University of Akron football: Optimism for a return to normalcy greets Zips

George M. Thomas
Akron Beacon Journal
University of Akron football coach Tom Arth is embracing an opportunity to have a closer to normal football season but is keeping himself prepared for whatever happens. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

The opening of spring football practice in sun-drenched InfoCision Stadium proved to be normal – almost.

As the state of Ohio slowly eases pandemic health orders, vestiges of the ongoing pandemic remain. No stray fans to be seen in the stadium, only football personnel allowed.

Most noticeably: anyone not in a uniform wore a mask. Interviews with coach Tom Arth began on Zoom, the ubiquitous teleconferencing software that likely contributed to the economy not collapsing. 

No, things aren’t back to normal, but there’s a sense that it could be coming and with it comes the optimism, his default mood, that Arth possesses.

He’s happy to be back on the field and judging from the enthusiasm from his players during a brisk practice in shells and shorts, they were feeling it, too.

“That’s the most exciting thing for me,” Arth said. “We have this opportunity to develop our team from a football perspective, camaraderie. Just everything that goes along with it. So much of that happens on the practice field, in the meeting room and all of those things.”

Arth said 115 student-athletes fill his roster. Of that number, only approximately 15 have any spring practice experience. The current roster includes about 10 players who enrolled early. He considers this period that will last until the Friday before Easter to be huge.

“A significant amount,” he said when asked what could be learned given the relative inexperience on the roster. “For us, last year, spring ball was so important for us as a team.  As young as we were, to lose all 15 practices of spring was very devastating to our program and probably affected more than some other programs that are more established. It was a really big challenge and I thought we met it and I thought we overcame it in a lot of ways.”

Indeed. After it looked as if the Mid-American Conference wasn’t going to play football at all last year, teams participated in a truncated six-game season. The Zips won their first game under Arth, a victory over Bowling Green, and showed some improvement. The reality is that no team should be judged by what transpired last season, given the pandemic.

Still, Arth said that season can be built upon this spring, which will not include a spring game or showcase as in years past, by mastering what they did well and improving what they didn’t.

He’s confident in the offseason work, including work with director of athletic performance, Deonte Mack.

Even with the optimism that Arth has, he’s wary when it comes to predicting whether normalcy returns in a reasonable fashion in the fall.

“I don’t want to speculate on things I have no control over," he said. "I don’t want to worry about things I have no control over. I don’t want to put a timeline on it because I don’t know.

"And I don’t want to find myself in the season and we’re still in this COVID world and I’m upset and disappointed, so we’re taking it day by day and the protocols that exist and are in place right now, I think we’re handling right now and we’ve found a way to do everything we need to do within those protocols.”

University of Akron quarterback Zach Gibson will have competition in the form of former starter Kato Nelson and transfer D.J. Irons as the Zips begin spring practice. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

At the helm

Looking at the practice field, it’s difficult to not notice 6-foot-6 quarterback D.J. Irons, junior college transfer from Iowa Central Community College.

His presence along with Kato Nelson, who returns after recovering from a shoulder injury and is 100 percent for the first time since 2019, and last year's starter Zach Gibson give UA a quarterback room with unique potential.

“It’s definitely as interesting as it’s been,” he said. “There’s more competition at that position that there’s ever been. We can have a really competitive spring. The hope is that level of competition raises all of our performances.”

Paying respects

Arth had nothing but kind words for Director of Athletics Larry Williams, who will be departing this summer after his contract expires. He recognized the challenges – four presidents in almost six years at UA along with COVID in the past year – with which he’s contended. He called his stewardship impressive.

“I wish he was going to have the opportunity to be at the University of Akron and part of our program as we continue to develop and grow this thing,” he said. “He always will be, but I wish we could have made it happen a lot sooner.”

George M. Thomas can be reached at or @ByGeorgeThomas