About this time a year ago, there was a buzz around Akron Zips football which had not been seen in a many years. Among the reasons for optimism was the Zips move from the Rubber Bowl - their home since 1946 - back to campus at Infocision Stadium. By November, some of the positive vibes had faded as the Zips posted a 3-9 record for their fourth consecutive losing season.
That brought about the dismissal of Head Coach J.D. Brookhart after six seasons. Rob Ianello was then named 26th head coach in school history, and the fourth since the program moved into the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1987.
Even though this is his first head coaching job, Ianello has an impressive resume. For the past four seasons, the native of Port Chester, New York was on Charlie Weis staff at Notre Dame as the assistant head coach in charge of the offense, along with being wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator.
He also had been on the coaching staffs at Wisconsin under Barry Alvarez on two occasions. He also was at Arizona under Dick Tomey and John Mackovic and Alabama under Bill Curry.
My family and I are thrilled to be at Akron and excited about the opportunity to lead this program. Ianello said. My life-long dream has been to run a football program at the highest level and there is no place better to begin that journey than right now at the University of Akron.
As Ianello begins this 2010 season, he will have some tools to work with as the Blue and Gold return thirteen starters - six on offense and seven on defense.
The offense will operate under the direction of Offensive Coordinator Greg Latina, who worked with Ianello at Notre Dame. Latina plans to implement a two-back offense rather than the spread, which had been a staple of the Akron attack for years.
Whatever the changes be it scheme or personnel the hope is it will help the Zips put more points on the scoreboard. Akrons offense managed to score only 19.2 points per game while amassing 300.9 yards per game last year.
One of the big question marks regarding the 2010 Zips is the quarterback position. After the suspension (and later, dismissal) of senior Chris Jacquemain, Matt Rodgers took over until he injured his ACL against Ohio.
That gave the job to Patrick Nicely, who completed 54.1 percent of his passes for 1,349 yards and six touchdowns in leading the Zips to wins over Kent State and Eastern Michigan late in the season.
Rodgers did not participate in spring drills, so Nicely had a better grasp of the new offense as fall practice began. Ianello said of his signal callers, We are blessed from the standpoint that we have two young men who have started and competed at a high level in their careers. That is a position to be in.
The running game looked promising at the start of last season when senior Alex Allen had 188 yards and five touchdowns in the first two games before he injured his knee and was out for the year. In the off-season the NCAA granted Allen a sixth year of eligibility so he will be counted on to be the main man carrying the football in 2010.
Allen will not be alone in rushing the football as the Zips move into the two-back offense. Two runners who showed flashes last season are Broderick Alexander, who gained 198 yards last season, and Dale Martin, a transfer from Louisville who should see more playing time in 2010. Nate Burney is also in the picture.
Senior Jeremy LaFrance will play a leading role among receivers. He capitalized on his opportunities after injuries wrecked havoc on the group last year. LaFrance led the Zips with 43 catches for 520 yards and two touchdowns.
Zip fans can look for Jalil Carter to play a bigger role in the passing game as he moves from the defensive side of the ball. Sophomore Nadir Brown should also figure into the mix.
With the two-back offense, UA may look for more production out of the tight end, and the Zips believe that senior Kyle Weber will fill that role.
The offensive line has experience in seniors Corey Woods, Jake Anderson, and Mike Ward, with Ward moving from guard to center this season. The unit will need to come up big not only in pass protection, but also to fire out for the running game.
The defense, meanwhile, will be under the control of Curt Mallory who comes to the Zips from Ron Zooks staff at Illinois. Mallory will utilize a 4-3 defense. Last season, the D gave up 28.2 points and 367.7 yards per contest.
The defensive line has three returning starters in James Harvey, Hasan Nazime, and Almondo Sewell. Sewell led the line in tackles last season (53 total, 29 solo).
The linebackers? What can you say about sophomore Bryan Wagner. The native of Springfield, Ohio had a phenomenal freshman season with 132 tackles (70 solo) - second in the MAC - and was named to the Second Team All-MAC defense.
He is just a football player. Mallory said. You have to see him on film, because if you see him in the weight room, he is just an average guy. But when it comes down to it, he can play football.
Joining Wagner will be senior Mike Thomas, who had 79 tackles a season ago (39 solo). Look for Sean Fobbs, who had 42 stops in 2009, to play on the outside.
One glaring problem for the Zips is the secondary, which has just one returning starter in Manley Waller. The senior from Decatur, Georgia is the son of former Olympic sprinter Gwen Torrance and had 47 tackles last season, along with three interceptions and eight passes defended..
There is a significant experience drop-off with three seniors (Diamond Weaver, Doug Richardson, and Kevin Davis), who have seen very little playing time in their careers at UA, figuring into the secondary picture.
Another area needing improvement is special teams. Granted, the Zips have one of the best kick returners in the MAC in Dashan Miller, who averaged 25.7 yards per kickoff return (second in the MAC). But the kicking game left a lot to be desired as PK Branko Rogovic made just 7-of-15 field goals. Punter Zach Campbell averaged 38.3 yards per kick a season ago.
The season begins with home games against Syracuse (Sept. 4) and FCS member Gardner-Webb out of the Big South Conference on the (Sept. 11). The Month of September ends with road games at Kentucky and Indiana.
October brings the MAC opener at home against Northern Illinois, who many observers believe is the top team in the Western Division. The Zips then end the October with three of four on the road (Kent State, Ohio, and Temple). The lone home tilt is against Western Michigan Oct. 23. Akron wraps up the regular season with a road game at Ball State before two home games against Miami and Buffalo.
Many pundits have the Zips near of at the bottom of the MAC Eastern Division. This season will be a work in progress for Ianello and his staff. Few are expecting miracles with the program - just something to believe in and be excited about.