Craig Has The Scout - Akron 2019
Who: Akron Zips
When: 11:00 am - August 31st, 2019
Where: Home Sweet Home
Head Coach:* *Tom Arth. Arth is a Northwest Ohio guy, taking over as a first year coach for the Zips. Arth is replacing Terry Bowden, who achieved a stunning level of mediocrity at Akron. Arth coached Chattanooga last season, and prior to those two seasons was at John Carroll University at the D-III level. Arth is 38, and much like last year's opening opponent, is bringing new energy to a program that has been devoid of it for a while.
Offensive Style_: _Pro Style - ish. The offense at its base is a 3 wide shotgun set, with a pretty standard array of straight runs. There is a little read option mixed in, but not much. They will use multiple formations based on situation, including the I-Formation. The strength of the offense is the WR corps though, so don't be surprised on Saturday when they are heavy on the 4 WR sets. As mentioned, the offense will use multiple personnel packages, and part of that is the coaching staff finding a comfort level with the players available. Arth likes RB's who can catch the ball out of the backfield, so the Illini LB corps will be challenged. They will also line up slot receivers in the backfield and motion them to bounce LBs and create mismatches. While most of the time I expect 4 WR, they will use an inline TE to support the run game.
Defensive Style_: _A hybrid 4-3. The defense resembles South Florida's the most, with 3 DL always with a hand in the dirt, and a stand up weak side end. Illinois will spread this out, and as a result they will swap out the outside LB for a safety. The strength of the defense last year for Akron and Chattanooga was defending the pass. With the Illini strength in the pass game, they will most likely put the secondary on an island to slow down the Illinois rushing attack. The secondary is talented but thin, and this is a perfect time for the Ricky Smalling game.
Specialists_: _Akron had a rock solid kicker last year, but he graduated. Aside from that, I have very little information here. Your guess is as good as mine.
Three Things to Watch
The Illini pash rush. The Akron attack will most closely resemble that of Matt Campbell at Iowa State. They will look to get the ball out quickly, and lean heavy on the pass. The WR corps is strong, but the OL is basically in the same place Illinois was last year. They are a young unit, and slowly rounding into form. If the Illini are unable to create pressure on Kato Nelson, he might pick them apart.
The Illini interior three vs. the Akron DT. Akron has a set of 5 DTs for the 2 positions, and all are 300 lb. dudes. The Illini interior will need to create lanes to get the running game moving. The Zips LB corps is very undersized, but all have a nose for the ball. If the Illini are unable to get movement at the point of attack, the LBs will have a field day (and Lako is a damn good LB).
Lovie as DC. Arth has tape out there from UTC, but with his personnel I wonder what wrinkles he has for the Illini. Last year, Kent State picked apart the Illini on a read play and Hardy didn't adjust. This year, I imagine Lovie would counter this with a lot more blitzing than Illini fans are accustomed to seeing. I'm very curious to see if Lovie translates the practice philosophy into game coaching.
Scouting Review - Offense
Arth runs a system that gets off about 70 plays a game. While at Chattanooga, his teams played with more pace when they trailed, but generally they mimicked the pace of their opponent. They are generally a 60-40 pass to run split. WIth Illinois running a faster tempo, Akron playing at normal pace would get them close to 80 plays. OC Tommy Zagorski will do everything he can to slow the pace of the game and limit the snaps. Akron has some weapons on both sides, but they lack depth.
Zagroski was the OL coach when Arth coached at John Carroll, and was the OC at Eastern Kentucky last season. Zagroski and Arth have the same offensive philosophy, and both had QBs last year with ~60% completion rate with a yards/attempt of just over 7 yards.
This offense is a multiple formation, motion offense designed to keep defenses guessing. In the first week of being installed at a new school, it has the potential to have the offensive personnel just as confused.
Onto the playbook to be seen on Saturday. The first play is a simple read option look with an off tackle run. The play is simple, but has given Illini DEs fits in the last couple of years. This would be both the first and second play called if I was OC.
The second play to watch for is a set of 5 yard ins/out. The play gives the QB options, and helps against a Cover 3 zone look. The offense has 4 receivers running 5-7 yard routes, and should create at least one opening in the defense.
Arth was not afraid to show out the I-formation and run from it (which is where the Matt Canada feel comes from). Here is an I-formation toss sweep out of the formation.
Arth has the whole Ron Turner I-formation array in his arsenal, although I never saw the QB naked boot and pass to the fullback. Carey Davis weeps.
One thing that really stands out is that this is a HUGE playbook, but it seems like Arth calls the playbook by down and distance. On 3rd down, they had a nice array of plays that they would like to run, and take advantage of what the defense was likely to give them. Which is interesting, since it will take away some naturally aggressive tendencies of a DC. On this play, the offense has a formation that spreads out the defense and gives the QB a clear read pre-snap. Once the play starts, the QB locks directly on the target and delivers the pass.
This is a well designed playbook, and will give defenses fits. It is impossible to take something away, as the offense doesn't really have a very repetitive look. This makes sure the defense is reacting vs. the offense reacting to defensive changes. As a result, the offense is effective at moving the ball, but struggles with explosive plays.
To build on the point above (both Matt Canada and otherwise), the offense utilizes a large amount of motion pre-snap. This forces the defense to react, and to give clear pre-snap reads to the QB. Nelson was a 52% passer last year who, with no improvement, will improve to a 60% passer simply because of the offense. Here is a pre-snap motion example
In this instance, it showed that LSU was in man coverage with a single deep safety. Chattanooga was unable to convert the 3rd down, but it was not for a lack of knowledge of the defense's intentions. In order for Illinois to get off the field on 3rd down, they need to generate pressure with the front 4.
One formation Arth utilized more last season, and plays well with his personnel this year was the Arrow on one side, with a single receiver opposite. I also understand his choice of OC, as Eastern Kentucky used the formation extensively last season as well
Akron will run the gamut out of the formation, and it will interesting to see if Illinois bumps out the SAM LB to cover routes from the arrow, or if they utilize a Nickel Corner. Based on camp reports, it appears they will start with a SAM (Eifler or Ware), but may be forced to bring in a young corner to cover it if Akron starts moving the ball.
Arth loves to motion the RB out of the backfield (or line up a slot receiver in the backfield presnap and motion him out). This generates a mismatch, and forces the defense to react to the changes the offense has presented. Any breaches of discipline leads to big plays - Jeff Brohm is a master of finding these.
Akron will be playing against a superior team athletically, but on offense they can generate opportunities by isolating the backs out of the backfield.
The main takeaway of the offense is that it is pretty cerebral. They run a good set of 3rd down concepts, and use motion to give the QB an easy decision in the passing game. Arth reminds me of a pass heavier version of Chris Peterson, or as I mentioned above, Matt Canada. The Illini defense will need to be disciplined and make their reads.
Scouting Review - Defense
The Akron D is a complete reboot. Last year the Zips defense was ok, and did well behind the line of scrimmage. Most of that defense graduated, and now they are relying on a couple of playmakers to cover up inexperience. The Illini offense needs to show that a less mobile quarterback can make the offense hum, and that the OL is legit by taking advantage of a pretty green DL.
Alvin Davis is a name to know, as he can cover up a lot. The safety is potentially the best defensive player on the field - for either side. The pass coverage last season for Akron was solid, and they bring back some experience there. The downside is they are incredibly thin. The linebackers are solid (Lako in particular), but are very undersized. This linebacking group reminds me of the Beckman crew of Monheim and Svetina, solid and undersized.
The defensive line has some bulk in the middle, but the Illini OL is more athletic. This will lead to more stunts and blitzing to create havoc.
The Akron D will do many things that Wisconsin and USF did against Illinois in passing situations, having DL not being set pre-snap, and moving to their holes after the ball is snapped. This makes the reads hard on the OL, especially when they are trying to deal with twists and stunting DL. The middle three will need to transition smoothly to manage this, and if the Illini can keep Peters with a clean jersey, they will get the DBs for Akron on an island. This should allow for multiple big plays and a consistent ability to move the ball.
What does it mean?
Declaring the Lovie Smith era as another failed Illinois experiment was premature two years ago. Now, the rubber meets the road. I don't think it is wrong to decide that the Lovie Smith rebuild model didn't work as expected. Lovie abandoned his own model, as he has replaced both coordinators and jumped on the transfer train. While no definitive decision can be made on the future success of the change, the future will become clearer.
As much as I hate Lovie Smith as DC - I don't mind it with Gil Byrd on the defensive staff. Byrd has never been a playcaller, but has the chops to be one. That should help with the defense, and Lovie has shown a willingness to be more aggressive which should help. Lovie inherited a roster that was devoid of many of the pieces he needed to succeed. He has had time now to assemble the pieces necessary to succeed in the system.
I think Illinois will improve this year. A mass of juniors will help. The non-conference schedule is the most favorable I can remember as an Illini fan. The B1G West is improving, and potentially at a faster pace than Illinois is improving. Turnovers are the key to Illinois this year, just as Lovie wants it.
That should play well with this game. Akron is implementing the same big change Illinois brought about in 2016. The systems are new, and still reasonably basic. Arth is a good coach, and like many MAC coaching changes Year 1 is probably rough, followed by a big jump in Year 2. The Zips have many nice pieces, but have a lot of holes that Rod Smith can exploit, and mistakes will be made.
For Illinois to Win:
On offense, Illinois needs to get into a rhythm running the ball early. Last year AJ Bush tried to do too much in the run game and bogged down the offense in the first game. I don't see Peters doing the same, which should get the OL into a groove early.
On defense, the Illini need to bottle up the short passing game. Arth will want to stretch the Illini horizontally and create some gaps in the defensive back 7. If the Illini DL gets pressure, the offense will grind to a halt.
For Akron to Win:
Akron needs to get on the board early, and then make Illinois throw to win. Kent State jumped to a 17-3 lead early last year, but faltered in the 2nd half (especially the 3rd quarter). The Zips will need to generate a similar early lead, then dink and dunk and control the clock. If they get the lead, they will load the box as mentioned above to force the Illini to throw deep.
Illinois either wins this by 7, or by 30 methinks. Give me Illinois to cover, but I'm very nervous about this being a 7 point game.
YTD Against the Spread: