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2017 Hustle Belt Football Preseason Preview: Kent State Golden Flashes

The Flashes could certainly use a spark in the upcoming campaign after a brutal 2016 season.

NCAA Football: Kent State at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Kent State has been wandering the football desert for the last five years after its MAC Championship appearance under Darrell Hazell in 2012.

Since Hazell’s departure, the Golden Flashes have accumulated a 12-35 record under former defensive coordinator Paul Haynes, a KSU alum. It’s been a trial for Haynes, who has had to suffer countless personnel changes, untimely injuries and a general lack of recruiting success.

2016 was a testament to the challenges the program faced. Before the season, it was announced Antwan Dixon was out for the season with a blood disorder.

Mylik Mitchell, the team’s starting QB, was injured against Alabama and lost for the year. Three different players, including a receiver and a running back, all tried their hands at replacing Mitchell before backup running back/wide receiver Nick Holley was tabbed to replace him.

The Flashes lost to one of its two scheduled FCS foes North Carolina A&T in overtime at Dix Stadium, adding to the embarassment.

Halfway through the season, Holley’s brother Nate was charged with (and eventually acquitted of) felony kidnapping and assault. The incident effectively ended his senior season and left Kent State without its most experienced defensive back.

The Flashes’ highlight victory was a 44-20 drumming of a downtrodden Buffalo Bulls team. Their only other victories were a 27-24 upset of Central Michigan on the road and a 20-7 victory at home over FCS Monmouth.

It’s never been easy to win at Kent State, a program that often gets lost in the gridron picture. With Ohio State nearby, not to mention the five MAC schools and Youngstown State competing for the same recruits, KSU often gets lost in the shuffle.

This season, Haynes’ fifth at the helm, could very well be his last if things don’t look up quickly for the Golden Flashes. The schedule certainly doesn’t favor KSU, who finished 3-9 last season, as they travel to national champion Clemson and ACC stalwart Louisville in the non-conference season.

That said, there’s plenty to watch for in the coming season for the Golden Flashes, an ill-fated team that could catch a break if they focus on fixing the little things.

Five players to watch for

Kavious Price, WR

Kent State v Penn State Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Price was a true freshman last season, but he did get to see the field in 11 games and that certainly counts for something as the Kent State offense could use some warm bodies.

Price has caught the eye of Haynes in preseason camps, along with fellow receivers MIke Carrigan and Trey Harrell and for good reason: he was a monster athlete in high school.

At Bradenton, Florida’s Manatee HS, Price was an all-Florida first-team selection after a senior season that saw him collect 40 receptions for 842 yards and 12 touchdowns. Price was a three-sport athlete, who also excelled in basketball and track and field, where he was a state finalist in the 100 and 200-meter dashes.

Kent State’s passing offense struggled, which is reflected in his first year nunbers (12 receptions for 86 yards, 20 rushes for 128 rushing yards) but his game encompasses more than receiving duties. Price has shown flashes of potential in the kick and punt return game as well, with 168 yards in kick returns, including a 51-yard return vs. Buffalo.

Price nabbed two starts as a true freshman last season and could very well get a chance to earn more starting caps with a good performance in camps and the ealry games.

Nick Holley, QB

OHIO V. KENT STATE IN PICTURES Scott Warren / Bald Monkey Photo

Last season, Nick Holley was not a quarterback.

Holly started the year as an athlete on offense, alternating between wide receiver and running back depending on need. Holley was pressed into action after three different players attempted to replace Mylik Mitchell and it turns out, he was actually somewhat decent.

A former quarterback at Whitmer HS in Toledo, Holley was a rush-first option for the Flashes at the QB spot, scoring 16 overall touchdowns (four passing, 10 rushing, two receiving) while rushing for 920 yards and passing for 868 yards.

Holley could return as the primary option at quarterback this upcoming season after his performance in 2016, especially with promising QB prospect Mitchell sustaining another potentially season-long injury in preseason camps. Whether or not he could replicate 2016’s success could very well determine the fate of the Flashes.

Demetrius Monday, DB

NCAA Football: Kent State at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Monday had a case of the Mondays in 2016, but that doesn’t mean he isn;t still a game-changing athlete on the defensive side of the ball.

After a much heralded 2015 season that saw Monday amongst the top cornerbacks in the country, 2016 was a bit of a let-down for Monday, although he still proved to be one of the better safeties in the MAC. He had 18 tackles (15 solo) in just nine games last season as he dealt with injury.

Monday’s 2015 season, though, is hard to forget and shows his great potential. He accumulated 35 tackles in 12 games (all starts,) had two return touchdowns (one interception, one fumble return) and six interceptions.

A return to even half of that form for Monday could make a significant impact on Kent State’s chances against some of the more pass-friendly offenses the MAC has to offer.

Jon Cunningham, DT

NCAA Football: Kent State at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Cunningham has been a monster on the defensive line for quite some time at Kent State and this year could be the breakout season for him.

Cunningham was a third-team all-MAC selection in 2016 after accumulating 34 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and a fumble recovery for a touchdown in 12 games (seven starts) on the season. Those tackling numbers were his best since his redshirt freshman campaign, when he recorded 35 tackles. As the senior on the defensive tackle spot, Cunningham should get more oppportunities to show his athleticism on the field.

Athlon Sports certainly thinks Cunningham could return to form, as he was selected by the magazine to the preseason first-team all-MAC defense.

Raekwon James, WR/RB

Kent State v Penn State Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

James has been KSU’s leading receiver for two straight seasons, despite primarily being a running back, which is no small feat given Kent State’s general offensive struggles.

In James, the Flashes have a speedy option out of the backfield that can make cuts and be depended on to catch short-to-intermediate passes. He certainly nade the best of a bad situation last year, leading the Flashes with 25 receptions and totalling 485 offensive yards. He also saw some punt return duties duting the season, adding to his versatility. Now that he’s the grizzled veteran of a young receiving corps, James will have to step up his game and develop not only as a player but as a leader. The best way to do that is usually by example.

Four games to watch

Sept. 2 at Clemson

CFP National Championship Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

It’s not every day you get to start your season off against a national champion, but that’s just the situation Kent State finds themselves in to start off the 2017 campaign.

They’ll get a primetime opportunity to pull off an upset against a Tigers squad set to be without many of its key pieces from last season, including Deshaun Watson, Ben Boulware and Mike Williams.

It’s most likely a loss for the Flashes in Death Valley, but they’re usually good for making teams sweat it out early in the season; 2015 saw the Flashes play Minnesota close, while 2016 brought the fight to Penn State.

If Kent State can keep it to 17 points or less, that can be considered a moral victory.

Sept. 16 at Marshall

Marshall v Pittsburgh

The Flashes will compete against a former MAC squad in Marshall prior to meeting up with ACC foe Louisville and it could make for an interesting game.

The Flashes will be coming off of an FCS game and will most likely be 1-1 heading into Huntington, West Virginia. This is KSU’s most likely chance at a win, as Marshall also finished 3-9 last season, including a tough 65-38 loss against Akron on the road. KSU also lost to Akron in 2016, but by a much closer margin of 31-27.

THe last time these two teams squared off, Marshall walked out of Dix Stadium with a 36-29 victory, so KSU will be looking to seek revenge. Whoever wins this game will tip the scales in the all-time series, as it currently stands at 18-18-1.

Marshall’s an early favorite, as they’ve won the last 11 games in this historic matchup.

Sept. 30 vs. Buffalo

Buffalo v Boston College Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Buffalo was one of two FBS victories last year and this game will serve as a yard stick for Kent State’s development as a football program.

It was a glorious stomping in last year’s matchup, as Kent State exposed Buffalo’s anemic run defense for four rushing touchdowns and 341 rushing yards while only allowing 372 total yards. Holley was especially effective, rushing for 313 total yards and all four of KSU’s touchdowns.

Buffalo looks like they’ll struggle once again in the upcoming season, so there’s a solid chance KSU could pull out another victory here, especially if the offense gels together witrh a second year of development.

A loss to Buffalo could be a significant step back for the program, one that could perhaps force a litany of changes.

Nov. 21 at Akron

Akron v Wisconsin Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Last year’s Wagon Wheel was played a bit early last season, acting as the conference opener for both KSU and Akron. The Zips narrowly walked away with the rivalry game win on the road thanks to some late heroics from Mykel Traylor-Bennett and Tra’Von Chapman.

