In search of their first winning season since 2015, the Akron Zips open the 2023 college football season at Temple at 2 p.m. Saturday.
The Zips went 2-10 last season, Joe Moorhead’s first as Akron’s head coach.
Moorhead, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Billy Fessler, defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Tim Tibesar and special teams coordinator Allen Tucker sat down with the media on Aug. 12 to talk about the team.
As they enter their second season together at Akron, here are highlights of what they said about the Zips:
Akron football head coach Joe Moorhead
Where is the program at in terms of the players you have now compared to the players you had when you were hired?
“Rivals ranked our class of 2023 recruiting class with a comprehensive rating that includes high school players, portal players, transfers and JUCOs as the No. 1 class in the MAC. I thought that was a very positive sign of what we have done in terms of talent acquisition over the past two seasons. I think when the season starts, of the 85 scholarship players, roughly 70 will be ones that were recruited either last year or this year. That number could be a little bit high. Certainly, we are excited about the talent and the type of person and the quality depth that we have built at every position.“
What positions have the most strength and depth on offense and defense?
“I think offensively, receiver is probably our strongest position top to bottom. Certainly losing Shocky [Jacques-Louis to graduation] was a big hit because of his production and his leadership, but Alex Adams is a first-team All-MAC player, Daniel George had over 60 catches last year and we have a bunch of other really talented players at the position.
“Defensively I would probably say it is our back end. The combination of our safeties and our corners. There is a lot of production returning there.”
With the quarterback position, some guys were injured during the Spring Game. How is that position shaking out in August?
“DJ Irons is back and practicing. So excited to see that. He is coming off of an All-MAC season. Tahj Bullock, in from Virginia Tech as a transfer, is getting a lot of reps. Jeff Undercuffler Jr. won a MAC game for us last year. Steele Wasel, Ryan Jankowski, Dijon Jennings and Johnny Brookhart, a coach’s son, is a walk-on for us. Lot of good competition in that room as well. Kind of a consistent theme across the board.”
What has that been like to coach freshman walk-on Johnny Brookhart, the son of former UA head coach J.D. Brookhart?
“It’s been great. Coach [Brookhart] is the reason this building [the field house] got built and the stadium got built. He won the only [MAC] championship in school history and we have stayed in touch. It is pretty neat, considering the circumstances by which his tenure ended here, which was ridiculous, that he thinks enough off our program and myself to want his son to come here.”
Do you remember Johnny as a child when you coached at Akron from 2004-2008?
“Coach brought his kids around all the time. It is kind of neat to see a grown up Brookhart back in the program.”
Is Johnny’s personality similar to J.D.?
“No. He is a little more quiet and reserve, but then again we are just getting to know him. I am sure that personality will shine through here as we get a little more familiar with him.”
Is it too early to tell who the difference makers will be with the new guys that have come in this year?
“There is an old adage that I heard a long time ago that ‘Talent will pass experience when you give talent experience.’ It doesn’t take too long to turn the film on and find out who can play and who can’t play. We have got a bunch of new guys whether it be [Division I college transfer] portal, or junior college or freshmen who have been given reps and opportunities to earn playing time and a lot of them have done so. There are definitely going to be a bunch of newcomers and fresh faces grabbing a chance to compete for playing time.”
How are the offensive and defensive lines progressing?
“I think we are progressing well. … Where the games are won and lost are on the offensive and defensive line. Every championship team I have been on [as the offensive play caller], five in college, the mentality of those teams have been dictated by the offensive and defensive line. The best position battles are occurring on the offensive and defensive lines, which is a great sign for our team. When we got here for the first team meeting, I told the guys ‘Depth charts are written in pencil, not pen. You have to earn the right to play every single day.’ We are in a constant state of evaluation.”
Where is the team mentally when compared to last year?
“We call them critical factors or non-negotiables that we are focusing on — our body language, our energy, our attention to detail, our competitiveness, our mental and physical toughness and lastly and most importantly, our finish. The players who we inherited who are still a part of the roster in combination with the guys that we brought in here understand that the process of becoming a successful football team isn’t negotiable. The things that we communicate to them are directives and not suggestions. The beautiful part of that now is the roster that we have built, if someone doesn’t want to buy in to or comply with the things that we are demanding they do to be successful, you just put them to the bottom of the depth chart and the guy behind them or another guy behind them will get an opportunity. That wasn’t the case last year. We have got a bunch of guys who are capable Division I football players who are also simultaneously built in with our culture. That has been great in terms of the ability to make sure everyone adheres to the same standard around here.”
Akron offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Billy Fessler
Where is the offense at heading into the 2023 season?
“Naturally, when you get into a Year 1 and you come in like we did last year there are going to be some struggles from a learning curve perspective, from an expectation perspective and from a culture perspective. We battled some of those challenges last year I thought and as the year went along we started to feel like we were clicking a little bit more and more from week to week. Those little steps of growth were huge for our development and those didn’t stop at the end of the season. To continue to have a great winter and bring that into a spring practice setup, I thought that we had 15 really good practices offensively and carried that over to the summer. That constant development and understanding about what we are trying to get done on offense is encouraging. … We laid the foundation last year.”
Akron defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Tim Tibesar
How does the culture of the team this year compare to last year?
“We are miles ahead of where we were in the accountability, players holding each other accountable, players understanding of what the expectations are and how to go about from a day to day of whether it is showing up on time for study hall or showing up on time for training table, showing up and doing the right things on the practice field. They know this is how we are going to do things. … Two thirds of our team are back and they understand and they are able teach the other guys, where as before it was all coach driven. We have players who have been here a year and a half under coach Moorhead who can teach the younger guys ‘Hey, this is how we do this.’ They are the ones doing some of the coaching and therefore the culture perpetuates itself. From a talent standpoint, we have definitely improved the roster over the last year and a half.”
Akron special teams coordinator Allen Tucker
How does the culture of the team this year compare to last year?
“From a coach’s perspective, watching these guys even enter the building, is different. There is an excitement. We have to kick them out sometimes because they want to get extra film, they want just hang out with us and hang out with each other. … The look on their faces and the light in their eyes is different when they walk into the facility.”
Michael Beaven can be reached at mbeaven@thebeaconjournal and is on Twitter at @MBeavenABJ.