University of Akron football coach Tom Arth said when he assumed the reins of the program that he’d adapt the team’s schemes to fit the situation and opponent.
In one of the areas where the Zips were strongest last season but could be problematic this year — the defensive line — he’s definitely shown that propensity as UA looks ahead prepare for the opener against Illinois on Aug. 31.
Multiple fronts are the operative words as Arth and his staff spent the first two weeks of fall camp putting players through their paces to see who fits where.
That includes three-man fronts — a lot of them — mixed in with four-man fronts. For Arth, defensive coordinator Matt Feeney and defensive line coach Brian Cochran, it’s about finding the right way to attack opposing offenses for a defense that will be young, very young, after losing eight starters.
“It's a combination of the personnel that we have and just what we feel schematically gives us the best chance to play against whatever opponent we're playing against,” Arth said. “One week four down [linemen] might be better for that particular team and what they run versus a three-down and vice versa. Versatility is really important in our program and our defense.”
Versatility requires flexibility on the part of players and many of UA’s returning players are being asked to change positions, including seniors Davon’te Jest, 6-foot-1, 300 pounds, who played defensive tackle in last year’s defense, along with Josh Ward, 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, who played defensive end last year and accounted for 7.5 tackles-for-loss and four sacks on a unit that generated just 22 for the season.
When the Zips play a three-man front, Jest will play as a nose tackle.
“I like it better because it gets everybody involved,” Jest said of the new systems. “I like everything about the defense.”
Ward agreed, calling his working out at another position when he’s played at end all of his career liberating because, he said, it allows him to use his speed, something he considers one of his strongest assets.
“I now play an outside linebacker which I'm a little bit happier about,” Ward said. “I just feel like I can be so much more versatile. I feel like it opens up my skill set. I can run around the field. I feel like I can make a lot more plays. I can run sideline to sideline.”
His sack total was good enough for second on the team, but he expects improvement despite being expected to fulfill other duties other than full-time pass rusher. The Zips could stand to improve that number along with the ability to apply consistent pressure to the quarterback, Arth said.
The multiple fronts will allow the defense to bring pressure in a number of ways, not just being reliant upon the line. Ward and Jest are expected to contribute, but Arth said the coaching staff expects defensive end and Akron native Justin Sampson, a 6-foot-2, 210-pounder who played for St. Vincent-Mary, to get after the quarterback.
“He's someone who we feel is a really good pass rusher being able to create ways for him to get favorable matchups and one-on-one situations,” he said.
That pass rush will come from a variety of places he said. Jest is looking forward to it.
“You should see a lot of sacks this year,” he said. “I’m going to say it now. There are going to be a lot of sacks this year.”
And Arth believes his way of mixing things up will work in the Mid-American Conference.
“We've always been very multiple defensively,” he said. “We've had a lot of success on defense, really, over the past six years since I've been a head coach.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByGeorgeThomas.