It’s easy enough to replace players on any given team.

Replacing leadership is an altogether different scenario, however.

But that's exactly what the University of Akron football team — whose defensive unit will begin the season with eight new starters — must do as the Zips prepare to take on Illinois at noon Aug. 31.

And although former standouts Jamal Davis, Ulysees Gilbert III and Kyron Brown are no longer members of the team, remaining players are stepping up in leadership roles, coach Tom Arth said.

The defensive and offensive units find themselves in different places this season. Last year, the offense suffered from inexperience, which led to struggles on the field, and the veteran-laden defense carried the team — sometimes too much for much of the season.

Of course, they’ll be counted on to do their share for first-year coach Arth and his staff and, once again, the leadership void has to be filled.

“Yeah, we’re going to be young and what we lack for in experience, I hope we make up for in our effort and competitiveness and just understanding of the game,” Arth said.

Shawn Featherstone and Josh Ward are two players who can fill the void, Arth said, along with linebacker John Lako and defensive back Alvin Davis, the wily senior veterans of the defense. Lako, a walk-on who grew into his current role, and Davis, a hard-hitter who plays bigger than his 5-9, 175-pound frame would suggest, are being counted on by Arth and their teammates to show the way.

It’s a case of tempus fugit for both players, who fondly recalled their freshman years. However, they said they are ready to assume the reins of the defense.

Lako (6-2, 225 pounds), who has steadily worked his way up the ladder, said he sees the difference.

“It’s just more dialed in, more locked in and understanding this is my last year of playing ball at Akron and being focused pretty much,” he said after practice on Thursday.

Davis said players followed Brown’s lead in the secondary last season.

“I was still learning things from him as we went along,” Davis said. “This year is kind of different, knowing that I’m the senior now and I have to help out all the young guys. So they’re looking for me to know what the call is, and so now I have to be more on my P's and Q's and know the playbook and everything. “

For Davis, that means serving as a mentor for freshman defensive back Tyson McDonald, who is learning his role as a nickel back.

It’s similar for Lako, who is on his third position coach in as many years.

“It shows up on film when guys aren’t focused,” he said. “We’re doing a good job developing them. “

Arth seemed to agree, taking note of how both players lead by example and deed. He credited Lako with offering advice no matter the group on defense.

As for Davis, Arth said he appreciates how much he passes on his understanding of the game and lets it be known expectations come with playing for the Zips.

“Each of those guys has contributed in really great ways for us,” Arth said.

 

George M. Thomas can be reached at gmthomas@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByGeorgeThomas.