akron football program.”
For Nelson, the challenge comes in a different form and reflects the reality of switching offenses from one in which he was expected to make plays with his legs and arm to a more pro-style, drop-back system.
“Right now it’s just making sure we get this offense down and build chemistry with my receivers,” he said.
What happens going forward will depend upon how the team handles the variety of challenges it is sure to face. The Zips know that a 4-8 record last season and a fourth-place finish in the Mid-American Conference ensures that many won’t be expecting a lot this season. It shows in the media predicting the team would finish fifth in the conference’s East Division.
Arth displays a touch of pragmatism when talking about that prognostication. He acknowledges that the team has plenty of motivation internally.
“I don’t think we need anything from the outside,” he said. “Does it help? Absolutely. I think that’s a reflection of our record last season in the MAC and certainly with a new coaching staff and graduating as many players as we did on the defensive side of the ball, I think where they picked us is probably fair based on what we’ve done in the past.”
Davis, 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, offered another perspective.
“We don’t like it, but we can’t control what they think about us,” he said.
The pick has certainly gotten his attention.
“The motivation is that we’re fifth and we’re trying to prove the nation wrong,” he said.
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByGeorgeThomas.