Previewing The Enemy: Akron Zips
No. 6 Penn State will finally take the field Saturday at noon on ABC. Here’s a rundown of its first opponent, Akron.
The Zips are coming off a season where they started strong, but lost their final four games and missed a bowl for the 10th time in 11 years,
The 2017 Akron Zips. There’s no better way to start a season than with some MACtion, folks:
— #MACtion (@MACSports) August 31, 2017
In such a pivotal year, it’s fun to remember Akron was James Franklin’s first home opponent as Penn State’s head coach. His team took down the Zips 21-3 after winning one week prior in Ireland in the Croke Park Classic.
In year five of head coach Terry Bowden’s tenure, Akron went 5-7 — with five of those losses coming during conference play, and four of them coming consecutively at the end of last season.
The Akron offense returns a handful of contributors — including 2016 leading rusher Van Edwards Jr. However, much of this team’s MAC Title hopes hinge on the performance of redshirt senior quarterback Tommy Woodson. The elder statesman completed about 60 percent of his throws last season, posting 18 touchdowns to just six interceptions.
Akron’s rushing statistics didn’t necessarily pop off the page last season, so a healthy Woodson is integral to the team’s success. He’s back from offseason shoulder surgery and feels healthier than ever — something that should keep the Nittany Lions on their toes throughout Saturday’s contest.
Akron features a relatively experienced offensive line with the exception of left tackle Trevor Brown, who’s a sophomore. Expect him to face constant pressure from Shareef Miller and Co. as he tries to hold his own on the blindside.
Akron native and speedster Fransohn Bickley — who shares an alma mater with LeBron James from St. Vincent/St. Mary High School — gets his shot to help lead Akron’s spread attack along with former Pitt wide receiver Tra’Von Chapman as the Zips attempt to test a Penn State secondary that will be missing John Reid.
Akron has a mixed bag defensively. It possesses some promise with junior linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III heading the charge, but finds itself rebuilding two major positions with fresh faces. Both defensive ends and both starting cornerbacks will have new contributors stepping in.
Pitt transfer Jamal Davis II will lead the strongside pass rush while redshirt junior Brian Reinke — who assisted on one total tackle in 2016 — heads the weakside. Both will face stiff tests against a massive Penn State offensive line that could employ both Chasz Wright and Andrew Nelson on Saturday.
Expect Davis to provide most of that pass rush against the Nittany Lions in his first game since 2015. Due to NCAA transfer rules, Davis was forced to sit for a year after leaving Pat Narduzzi’s program at Pitt. He’ll be counted on by an equally intriguing secondary. Redshirt junior Darian Dailey makes his first start for the Zips while junior Kyron Brown — the team’s interceptions leader in 2017 with three — starts opposite him at boundary cornerback.
Gilbert III, the team’s unquestioned heart and soul, will be expected to follow up his head-turning 2016 performance that garnered him first team All-MAC honors with another stellar season. He led the Zips with 121 tackles, 11.5 TFLs, four sacks, and three forced fumbles. He’ll be the team’s rover on the outside, and expect plenty of pressure from his side of the field. The key to Akron’s gameplan must be to get men into the backfield — whether that’s to contain quarterback Trace McSorley or running back Saquon Barkley.
Here’s Gilbert III’s performance against Wisconsin in 2016; the then-sophomore finished with six tackles, one TFL, and a sack in his team’s 54-10 loss.
Gilbert III’s presence could open the door for redshirt junior outside linebacker Nathan Bischof, who’s making his first-career start. Expect double teams to be focused on Gilbert III all afternoon, giving his new counterpart plenty of one-on-one looks.