Akron's defense struggled last season, ranking in the bottom half of Division 1 programs in nearly all statistical categories. The Zips, however, greatly improved throughout the 2002 campaign and also improved on the previous season. In 2001, Akron was 13th in the Mid-American Conference in total defense giving up a horrendous 470.5 yards per game. Last season the Zips improved to 8th in the MAC in total defense. During Akron's 0-6 start, the defense gave up 43.8 points per game, compared to 19.3 during a 4-2 finish.
The quality of the Zips first six opponents, however, was substantially better than the final six. Still, the defense has rallied around its performance against Marshall, when it held the Thundering Herd to 20 points (15 below their season average) and forced seven turnovers. Fans may remember that as the game when Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich missed part of the second and third quarters while visiting the hospital for X-rays and still threw for 307 yards. Akron's opportunistic defense contributed to a 34-20 victory, certainly the highlight of the season for a program that had never before beaten a top 25 team.
Key Stats: NCAA rank in parentheses
Scoring defense: 31.6 (91)
Rushing: 167.3 yards per game allowed (74)
Yards per carry: 4.08
Passing: 227.2 (71)
Yards per pass: 8.02
Total defense: 394.5 (77)
Yards per play: 5.69
Turnovers forced: 25—16 fumbles, 9 interceptions
Sacks: 12 for 68 yards
Defensive Line Analysis:
The front four struggled immensely last season and may not be much better this year. One reason that Akron held Marshall and Central Florida, two of the most potent offenses in the nation, below their scoring averages, was that both teams are very pass-oriented. Run-heavy offenses put up gaudy numbers against the undersized Zips. Iowa, for instance, opened the season with 376 yards on 45 rushes. Yes, the Zips held Buffalo to 34 rushing yards and Kent State to 70 in the season's last two games, but in a 27-10 loss late in the season, Akron allowed 306 to Ohio. The team has two of four starters returning on the line, but on a team that had a putrid 12 sacks, the team's leading pass rusher, reserve defensive end Josh Hill, who had four, is gone. Returning players had just five sacks in 2002.
The unit is still undersized, with its best player 262-pound Marques Hayes, who moved from end to tackle midway through last season and will anchor the line. Hayes had seven tackles for loss last season. Junior end Dwayne LeFall has two seasons as a starter under his belt, while sophomore Brian White will start at the other end.
The Zips do have significant size at one defensive tackle spot, where 280-pound converted offensive lineman Andy Wills is expected to start despite playing in just five games and recording three tackles as a freshman. He is backed up by enormous 340-pound fellow-sophomore Antonio Shippy, who had six tackles.
The top reserves outside Shippy are redshirt freshman end Jermaine Reid and junior Bobby Gardner.
Chase Blackburn, the Zips best defensive player, will be making his second position change in as many years. Last season Blackburn moved from defensive end to middle linebacker and recorded 96 tackles, 12 TFL and two sacks. The 243-pound junior will swap positions with sophomore Dionte Earl, who made 67 stops and 12 TFL from the weakside position last year.
Senior Matt Robinson and junior college transfer Jared Smith will compete for the strongside spot. The top reserves are junior Joe Radich (31 tackles in 2002) at middle linebacker and sophomore Jay Rohr on the weakside.
If there is a star on this unit, it is sophomore free safety Domenik Hixon. As a freshman, Hixon started for the first time in the fifth game of the season and tallied 65 tackles, good for fourth on the team. He has added 30 pounds to his 6-2 frame and is now weighs in at 193. The secondary is particularly tall, with all four starters standing six-foot or taller.
Cornerback Rickie McKenzie (37 tackles, two interceptions) is a returning starter. Fellow senior Jesse Smith will start opposite McKenzie. Smith had 23 tackles and five pass break-ups in a reserve role in 2001, but missed all of last season with a shoulder injury.
John Fuller, who started four games in the secondary last season and had 29 tackles, will take over at strong safety.
The top reserves are cornerbacks junior Montae Russell and redshirt freshman Mike Bradshaw; strong safety Jason Nedd, a sophomore and junior free safety Greg Williams, who started five games at corner last season.
Last season was the first under new defensive coordinator Joe Tresey and the unit displayed significant improvement under his tutelage. With six starters returning, the Zips should continue last season's progress. However, Tresey's unit still has its work count out for it. Despite the enormous Shippy, the defense is undersized and does not have many players who have been particularly productive. The defense, again, should be better than last season, but it will still be mediocre to poor against both the run and the pass. If the unit allows 28 points per game, it should be considered a success. The good news for the Zips is that this unit will not need to win games, just avoid getting trounced, as it did frequently last season, and give the high-powered offense a chance.
Akron Week: Defensive Preview
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