Akron athletic director Mike Thomas sent a clear message when he dumped Lee Owens in favor of new coach J.D. Brookhart -- 5-3 in the MAC isn't good enough. Brookhart comes from Pittsburgh, where he worked as offensive coordinator under Walt Harris.
There was a collective sigh of relief around the Zips' coaching offices when record-breaking quarterback Charlie Frye said he would forego the NFL Draft and return for his final season. Overshadowed by Miami's Ben Roethlisberger and Bowling Green's Josh Harris, Frye now owns the MAC stage. Unfortunately, his supporting cast is mostly gone.
The bigger issue, however, is the Zips' defense. This unit simply has too many questions for the Zips to contend in 2004.
OffenseHe's tough, talented and a legit NFL prospect. Frye may be the best-kept secret in college football. Being touted as a Heisman Trophy candidate, with a chance to rewrite the MAC record book this fall, Frye is expected to step into an offensive system that will enhance his NFL stock. The holder of 49 school passing marks, Frye can't do it by himself.
"We need to run the ball effectively," Brookhart said. "Charlie setting more records is not our goal this season. We need to control the clock and to do that we must run effectively."
Look for junior Jerell Ringer to get the bulk of the carries after averaging 7.8 yards per attempt in limited action a year ago. Fullback Dan Basch is a bruiser who has a 5.3-yard career average.
Senior wideout Morris Ellington, injured most of last season, caught 31 passes in '02. Former defensive back Domenik Hixon will move to receiver and bring his much-needed 6-foot-2 frame to join Ellington as a starter. Dennis Basch, younger brother of Dan, emerged from spring as the No. 1 tight end.
Brookhart's system calls for Frye to take deeper drops and that will put pressure on the Zips' offensive line to protect. Returning starters Aaron Conley, Tim Crouch, Mike Piccirillo and center Jim Borrieci have plenty of game experience and understand their charge: Keep Frye off the turf.
DefenseDesperate to get pressure on opposing passers, the Zips have moved their best defensive player to end. Chase Blackburn, a second-team All-MAC linebacker last year, is listed at one end, opposite senior Dwayne LeFall, who logged 6.5 sacks a year ago.
Linebacker Diontre Earl, who packs 245 pounds on his 5'10" frame, has excellent acceleration to the ball. He'll likely start on the strong side. Special teams standout Jay Rohr will get the nod at middle linebacker. Former safety John Fuller is moving to weak-side linebacker to round out this undersized trio.
The secondary is unsettled as well. With Hixon at wide receiver, Fuller moving to linebacker and Rickey McKenzie (seven interceptions) lost to graduation, it could be a tough fall for the defensive backs. More than half of the players listed on the two-deep depth chart are freshmen or sophomores.
SpecialistsJunior Jason Swiger, a former walk-on, became the team's No. 1 placekicker. Billy Sullivan dropped 13 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line and averaged 42.2 yards per kick.
Speedster Jamie Goodwin averaged 23.1 yards per kick return. Hixon will get first crack at punt returns.
Final AnalysisA former offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh, Brookhart worked under Walt Harris and coached wideouts Larry Fitzgerald and Antonio Bryant. Scoring points shouldn't be too much of a problem. Despite some heavy personnel losses on offense, the Zips should be a capable offensive team as long as Frye remains healthy.
Defensively, however, Akron could be in trouble. This unit simply has too many questions for the Zips to contend in '04.