The bar is high. Thatís where J.D. Brookhart placed it when he took this program to its first MAC title in 2005. His wide-open, spread offense creates an exciting product, but new pieces must fall into place quickly for the Zips to return to the contenderís role. High-profile games abound, with a gala against Army at Cleveland Browns Stadium, and a visit to Ohio State as one of three games against BCS conference teams.
The key for those games and the ones on the MAC ledger will be defense. The Zips expect to force the issue by creating turnovers and putting opposing offenses in difficult situations. If that unit turns into a catalyst for momentum swings, Akronís fortunes improve significantly.
The most glaring question mark is at quarterback, where the savvy Luke Getsy rewrote the record book during the last two seasons. The relief must come from a duo of third-year sophomores ó Carlton Jackson and Chris Jacquemain ó who need to embrace the demands of the spread offense and fast-track their way along the learning curve. Jackson saw very limited duty last fall, completing his only pass attempt for a grand total of two yards. Jacquemain has yet to throw a pass in a game.
In Dennis Kennedy the Zips have a workhorse-quality ball-carrier, and theyíll be counting primarily on him to get the ground game going at a faster rate. The need for a spike in production is evident; this was the MACís lowest-producing group at 83.8 yards per game. Sophomore wideout David Harvey would give the Zips a game-breaker who led the nationís first-year players with 914 receiving yards last season when he averaged 21.3 yards per catch on his 43 receptions. Thereís a problem, however: Harvey was excused from spring drills in order to attend to personal matters. It is not known when ó or if ó he will return.
With four new starters, the offensive line has less experience but more athleticism than last year. Therefore, the Zips are crossing their fingers that development is swift. Junior tackle Chris Kemme is the veteran of the group.
Two of the three starters on the defensive line are new, and after last seasonís struggles to mount a functional pass rush, there are more than a few concerns. Senior tackle Jared Cecchetti is the only proven commodity. He can also play end. Junior Eric Lively moves into a starting role at end after backing up at nose tackle last season. Sophomore Wallace Pendleton emerged from spring No. 1 at nose.
The strength on the defensive side is here, led by senior Brion Stokes, who recorded 5.5 sacks last year. Junior Doug Williams is also experienced and has the ability to be a playmaker. Junior Kevin Grant, also a returning starter, will be the middle linebacker.
Former NFL defensive back Emmanuel McDaniel signed on to coach Akronís defensive backs, which feature Andre Jones and Brandon Anderson at safety and Reggie Corner and Davanzo Tate at corner. With depth in the rotation, Akron has the luxury of moving some players around to create different packages and put more speed on the field when needed.
The kickoff game has been an area of emphasis since the rule change puts the kicker at the 30 and opens up the return options. Harvey averaged 30 yards per return last season, after taking the first return of his career back 78 yards. His return would be a boost to the special teamsí units. Punter John Stec averaged 38.6 yards per kick last season, while Matt Domonkos has the inside track on the placekicking job.
With a solid background in the corporate world, Brookhart knows all about sales charts and progress graphs and the necessity to meet goals and expectations. His team fell short of its well-established quotas last season and is re-doubling its efforts to get the business back on solid footing. After two straight winning seasons, the 5Ė7 record of 2006 wonít do.
They key will be at quarterback, where either Jackson or Jacquemain must emerge as a viable option. There is solid talent at the other skill positions and enough experience on the defensive side for this team to succeed ó if Brookhart finds a signal-caller in whom he has confidence.