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The J.D. Brookhart era did not get off to the best of starts. The Zips opened the season with three straight defeats -- including a loss at home to Middle Tennessee -- but rebounded by winning six of their final eight games to finish 6-5 overall and 6-2 in the MAC.
Brookhart, a former receivers coach at Pittsburgh, was named the league's coach of the year. Now, the challenge is to identify a successor to NFL-bound quarterback Charlie Frye and to rebuild the offensive line. "With some of the losses on offense, I think we'll need to grow in personnel and formations," Brookhart said.
The Zips graduated four stalwart defensive players but return seven starters and feel much better about their depth at linebacker and in the secondary. "I think we are improved athletically [on defense]," Brookhart said.
Frye, who broke 54 school records during his time at Akron, will be very difficult to replace. Sophomore Jabari Arthur has a slight edge in the three-player race. Arthur caught 23 passes as a wide receiver last fall. Pittsburgh transfer Luke Getsy is familiar with Brookhart's system and has two seasons of eligibility left. Sophomore John Ferguson played well in the spring game and could be a factor.
Senior running back Brett Biggs (5-foot-9, 190) may be small in stature, but he plays big on the field. A second-team All-MAC selection in 2004, Biggs took over the starting job in the third game of the season and finished with 871 rushing yards on a 4.7-yard average.
The strength of the offensive unit is the receiving corps. Akron's quarterbacks have to find a way to get the ball in senior Domenik Hixon's hands. At 6-2, 192 pounds, Hixon is a playmaker, having caught 66 balls, including six touchdowns, a year ago.
The only returning offensive line starter is junior Tim Crouch (6-3, 290), who has made 22 straight starts at left tackle.
Watch for noseguard Kiki Gonzalez, a 300-pound senior, to disrupt the running game. He'll command a double-team, and that should free up the Zips' linebackers to make more tackles.
Defensive coordinator Jim Fleming has a good feeling about his linebackers, despite the loss of two starters. Senior strong-side backer Jay Rohr started the final five games of 2004. Local product Bryan Howe, coming back from a broken clavicle, will get the nod in the middle.
The Zips expect to improve on last season's eighth spot in MAC pass efficiency defense. Senior Dion Elie anchors this group from the back at free safety. Sophomore strong safety Chevin Pace is a hard hitter who was sidelined (shoulder) for spring ball. Both starting corners -- Dionte Henry and Reggie Corner -- return as well.
Senior kicker Jason Swiger will be remembered for his 43-yard field goal last year to beat Marshall as time expired, but he was just 5-of-11 inside the 40. Punter Billy Sullivan improved his efficiency (16 fair catches); however, the Zips yielded four punt return touchdowns.
At first glance, the Zips should be better on defense and will likely take a step back on offense.
Defensively, the Zips were able to limit five consecutive opponents to 28 points or less in the second half of the 2004 season, and that bodes well for '05. The secondary should be the best since the Dwight Smith-led crew of '00.
Offensively, the presence of a strong running game should take some of the pressure off the new quarterback. It boils down to Akron's passers being able to find Hixon to move the chains. The cupboard is far from bare on the offensive line, but developing a cohesive unit may be another matter. An inexperienced quarterback and an untested offensive line are usually a scary combination. Akron will be hard-pressed to match last season's 6-2 league record, especially with road dates at Bowling Green and Miami of Ohio.