Duluth, MN (Northland's NewsCenter) --- For Joe Akey, 2012 will play out as his senior season with the University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD) football program. It also represents, in a way, a second chance.
"Last year, having to watch on the sidelines killed me," Akey said. "Away games I had to watch on the computer, so I was losing it. Just finally being out here, I'm so happy."
Akey was injured last season in the team's opening game against Augustana, undergoing subsequent knee surgery that kept him out the entire 2011 season.
Now, he's back with his teammates and serving as one of the team's five senior co-captains.
"It's a lot of responsibility," Akey said of the captain role. "There are a lot of guys looking at you and what you're doing. We've got a great senior class this year. We've all worked hard the past four years, this being our fifth. We all know how we want to end the season, end it with a national championship."
The last one of those for UMD came in the 2010 season, the same year Akey led the defense with 6.5 sacks and 11 tackles for a loss.
This season, the UMD coaching staff calls the native of Merrill, Wisc. An integral part of the team's defensive unit.
"Joe's an important person for us not just from playing standpoint, but also from a leadership standpoint," head coach Bob Nielson said. "He's a guy that's a big playmaker on defense. He showed that two years ago, being able to put pressure on the quarterback and be very consistent against the run. Plus, he brings some experience to the defensive front that we'll be able to rely on this year."
"It's just great to have Joe back," defensive coordinator John Steger said.
"Anytime a guy misses a year, that's just a tough thing. He had to stand on the sidelines a year ago and watch. He's an explosive kind of guy that, in our packages, is important. I'm looking forward to seeing him play."
There's really no denying the individual impact Akey will have on the Bulldogs' defensive line in 2012, but what will that do for the UMD defense as a whole?
For that answer, we went and spoke to some of the players in that Bulldogs secondary.
"As far as coverage, Joe's a great guy," defensive back Kenny Chowa said. "He's going to get a lot of pressure on the quarterback, and that's a big thing for us. Last year, we needed a guy like Joe to get a lot of pressure. It just makes my job a lot easier in the secondary when we have a big guy like Joe pressuring the quarterback."
"Anytime those defensive linemen can get a good pass rush on, it always helps out the defensive backs," defensive back and UMD co-captain Cameron Harper said. "Coverage sacks are great, and the defensive line getting the quarterback helps us out tremendously."
So with a healthy Akey and some other key players back to help along the newcomers, the UMD defense looks poised for another successful season in the Northern Sun Intercollegieate Conference (NSIC).
"We've got some young guys in, but it's been a good group," Akey said. "They've got a good sense of humor, but when we hit the practice field it's real serious and business-like. It's been a great squad. We're just looking to keep up the tempo of year's past. It's a new defense, but we want to keep that same mentality that we've had."