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1. "One year away," one year later
There are some high-impact seniors here, from Jawon Chisholm on offense to a good chunk of the secondary. But whatever Akron accomplishes in 2014, a hefty core of potential difference-makers will return in 2015. [...]
[T]he most likely scenario is probably another year with five or six wins, followed by a breakthrough in 2015. But Akron fans have been waiting a while; waiting one more year might not be the end of the world. This program has momentum for the first time in nearly a decade. That's good enough for now.
Midway through the 2014 season, it looked as if Terry Bowden and his Akron Zips were going to prove me wrong. Despite blowout losses to Penn State and Marshall, they had upset Pitt and taken down EMU and Miami (Ohio) by a combined 35 points to move to 4-2. The Zips needed two more wins to secure bowl eligibility for the first time since their surprise MAC title run of 2005.
They only got one win, however. Tight, frustrating road losses to Ohio and Kent State and a blowout home loss to BGSU meant the Zips finished 5-7. After winning just three games between 2010-12, a five-win season is not yet something to scoff at, but the way it all unfolded was disappointing.
Still, the timetable didn't change. After consecutive years of improvement, Akron solidified its gains in 2014, and now the Zips have enough potential and experience to take the aforementioned step forward in 2015. There are plenty of questions still to answer -- the leading rusher and top two receiving targets are gone, as are the top two defensive ends and seemingly every safety -- but the upside is there.
2. Terry's island of misfit toys
Perhaps it speaks to the depths into which Akron had fallen. Terry Bowden came to town in 2012 after spending a decade as an analyst and three years at North Alabama.
The former Auburn head coach Bowden set out to rebuild the Akron program like it was an SEC squad. First, he hired assistants with plenty of power-conference experience: defensive coordinator Chuck Amato and special teams coordinator Jeff Bowden were both mainstays on his father Bobby's staff, and defensive line coach Todd Stroud was an Amato assistant at N.C. State. (Bowden just snatched up former Michigan offensive line coach Darrell Funk, as well.)
Bowden also established a "locals and south Florida kids" approach to recruiting that echoed what Charlie Strong successfully attempted at Louisville. Smaller recruiting budget and lesser facilities? No matter! Akron's 2014 roster featured 20 players from Florida.
Most notably, however, Bowden also searched the transfer market for immediate talent upgrades. Akron brought in defensive tackle Se'Von Pittman and offensive lineman Tommy Brown from Ohio State, defensive end Nordly Capi from Colorado State, and offensive lineman Joe McNamara from Wisconsin. The Zips' two-deep featured quite a few former three- or four-star players last year, more than most MAC teams.
Bowden has treated the Akron job like a major position, and he's still only won 11 games in three years. That tells you at least a little bit about what he inherited.
Another batch of reinforcements will be donning the blue and gold this year. Former four-star Pitt signee Tra'Von Chapman joins the mix at quarterback. Former Colorado State running back Donnell Alexander is the leading challenger to replace leading rusher Jawon Chisholm. Former Ohio State defensive end Jamal Marcus and Iowa State nose guard Rodney Coe will supplement what might be the MAC's most high-upside defensive line. Former Miami defensive back Larry Hope will fight for playing time in a redesigned secondary. And Washington State graduate transfer Darryl Monroe should make an immediate impact at linebacker.
Continuity can be a weapon in and of itself, and transfers are rarely around long enough to bring much continuity to the table. But talent and potential also matter, and there's a chance that all six of these players end up starting in 2015. Adding them to a lineup that already features Brown, Pittman, and former three-star signees like linebacker Jatavis Brown, safety Jerome Lane, and receiver Mykel Traylor-Bennett might give Akron as much pure athleticism as any team in the MAC. Now we'll have to see how much production this staff can wring from the potential.
2014 Schedule & Results
|Record: 5-7 | Adj. Record: 4-8 | Final F/+ Rk: 105|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|6-Sep||at Penn State||45||3-21||L||4%||-40.8||0%|
|25-Oct||at Ball State||91||21-35||L||13%||-26.7||11%|
|28-Nov||at Kent State||107||24-27||L||15%||-24.4||27%|
|Points Per Game||22.6||104||23.9||32|
3. A standout performance every week
Akron didn't leave much room for doubt in 2014. The Zips played at a level above the 60th percentil or below the 15th percentile in 10 of 12 games, looking fantastic in wins over Pitt, UMass, Howard, and Miami while playing simply awful ball against Penn State, Marshall, Ball State, BGSU, Buffalo, and Kent State. Since three of the four best performances came in the first half of the season, you can certainly spot an early-vs.-late trend if you squint -- Akron's average percentile performance was 46 percent in the first half of the season and 20 percent in the second half -- but I'm not sure if there was a trend there or simple, random rolls of the dice.
- Average percentile performance (5 wins): 65%
- Average percentile performance (7 losses): 10%
Quarterback Kyle Pohl battled injuries midseason, but that alone doesn't explain Akron's offensive ups and downs. The Zips averaged more yards per play against Penn State (fifth in Def. S&P+) than Buffalo (113th), and more against Ohio (71st) than Ball State (107th).
Meanwhile, a defense that boasted decent continuity and injuries luck -- the top six linemen, four of the top five linebackers, and the top four defensive backs played in all 12 games -- had some strange results of its own: 4.7 yards per play allowed against Pitt (15th in Off. S&P+) but 6.3 against Penn State (103rd), 4.6 yards per play allowed against UMass (82nd), 6.0 against Kent State (116th) and 7.0 against Buffalo (94th). Akron played like a younger, less stable team than it should have. We'll see if that changes in 2015.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||40.0%||88||Succ. Rt. +||90.5||107|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||28.5||39||Def. FP+||101.0||53|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||3.5||114||Redzone S&P+||84.1||115|
|Q1 Rk||111||1st Down Rk||105|
|Q2 Rk||117||2nd Down Rk||106|
|Q3 Rk||75||3rd Down Rk||85|
Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Kyle Pohl||6'3, 217||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7000||208||383||2189||9||8||54.3%||18||4.5%||5.1|
|Thomas Woodson||6'1, 233||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8101||76||143||806||5||6||53.1%||6||4.0%||5.2|
|Chandler Kincade||6'5, 230||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8318|
|6'1, 210||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8931|
|Conor Hundley||RB||5'10, 213||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7619||104||540||4||5.2||4.9||37.5%||2||1|
|RB||5'11, 219||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7593||71||428||2||6.0||4.4||52.1%||N/A||N/A|
|Kyle Pohl||QB||6'3, 217||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7000||28||148||1||5.3||4.4||46.4%||4||3|
|Thomas Woodson||QB||6'1, 233||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8101||26||157||0||6.0||4.2||57.7%||0||0|
|Cody Grice||NG||5'11, 284||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7000||21||44||4||2.1||0.8||14.3%||1||0|
|D.J. Jones||RB||5'8, 197||Jr.||NR||NR||14||58||0||4.1||8.0||21.4%||0||0|
|Hakeem Lawrence||RB||5'7, 176||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8062||12||61||0||5.1||2.4||50.0%||2||2|
|Manny Morgan||RB||5'8, 190||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8156||9||38||1||4.2||2.7||44.4%||0||0|
4. This new backfield could be fun
Even back in the 1990s, Terry Bowden (like his father) liked to wing the ball around. In his last good season at Auburn (1997), Bowden's Tigers attempted 31 passes to 28 rushes per game; Dameyune Craig threw for 3,277 yards while the leading rusher (Rusty Williams) had just 277. Bowden's Auburn career began with a 46-12 record while he incorporated modern, pro-style, pass-friendly offensive features. So perhaps it isn't surprising that he adopted another reasonably modern, pass-friendly approach at Akron.
In 2014, Akron was aggressive with the pass on standard downs but relatively conservative on passing downs. The Zips didn't have the personnel to go all-in with the pass, but they still preferred it (especially when Pohl was healthy), and it occasionally worked, at least against bad defenses.
At season's end, Pohl and Tommy Woodson had combined to attempt more than 45 passes per game, slinging to eight different targets at least twice per game and producing six receivers with at least 225 receiving yards. Running back Jawon Chisholm had his moments in the sun (17 carries for 102 yards against Miami, 19 for 184 against Kent State), but Akron wanted to pass.
The offensive identity under coordinator A.J. Milwee could be exactly the same in 2015, or it could change drastically. It will depend on newcomers.
Pohl and Woodson both return, but between redshirt freshman Chandler Kincade (perhaps the most highly-touted freshman signee of the Bowden era) and Pitt transfer Tra'Von Chapman, the battle for the starting quarterback position could be exciting. Chapman's dual-threat ability brings a different variable to the table, and Kincade's statuesque physique and big arm could make Akron even more pass-happy.
Meanwhile, Donnell Alexander could bring stability and efficiency to a run game that needs plenty of both. In two years at CSU, Alexander was a grinder; he emerged to average 21 carries and 106 yards per game over the last four weeks of his freshman season, then provided a nice change of pace for Kapri Bibbs in 2013. He didn't show a wealth of explosiveness, but more than 50 percent of his 2013 carries gained at least five yards. In theory, a running game that features Alexander, big Conor Hundley, a jitterbug (and former three-star recruit) like Hakeem Lawrence or Manny Morgan and nose tackle/fullback Cody Grice in short-yardage situations could be punishing and effective. It could also be worthy of more focus.
So Akron could start any of four quarterbacks and end up either more pass-happy or run-reliant. I'm bringing some serious specifics to the table right now.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|L.T. Smith III||WR-Z||82||46||502||56.1%||16.2%||64.6%||6.1||-69||6.1||49.2|
|Andrew Pratt||WR-X||6'5, 210||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||52||27||324||51.9%||10.3%||67.3%||6.2||-17||5.7||31.8|
|Fransohn Bickley||WR-H||5'6, 147||Jr.||NR||NR||48||30||268||62.5%||9.5%||64.6%||5.6||-97||5.5||26.3|
|Mykel Traylor-Bennett||WR-X||6'3, 205||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8011||41||17||256||41.5%||8.1%||68.3%||6.2||29||6.2||25.1|
|Imani Davis||WR-Y||5'9, 176||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7556||34||22||191||64.7%||6.7%||76.5%||5.6||-75||5.6||18.7|
|Conor Hundley||RB||5'10, 213||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7619||19||9||55||47.4%||3.8%||52.6%||2.9||-61||2.9||5.4|
|Jatavis Brown||LB||5'11, 217||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8100||6||3||34||50.0%||1.2%||66.7%||5.7||-4||6.8||3.3|
|Josh Smith||WR||6'1, 195||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||6||3||19||50.0%||1.2%||66.7%||3.2||-19||2.7||1.9|
|Austin Wolf||WR-Z||6'3, 200||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7881||5||4||84||80.0%||1.0%||0.0%||16.8||37||N/A||8.2|
|Nick Bice||WR||5'8, 153||Sr.||NR||NR||4||3||23||75.0%||0.8%||0.0%||5.8||-12||N/A||2.3|
|Michael Means, Jr.||WR||6'2, 200||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7100|
|Richie Cooper||WR||5'10, 185||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7966|
|Ray Ray Smith||WR||5'9, 190||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7856|
5. Wanted: big plays
As mentioned, Alexander wasn't exactly a big-play back at CSU. He's probably not going to fix what was a pretty significant problem for Akron in 2014: the Zips passed a lot but ranked just 122nd in Passing IsoPPP+ (which measures the magnitude of a team's successful plays). You can get away with a low completion rate (54 percent for Pohl, 53 for Woodson) if you're throwing vertical passes, but Akron wasn't. The two QBs combined to average just 10.5 yards per completion.
It is perhaps encouraging that Akron's two most explosive receivers in 2014 (Andrew Pratt and Mykel Traylor-Bennett, who combined to average 13.2 yards per catch, albeit with a 47 percent catch rate) return. If Akron's run game is more of a threat, then incorporating a little bit of play-action could get either or both of these guys open deep. Still, it's hard to get too excited when your two most explosive returnees combined to average just 6.2 yards per target.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Dylan Brumbaugh||LG||6'5, 309||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7000||23|
|Isaiah Williams||LT||6'3, 295||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||11|
|Tommy Brown||RG||6'4, 310||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8560||10|
|Quaison Osborne||LT||6'3, 295||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7783||10|
|Michael Casimos||LG||6'2, 302||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7000||0|
|Stephen Ericksen||C||6'3, 305||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7300||0|
|Andrew Bohan||RG||6'3, 268||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7000||0|
|Scott Boyett||RT||6'7, 308||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7700||0|
|Montel Jordan||OL||6'2, 310||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7856|
|Rich Kallay||OL||6'5, 290||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7683|
6. Two starters gone, four returning
It took Akron quite a while to settle on a lineup in the trenches. The Zips experimented with four different starting lines in the first seven games before settling on an Isaiah Williams-Dylan Brumbaugh-Travis Switzer-Tommy Brown-Cedric Brittnum combination for the final five contests. Switzer and Brittnum are gone, as is part-timer Joe McNamara, but four players with at least 10 starts do return, and all are seniors. That'll do. Akron's line was glitchy last year, allowing defenders into the backfield on rushes and on passing downs, but they were solid in short-yardage (as was Cody Grice as the short-yardage back), and they created a decent number of downfield opportunities.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||39.7%||46||Succ. Rt. +||97.8||77|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||32.8||17||Off. FP+||103.0||30|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.2||48||Redzone S&P+||101.8||55|
|Q1 Rk||73||1st Down Rk||59|
|Q2 Rk||66||2nd Down Rk||90|
|Q3 Rk||75||3rd Down Rk||15|
7. Don't let them pin their ears back
Chesty Chuck Amato wants swagger and aggressiveness from his defense. His Zip attack the run on standard downs and attack the passer on passing downs, and Akron's defensive stats show some of the fruits of that aggression: Akron was 10th in the country in Stuff Rate (run stops at or behind the line), 25th in Power Success Rate, and 26th in Passing Downs Sack Rate. They wanted to leverage you into predictability, then attack your predictable option.
It shouldn't surprise, then, that opponents tried to stay less predictable. Opponents threw six percent more frequently than the national average on standard downs and rushed five percent more than normal on passing downs. Akron's defense ended up a little bit too predictable in its own right and got caught flat-footed quite a bit.
Still, Amato's effect (along with that of the transfers) has been noticeable. Akron ranked 112th in Def. S&P+ in Rob Ianello's last year in charge and ranked 113th in Bowden's first year. But in 2013 and 2014, the Zips ranked 74th and 75th, respectively. If they can offset turnover in the secondary with an effective front seven, they should produce a similar ranking again this fall.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|NG||6'3, 305||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8604||12||29.0||4.1%||5.0||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Se'Von Pittman||DT||6'3, 268||Jr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9565||12||26.5||4.0%||6.5||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Cody Grice||NG||5'11, 284||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7000||12||24.5||3.7%||4.0||2.5||0||2||1||0|
|DE||6'2, 240||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8962||13||17.0||2.2%||2.0||2.0||0||2||1||0|
|Alfonso Horner||DE||6'3, 217||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7000||11||11.0||1.7%||1.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Darius Copeland||NG||6'1, 257||Jr.||NR||NR||9||7.5||1.1%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Richard Dorvilus||DE||6'1, 235||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8235||8||3.5||0.5%||0.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jatavis Brown||WILL||5'11, 217||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8100||12||81.5||12.3%||14.5||4.0||0||1||3||0|
|LB||6'1, 235||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8156||12||54.5||8.0%||4.0||1.5||0||1||0||0|
|Dylan Evans||SAM||6'2, 211||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||12||29.0||4.4%||3.0||2.0||0||1||0||0|
|John Rachal||MIKE||5'11, 225||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7000||9||9.0||1.4%||0.0||0.0||0||0||1||0|
|Newman Williams||LB||6'2, 240||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7856|
|Ulysses Gilbert III||LB||6'1, 220||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8041|
8. It's hard not to be excited about the front seven
Akron must replace its two top defensive ends, a decent backup tackle and two-thirds of last year's starting linebacking corps. When you're a MAC program, your depth might not be where it needs to be to absorb such losses without regression.
But it's hard to worry too much about Akron in this regard -- not with this load of transfers coming in. Jamal Marcus should be able to offset the loss of either Nordly Capi or Nmesoma Okafor, Rodney Coe should provide an upgrade for Deontae Hollis, and Darryl Monroe should be an instant contributor. Add to that the return of players like Jatavis Brown, Se'Von Pittman, and Cody Grice, and you've got a deep, athletic front seven, likely one of the best in the conference. Amato should again have plenty of athleticism at his disposal, and he should again attempt to utilize it aggressively.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Kris Givens||CB||5'9, 163||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7333||12||35.0||5.3%||0.5||0||2||4||0||0|
|DeAndre Scott||CB||5'11, 180||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7100||11||25.0||3.8%||0||0||2||10||1||0|
|Bryce Cheek||CB||6'0, 191||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7000||12||19.0||2.9%||1||0||0||2||1||0|
|John Senter||CB||5'7, 163||Sr.||NR||NR||12||15.5||2.3%||0||0||1||1||0||0|
|Jerome Lane||FS||6'3, 212||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8314||12||12.5||1.9%||5||5||0||0||0||0|
|Cory Morrow||S||6'0, 204||Jr.||NR||NR||12||3.5||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Zach Guiser||ROV||6'1, 205||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7717||12||3.0||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|DB||6'0, 183||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8378||2||2.5||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jamal Baggett||S||5'9, 189||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8006|
|Chris Bivins||DB||5'11, 185||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.7100|
|Jason Williams||DB||6'3, 185||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7967|
9. A black hole at safety
Corners Kris Givens and DeAndre Scott (combined: four picks, 14 break-ups in 2014) return, and JUCO transfer Chris Bivins and seniors Bryce Cheek and John Senter should assure the Zips decent depth at the position. Combined with depth at defensive tackle and linebacker, this should assure that Akron's efficiency numbers are solid and similar to last season's. But in the instances when aggression doesn't pay off, a brand new set of safeties will be tasked with preventing enormous gains.
There are intriguing candidates, sure. Sophomore Jerome Lane was a star recruit (by MAC standards) and as an OLB/nickel back, he had two enormous games last fall (two sacks against Miami, three against BGSU). If he settles in at free safety instead of moving to OLB, he could be a keeper. But Akron will otherwise be counting on either newcomers (sophomore Zach Guiser, redshirt freshman Jamal Baggett, transfer Larry Hope) or converted corners to serve as safety valves. That's scary.
|Zach Paul||6'3, 216||Sr.||66||42.5||14||16||24||60.6%|
|Robert Stein||5'8, 169||Sr.||56||57.4||10||4||17.9%|
|Robert Stein||5'8, 169||Sr.||27-27||9-10||90.0%||4-6||66.7%|
|Tom O'Leary||5'11, 175||So.||5-6||0-2||0.0%||0-0||N/A|
|L.T. Smith III||KR||19||22.5||0|
|Imani Davis||PR||5'9, 176||Sr.||18||4.2||0|
|Special Teams F/+||49|
|Field Goal Efficiency||57|
|Punt Return Efficiency||76|
|Kick Return Efficiency||30|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||58|
2015 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||2014 F/+ Rk|
|10-Oct||at Eastern Michigan||128|
|17-Oct||at Bowling Green||98|
|14-Nov||at Miami (Ohio)||103|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-37.4% (121)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||99 / 114|
|2014 TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-2 / -2.6|
|2014 TO Luck/Game||+0.3|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||12 (7, 5)|
|2014 Second-order wins (difference)||5.5 (-0.5)|
10. Almost the easiest possible MAC slate
According to F/+, the top five teams in the MAC last year were WMU (56th), Toledo (59th), NIU (69th), CMU (85th), and Ball State (91st). Akron plays one of those teams in 2015 -- Central Michigan at home. Seven of eight conference opponents ranked 98th or worse last year, and including non-conference gimme Savannah State, the Zips will basically have nine tries to offset what is a pretty stout trio of non-conference opponents: Oklahoma, Pitt, and UL-Lafayette. (Yes, Akron beat Pitt last year and could do so again. From a pure stat standpoint, however, that isn't incredibly likely.)
There are questions for Terry Bowden to answer in 2015. The receiving corps and defensive backfield have holes to fill, and while there are new, intriguing options at quarterback, there are no guarantees of improvement. Akron was indeed incredibly unstable from week to week, and Bowden has to prove that was because of inexperience and not the coaching staff.
Still, between the exciting new batch of transfers and the ease of the schedule, I would be shocked if Akron wasn't bowling this coming winter. Bowden has done a solid job of raising expectations within the hapless program he inherited, and I'm betting 2015 is when he reaps some rewards. He will have one of the most athletic, exciting teams in the conference, and if his Zips go 1-1 against CMU and BGSU, they could produce a record gaudy enough to threaten for the division title. This should be a fun year.