Team preview: Akron
The Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook previews the 2006 Akron Zips, exclusively on Insider.
There has been a lot of building through the New Landscape for Learning campaign at the University of Akron in recent years. Eight new buildings -- including a state-of-the-art, 155,000 square foot indoor Athletic Field House -- have been constructed and 14 other major renovation projects have been completed. Thirty acres of new green space has been added, and much of Carroll Street has been shut down to help enclose the campus.
Another major overhaul has also taken place in the last two years -- to the football program. After being stuck in the middle of the pack for a century (462-437-36 record since 1891), the Zips won the first league title in school history and appeared in their first Division I-A bowl game in 2005.
"The expectations are way different here now," said J.D. Brookhart, who begins his third season on the sideline this fall. "The university has elevated itself and made the commitment and mediocrity is not going to be accepted any more -- and it shouldn't be."
The success on campus has created a new sense of pride. The Zips sold out their ticket allotment and had 15,000 fans in Detroit for the Motor City Bowl, applications for admission are way up, and you no longer have to visit the bookstore to find someone wearing an Akron sweatshirt.
Still, the rapid growth has not been without a few awkward moments.
As the Zips returned from Northern Illinois after winning their first MAC Championship in thrilling fashion -- a 36-yard touchdown pass from Luke Getsy to Domenik Hixon with 10 seconds left -- they couldn't wait to display their hard-earned new hardware for their fans to see. The only problem? The football program didn't have a trophy case to put it in.
It does now, and the next challenge is to continue moving forward.
"I was a little concerned that it happened too quick," Brookhart said of his team's success. "We were on a four- or five-year plan."
The Zips also didn't run away with the division last year. They actually finished in a three-way tie with Miami (Ohio) and Bowling Green and advanced to the conference title game, which they won by a point, by virtue of the fourth tiebreaker.
"We could have been 4-8 or we could have been 10-2," Brookhart said. "We are capable of beating any team in our league, or we can lose to the worst team in the league." With 16 starters back, eight on offense and eight on defense, the Zips could contend again this fall.
Getsy, a senior, will contend for all-conference honors and the entire offensive line returns, but Akron needs to find replacements for top rusher Brett Biggs (1,230 yards) and receiving leaders Hixon (75 receptions), Biggs (65) and Jason Montgomery (48).
"Certainly having the trigger guy back is a plus," Brookhart said. "He's an extremely intelligent kid who manages a game better than anybody I've been around."
Brookhart's mantra for the defense since he arrived has been to "play fast." The Zips did that well in coordinator Jim Fleming's 3-3 stack formation, reducing their yards per game allowed by almost 90 to finish second in the league (339.8 yards per game).
"Experience and guys having been in the system," are reasons Brookhart attributed for the improvement. "We had a lot of guys back and we just played so much faster. We just had a much better understanding of what we were supposed to be doing."
That should continue this season with the leadership of tackle Kiki Gonzalez and Jermaine Reid leading the way up front, playmakers Kevin Grant and Brion Stokes at linebacker and an experienced secondary.
Special teams will be a big question -- the Zips do not have a kicker or punter on the roster who have played in a college game. The development and success at these positions will be critical in a league as competitive as the MAC.
Brookhart has done an outstanding job recruiting and putting the pieces in place to make Akron a consistent contender. The evolution of the program should continue this fall and a repeat and return trip to a bowl game are possible.
Even if the Zips don't duplicate last season's success this fall, three things are certain: they are in a better place than they have ever been; it won't take them 105 years to win their next trophy; and they will have a place to put it when that day arrives.
Most college football programs that lose one of their all-time greats to the NFL tend to struggle at that position the next season. Not the Zips.
Luke Getsy (6-2, 220) stepped in for Charlie Frye, now with the Cleveland Browns, and set 17 school records (including many that had been held by Frye, who set 54 in his career).
"He's pretty much a jack-of-all trades," Brookhart said. "He's not overly fast, but he's not slow. He doesn't have the greatest arm strength, but it's not bad. His vision is extremely good. "He can just play the game."
And play it well. After just one season as a starter, Getsy already ranks fifth in Akron history in passing yards. He also owns school records for completions (278), touchdowns in a season (23), touchdowns in a game (five), yards in a game (455) and 400-yard games (three).
This season, the challenges for Getsy -- who began his career at the University of Pittsburgh when Brookhart was offensive coordinator for the Panthers -- will be to stay healthy (especially with the first two games on the road at Penn State and North Carolina State) and to make his less experienced teammates better.
Keeping Getsy on the field is critical, because the Zips do not have an experienced backup. Redshirt freshmen Chris Jacquemain (6-2, 211) and Carlton Jackson (6-2, 195) are the top contenders for the No. 2 job.
Jacquemain is more of a pocket passer and had a strong performance in the spring game (8-of-15 for 105 yards and a touchdown) while the left-handed Jackson can make things happen with his arm and his feet.
Sean Hakes (6-3, 200) a true freshman from Fort Worth, Texas, enrolled in January after leading North Catholic High School to back-to-back state championships and sophomore Tim Zetts (6-2, 205) provides added depth.
The departure of Brett Biggs, who rushed for 2,245 yards in his two seasons, leaves a big hole to fill.
Sophomore Dennis Kennedy (5-11, 209) is the top returning rusher (131 yards on 45 carries in 2005) and enters fall camp as the starter. Like Biggs, Kennedy also has good hands (14 receptions for 158 yards and a touchdown) and is coming off a strong spring. "Kennedy exceeded expectations," Brookhart said. "We didn't know he had all that he had in him."
Alex Allen (6-0, 203) broke into the lineup on special teams as a freshman last fall and will also be counted upon. Allen carried just twice last season but is a slashing, north-south runner who gained 2,455 yards and scored 21 touchdowns as a senior at Youngstown's Ursuline High School in 2004.
Sophomore Joe McDaniel (5-11, 220) is a strong blocker who held down the No. 1 fullback role as a redshirt freshman (15 carries, 25 yards). He will be pushed by redshirt freshman Joe Tuzze (5-11, 225), who ran for 3,357 yards and 67 touchdowns and was also a standout linebacker at Lakeland High School in Mayfield, Pa.
With Domenik Hixon, who was selected by the Denver Broncos in the fourth round (130th overall) of April's NFL draft, and Jason Montgomery gone, junior Jabari Arthur becomes Akron's go-to guy.
Arthur (6-4, 224) is a converted quarterback who battled Getsy for the starting job in the spring of 2005. He ranked fourth on the team with 30 catches last season and came into his own in the Motor City Bowl against Memphis with eight catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns. Arthur's yardage total was a Motor City Bowl record. "He's a kid that keeps improving," Brookhart said. "He has a chance to be a big-time player for us."
Junior Johnny Long (6-1, 180) is the only receiver other than Arthur on the roster to have caught a pass and should take on a larger role after making 15 catches for 156 yards in 2005.
Sophomores Brandon Williams (6-1, 180) and Stephon Fuqua (6-1, 200), who caught a 28-yard touchdown pass in the spring game, should be ready to contribute after playing mostly special teams last season. Junior Marcus Patterson (5-9, 182) and redshirt freshman Jermaine Lindsay (6-1, 165) will also be in the mix.
Junior Kris Kasparek (6-6, 260) has made 18 starts the last two seasons and gives the Zips a big target at tight end. His 27 catches last season were fifth on the team.
Sophomore Merce Poindexter (6-4, 243) was one of just six freshmen to play last season (four catches, 19 yards, one TD) and should continue to take on an expanded role.
Last season, the offensive line had four new starters and was considered one of the biggest question marks on the team. This year all five starters, including four seniors, are back and the unit is viewed as a strength.
"They're pretty cohesive," Brookhart said. [Senior left tackle Tim] Crouch is pretty much the voice of the group. They've come together pretty well and stepped it up." Crouch (6-3, 300), the veteran of the line, has started 33 of the Zips' last 34 games and is a two-time Academic All-MAC choice.
Mike Donaldson (6-5, 295) broke his foot in the preseason but returned to start the final 12 games at left guard.
Andy Wills (6-3, 290) started all 13 games at center last season and right guard Andy Alleman (6-4, 295) is one of the stronger and more athletic linemen in the MAC. Right tackle Chris Kemme (6-6, 290), who made eight starts as a freshman in 2005, is an up-and-comer who continues to improve.
The Zips value the versatility of junior Mike Schepp (6-4, 303), who made seven starts at guard and tackle last season.
Brookhart would like to develop more depth and has some talented redshirt freshmen to work with in Zack Anderson (6-4, 290), the younger brother of former Pitt standout Bryan Anderson, Elliot Bates (6-4, 295) and Keith Huebner (6-7, 295).
Junior Jim Holley (6-3, 301) and sophomore Garrett Brewster (6-3, 315) provide additional depth and experience.
One of the biggest concerns entering the season is at kicker, where Jason Swiger proved to be a reliable option for the last three seasons.
Junior Matt Domonkos (5-8, 173), who started his career at Wisconsin and backed up Swiger last season, got all of the work this spring but will be pushed by incoming freshman Igor Iveljic.
Iveljic (5-11, 200), a native of Bosnia who did not play football until his junior year at Mentor (Ohio) High School, was ranked fifth in the nation among kickers by Rivals.com.
He made 11-of-12 PATs and 6-of-10 field goals as a senior in high school while recording 27 touchbacks on kickoffs.
Experience and talent will make this one of the strongest units on the team. The Zips have proven performers in Kiki Gonzalez and Jermaine Reid and exciting potential in youngsters Eric Lively and Clarence McPherson and Rutgers transfer Nate Robinson.
No player has proven himself more under Brookhart than Gonzalez (6-2, 300), a team captain last season who graduated in May to earn back his fourth season of eligibility. "He found something within him that he didn't know he had and just took it and ran with it," Brookhart said of a player he wasn't sure would make it through the spring after the new coach took over.
A second-team All-MAC selection last fall, Gonzalez clogs the middle at nose guard and also has the ability to get up field and make plays (22 solo tackles, seven tackles for loss and a blocked field goal in the MAC Championship Game).
Reid (6-4, 275) enjoyed a breakout season at defensive end last season, registering seven sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. He was chosen by the Hamilton Tigercats in the second round of the Canadian Football League draft in April but will return to Akron for his final season. His athleticism on the edge should continue to disrupt opposing offenses.
Lively (6-2, 270) and Robinson (6-5, 315) are the top contenders to take over the tackle spot held by Brian White last season.
Lively played in six games as a freshman in 2005 and made three tackles. He added 15 pounds in the offseason and should be a significant contributor.
Robinson was a top recruit coming out of Irvington, N.J., but his college career got off to a slow start because of a knee injury. He played in six games as a true freshman at Rutgers and eight as a sophomore and will give the Zips added size and strength up front. If he is healthy and able to shake off the rust from sitting out as a transfer, he could be an impact player.
McPherson (6-3, 255) saw limited action in three games as a freshman last season and gives the Zips another pass-rushing option. He is also solid against the run and should be able to spell Reid at times.
Junior Jared Cecchetti (6-2, 264) has seen action as a reserve in the middle the last two seasons and provides depth. Redshirt freshman Josh Kiner (6-3, 271) is tough against the run and should benefit from adding 15 pounds in the offseason.
Leading tackler Jay Rohr (75 solo, 46 assists) has graduated, but Akron is in good shape with Kevin Grant and Brion Stokes returning. "Kevin and Brion are the cornerstones of this group," Brookhart said.
Grant (6-2, 245) plays the hybrid bandit position and uses his speed to make plays. A third-team freshman All-America selection by College Football News, he ranked fourth on the team with 73 tackles last season while adding 11½ tackles for loss and 4½ sacks.
Stokes (5-11, 220) earned second-team All-MAC honors in his first season as a starter. Playing the strong-side position, Stokes made 89 tackles, including 51 solo and 11 for losses. His 16-yard return of a Kent State fumble for a touchdown on the third play of the game helped set the tone for the Zips on the day they clinched the MAC East. Junior Bryan Howe (6-0, 242) has been slowed by injuries his first two seasons but enters the fall as the favorite to replace Rohr in the middle. Howe, an Akron native, played in six games as a reserve in 2005 and made 10 tackles.
Redshirt freshman Al-Teric Balaam (6-1, 228) and senior Mike Groza (6-3, 227) will compete for the backup spot behind Howe. Sophomore Doug Williams (6-2, 234), a converted defensive end, backs up Grant, and senior Parris McNeal (6-0, 206) and junior Kevin Jackson (6-1, 220) provide depth behind Stokes.
The Zips' pass defense ranked second in the MAC and 16th in the nation (180.8 yards per game) last season and should again be strong -- 80 percent of the starting secondary returns.
"You'll see us evolve," Brookhart said. "We've got some good cover guys and we plan to mix in more man coverages."
Junior John Mackey (5-10, 213) will start at rover after splitting time at rover and strong safety last season. Mackey uses his speed to roam the field and finished second on the Zips in tackles with 95 last season. He will be backed up by Wayne Cobham (6-2, 190), an impressive freshman from Pembroke Pines, Fla., who enrolled in January.
Mackey's moved to free safety after starter Chevin Pace (5-10, 185) went down with a season-ending knee injury. Pace, a junior, sat out the spring but is expected to be ready to start the season at strong safety. He will be backed up by redshirt freshman Evan Laube (6-0, 200) and senior Jason Nedd (5-10, 197), who split the reps this spring.
Junior Chris Brown (5-9, 200) broke into the starting lineup late last season and looks to build upon a solid campaign (26 tackles). He has been prone to shoulder injuries and missed the spring but is expected back and ready to go. Junior Yamari Dixon (5-8, 200) and redshirt freshman Rodney Etienne (6-2, 190) are capable reserves. Cornerback is one of the deepest and most talented positions on the team, with four proven performers.
Senior Reggie Corner (5-9, 175) is the veteran of the group, having made 24 straight starts. His nine passes defended were tops on the team, and his two interceptions tied for the team lead.
Junior Davanzo Tate (5-10, 185) is a West Virginia transfer who started the last nine games of 2005. Tate is solid in coverage (six passes defended) and a good tackler (two forced fumbles).
Senior Dionte Henry (5-11, 196) is a two-year starter at cornerback who finished last season at rover. Even if he does not start, Henry will see significant action. He is Akron's active leader with five interceptions and gives the Zips experience and play-making ability.
Sophomore Brandon Anderson (5-11, 170) should also see plenty of time after appearing in all 13 games as the third cornerback last season.
Additional depth will come from senior Ryan Johnson (5-10, 170), junior Andre Walker (5-10, 185) and redshirt freshmen DeAndre DeScott (5-10, 170) and Wes Jordan (5-7, 170).
Just like the kicking position, this spot is wide open and an area of concern.
Replacing Billy Sullivan, a three-year starter, won't be as easy as once thought. Sullivan enjoyed a solid senior season (39.4 average, 15 punts inside the 20) and Getsy is the only player on the Zips roster who has punted in a college game.
Sophomore Andy Hildreth (6-0, 185) averaged 39.4 yards per punt as a senior in high school and got all of the work in the spring. He will be challenged by incoming freshman John Stec, who averaged 44.6 yards per boot as a senior at Atlantic High School in Delray Beach, Fla., last fall.
Hixon's departure doesn't just leave a hole on offense, it causes a void on special teams because he handled the majority of the kickoff and punt returns the last two seasons. Kennedy and Anderson enter the fall as the top contenders to return kicks, and Lindsey is atop the depth chart at punt returner.
The one spot where the Zips have some experience is at long snapper, where senior Jason Giachetti (6-1, 240) has handled the chores the last three seasons (36 games). The coverage units also need to improve. Akron ranked last in the MAC in kickoff coverage (23.9 yards per return).
Akron is no longer an automatic also-ran, but one of the Zips' biggest tests will be handling the hype. Now that they have won a league title, they will be expected to do it again.
Getsy has the ability to lead and an experienced line should allow young talent to develop at the skill positions on offense. The defense is solid all the way through and will help Akron win even when the offense struggles.
Special teams are the biggest area of concern, and those answers will come on the field. Brookhart has enough talented players to upgrade the coverage units and find solid return men, but will the Zips be able to make clutch field goals or use their kicking game to win the field position battle? It may take time and patience to sort those issues out. Repeating as division and conference champions are realistic goals for 2006, but far from guarantees. The Zips open the season at Penn State and at North Carolina State, so avoiding major injuries is critical.
If the Zips stay healthy enough to keep their key players on the field and the youngsters develop as expected, Akron should be in the league championship hunt all the way.
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