You would think that with a significant number of offensive starters returning for the upcoming season, the University of Akron football team should be set in that area.
Amazing how a new coaching staff and new offensive system has a way of throwing a wrench into those expectations, as the Zips will go from the spread to a pro-style offense for the coming year, forcing their players to adjust accordingly.
Quarterback Kato Nelson is expected to lead the way. That wouldn’t be an easy task for any college quarterback going to a new system, but the 6-foot-1, 215-pound junior said he’s up to the task, given as he played in a similar system in high school.
“I wouldn’t say so,” he said when he asked if it were an adjustment for him. “It’s just fun for me. It’s fun being out there and having a lot of options I can go to, go through and get the ball to. I don’t have to get through two reads then rely on my feet and make a play or something like that. I’ve got playmakers and options I can get the ball to.”
Therein lies the difference for Nelson, which is easy to see when he practices — he’s looking to and reading those options first before jetting off down the field.
“I definitely want to stay in the pocket,” Nelson said, referencing the fact that he’s had surgery twice for tears to his meniscus. And that’s where first-year coach Tom Arth wants him.
“He’s gotten so much better and, honestly, it’s what we work on every day," Arth said. "We work on that probably as much as anything as a quarterback position group. He’s done a great job of that as have all of our quarterbacks really, understanding, No. 1, what the progression is, knowing who the No. 1 receiver is. And working his way through two, three, four to five is really impressive, and we’ve seen him do that throughout spring.”
In Arth’s offense, however, comes great responsibility, which Nelson, who has also improved his footwork, confirmed in conversation. He was not allowed to change the play at the line of scrimmage a season ago under coach Terry Bowden.
“It’s probably a combination of me being young and my coach probably not fully trusting me to have that much authority over the offense,” Nelson said of why that was the case last season.
In Arth's system, being able to read a defense — which Nelson said he’s always possessed the aptitude to do — and having the ability to change the play at the line is an expectation.
“That’s certainly a big part of how we play. We put a lot on the quarterback,” Arth said. “We take a lot of pride in training those guys to be able to go out and make sure we are in the right play call and have the ability to attack the defense where they are vulnerable, so that’s something we’ve done with Kato.”
And Nelson has responded. Although he downplays it, others around him have taken note of his commitment to film study. He confesses that he does so before and after practice and even during free time, looking at how he and the team performed after an installation of a portion of the offense and even checking out how other quarterbacks have executed something similar.
It’s paid off in practices and the way Nelson looks throwing the ball. His mechanics are better and, although he never lacked for confidence, it emanates from him more. Ultimately, that may not be a bad thing. At this point it’s not a stretch to say Nelson and his stable of receivers could be the strength of the UA team.
Arth, who Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning recommended for the job at UA because of his cerebral approach to the game, appears to recognize Nelson’s potential, having learned something significant thus far in this process.
“He’s smart,” Arth said of Nelson. “He’s a lot smarter than I initially gave him credit for. He’s super sharp.”
Speaking of receivers
Jonah Morris, a 6-foot-4, 205-pound junior from Archbishop Hoban High School who transferred to UA from Indiana, announced Wednesday that he was shutting himself down for the season because of a lingering knee issue.
Arth said no decision had been made in that regard.
“We met today. We have not met with the doctors yet. Jonah has not seen a doctor for his knee, so there’s no decision being made,” he said. “It’s our hope we’re able to rehab him. He may miss a few more days, but hopefully we’ll get him back next week.”
In the meantime, Zips fans may want to keep an eye out for 6-foot-3, 200-pound receiver Julian Hicks, a transfer from Central Michigan who played at Mayfield High School in suburban Cleveland. He’s opened a few sets of eyes in a short time.
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByGeorgeThomas.