UMass opponent preview: Akron looks to take next step under Tom Arth

  • Chattanooga head coach Tom Arth, front right, yells to his players during the first half of an NCAA college football game against LSU in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. Arth, who is in his first season with Akron, leads the Zips into Amherst to meet UMass on Sept. 28. AP

Staff Writer
Published: 7/15/2019 8:04:53 PM

Akron entered last season hopeful of its future.

The Zips were coming off their first division title in a dozen years and most of that team returning for 2018. Then Akron went on the road and overcame a 21-3 halftime deficit to upset Northwestern to move to 2-0 on the young season.

After that win, though, the season went downhill and it’s a far different feeling for the Zips entering 2019. Akron lost five straight to close out 2018 and changed coaches, turning to Tom Arth to help restore the program to consistent success.

Arth leads the Zips into Amherst on Sept. 28, the third consecutive first-year coach the Minutemen will face in the 2019 campaign.

OFFENSE: Any first-year coach would love to have the situation Arth has at quarterback with a two-year returning starter under center. Kato Nelson won the job late in his redshirt freshman campaign and kept it throughout last season to be named the team’s offensive MVP last season.

Nelson passed for 2,329 yards and tossed 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions last year for the Zips. However, he struggled with his accuracy, completing just 52 percent of his passes, including five games when he finished under 50 percent.

Yet, Nelson will have many of his favorite weapons back again this year. The Zips return three of their top four receivers last season, including leading wideout Andre Williams, who caught 46 passes for 649 yards and six touchdowns.

The established chemistry between Nelson and his receivers gives Arth — a former All-American quarterback at Division III John Carroll — a head start.

Where the Zips might struggle is on the ground after losing their two best running backs from last season. Deltron Sands and Keyondre White were used sparingly last season, but the two will need to provide some balance to the Akron offense.

Sands has played in 21 games and made a start for Akron in the backfield, but he’s never had more than eight carries in a game. Meanwhile, White seldomly played last season as a true freshman, but made an impact with 13 carries for 56 yards in the season finale at South Carolina.

An experienced offensive line will pave the way for the offense. Despite the right side of the unit graduating after last season, Brandon Council returns from a season-ending injury last year and can play either position. Council made nine starts at guard in 2017 then started the first three games of 2018 at right tackle before getting hurt.

DEFENSE: The experience the Zips have returning on offense is mirrored by the eight starters they’ll be missing on defense this season. Yet, two of the team’s four leading tacklers return, including linebacker John Lako and his team-best 126 stops.

Lako is the focal point of a defense that will need an experienced, but unproven reserve corps to make plays this season. Akron has six defensive players who have played in at least 15 games in their career, but started less than 25 percent of those games.

They’re players like Dylan Meeks and Justin Sampson, who have played in a combined 50 games without a start on the defensive line, but made just 17 tackles last season.

Shawn Featherstone also fits into that category with five starts in 27 games, but he is returning from a season-ending injury that limited him to two games last year. However, Featherstone was sixth on the team with 67 tackles two seasons ago and the Zips are counting on him to regain that form.

Defensive end Josh Ward, who registered four sacks among his 33 tackles last season, is one of the other returning starters. The third starter back this season is play-making safety Alvin Davis, who intercepted a team-high four passes — returning two for touchdowns — forced two fumbles, recovered two loose balls and finished fourth on the team with 75 tackles.

Josh Walfish can be reached at jwalfish@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoshWalfishDHG. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.



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