Prior to each game, I dust off and revise the preseason preview of each opponent. That’s a little difficult for the first game since we only have some reports of preseason practices to work with. But there is one noteworthy update to mention.
In July, sophomore wide receiver Jonah Morris (6’4” 200 lbs.) transferred to Akron. A former four-star recruit who’s immediately eligible, Morris claimed a starting spot in the preseason. At Indiana, Morris played in 10 games, mostly special teams but also some defensive back.
So for those of you missed it the first time, here’s the preseason preview of the Akron Zips.
Nebraska’s reconstruction process officially begins Labor Day weekend, with the Akron Zips being Scott Frost’s first opponent. Last season, the Zips finished the season with a 7-7 record. A 37-34 upset of Frank Solich’s Ohio Bobcats sprung Akron into the MAC Championship game and a December to forget. Akron was outscored 95-31 in the final two games, capped by a 50-3 loss to Lane Kiffin and Florida Atlanta in the Boca Raton Bowl.
So while the Zips were just good enough to go 6-2 in the MAC, it wasn’t like they were rolling. In Bill Connelly’s S&P rankings, Akron ranked 112th nationally. They put together enough close wins to get to the conference title game, a “luck” factor that Connelly compares to 2015 Iowa. And inevitably, all the breaks that went Akron’s way last year probably are due to bounce the other way.
On offense, the Zips have a couple of players to build on, starting with sophomore quarterback Kato Nelson (6’1” 205 lbs.) who started the final five games last season. He completed 50% of his passes for 989 yards and eight touchdowns with two interceptions. On the ground, he rushed the ball 95 times netting 198 yards and a touchdown; in each of his starts, Nelson had double digit carries. His best game of the season was against Ohio, throwing for 322 yards and four touchdowns and rushing for 45 yards.
The receiving corps is almost a complete rebuild, save for senior Kwardarrius Smith (5’9” 165 lbs.), who’s the only returner from last season’s top eight receivers. Smith, originally a Missouri signee, led the Zips with 34 catches for 726 yards and seven touchdowns last season. After that, it’s sophomores Andre Williams (5’10” 178 lbs.) and Nate Stewart (6’2” 210 lbs.) who combined for seven catches last season. Mykel Traylor-Bennett (6’3” 230 lbs.) received a hardship waiver for a sixth season; he’s missed the last two out of the last three seasons with knee and hand injuries. A former H-Back who’ll now move to wide receiver, Traylor-Bennett has scored nine times in his college career, the biggest being a 52 yard catch in the Zips’ upset of Pitt in 2014.
Only one running back returns from last season’s three-man committee; senior Van Edwards Jr. (5’9” 210 lbs.) rushed for 361 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 3.6 yards per carry. Junior Deltron Sands (5’8” 200 lbs.) looked to be ready to join the mix - and perhaps even pass the three by - last season until a broken ankle ended his season. He averaged 6.9 yards per carry in his limited action, which is nearly doubled anybody else on the team.
Much of the problem with Akron’s running game last season was up front on the offensive line, and with their best lineman (all-MAC tackle Jovann Letuli) last season graduating, hope for improvement could be considered merely wishing. Junior left tackle Trevor Brown (6’5” 290 lbs.) started all 14 games last season while sophomore left guard Brandon Council (6’4” 325 lbs.) started the final nine as a freshman. That’s something to build on this season.
On defense, Akron will be experienced, though one has to question the relative value of having nine starters returning from the second-worst defense in the MAC. But with more experience, the Zips should be better...or at least less bad. Akron was 105th in the nation in rush defense (allowing 205.4 yards per game) and 84th in passing yards allowed (237.4 yards per game). Their one claim to fame on defense? The Zips were 26th in the nation in stopping third down conversions.
One big change this season is February’s retirement of Chuck Amato for family reasons; no replacement has been named as of yet. During the spring, defensive line coach Todd Stroud and new linebackers coach Joe Tresey ran the defense in the interim.
Three starters return up front on the defensive line, led by senior defensive end Jamal Davis (6’4” 235 lbs., a third team all-MAC honoree last season. Davis led the team with 15.5 tackles for loss and led the line with 69 tackles. Also returning as starters are senior end Brian Reinke (6’4” 255 lbs., 49 tackles) and senior defensive tackle Brock Boxen (6’3” 290 lbs, 34 tackles).
Akron’s best defender the last two seasons is senior weakside linebacker Ulysees Gilbert (6’1” 225 lbs.) who’s been named first team all-MAC the last two seasons. Gilbert followed a 121 tackle sophomore season with 140 last season. 9.5 of those tackles last year were for loss, and he also tied with Jamal Davis for the team lead with five quarterback hurries. Junior middle linebacker John Lako (6’2” 230 lbs.) was fifth on the team in tackles last season with a nice 69.
The secondary returns intact, and if there was one thing the Zips did well last year, it was intercepting passes. 19 interceptions last season tied for seventh nationally. Senior cornerback Jordan George’s (6’0” 205 lbs.) five interceptions tied for 11th nationally and his 71 tackles ranked third on the team. Junior safety Alvin Davis (5’9” 170 lbs.) earned second-team all-MAC honors last season and ranked second on the team with 83 tackles. Senior corneback Kyron Brown (6’1” 190 lbs.) led the secondary with 11 pass breakups and two interceptions last season. Brown had a strong spring, being named co-defensive MVP of spring practice.
Trivia item: Nebraska and Akron have only met once before on the football field. A 59-14 Husker victory to open the 1997 season. Nebraska’s starting quarterback that day? Scott Frost.
Akron might be the ideal starting opponent for the Scott Frost era at Nebraska: a bowl team you cannot ignore, though probably not consistent enough to be a serious threat... unless Nebraska lets them be. That was last season in a nutshell, allowing schools like MInnesota and Iowa dominate the Huskers inexcusably. And with a national television audience courtesy of Fox watching, something that can’t happen again.