'Players see through phony energy': Robb Akey and the thrill ride he provides
When Robi Stuart was asked for his favorite Robb Akey story, he had to take a second to think. Eventually, he settles on the first time he met his new defensive coordinator in the spring of 2019.
Akey announced his presence with authority.
"Homeboys," Stuart recalls Akey yelling in his baritone voice. "What's going on?"
Though the first impression was meaningful, there are plenty of options Stuart could've chosen when asked what his best memory with his defensive coordinator was.
His moment of pause to ponder his choices says wonders about the positive impact the second-year defensive coordinator is having on his players.
"Just the way he talks to us sometimes," Stuart said. "Everything is very endearing. We all love it."
Several other players reacted the same way when asked for their favorite Akey story, taking a second to think all the memories they've shared with him and weigh one above the rest.
Each and every day, Akey is the same person. He bounces around the playing field, slapping hands with every player during stretches. His energy is unparalleled, and as a result he's leaving a stamp on the Chippewa program.
"He's one of the biggest characters we've got," Stuart says. "He gives us a lot of motivation and it fires us all up."
A memorable audition
Four years before he was walking into the CMU locker room for the first time, Akey was interviewing for the defensive line coaching job with what is now known as the Washington Football Team. Then head coach Jay Gruden and his staff needed someone to fill the spot after Jacob Burney was let go.
Gruden's defensive coordinator, Joe Barry, had worked with Akey at Northern Arizona for four years and thought his energy would be a good fit with the organization. Akey, who was working as the Minnesota Vikings' assistant defensive line coach, was brought in to make his pitch for the job with Gruden and Barry.
His pitch was memorable, to say the least.
Speaking by phone five years later, Gruden recalls Akey moving around chairs in the meeting room, and even getting on the floor at one point, to demonstrate different drills and techniques.
Gruden and his staff were sold. Akey was hired.
"He was able to explain things man, he got on the ground and used chairs as props demonstrating drills and stuff for us," Gruden said. "He came across in a positive way and an energetic way that we’re looking for to motivate our guys and teach our guys."
While Akey and Gruden only worked together for two seasons, Gruden says he was able to learn a lot from Akey. The head coach was able to learn from and develop an immense respect for his veteran defensive line coach.
But above all that, Gruden valued the energy Akey brought to each and every practice.
"I think it’s one thing to have (energy) occasionally but to bring it every day and be passionate about it and not be phony with it is very, very important," Gruden said. "I think the players can see through phony energy. I think it’s hard to argue the fact that Robb had great passion for the game and that’s where the energy came from."
McElwain joked that he likes Akey because he's easy on the equipment budget. Akey always wears shorts to practice, so there's no need for McElwain and the program to spend the extra money ordering sweat pants for the defensive coordinator.
There's plenty more that CMU's second-year coach appreciates about the defensive coordinator he brought with him.
"His passion and his energy for the players, not only what he does," McElwain said. "It doesn't matter what the day is, what the situation is, he's gonna be there with energy."
Akey reminds his players every day that in August, there was no football to be played. When the season was canceled, players were devastated. Now that they have a chance to play, Akey makes sure to tell his players that nothing is guaranteed.
To do this, he cranks himself up each day in practice. The energy has rubbed off on his defensive unit, which is currently the top scoring defense in the Mid-American Conference.
"It's contagious, and I mean the good kind of contagious," Ypsilanti junior George Douglas said. "It's fantastic. Coach Akey is, when it comes to just being hype in a sense, being energetic, just excited to do your job."
Douglas has stepped up in his first full season as a starter. He's currently the team's leading tackler with 17 in the first two games.
Among other standouts is Birmingham senior Troy Hairston, who has emerged as one of the MAC's best pass rushers. He's accumulated three hurries, five hits and three sacks in the first two games. He, too, feels an extra surge of motivation every time he sees Akey.
"He’s a very unpredictable dude," Hairston said. "But he brings you along and he carries you along with him. The energy is something else. It’s not anything I’ve ever experienced with any other coach in my life and I’ve been playing football since I was six. He’s just a personable dude."
That ability to be personable has helped his players buy in. After last season's surprising run to the MAC title game, there's a certain standard set for his second season. The standard involves hoisting a trophy.
But regardless of the situation, Akey will be Akey. Bouncing up and down at practice, he'll bring the same energy, and he'll slap his players hands during stretches.
Every single one of them. They're along for the ride.