Akron Zips (2000: 6-5)
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Coach and programAkron was a football graveyard just a few years ago. The Zips program was so decrepit that even the nicest guy in the whole state of Ohio, former Notre Dame head coach Gerry Faust, couldn’t turn it around.
Things hit bottom at the end of the 1994 season when Akron faced Ohio in a season-ending game in front of an intimate crowd of a couple thousand. After that battle of then-winless teams, both schools fired their coaches. Ohio chose Jim Grobe and Akron chose Lee Owens.
Until last year, folks making that obvious comparison about the two squads had no choice but to pick the Bobcats as ahead in the race back to respectability.
But a funny thing happened last year. The Zips beat Ohio for the second year in a row after four straight losses to the Green and White. Akron put together a second consecutive winning season. The gang at the Rubber Bowl beat their peers in the East, Miami and Ohio. And, if not for this year’s All-MAC quarterback Byron Leftwich marching the Herd down the field in the final two minutes to win on the road, Akron would have won the East outright for the right to play Western Michigan in the MAC title game.
All those things were good. All those things meant progress. All those things happened in spite of having one of the MAC’s worst defenses again in 2000. The Zips gave up more than 400 yards per game and more first downs than anyone but hapless Central Michigan.
Speaking of CMU, the Zips lost to the Chippewas in week two. Central may have been the league’s worst team. The Zips also displeased the home folks with consecutive losses to dominant Northern Illinois and soon-to-be Division I-A school Connecticut.
So we do this dance again. Which Akron team is it? In ’99, it won a lot of games, didn’t have to play Marshall and beat few teams of any substance. In 2000, the Zips won the games that counted and couldn’t stop anyone in the games that didn’t.
We’ll just have to play the games and find out. They can hang a banner at the Rubber Bowl displaying “2000 MAC East Regular Season Champs (tied).” Can they really hang with the big boys?
OffenseA very productive unit was led last fall by departed quarterback Butchie Washington, a starter for virtually all of his four years in uniform. Washington threw for 2,319 yards and 17 touchdowns in his final season, most effectively to fellow departed senior, wideout Lavel Bailey (44 catches, 876 yards, eight touchdowns). Those two gaps and a hole at left guard are the places the staff must begin to patch.
Sophomore Nick Sparks (6-3, 206) may be just the guy to take over what Washington started. Sparks will probably be asked to do a lot of what Tavares Bolden did for Toledo last year -- hand off the ball to an excellent back and make smart throws off of bootlegs and rollouts.
If quarterback is the land of new faces, running back is like an old comfortable pair of slippers that just keeps getting better.
Junior Brandon Payne (5-10, 197) rushed for 1,062 yards last fall and scored 13 touchdowns for the second consecutive year. He was also the team’s third-leading receiver with 22 catches and three touchdowns.
Bailey led the squad in catches with 44, but senior Jake Schifino (6-1, 205) was a close second with 42 and might be the better home run threat. Schifino scored four touchdowns, averaged more than 18 yards per catch and had a long play of 85 yards en route to his best season.
The starting tight end is senior Tim Ritley (6-3, 243), who was a good third-read target underneath for Washington and will make Sparks’ development a little easier.
Defense and special teamsThe offense has the potential to be pretty good. The defense has nowhere to go but up, it would seem.
Owens selected new defensive coordinator Bob Morris to try to right the ship. The coaches think they have some answers in the 4-4 front, starting with defensive end Dwayne LeFall (6-3, 248).
One of Owens’ imports from northern California, LeFall was the best lineman the Zips had last year, leading the team with 4 1/2 sacks.
The linebackers are experienced on one side, but are looking for help at rover and one of the inside spots. Seniors Ed March (5-11, 223) and Eric Culberson (6-3, 207) will be the rushers from the whip position on the weak side. Those two are experienced, and combined for 41 tackles and three sacks.
How do you replace the league’s best defensive back, possibly ever? You don’t, and Dwight Smith’s presence here masked even more of what ailed the Zips defense last fall.
Potentially five players in the new class could see time at safety or corner, though it seems the needs for athletes are greater at the outside linebacker positions. Greg Williams (5-10, 195) from Glen Oak High School is the most highly touted of this cadre.
Senior kicker Zac Derr (5-8, 155) was consistent last fall, and made 11-of-16 field goal tries, with four of his five misses from beyond 40-yards.
Bottom lineAkron will be behind the proverbial eight ball from the start of this one. They throw an inexperienced quarterback to the Bobcats in game one, and then head down I-71 to Ohio State and new head coach Jim Tressell.
The other home games are all probable wins, but road games at Western Michigan, Miami, and Marshall will be difficult.
Miami went through the same schedule last fall and came out fairly close (tied for third) with no cigar. Look for Akron to do something similar with about six wins, as the Zips again lose a couple games in which they score 30 or more.