We’re mere hours away from Penn State’s first football game of the season! Just in case you haven’t been heeding James Franklin’s advice and focusing only on Akron, Akron, Akron, Akron, we tracked down James H. Jimenez, who is the assistant site manager for SBNation’s MAC site, Hustle Belt.
Although Akron qualified for a bowl game two years ago, last season wasn’t as pleasant, so let’s see what James has to say about the team’s chances to return to the postseason.
Black Shoe Diaries: In 2015, Terry Bowden led the Zips to their first bowl game in a decade, and the program looked poised to return to the postseason in 2016. However, after a 5-3 start, Akron stumbled down the stretch, losing its last four games. Was the the losing streak mostly caused by the team's rash of injuries? Are the Zips expected to rebound in 2017?
Hustle Belt: You can definitely account for a series of unfortunate events, that's for sure. Not having Thomas Woodson down the stretch really did Akron in, especially since Tra'Von Chapman proved to be inconsistent in mop-up duty. Warren Ball’s absence left the Zips with no real rushing option as well, as Von Edwards, Mykel Traylor-Bennett and Manny Morgan just couldn't give the Zips that extra zip.
In the last four games of 2016, the Zips also seemed to catch teams at the wrong time. They lost a head-scratcher to Buffalo and it all went downhill from there, as they ran into a tough Toledo squad and a surging Bowling Green back-to-back. They ended the year on the road against Ohio, the eventual MAC East champions. That's where you really need senior leadership and that's something a young Akron squad just didn't have this time last season.
Bowden has done an excellent job rebuilding this program. Akron was honestly a joke of a program for a while, lost in the football desert prior to his arrival, and just to be competing for bowl eligibility on a year-to-year basis is definitely progress. I think if they can stay healthy, the Zips have a real chance at competing in the wide open MAC East.
BSD: Senior quarterback Thomas Woodson was pretty excellent last year despite stumbling in the loss to Buffalo. He finished with 8.59 yards per attempt on 60 percent completions. What are the expectations for Woodson and the passing game now that the signal caller is fully healthy?
HB: The expectations are pretty high.
He's not the first name you're going to think of when it comes to MAC quarterbacks this season (Logan Woodside will easily take that title), but Woodson is an athlete that will probably string together some skillful performances and land himself some Player of the Week honors, perhaps even a spot on the All-MAC squad at the end of the season.
He was known as a bit of a scrambler when he first came onto the scene, but has developed his game a lot and become an underrated pocket passer. Part of his production (as I'll get to in a bit) had to do with some extraordinary weapons on the sideline, but Woodson has enough natural ability to be able to drive the Zips offense from the air. Prior to going down for the rest of the season, Woodson had 2,079 yards and 18 touchdowns over eight starts, which suggests he can bring a dangerous element to Akron's offense.
This offense really is built around his arm and that was self-evident when he left with injury, as Chapman came nowhere close to matching Woodson's production. When Woodson is down, down goes Akron.
BSD: With Woodson's top two targets from last year having moved on, there are big questions about the receiving corps heading into 2017. Here's one of them: Can last year's backup quarterback Tra'Von Chapman be the leading receiver? If not, who do you see Woodson throwing to the most this season?
HB: Chapman is going to have to be the leader going into 2017 despite having virtually no experience as a receiver. Jerome Lane (New York Giants) and JoJo Natson Jr. (Indianapolis Colts) moved on to the professional ranks early, leaving Chapman (a converted quarterback), Austin Wolf and AJ Coney as three of the likely starters. Wolf will be out with an injury for this week's matchup, so for at least Week 1, someone from the receiving corps will have to step up and fill the void.
The Zips are famously reliant on transfers and will be employing them a lot this upcoming season. Kwadarrius Smith (a junior transfer from Missouri) and Kevin Gladney (a senior transfer from Nebraska) will be seeing a good amount of targets in 2017 at the X and H spots, respectively, after putting in time on special teams. Coney (a Weber State product) will provide a burner's touch on the outside, a nice compliment to Wolf's possession style.
It'll be tough to say for sure who Woodson will throw to most, as the depth charts haven't quite shaken out yet, but my bet would be on Wolf, who proved to be a nice security blanket and steady third option for both Woodson and Chapman last season. There's a lot of unproven talent dressed up in blue and gold, for certain, but there's also a lot of good potential.
BSD: The Zips did not have one player with more than 500 rushing yards last year, but fans seem pretty excited about Warren Ball, the graduate transfer student from Ohio State. Will Ball be the bell cow this year, or will we see a committee approach to the running game?
HB: Ball will be the go-to back coming up this season. We really expected Ball to emerge as one of the MAC's best running backs last season after he transferred from Ohio State as a graduate due to his size and style of play. He's a perfect compliment to Bowden's offense, and had 181 yards and a touchdown prior to his season-ending injury against Wisconsin. He averaged 7.4 yards per carry in the two games he did play, showing a nose for the running lanes.
Ball didn't really get a lot of opportunities to run the ball at Ohio State, even in garbage time, so there's no question he'll run with something to prove in his sixth year of eligibility. Coming out of high school, he was a four-star prospect who was regarded as a top-20 running back nationally by the Scout, Rivals, and ESPN ranking systems, so he's certainly got the instinct and ability.
That said, last year gave some of the other backs a chance to get in some reps that could come in handy should something untoward happen to Ball. Edwards Jr. and Morgan could come in to relieve Ball every couple of plays or so, depending on the set.
BSD: Akron suffered a big drop in defensive production from 2015 to 2016. Who or what is the key to getting the unit back on track?
HB: They suffered mightily in 2016 and are projected to do so once again in 2017, per Bill Connelly's adjusted defensive S&P numbers, which puts Akron at 117th of 130 FBS teams, a significant drop from last year's 106th. Chuck Amato, the former NC State head coach, is in his fifth season as the defensive coordinator and the defense has only gotten progressively worse, definitely a concern considering the growth of the program as a whole. There's no one spot that's exactly the problem, either; it's more of a whole-unit concern.
Akron will have to rely on Ulysees Gilbert III and Darius Copeland to lead an extremely green defense in 2017, as the Zips only return three starters to the defense as a whole and those that do come back have rather limited experience. It's gonna be a bumpy ride for Zips fans, who will hope the team can improve from giving up 36.6 points per game on an average of 466 yards per game.
Akron will have to find a way to get to the ball early and often if they want to have any sort of success; they had only 16.5 sacks and 14 turnovers in 12 games last season.
BSD: Is linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III as awesome as his name makes him sound? Can he prop up a front seven that had its lack of depth exposed last year?
HB: Yes, he is. It's not every day you promote someone up from special teams, put him at outside linebacker and get 122 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in his first season as a starter. But that's what Gilbert did on his way to being selected to the First Team All-MAC squad last season as a sophomore. That vacancy was most likely there in the first place due to Jerome Lane's conversion to wide receiver two seasons ago, which makes it even more of a freak circumstance.
Gilbert averaged an astonishing 10.2 tackles per game — good enough for ninth in the country — and he had eight quarterback hurries, three passes defended, and two forced fumbles in 2016, all while still assuming his normal special teams and punt return duties. He's really the type of defensive prospect you want in your front seven to clean up any potential messes, especially since this year's defensive line could prove to once again be fairly shallow.
He played up to his competition as well, collecting 13 tackles and a fumble against 23rd-ranked Western Michigan and 16 tackles, including three tackles for loss, against Kent State in a rivalry matchups. Gilbert will be the player to watch for on Akron’s defense, especially as he'll match up against Heisman candidate Saquon Barkley.
BSD: The Zips are 30-point underdogs on Saturday. How do you see the game going for Akron?
HB: Not well. Akron has a lot of questions to answer, especially on defense, and I don’t think the Zips are going to find all of their solutions in Week 1, especially against a team the caliber of Penn State. The sign of progress for the Zips in this game would be to narrow the gap from the last time these two teams played. Ideally, Woodson and Ball will show a lot of growth after suffering season-ending injuries last season. Other than that, I don't really know what to expect out of this squad.
I think the score will be something akin to Penn State 45, Akron 21, but that's my optimism showing, most likely.
Thanks so much to James for sharing his expertise for us in advance of this season-opening matchup. If you want to learn more about Akron and the rest of the MAC, head over to Hustle Belt! BSD will still be here when you get back.