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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 113: Kent State

Shake it up, Kent State. Make something – anything – happen, please. Getting rid of Doug Martin was a start, and perhaps former Ohio State assistant Darrell Hazell can settle once and for all the issue of whether this program has the capability of winning more than five games with any regularity. After all, it’s not like Kent State has simply gone out and made bad coaching decision after bad coaching decision since Glen Mason left for Kansas in 1988; it’s the program itself, not the coaches it has chosen, and something needs to change if we’re ever going to see Kent State reach bowl play after a generation-long absence – let alone compete for a conference championship.

Conference
MAC, East

Location
Kent, Oh.

Nickname
Golden Flashes

Returning starters
14 (9 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 99

2010 record
(5-7, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 86

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    at Alabama
  • Sept. 10
    La.-Lafayette
  • Sept. 17
    at Kansas St.
  • Sept. 24
    South Alabama
  • Oct. 1
    at Ohio
  • Oct. 8
    at N.I.U.
  • Oct. 15
    Miami (Ohio)
  • Nov. 29
    Bowling Green
  • Nov. 4
    Central Michigan
  • Nov. 12
    at Akron
  • Nov. 19
    Eastern Michigan
  • Nov. 25
    at Temple

Last year’s prediction

So, to recap: if K.S.U. can score points, play similarly strong defense and stay healthy, it could — could — land its first trip to postseason play in nearly 40 years. So why don’t I have the Golden Flashes improving upon last season’s win total? For the reason most likely to infuriate the Kent State fan base… the program’s history. As noted, Kent State has not made a habit of putting together successive strong seasons; will this year be any different? My largest specific issue with this year’s team is the offense, paltry a year ago. I’m higher on this squad than any Kent State team in the three years of the Countdown, but not high enough to predict a bowl trip for the Golden Flashes.

2010 recap

In a nutshell What made 2010 a disappointment? The fact that the defense might have been even better than it was in 2009, when it stood as one of the MAC’s best. The defense was the MAC’s best last fall: 10th nationally in total defense and fourth against the run, the Golden Flashes faltered a bit down the stretch but remained from top to bottom the best the conference had to offer. See above, where I said that only with an improved offense could Kent State hope to reach bowl play? Well, guess what: the offense, once gain, was painful to watch. The passing game lacked any explosiveness. The running game was extremely pedestrian. Kent State couldn’t convert on third down and lacked the ability for a big play, which doomed a top-notch defense to another losing season.

High point Three wins in a four-week span in MAC play boosted Kent State’s record to 4-4 on Oct. 30. Ignore the fact that the threesome came against Akron, Bowling Green and Ball State. As has been the case in the past, the Golden Flashes saved their best for last, shocking Ohio in the season finale by a 28-6 margin.

Low point The defense slipped up during Kent State’s 1-3 finish. Losses to Boston College and Penn State in September were relatively competitive; the Eagles scored 26 points, the Nittany Lions 24. In three straight losses from Nov. 6 through Nov. 20, the Golden Flashes allowed 28, 45 and 38 points, sending the program to another 5-7 finish.

Tidbit Kent State’s most wins in consecutive seasons since 1978? Try 12: seven wins in 1987, five in 1988. In fact, the Golden Flashes have not had back-to-back winning campaigns since 1976-77, when the Dennis Fitzgerald-led teams went 8-4 and 6-5. Since then, Kent State has followed a six-win season in 2001 with a three-win 2002 and a six-win 2006 with a three-win 2007.

Tidbit (bowl edition) Kent State’s bowl-less streak now enters its 40th year. The last time the Golden Flashes reached bowl play was in 1972, when it lost a Tangerine Bowl decision to mighty University of Tampa, 21-18. The next-longest streak of bowl-less play belongs to Eastern Michigan, which hasn’t done so since the 1987 California Bowl. In fact, each of the MAC’s remaining 11 programs has been to bowl play at least once since 2005; take out Akron and the above duo, and each MAC program has been to bowl play at least once since 2008.

Former players in the N.F.L.

10 WR Josh Cribbs (Cleveland), WR Julian Edelman (New England), S Abram Elam (Cleveland), TE Antonio Gates (San Diego), LB James Harrison (Pittsburgh), TE Jameson Konz (Seattle), DT Daniel Muir (Indianapolis), S Rico Murray (Cincinnati), CB Jack Williams (Detroit), S Usama Young (New Orleans).

Arbitrary top five list

Superman villains
1. Doomsday.
2. Lex Luthor.
3. General Zod.
4. Bizarro.
5. Brainiac.

Coaching

Darrell Hazell (Muskingum ’86), entering his debut season. Hazell is Ohio through and through, from his college days to his first job at Oberlin College to his recent stay with the Buckeyes, where he spent the last seven seasons. His time under Jim Tressel began in 2004, when he was hired away from Rutgers, and extended through last season, with Hazell starting as wide receivers coach before eventually adding assistant head coach duties. It was in the latter capacity that Hazell began to draw attention, even if he was largely a behind-the-scenes figure for those only familiar with the big names associated with one of the nation’s power programs. As one of Tressel’s lead assistants, however, Hazell was involved both in game-planning and in Ohio State’s recruiting machine, which will undoubtedly help Hazell into Buckeye State living rooms long closed to Kent State’s advances. His B.C.S. experience doesn’t stop there: there’s three years at Rutgers and another two at West Virginia, as well as two seasons both with Army and Western Michigan. The latter was 15 years ago, but it does give Hazell at least a taste of what MAC football is all about. On paper, this is a great hire. But does Hazell have what it takes to turn around one of the nation’s worst football programs?

Tidbit (coaching edition) Two names stand out from Hazell’s new staff. The first is defensive coordinator Jon Heacock, the former head coach at Youngstown State – he replaced Jim Tressel in 2001 and coached through 2009 – and brother of the current Ohio State defensive coordinator. If you want to set up ties in Ohio, it’s good to start with a Heacock. The second name that stands out is that of linebackers coach Marcus Freeman, who was a standout at Ohio State from 2005-7. He’s another coach who can help open up doors in the state. Hazell’s offensive coordinator will be Brian Rock, a former Purdue assistant who spent 15 years in the MAC with Western Michigan.

Players to watch

Maybe this is the year for the offense. Kent State brings back nine starters, which might lend credence to the thought that after years and years of doing nothing on that side of the ball, Hazell’s debut campaign will find the Golden Flashes moving the ball and scoring with regularity. Maybe that happens; history says it won’t, but it can’t hurt to be positive. That’s especially true when four starters return on the offensive line.

Actually, five of the six linemen to make at least one start in 2010 are back in action — this is good. It’s an experienced group as well — it gets better. The lone loss is left guard Michael Fay, but the Golden Flashes could move either Josh Kline or Tyler Arend over from the right side and potentially not miss a beat. The leaders of the group are multiple-year starters Chris Anzevino and Brian Winters, who earned all-MAC accolades a year ago at center and tackle, respectively. The year ended with Winters on the right side and Kent Cleveland on the left — they swapped roles over the last four games — though each could play at either spot. The bad news is depth, as in a lack of any. More news of note: experience or no, it’s not as if this line was driving opponents off the ball in 2010. Perhaps a change in mentality is all that’s needed.

The line opened up just enough holes for Jacquise Terry to rush for 542 yards and a career-best 7 scores, but little more. The Golden Flashes need more from the running game, pure and simple. It’s clearly one of Hazell’s prime goals; still, as noted a moment ago, it’s more about a mentality than pure fundamentals, one would think, and as such it might take time for Kent State to begin running the ball like it’s 2008, when it led the MAC in rushing. Terry will carry the load, with Dri Archer spelling him on occasion, but Hazell will go with the hot hand. He should, as whomever can put this running game on his back should be the star of the offense.

Here’s a nice number for Kent State: two receivers made at least 40 receptions in 2010, a program first. Both return in 2011, led by junior Tyshon Goode, the team leader in receptions (59), receiving yards (743) and scores (5). If Goode provided a bigger potential for the big play, senior Sam Kirkland (56 catches for 599 yards) was a nice compliment as a possession guy. That’s a nice MAC tandem, even if as individuals neither strikes too much fear in the opposition. Terry also figures into the passing game; he finished third on the team with 23 grabs for 285 yards. Leneric Muldrow must be replaced as the third option, but Kent State is excited about the potential of former Kentucky transfer Eric Adeyemi, a junior who made three starts for the Wildcats as a freshman. Justin Thompson (14 for 101) is back at tight end.

If the running game is the first priority, getting junior quarterback Spencer Keith on track runs a close second. The Golden Flashes need to get more at the position, simply put, and Keith didn’t do enough last fall to warrant automatically returning to the top of the depth chart with a  new staff in place. Hence the competition under center, which includes Keith, Gio Morgan, Sal Battles and redshirt freshman Cedric McCloud. Keith has the experience, but Morgan has been called on several times over the last few seasons; he played well as a true freshman in 2007, redshirted in 2009 and, thanks to an injury suffered early in 2009, has not regained his spot at the forefront of the offense. He’s a very realistic option under center this fall, especially if Hazell wants increased athleticism at the position. Look for a decision come the fall.

How awesome was Roosevelt Nix as a true freshman? Let’s count the ways. Actually, there are only two ways to really sum up his incredible debut season, but each looms large: Nix became the only true freshman in MAC history to be named the conference’s defensive player of the year, and became only the second Kent State defender to ever win the award. The other? Just some guy named Jack Lambert, that’s all. And that’s some seriously good company — and that gives you some idea just how terrific he was in 2010. What can he do for an encore? Even if Nix doesn’t duplicate his numbers (a MAC-best 20 tackles for loss, 10 sacks), he’ll demand so much attention that the defense will be noteworthy merely for his presence.

Did I mention Nix did this despite making only one start? There are two linemen who must be replaced, however, in nose tackle Quinton Rainey and end Monte’ Simmons (38 tackles, 10 for loss, 5.5 sacks). Perhaps Dana Brown can move over to the nose, which would not only allow Kent State to replace Rainey but would clear the way for Nix to be a full-time starter. That’s a marriage of convenience, and might be too simple a solution. A better answer might be Ishmaa’ily Kitchen, the biggest interior lineman on the team. That would create a logjam at tackle, but also provide depth.

The secondary is set at cornerback. Norman Wolfe (six interceptions) and Josh Pleasant were one of the MAC’s best duos a year ago, which bodes well for the pass defense, but both starting safeties — Brian Lainhart, most notably — must be replaced. So there’s good news tempered by bad news, though the cornerback pairing is a very good one. What about safety? It would be shocking not to see sophomore Luke Wollet not step into the role at strong safety, where he started one game a year ago. He made a very good impression: 10 tackles and an interception in a win over Bowling Green. Wollet also returned an interception for a touchdown against Akron, factoring heavily into the 24-point win over Akron. So he has some nice potential.

There are two other safeties with some experience. The first is sophomore Zack Gonosz, who lettered as a true freshman before taking a redshirt in 2010. The second, junior Leon Green, has played a secondary role in each of the last two seasons.

Position battle(s) to watch

Linebacker As you’d expect with a new coach, nearly every position – most, at least – are open to competition. Some are more open than others, of course: it’s not as much about numbers at linebacker — Freeman has options to work with — as it is about finding players among an inexperienced group who can step into the multiple spots left open by graduation. It’s still a work in progress here, as elsewhere, as the new staff really has no preconceptions about what an individual player brings to the table; it’s a feeling-out period during the spring, and anticipating who will start come September might be an exercise in futility. Well, we know of one definite starter, if he’s healthy: Luke Batton made 68 tackles (3.5 for loss) last fall, but sat out the spring due to shoulder surgery. There are question marks from there, unfortunately. Freeman could turn to three seniors, but even with their age it’s not an experienced group: Mark Lechlitner has two career tackles; Kyle Reese has only contributed on special teams, by and large, as has been Byron Tyson. Perhaps the most intriguing option is C.J. Steward, a sophomore. It’s pretty much Batton and a bunch of unknowns, which is worrisome.

Game(s) to watch

It’s rare that Kent State play on national television, but that’s an option when the Golden Flashes head to Tuscaloosa for the season opener. Not only will that game pit the Golden Flashes against the nation’s best and against a famous alumni in Nick Saban, but all eyes will be on Bryant-Denny Stadium for Alabama’s first game after the recent tornado destruction. Of note in MAC play: home games against Bowling Green, Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell So the year can go one of two ways. The first is in the right direction: Hazell’s plans take shape immediately, and Kent State finally breaks through to reach bowl play. The second is in the opposite direction: Hazell might be the coach to take Kent State to the next level, but his debut season finds the Golden Flashes moving backwards, not forwards. I’m of the mind that the latter scenario, one that finds Hazell struggling to find his balance as a rookie coach, is far more likely than the first. The logic is simple: a rookie coach, a program accustomed to losing, a difficult schedule by MAC standards, big questions on offense despite the nine returning starters and, most troubling of all, the thought that the defense won’t be able to carry the load with several new faces in the starting lineup. So call it a hunch, above all else. Hazell doesn’t strike me as a one-year turnaround guy as it is; he strikes me more as a coach with a blueprint, a strategy, one that likely involves replenishing a roster largely devoid of major talent while installing his philosophies on either side of the ball. So if it takes him a year to get things in order, I’m sure Kent State is willing to take a slight step back in order to reach six wins. What’s another losing season at this point?

Dream season The offense finally does its part, helping Kent State snap that long streak of bowl-free existence.

Nightmare season It takes Hazell time: 1-11, 0-8 in the MAC.

In case you were wondering

Where do Kent State fans congregate? Plenty of Kent State fans meet up at this MAC message board, though Kent State Insider is also an option. The best place for chatter? Check out Kent State Sports blog from local reporter David Carducci of the Record-Courier. It’s been pointed out that Carducci now does all his online work via his Twitter feed, which is amazing.

Word Count

Through eight teams 20,346.

Up Next

Who is No. 112? The School of Management at tomorrow’s university was named for the C.E.O. of an oil company that was once part of Standard Oil but went its own way once the company was dissolved by the Supreme Court in 1911.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Eksynyt says:

    The Robert Orville Anderson school of management at the University of New Mexico. He was the CEO of ARCO.

  2. blah says:

    What is that? A golden USB flash drive? Awesome! I have always hated our nickname. I still think we should go back to being nicknamed the Silver Foxes.

    Anyway, nice assessment. It is sort of difficult for me to decide; does the team welcome the fresh breath of air and somewhat prosper or do they understandably struggle to adapt? After rooting for this team for twelve years, I have trained my brain to see the bright side of things. Still, I see a
    bit more struggling than adapting, unfortunately.

    The biggest loss was DC Rekstis. Rekstis’ defenses were solid to awesome even when we sucked. I am not sure if Heacock can continue that. Miami is getting a great DC who knows the MAC well.

    I see Kieth winning the QB battle, I can see the offense making some big plays occasionally because Goode, Archer, Terry, and Kirkland are talented, but I see a lack of 3rd down conversions being the offense’s weak point. I know nothing about OC Rock. I wonder if Hazell will give Rock full control, or have veto/suggestion power like Tressel does with Bollman. Either way, It is hard to imagine an offense regressing with nine returning starters, new scheme or not.

    Special teams were actually good last year and that has to continue to have a chance to win games.

    They’ll hopefully not be historically embarrassed by Alabama (would Saban do that?), play tough for a half but easily lose to Kansas State, and beat South Alabama. The UL-Lafayette game will be very interesting; it is Hazell’s first home game, they’ll have already played Alabama, and they’ll be playing a team who has a new HC as well. This is a winnable game. The outcome of this game could be a good indication of MAC success.

    Here comes my bright side. The sole reason I believe this team can possibly end up with a decent MAC record and maybe even 2nd place in the MAC-East is because the MAC-East is so weak and inexperienced. Frank Solich has been HC at Ohio for 6 years; the combined experience of all other MAC-East HCs is 4 years (BG-2, Akron-1, Buffalo-1). We will discover two answers; Did Doug Martin have the team heading in the right direction and did Hazell learn anything from Tressel?

    By the way, Carducci has abandoned his blog and jumped to Twitter:
    http://twitter.com/#!/CarducciKSU

  3. philip says:

    golden flash drive. love it.

  4. Steve says:

    Gates never played football for Kent State.

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