2022 G5 Preview: Akron Has Hope, Finally
The Joe Moorhead hiring sparks more interest at Akron than we've seen... ever?
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It’s always difficult to get a feel for internal patience at a rebuilding program. Schools don’t often come out and say specifically how they’re feeling about a coach or how wide a berth they expect to give him in his efforts, so we’re left reading the tea leaves and using history as a guide.
At Akron, the tea leaves and the history seemed to indicate that Tom Arth would get another season in town, even if his Zips weren’t up to the task this season.
Instead, after two wins in nine games, Akron moved on from the former John Carroll head coach before the conclusion of his third season in town, finishing his tenure with a 3-24 mark. Though the Zips did see minor improvement, the inability to compete against anyone outside of Bowling Green in the MAC and a truly putrid defense that never really took any steps forward doomed Arth when he couldn’t make a dent into either issue this season.
Should he have been given another season? I don’t know that it can be said confidently in either direction. That 3-24 mark is hard to argue in Arth’s favor, but his recruiting approach didn’t seem to be terribly off-base, and this was a really bad gig when he took it over. He was always open about the need for time, and two years with some change, one of them the COVID year, isn’t a whole lot of time.
On the other hand, though, Akron did fire him, and its reward is one of the nation’s brightest offensive coordinators, a coach that some had tabbed for P5 jobs, not one of the darkest corners of the G5 ranks. So the answer, it seems, is that if you can sign Joe Moorhead as your head coach, firing Arth makes a whole lot of sense.
Obviously, the next question is, ‘Why in the world would Moorhead want this job’ and the answer there honestly seems to be fairly simple. Akron is close to home for the Moorhead family, and he has a history in tricky coaching positions.
This job presented an opportunity to settle in somewhere that his family is comfortable, a reprieve from the stress of big-time coaching – Moorhead suffered a health scare of some sort during the season, the details of which are not known – and the former Oregon offensive coordinator seems to have a legitimate belief that he can win here, as he did at Fordham and Mississippi State (despite his firing from the latter).
“You can win at Akron,” Moorhead told Cleveland dot com. “I was told we’d never win at Fordham and we did. We won a MAC title when I was at Akron. At Mississippi State, we competed against the best coaches and players in the country and held our own.
“I feel a tremendous peace about this. I know it’s the right thing to do.”
The next step for Akron, which really couldn’t have asked for a whole lot more from this cycle, is to start winning some football games. That seems to be a sticking point. The Zips haven’t been to a bowl game since 2017 and they haven’t won one since 2015. They have one conference title, back in 2005, and a second division crown to go with it in 2017. This is not a program with a history of winning, despite its presence in a MAC that does rotate through power struggles as often as any other league. There are haves and have-nots in the league, but Akron hasn’t – unlike just about any other program short of maybe Kent State and Eastern Michigan (which is changing as we speak) – ever really broken out of the latter, even briefly.
Moorhead is hoping that an electric offense and a willingness to hit the transfer portal can change that.
“We plan to be very aggressive as the situation warrants,” Moorhead said. “I don’t think you want to take a transfer kid for the sake of taking a transfer player. Obviously, a lot of them have been at other schools and they have game experience and something dictates a change for them.”
On that former point, the book is out on Moorhead’s offense, and folks – it’s good. He has fantastic zone run design with a ton of option concepts and has worked it flawlessly into complementing a passing game built largely around play action, RPOs, and moving the defense around with action in the backfield to create open space down the field.
“We want to be a multi-tempo offense that combines a West Coast-based pass game that takes more shots down the field than that style of offense with an RPO-based run game,” Moorhead said.
"We want to be able to play as fast as we need to play or, at times, as slow as we need to play to get the best look possible against the defense that’s presented, rather than running a bad play quickly.”
He does have plenty of gap design on the ground too, but his zone stuff has been his bread and butter for years and will be here as well. Moorhead’s strength is in his ability to scheme up defensive conflict. Like in an option scheme, he empowers his players to make defenders wrong with reads and has designed much of his offense around isolating those defenders to really accentuate that conflict. In essence, when a Moorhead read works and makes a defender wrong, it really makes him wrong. Hence the big plays.
"It’s a pretty simplistic scheme,” Moorhead told Bruce Feldman in 2017. “We have our six in the box (five O-Linemen and the tight end) are gonna block your six and then we’re going to tag a run-pass option to it, so if you’re trying to add the seventh or eighth defender to the box, we’re essentially going to make you wrong with a throw. And, because we have run it so much our kids are really confident in it."
With the Zips, Moorhead has essentially a blank slate upon which to etch his system – which is where the portal could come in. Akron isn’t without proven returning talent, but questions at linebacker, tailback, wide receiver, on the defensive line and in the secondary have offered chances for Moorhead to infuse some immediate talent, and infuse he has.
Though Akron will likely add more transfer pieces in the coming weeks and could see more players on the current roster transfer, the Zips have nabbed nine players that look likely to contribute from the start. West Virginia tight end T.J. Banks, Houston offensive lineman Max Banes, Syracuse defensive tackle Curtis Harper, Pitt wideout Shocky Jacques-Louis, Wyoming defensive end Victor Jones, West Virginia safety Kerry Martin, Memphis defensive lineman Devon Robinson, Buffalo linebacker Tim Terry, and Minnesota halfback Cameron Wiley have all joined the Zips.
