Generally speaking, when you are hiring a head coach at the mid-major level, you are looking for guys on the way up or on the way down. In 2001, Bowling Green hired Notre Dame special teams coach Urban Meyer on the way up. In 2005, Ohio hired former Nebraska head coach Frank Solich on the way down. Miami (Ohio) has made a nickname for itself by hiring good coaches on the way up, but after failing with "on the way up" coach Rob Ianello -- and I mean failing -- Akron decided to go with a name most college football fans recognize when they dumped Ianello after two years and two wins: Terry Bowden. Terry "Bobby's Son" Bowden. Terry "Not A Fan Of Bobby Lowder" Bowden. Terry "Really Not A Fan Of Bobby Lowder" Bowden. TV's Terry Bowden.
Our old friend Terry has advanced a few years (and pounds, but hey, who hasn't?) over time, winning 29 games at North Alabama in the three years since cutting short his broadcast career. He agreed to become the Akron head coach on Dec. 22, and he brought some old familiar faces with him. Chesty Chuck Amato, former head coach at N.C. State (and once Bobby's righthand man), is the new defensive coordinator. Brother Jeff Bowden is the new special teams and outside receivers coach. Former Florida State All-American Terrell Buckley is cornerbacks coach. Even one-time Lord of Ohio, Jim Tressel, has at least temporarily left his coaching days behind him to become the University of Akron's Vice President of Strategic Engagements, whatever that is. Hell, Bowden even brought "dadgum" with him from Alabama. The only thing that might not have made the trip north? Wins. Akron has been bereft of them recently, and it is difficult to see how that will change anytime soon. They have actually managed to regress in five of the six seasons following their shocking 2005 MAC championship campaign, and they weren't exactly world beaters when that string began.
Bowden has, to his credit, won everywhere he has coached. Since his second season coaching Salem College at age 27, he has only finished two seasons with a losing record. He has coached at every level of college football, and he has won 69 percent of his games. He will bring with him visions of a high-octane offense and a blitz-heavy, active defense. But that doesn't change the fact that he is inheriting a rather destitute team. Bowden, Amato, and company are coaching for 2014, but they still might find plenty of signs of progress in the meantime.
Rob Ianello begins his second year as Akron head coach in 2011, and there's almost nowhere to go but up after an incredibly miserable first season that saw the Zips lose to Gardner Webb (which is a school, not the frat boy antagonist in Van Wilder), score over 22 points just twice, allow fewer than 28 points just twice, and pull out a final-game win over Buffalo to avoid an 0-12 season. They had exactly one strength -- run defense -- and ranked in the triple digits in almost every single other category we track. They were bad, bad, bad, and it's hard to know where to start describing the ways in which they need to get better. […]
Honestly, I think there's hope for the defense; [Kevin] Cosgrove's a decent-not-great defensive coordinator, and he should be able to make something out of the front seven. But until I see reason to have at least a smidge of hope in the offense, I can't imagine the Zips will have much of a ceiling this fall. VMI's on the schedule, and they have winnable home games in Central Michigan and Kent State. Win those, and you've made progress. Hell, two wins is progress, so let's aim for that.
I set the bar as low as I possibly could for Ianello's second season at Akron, and they still failed to reach the bar. The defense stabilized, but a bad offense got worse, and Akron's F/+ ranking fell from 117th to 119th. They did manage to beat their FCS opponent, VMI, this time around, but they spent most of the rest of the season completely non-competitive. They lost by one point to Central Michigan, eight points to Eastern Michigan and 10 points to Florida International (probably their most respectable showing of the season). Average score of their other eight games: Opponent 46.5, Akron 9.0. Ianello was dismissed following an incredible 72-19 loss to Western Michigan. His Zips had managed to prove that "there's nowhere to go but up" is not always true. You can always go further down.
At North Alabama last year, Bowden attempted a reasonably balanced offense out of the spread. Including sacks as pass attempts, they threw 55 percent of the time, down from about 60 percent in his first season in Florence. Whoever wins the starting quarterback job will have quite a bit of responsibility foisted on his shoulders. The North Alabama attack was relatively aggressive, averaging completion rates in the 58-66 percent range and per-catch averages between 11.9 and 13.2. They avoided sacks reasonably well, but there were a decent number of interceptions involved.
Bowden's first Akron offense could take on any number of different looks just because of the quarterback candidates involved. Junior Clayton Moore returns after starting most of last season, but to put it as kindly as possible, he left something to be desired. He completed just 48 percent of his passes, threw as many picks as touchdowns, and was sacked one of every 10 times he dropped to pass. Including sacks, he averaged a horrid 4.3 yards per pass attempt. (His since-departed backup Patrick Nicely, meanwhile, averaged just 3.5.) He has "experience," yes, but he did absolutely nothing to distinguish himself. He is locked in an interesting three-way battle this spring with senior Stephen F. Austin transfer Dalton Williams (who has experience in a Bowden-style spread) and cannon-armed redshirt freshman Kyle Pohl. FBS experience versus familiarity versus potential.
No matter which quarterback wins the starting job, don't be surprised if he ends up handing the ball off a higher percentage of time than North Alabama's quarterbacks did. To the extent that this offense has any strengths whatsoever, it is at the running back position. Akron ranked 80th in Adj. Line Yards and 58th in Rushing Success Rate+, two of the only categories in which they ranked better than 100th. Sophomore Jawon Chisholm and junior Broderick Alexander combined for 1,185 yards last year (989 from Chisholm), and both have impressed Bowden this spring. They were horrid from an Adj. POE perspective (a combined minus-23.2 Adj. POE, meaning they were almost four touchdowns worse than the average running back given their carries and their blocking); like I said, we're dealing with relative strengths here. They were relatively efficient backs, even if they gave no hints at explosiveness. Of course, they will have to work with an incredibly thin line. Four players return with starting experience, but only one (tackle Mitch Straight) has started a full season's worth of games; meanwhile, 76 career starts departed after last season.
Akron returns almost its entire receiving corps, but it remains to be seen whether that is a good thing. Of the seven returning receivers targeted at least 10 times last year, only two averaged better than a wimpy 2.4 adjusted yards per target, and only one averaged better than 4.6. Former three-star recruit Keith Sconiers (79 targets, 47 catches, 639 yards) is the default go-to guy, though it appears A.J. Price (37 targets, 12 catches, 196 yards) has had a solid spring. There is simply no proven weapon here, however. Not even close.
Compared to the defense, the Akron offense had its act together. The Zips were either the worst, or almost the worst, in the country in almost every major advanced statistical category. They were actually one of the primary reasons why per-game yardage stats are so incredibly misleading. The Zips ranked 108th in rushing yards allowed per game, 39th in passing yards. The reason was obvious: they were always getting blown out, and opponents were always running the ball. Using yardage, Akron's pass defense was "better" than that of No. 42 Texas, No. 43 Boise State, No. 45 Virginia, et cetera. It wasn't. In fact, it was the worst pass defense in the country.
Enter The Chest™. Having fought off both both neck and throat cancer and retirement, Chuck Amato returns to the FBS sidelines, this time to join his longtime former boss' son. He was either an assistant or head coach on a BCS conference team from 1971 to 2009, and at 65 (it feels he should be older than that), he looks to build an Akron defense, basically, from scratch. Akron must replace its top four defensive tackles and its only interesting linebacker, and while there is experience on which to build (to his credit, Ianello played a ton of freshmen last year despite facing heat), said building probably won't take place for another year or two.
Amato will likely try to get creative with his blitzing, and in a desperate search for positives, I will mention that Akron defenders got used to this style last year -- 21 different Zips recorded at least 0.5 tackles for loss last year, an enormous total considering the general porous nature of the defense as a whole. Unfortunately, only three players recorded more than 3.5 TFLs, and two are gone. Senior linebacker Brian Wagner, the only Akron player to sniff an all-conference team, transferred to Arizona for his final season of football, and tackle Oren Wilson is gone as well. For that matter, cornerback Manley Waller and his eight passes broken up (he had as many passes defended as the rest of the secondary combined) are also gone.
So what interesting pieces will Amato find?
- Defensive end Cody Grice. The redshirt freshman was a fullback in 2011 but converted to defense this spring. One probably shouldn't expect major productivity from him, but he signifies the complete transformation Amato is attempting on the line. If you read some of George Thomas' practice reports in the Akron Beacon-Journal, you quickly find nothing but new names mentioned on the line -- Grice, skinny end Albert Presley, and tackle James Price, all redshirt freshmen. Combine them with senior end John Griggs (five tackles for loss, four passes broken up), and you'll at least have an active, interesting (if not incredibly effective) front four.
- Cornerback Anthony Holmes. The junior is a former three-star recruit and broke up four passes last season. (That he and Waller combined to break up 12 passes was impressive considering how little opponents actually passed. Unfortunately, they got burned quite a few times too.) If Amato can dial up some effective blitzes, Holmes appears aggressive enough to take advantage. Or, you know, get burned deep. Either/or.
- Linebacker Troy Gilmer. The senior from Huber Heights is just about the only returning playmaker in the linebacking corps. He is an interesting player, along with sophomores Jamar Williams and Justin March. This is an incredibly undersized unit -- Williams and March are both listed at 215 pounds, and it bears mentioning that Amato has been unimpressed with his linebackers this spring.
Again, I said "interesting," not good. It will take a while to improve this defense.
"Our goal this year is to win one more game than last year," Coach Bowden said. "We just have to work to get that win and then build from that."
So there you go. Even the coach, who has almost never had a losing season, says two wins is the "success or not" standard. The Zips host Morgan State and FBS newcomer UMass, but somehow those are the only two teams they face that are projected worse than 92nd. This schedule does not portend a fantastic turnaround.
Yuck. Bowden was hired with the future in mind -- they are upgrading facilities and beginning to invest more in the football program as a whole -- but despite what should be a more interesting or exciting product, I cannot imagine this will be a much better product. Akron is playing for 2014; they have quite a few interesting, young pieces in quarterback Kyle Pohl, running back Jawon Chisholm, guard Travis Switzer, the entire defensive line, linebackers Williams and March, free safety Devonte Morgan and others. But there are still more than a few growing pains to overcome before optimism sets in.
While we're here, let's watch some college football videos from SB Nation's new YouTube channel together: