Akron head coach Terry Bowden has longed for — or at minimum, needed — the “big play” to kick-start the team’s scoring production ever since he took over in 2012.
The program’s unconventional roster is comprised of a whopping 36 transfers, yet no other Zip is making his presence felt quite like wide receiver and return specialist JoJo Natson.
This sparkplug is a one-of-a-kind luxury for the Zips. Natson has found life with Akron, acquiring a central role he couldn’t have established on other FBS rosters. The former Utah State Aggie hasn’t been allotted a ton of touches, but the 5-foot-8, 150-pound dynamo is making them count. Through three weeks, Natson has hauled in 14 balls for 268 yards — good for 19.1 yards per reception — and a 55-yard punt return touchdown to boot.
Those numbers have boosted Akron’s offense to 40.7 points per game leading up to Week 4; that includes an opening-week coming-out party for Natson, who snared four passes, three of which went for scores, in a 47-point joyride against VMI.
“There’s always room for improvement, but I’m just thankful that the coaches believed in me and put the ball in my hands to show what I can do,” Natson told Cleveland.com following the Week 1 win.
The way Akron utilizes Natson has been vital — the Zips have taken a different approach to dispersing the ball to their new weapon. The small yet shifty wideout was used more as a make-a-move-in-space guy at Utah State. Natson was implemented in both the screen and running game with the Aggies, which — in the grand scheme of things — worked out quite well.
With Akron, Natson is stretching the field and blowing the top off the secondary — a capacity the Zips’ offense has recently lacked.
“In the offseason we made the commitment to be a little more productive because of the speed of our receivers, [and] the athleticism of the offensive line,” Bowden told Ohio.com.
Productive, the receivers have been. Natson racked up a game-high 134 receiving yards in the Zips’ 65-38 trouncing of the Marshall Thundering Herd last Saturday. He appeared back to his old ways after missing the entire 2015 season.
Wait, there’s more!
Natson isn’t the only man who has lit a fire under this offense.
Jerome Lane began his collegiate tenure at Akron as a linebacker and made the unorthodox switch to wideout last season. Defying the laws of football, Lane has essentially flourished on the other side of the ball. A 2015 season that produced 39 catches, 782 yards and 8 touchdowns may have been mere surface scratching for the junior.
He’s the current leader on the Zips’ offense with 354 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Lane’s just paces behind his swingmate, Natson, with 17.7 yards per reception.
Akron is ecstatic with this level of production from two players.
Quarterback Thomas Woodson is slinging the ball over the field, compiling 10 touchdowns to only a pair of interceptions thus far.
Deep threats — check.
Finally, some explosiveness on offense — check.
The Zips have another grand opportunity in front of them on Saturday to keep the motor going. A week after embarrassing the Thundering Herd defense, a new challenge emerges in the form of the Appalachian State Mountaineers. Their secondary was exposed at home last Saturday, and the shots downfield were there for Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya, who consistently and vertically tore up the Mountaineers. Another win for Akron — and potentially another offensive outbreak — could be an intriguing wrinkle in the MAC’s evolving balance of power.
The game plan for Bowden on Saturday should be simple: Just keep doing what you’re doing. The pieces are finally there.