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Behind Enemy Lines: Akron football beat writer George Thomas discusses CMU game


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Akron wide receiver Dustin Burkhart runs down the field after making a catch against UAB on Sept. 7, 2019. (Photo: Akron Athletics)

Central Michigan Life's Evan Petzold spoke with Akron beat writer George Thomas from The Beacon Journal to preview Central Michigan's 3 p.m. Sept. 14 game against the Zips at Kelly/Shorts Stadium in Mount Pleasant.

Akron began the season with a 42-3 loss to Illinois on the road before falling at home to UAB in Week 2, 31-20. In 2018, the Zips finished 4-8 overall and 2-6 in Mid-American Conference action.

Thomas discussed quarterback Kato Nelson, the need for a true running back to emerge and much more on both sides of the ball in this exclusive Q&A.

Central Michigan Life: What is there to know about Akron entering Week 3?

George Thomas: I don't think you can expect anything right now. They are looking for an identity, which is something you can expect with a first-year coach like Tom Arth. He switched from a spread offense to more of a pro-style offense and from a 4-3 defensively to a 3-4, so it's difficult to get a read on the season. You can't really peg them right now. That's the best way to put it.

You don't really have a gauge on who this team is entering conference play.

What's there to know about starting quarterback Kato Nelson?

On a bad day, when there's no protection there, he's trying to put a lot on his shoulders. For good days, when he's mixing in his passing and running, Kato can be very dangerous. He can make all the throws, all the deep throws. He's very accurate with the deep ball, generally. Give him a sliver of room to run through, and he can be dangerous. If you're paying attention to one guy, it has to be him.

Keep in mind, if there's a strength this year, it's the receiving corps. They're deep at receiver. Period. Different sizes and specialties, but they all have speed.

How has former Central Michigan receiver Julian Hicks fit in so far with Akron?

Julian Hicks was the Chippewas leading receiver last year. He was cleared by the NCAA to play this year but had a shoulder injury in fall camp. The injury happened a couple of weeks ago, so it cost him the last couple weeks of training camp. He's 100% healthy now.

I walked into the Zips indoor training facility for the start of camp. As soon as I walked in, this kid was catching the ball over two defenders in the corner of the end zone. He was 6-foot-3, well defined and strong.

I just asked, "Who the heck is that?"

A coach replied, "He's one of our best players."

That should tell you what they think of Hicks. They really do like him, but it's going to have to make up for the time he missed.

Which players should play a key role on defense?

You have to realize, the Zips' defense is young. They lost eight starters from last year on defense. There are three seniors, but one didn't start until halfway through last year. (Cornerback) Alvin Davis had two pick-sixes against Northwestern last year. Alvin has pro scouts around this program. John Lako is a former walk-on linebacker who earned a scholarship. Both of them are tough and like to play football.

If you're not careful, Alvin will pick your pocket. Don't take him for granted.

If Akron is going to beat Central Michigan, what needs to happen?

They have to discover their run game quickly. They've averaged 49 yards per game through the first two games, and Kato Nelson has been the leading rusher.

Bottom line is that they need the offensive line. Senior Deltron Sands nearly broke out a few years ago before getting injured. It's all on the offensive line, it really is. They need to find a rhythm.

Have special teams been an issue for Akron?

The kicking situation is in flux, let's call it that. It's not great right now. Coverage teams have been OK, but they need more consistency out of their kicker (Jerry Fitschen – 2/3 extra points, 1/3 field goals).

Score prediction?

I don't do score predictions. I've never done them.

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