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Akron Players to Watch: Alvin Davis Jr. and Kato Nelson

These guys were the key to the Zips’ upset of Northwestern last year.

Akron is not a school that is particularly known for its football program. Last season, the Zips won just four games (4-8 overall, 2-6 in the MAC) and they have not won more than nine games in program history. In fact, from 2010-2012, Akron won a total of three games (three consecutive 1-11 seasons) and have only won more than six games twice in the past 13 years. Again, not a stellar program.

That being said, one of its four wins last season was against Northwestern — yes, the Wildcats of Evanston — in a game where the Zips scored 36 second-half points at Ryan Field to win its first game against a B1G opponent since 1894.

Here’s to hoping we don’t pull a Northwestern this year.

All jokes aside, while Akron may be far from a mid-major football powerhouse, there is precedence that even second-tier opponents can give the Illini headaches in the season opener. See: Illinois vs. Kent State, Sept. 1, 2018. There is reason to think this game could go in favor of the Zips.

Illinois has a few things on its side: first, the Zips are coming off a two-win MAC season, meaning they are at the bottom of the barrel for their own conference; second, they do not have an abundance of playmakers on offense, which might make the Illini defense’s job a bit easier.

Kato Nelson had a solid season at quarterback, and started 11 games for Akron as a redshirt-sophomore. He finished with just over 2,300 yards through the air and 15 touchdowns. However, he also threw eight picks and completed just a hair over 50 percent of his passes. He is somewhat of a threat to rush, and picked up 305 yards on the ground in 2018. He will certainly be someone the Illini need to keep their eye on, but a man on the defensive side of the ball caught my attention more than Nelson did.

Alvin Davis Jr. was the hero from the Northwestern game. He intercepted two passes and returned both of them for touchdowns, essentially giving Akron the historic win in Evanston. One of those interceptions was a 97-yard return. I did some research, and it’s pretty difficult to return an interception further than that. Davis will be a senior this fall, and had a solid 2018 year with 41 solo tackles and 30 assisted tackles. In addition, he had four total picks in 10 games and six passes deflections. Fun fact: he hails from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., home of our Mike Epstein and James McCourt.

You can see both of Davis’ interceptions at 1:16 and 2:57.

Both Nelson and Davis will be problems for the Illini on their respective sides of the ball. Given Rod Smith’s penchant for the option and running the ball (and, of course, the uncertainty at the quarterback position), Davis will likely be tested in stopping the run and reading the quarterback on designed runs or options plays. The assignment for the Illini defense, however, will be managing to keep Nelson in the pocket and limiting easy throws over the middle. Hopefully, the addition of Milo Eifler and return of Jake Hansen will prove to be enough to stop the easy running plays that gashed the defense so often last year.