In Ron Ianello's first year, Akron went 1-11 last year including an OT loss to Garner-Webb. What are your overall thoughts on Ianello and what does he need to do better this year?
I'll start by saying I was personally against the firing of previous head coach J.D. Brookhart. The man was a mastermind at adapting to situations (many Zips alumni have set records at positions that they didn't start at). He recruited very well, but he didn't recruit very deep; so when star quarterback Chris Jacquemain was dismissed from the team for an unknown repeat violation, All-MAC wide receiver Deryn Bowser broke a leg, and bruiser runningback Joe Tuzze and backup quarterback Matt Rodgers found themselves in similar situations, there was no possibility of adaptation, resulting in a 3-9 record. However, when the vast majority of the fanbase called for Brookhart's head on a platter, the athletic department was forced to do something.
I had originally thought that Rob Ianello was perfect for the team; he was a Top 25 Recruiter, and came from a solid Notre Dame squad. A lot of the horrid record is a result of a Zips squad that Ianello didn't recruit. Jacquemain, Bowser, and Tuzze, who were almost all of Akron's offense at the beginning of the year before had all graduated. On the other hand, the rest of the record is a result of terrible decision making and ridiculous playcalling; the most questionable was Ianello's decision to go with proven-terrible kicker Igor Iveljic as opposed to promising Sophomore T.J. Marchese. Had Iveljic not shanked twoextra points during the Gardner-Webb game, that spirit-breaking loss would never have happened. Another choice was a switch to a pro-style offense as opposed to the spread being run by Brookhart. In order for a pro-style offense to work, a team needs a quarterback that is comfortable in the pocket and a running back that can run straight up the middle to pick up yards. The Zips had neither of these. In order to improve, Ianello is going to need his recruiting class to fit his offense; and it wouldn't hurt to throw away those 3-yard flat routes during a 3rd and 10.
The Zips scored 15.6 points per game last year which placed them 118th out of 120 teams. Who needs to step up this year on the offensive side of the football to help get this fixed?
To say Sophomore Patrick Nicely was disappointing last year would be an understatement. Injuries and experience from the year before kept him in the top spot, but he was clearly uncomfortable passing in the pocket, and didn't show much improvement throughout the year. He ended the season with 10 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. The good news for the Zips is, somebody is going to step up this year, whether or not it is Patrick Nicely. Zach D'Orazio and junior college transfer Clayton Moore both looked solid throughout Spring practices. Newcomer running backs Jawon Chisholm (14 carries for 142 yards and 2 TDs in the Spring Game) and Marvin Staten also looked great throughout the Spring against a solid Zips linebacking corps, and if they too can step up, we'll see some offense in 2011-2012.
Akron was in the bottom 20 of the Nation for pass defense last year. Who are some newcomers that you think can come in and make an impact on those numbers?
Devonte Morgan and Johnny Robinson, fellow Glenville Tarblooders, are two very promising defensive backs in this year's recruiting class. I don't expect the pass defense to improve much this year, but with a (hopefully) improved offense comes more time of possession and less time the defense spends on the field. If the Zips can start converting some third down plays this year, that alone will improve the pass defense.
Looking at the schedule, what are the most important games this year?
The Zips start the season with three grueling games against Ohio State, Temple, and Cincinnati. Even if all three of those are lost, winning the next three against VMI, Eastern Michigan and FIU would leave them with a 3-3 record and a winning streak to carry them into heavy conference play. The Akron team we saw at the end of last season would do more than hold their own against any of those three teams, so a win in all three isn't much of a stretch for the imagination.
What is the one game on the schedule that the fanbase wants to win the most this year?
Kent State. No question. If you attend a social event on the Akron campus, at some point throughout the night you will hear one person shout the time, and the rest of the room shout back "And Kent State still sucks!" The Battle for the Wagon Wheel is an intense, heated, fairly even rivalry that will make or break a season. Although if you ask some of the Zips fanbase, they'll agree that it would be nice to win a bowl game.
What is your gut feeling on the final record for the 2011 season and what makes the season successful in your eyes?
If the Zips can sweep the three-game streak against VMI, Eastern Michigan and FIU, they can end with a 6-6 record and possibly make a bowl game. If not, they are a 3-9 team. There's no way we'll see another 1-11 season, but the Zips are not yet a contending team under Rob Ianello; there are inexperienced players at every position that are going to be severely tested this year.