AKRON  There’s no question the 2016 season didn’t travel the path the Akron Zips intended.

After an eight-win season and the program’s first-ever bowl victory in 2015, Akron suffered a slew of injuries that took several key pieces - including starting quarterback Thomas Woodson - out of play for a team that lost its last four games to go from a potential second straight bowl bid to 5-7 and staying home for bowl season.

“The biggest key is getting healthy … this team lost eight or nine starters last season, so getting healthy has been our top priority,” head coach Terry Bowden said.

As the Zips wind down their preseason and gear up for their Sept. 2 opener at Penn State, they’re trying to reintegrate their injured returnees into the mix while adding in new pieces across the field. After graduating several of their top receivers, Woodson and the offense will have returnees Fransohn Bickley and A.J. Coney, along with former quarterback Tra’Von Chapman, to target in the passing game. Gone are Jerome Lane and Jojo Natson, opening chances for newcomers such as former Coventry standout Dustin Burkhart.

Still, having Woodson healthy after a serious shoulder injury last season is a big step forward in and of itself.

“Making sure he’s at full strength,” Bowden said when asked what area of his game Woodson has worked on most this offseason.

The offense struggled mightily without Woodson under center. Chapman was able to lead the Zips to a win over rival Kent State, but he too eventually fell to injury, That left former high school quarterback Tyrell Goodman to start the season finale against Ohio, a 9-3 loss that saw Akron unable to muster any offense even in a game in which a win would have made them bowl-eligible.

Still, it’s the defense that had the hardest time keeping up its winning ways last fall, as Chuck Amato’s unit was ravaged by injuries and was routinely gashed by opposing running games.

Three times, the defense allowed an opposing running back to go for more than 250 yards and the inability to stop the run remains on the coach staff’s mind.

“The key for them is stopping the run. Two years ago, we were one of the best in the country at that and last year, we struggled,” Bowden said. “We have to get back to that.”

In the waning days of the preseason, the Zips are going through the usual vagaries of long practices in the summer sun. There is the occasional, quickly broken-up scuffle between teammates and the requisite conditioning drills in which up-downs and other tactics are used to make sure that everyone is in shape and that discipline is maintained.

The non-conference schedule is, as usual, filled with Power 5 conference foes and tough road games. After opening at Penn State, Akron has its home opener Sept. 9 against Arkansas-Pine Bluff in a game the Zips should be heavily favored to win.

That will be followed by an extremely rare Power 5 foe visit to Infocision Stadium as Iowa State comes to Akron on Sept. 16. A trip to face a tough, bowl regular team in Troy follows before the Mid-American Conference opener at Bowling Green on Sept. 30.

Although the Penn State game is a big chance for Akron to make a mark early, Bowden noted that for now, he wants his players worried about earning playing time and improving rather than trying to take it easy and let their bumps and bruises heal to be ready for the Nittany Lions.

“I don’t want my guys perfectly healthy until that first game. Right now, I want them fighting and competing every day and then we’ll start to get them back to full strength before that first game,” Bowden said. 

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