AKRON Cut the fat.

For Akron Zips sophomore guard Daniel Utomi, those words became literal prior to this season. Utomi, one of just four returning players on an overhauled UA roster under first-year head coach John Groce, was a reserve last season but had found his way into the starting lineup this season thanks to some major changes in his diet and the resulting changes to his body.

"Coach Groce brought it up. At the start of this summer, I was 18 percent body fat and he wanted me to get down to 10," Utomi said. "I had to change my diet … every day I drink a gallon of water, I eat a ton of protein and I cut down on cheese and sugar and all of that and it’s paying off now."

Prior to the season, Groce talked about how he had challenged his players to eat better and improve their body fat percentages and overall conditioning habits. Utomi’s transformation is arguably the most noticeable on the team.

While his weight hasn’t declined that much since last season, his reduced body fat and increased muscle mass has proven to be beneficial on the court already. In the team’s second game, a Nov.18 win over Tennessee-Martin, Utomi played 38 of the game’s 40 minutes and scored a career-high 32 points and on 11-of-16 shooting, including draining 8 of 11 from 3-point range.

Overall, Utomi is averaging a team-best 19.9 points per game and is shooting better than 50 percent from the field and from 3-point range. He is also leading the team in rebounding at 7.1 per contest.

It was the sort of effort that validated the work he put in to change his diet and get in better shape.

"In the beginning, it was really tough, but I got used to it and it’s become part of my routine every day," Utomi said, noting that when he encounters unhealthy food he used to eat, "I just pass it by."

He hit Groce’s goal of 10 percent body fat in August and estimates that he’s now at 7 or 8 percent. Playing well in the early going, he has seen his improved stamina pay dividends and doesn’t tire out as easily on the court. Looking back, he can see how the excess body fat he was carrying last season slowed him down and tired him out much faster.

Healthy eating can be challenging for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is finding the right foods to eat on a regular basis. For a college student, there is also the challenge of being on a tight budget, as many students simply don’t have the money to buy all of the ingredients needed to eat well.

In Utomi’s case, there was also the issue of knowing how to cook healthy meals. Before this summer, spending time in the kitchen whipping up a nutritious meal wasn’t part of his skill set. Now, he’s channeling his inner Bobby Flay and reaping the benefits.

"I cook every day, you can call me a chef," Utomi said. "Before, I didn’t even know how to cook. This summer, my parents had to teach me how to cook. They tried before, but I didn’t really pay attention."

Now, he likes to cook the healthy meals he eats and his favorite is chicken with pasta and broccoli, getting the protein and carbohydrates his body needs. According to Utomi, he hasn’t had to modify his workout regimen too much as part of the process. By altering his diet and continuing to do the strength and conditioning drills given to him by trainer Tim Campbell and his staff, Utomi has been able to maximize his training and in the early weeks of the season, become a much-needed scoring threat for a UA team still trying to find its identity under a new coaching staff.

Eleven of the 15 players on the roster are new, so returnees like Utomi and Jimmond Ivey have taken on added importance when it comes to giving the squad a veteran presence. So far, the results have been positive, with wins over Cleveland State, Fort Wayne, UT-Martin, UT-Chattanooga and Appalachian State, but much tougher games lie ahead.

To continue winning, the Zips will need a leaner, meaner Utomi continuing to cut the fat from his game and delivering five-star production.

Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
or andy.harris@thesuburbanite.com.
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB