AKRON Any time a new football coach is hired at a university, there’s excitement and anticipation at what that coach may bring to the program.
But between the day of the introductory press conference and the kickoff of the first game, there’s a span of weeks and even months where there’s relative quiet around the program, at least from an outside perspective.
When the University of Akron introduced Northeast Ohio native Tom Arth as its new head coach late last year, fans wondered how his hiring would pan out as he replaced Terry Bowden, who led the Zips to their first-ever bowl win at the Division I level, but saw his team stumble to a 4-8 record in his final season. Arth, for his part, isn’t willing to publicly ruminate on why Akron hasn’t reached the same heights as some of its Mid-American Conference peers in recording double-digit wins in a season and playing in premier bowl games.
“I don’t like to speculate on anything … previous to my arrival. I know what we believe it takes to be successful at this level and within this conference and that’s really where we’ve focused all of our energy … doing the things we think will lead to that type of success,” Arth said.
In tangible terms, the facilities at Akron are as good or better than any in the MAC. Infocision Stadium is just more than a decade old and in good condition, with the spacious fieldouse that doubles as the team’s training facility and the site of the coaching staff’s offices located next door. With the facilities in place, whatever coaching staff lead the Zips has solid assets to sell to potential recruits.
“I think a big part of it is the ability to recruit the state. At the University of Akron and in Northeast Ohio, at the end of the day you have to have a strong group of players from this state … you have to have a strong group of players from Northeast Ohio in particular, so we’ve really focused on the things that are core to us, what we believe in,” Arth said.
During Bowden’s tenure, the Zips have had extremely successful players who have gone on to success at the NFL level, including linebacker Jatavis Brown, a starter with the Los Angeles Chargers, but haven’t been able to put together a team that excelled on both sides of the ball in the same season. Either the defense has ben stout and the offense has struggled or vice versa, but the Zips weren’t able to put it all together under Bowden. Some of that stems from the series of injuries that have plagued Nelson, Thomas Woodson and others who have occupied the starting quarterback position at Akron in recent years.
Arth, who was a quarterback during his playing career, is excited to work with Nelson and believes quarterback and offensive line are two positions of strength for the Zips at this point. Beyond that, he inherits a defense that graduated some of its best players and will have to both get reserves from last season to step up and contributions from the incoming recruiting class in order to succeed this fall.
Given that Arth was hired late in the recruiting season, he and his staff jumped into their new jobs knowing they were behind the pace.
“It was a really big challenge. Two year ago, when I was hired at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, we had a similar time frame … the difference was the early signing period hadn’t been implemented yet, so while you went in late in the game and had a month to put a class together, nobody was off the table and you were able to go out and recruit the players you wanted to recruit,” Arth said. “This year was very different. We focused on the character piece … finding the best people we could from the best programs we could that fit our roster, that fit what we’re looking for and the type of program we want to build.”
The first-year Akron head coach recognizes that there have been some big wins for the program over the past decade, such as a road win at Northwestern last season, but insists those successes aren’t central to how he and his staff build the program going forward. Given his background on the offensive side of the ball, it’s fair to surmise that Arth’s biggest imprint may be on that side of the ball with the Zips. To that end, he wants to develop an offense that both protects the football and has big-play potential.
“Number one, be an offense that protects the football. That’s the most important responsibility we have as an offense. Number two, a team that creates explosive plays … the majority of drives that result in touchdowns have a big play in them somewhere. It’s hard to go on 15, 16-play drives,” Arth said. “Being able to execute in critical situations, having a smart group that plays with great discipline and great poise in third down, red zone situations, those kinds of plays… that’s what we want.”
Nelson’s return should help anchor the offense, but as recent seasons have proven, if Akron can’t pair a productive offense with a solid defense game in, game out, its ceiling will be limited. For now, until spring football arrives, the coaching staff is working to get settled in, build relationships with players and make sure those players are getting the job done in the classroom so they can be on the field this fall.
“More important than spring ball itself is really the spring semester, just the evaluation that’s taking place. I told our team that I don’t need spring ball to tell us what kind of program we’re going to be … I need the spring semester, I need to see what your grades are going to be and I need to see how you’re going to improve in the classroom. That’s going to tell me everything I need to know,” Arth said. “We’ll get to the football when we can get to the football. It will be good to establish our practice habits, what it’s supposed to look like, what it’s suppose to feel like and what it’s supposed to sound like every day.”
For fans and observers, seeing what the new-look Zips become won’t happen for a bit, but as a new era kicks off at Akron, there is hope that this one will take the program where athletic director Larry Williams and those who hired Arth believe it can go.
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