In some spots, the new faces almost seem to be a direct replacement for departed players, either to graduation or the portal. Jacques-Louis contributed plenty to Pitt as an option off the bench but jumped to Akron in search of more playing time. There should be plenty to offer because top receiver Konata Mumpfield is headed to Pitt and No. 2 wideout Michael Mathison is in the portal. Banks can serve a similar role at tight end, though high-end freshman starter Tristian Brank does look set to return and Banks has only 10 catches to his name.
Harper was a reserve for Syracuse in 2021 and looked set to slide into the starting lineup next season, but didn’t fit especially well into Tony White’s 3-3-5 as more of a true defensive tackle than a nose. Nick Toth’s system could be better suited to his game, and he should move right into the starting lineup. The Zips could return their entire two-deep up front defensively after a mass youth movement, though redshirt junior Zach Morton was just about the only effective member of that group – and funny enough, he played with Harper at Syracuse before making the same move to Akron ahead of the 2021 season.
Jones playing only in a spot role for the Cowboys in 2021 but his 3 1/2 sacks and 4 1/2 TFL would have made him one of Akron’s best edge players and will put him comfortably into that role next season.
Martin might be the most intriguing member of the entire group, and could be one of the MAC’s best players. He starred as a freshman at WVU in 2019, but sat out the 2020 season amid COVID concerns and didn’t really find his way back onto the field in 2021.
Somewhat famously, he called out WVU defensive coordinator Vic Koenning – who was later fired – for inappropriate conduct. There’s no point in speculating on whether this led to his dwindling playing time or not, but we’re all adults here and can make a pretty easy assumption in one direction.
Regardless, he has three years of eligibility remaining and he absolutely kicks ass. A pairing with returning safety Jaylen Kelly-Powell would be one of the better safety duos in the league, and cornerbacks Charles Amankwaa, Randy Cochran and A.J. Watts have all flashed potential. The passing defense at Akron was already one of the better pieces of the team in 2021 (52nd nationally in passing yards allowed per game), and with Martin and Harper joining the fold, it’s reasonable to expect Toth to inherit quite a head start on that front.
The bigger issue to address is up front, against the run. Akron couldn’t get any sort of pass rush going in 2021, but it really couldn't stop the run. An early season injury to Bubba Arslanian, probably the best tackler on the team, certainly didn’t help but the issues went a lot deeper than just him. Akron was consistently beaten off the snap in the trenches, and linebackers in Matt Feeney’s 3-4 system were asked to do too much.
Taking some stress off of them could really help what should be a good group. Jesslord Boateng led the team in tackles and should be back; Jalen Hooks flashed ability in his first season at the position (but could be on the move to more of a hybrid role); and Arslanian could return, though I’ve seen no news on that front. Add in Terry, a consistent player for Buffalo, and there should be an immediate improvement here too. It’s not a bad group, it was just asked to do far too much behind a bad line.
That’s the idea behind bringing in Harper, Jones and Robinson – who has yet to play meaningful college minutes but was recruited originally to Mississippi State by Moorhead before transferring to Memphis. He’s an unknown, but he’s a big body and bolsters a bad tackle room. If two of Harper, Robinson, Nazir Sy, or Bryce Wilson can be strong in the middle, the line should improve. There are fewer questions about the ends than the tackles, especially if Morton returns.
Lastly, in Wiley, Akron is pretty much just looking for potential contributors at halfback. Former star Teon Dollard never made it to the field in 2021 after catching a weapons charge and Jonzell Norrils (5-10, 210 pounds) was fine but largely uninspiring in his place. Both Wiley and Norrils will play, with the former working as a much larger (6-2, 210) change of pace back for a coach in Moorhead who likes to have multiple tailbacks he can trust.
That’s a good start for Moorhead. He’ll likely grab a few more players to fill spots at wideout, which has seen more attrition than any other position, and he could look for a quarterback if DJ Irons doesn’t move him, especially after Zach Gibson’s departure to Georgia Tech. Irons is a better runner, but he’s not as refined as a passer – though he did about as well as could be realistically expected of him in 2021.
If Irons is the guy, there’s a foundation for a decent offense around him from the jump, and the defense looks primed for a natural leap just because of a two-year youth movement that Arth and Feeney undertook. The entire offensive line was underclassmen and has seen only two transfers (neither of which played in 2021 anyway). Banes started five times for Houston in 2020 but struggled with injuries in 2021 and could slot into the starting lineup if Akron is looking for some experience at guard (it should be).
Finding a new receiver or two to trust is going to be critical, but there’s moldable talent up front, a strong athlete at quarterback if desired, talent at tailback and the base of what could be one of the MAC’s better defenses.
Moorhead cited a desire to be closer to home as his primary driving factor here, but he’s not clueless about what he's walking into here. Arth put down much better groundwork than he was given credit for, and Moorhead is slated to benefit from the jump with a roster that looks every bit the part of a bowl contender if a few things break the right way.