This season, the game returns to its traditional late November date and it could serve as an opportunity for Kent State to yet again ruin a MAC East title run or bowl eligbility for the Zips. The quarterback matchup will be fun to watch in this one, assuming both Thomas Woodson and Holley stay healthy up to this point. Woodson, though a passing-oriented QB, has a lot of mobility, while Holley has enough of an arm to make his run-first style of play more dangerous.

The game will most likely come down to a defensive stop, as both defenses have a knack for giving up big plays.

Three signs of success

Development at skill positions

As mentioned earlier, the Golden Flashes are severely young at key positions. The receiver corps and running backs return primarily sophomores and juniors, while the tight end position will also be a newcomer.

Holley carried a lot of the offesnive load himself last season and if he hopes to achieve that success again, he’s going to need some of his weapons to step up and make some plays.

James and Myles Washington look to be handling the load at the running back spot, with Justin Rankin also coming in to contribute, while Price, Carrigan and Harrell look to return as receivers. There cannot be any more games where Holley has under 100 yards passing or leads in rushing by 50+ yards. It’s largely acknowledged they’ll be thrown into a fire, but even a small improvement over last year will be massive for the Flashes moving forward.

Turning close losses to close wins

The Flashes lost five games by margins of 10 points or less in 2016, with four of those decided by four points or less, so it’s reasonable to assume they have the talent to make some noise in a wide open MAC East. Alas, with such a young and unseasoned roster, KSU will have to swallow their lumps (much like Miami had to do after the hiring of Chuck Martin.)

The roster is still young and unseasoned, but many of the players that played last season are still contributing and surely remember the lessons from the season before. If one or two drives went the right way last year, we could be having a different conversation about the Flashes.

They’re surely aware of that coming into 2017. If they can turn one or two of those close losses into victories this year, that’s a remarkable sign of improvement.

Staying upright

For Kent State to be successful, it is absolutely essential they stay healthy.

The Flashes seem to have some sort of curse around them when it comes to bad injuries, with Dri Archer and Roosevelt Nix immediately coming to mind (as well as Antwan Dixon more recently). A lack of depth at key positions has also hurt KSU, as the Flashes have had to play lots of underclassmen who may not have been ready to go due to injury.

An underrated aspect of injuries affecting the roster is that it can affect chemistry with the first-team. Losing one player at one spot is one thing, but if you’re playing at only half-strength, a lot can go wrong. Keeping a consistent (healthy) roster from week to week will do wonders for keeping up morale.

Two storylines to watch

What will happen with Coach Haynes?

It’s no secret that Haynes is under the hot seat. In the five years he has stood at the helm at his alma mater, he’s produced 12 wins and gone through a litany of hardships with almost nothing to show for it.

The situation on offense has seemed to regressed from when he took over the program and although the defense has improved immensely, it’s still prone to looking pedestrian against the best teams.

If the season goes sour early, he could be let go, especially with Don Tredwell (the current OC) having prior head coaching experience. One doesn’t normally look forward to a storyline like this, but it can’t be helped here.

How will KSU perform at home?

The Flashes have given fans little motivation to attend games at Dix Stadium. On top of two consecutive 3-9 seasons, KSU has gone 3-9 in the last two years at home, with two of those wins (and one loss) against FCS squads.

Three of KSU’s five conference games are at home, with two of those matchups including games against teams they beat on the road in 2016 in Buffalo and CMU. Combine that with an FCS game against lowly Howard, and they could improve their win record significantly in front of a home crowd, which would be a welcome change in Kent, Ohio.

A bold prediction

Kent State is a young team desparately in need of something to reverse the team;s bad fortunes over the last five years or so. Rebuilding a program is hard, especially in a place that doesn’t particularly have a winning tradition.

That said, the Flashes have some players that could make some noise. Nick Holley, especially, could benefit from a second year at the quarterback position for the Flashes. Should he improve from his emergency numbers last season, which included 1,923 total yards and 16 touchdowns, he could make a case for MAC East Offensive Player of the Year or find himself on an all-MAC squad.

The Flashes as a collective have a long road ahead to improve on last year’s 3-9 record, but it’s feasible with some favorable matchups. A record from 3-9 to even 5-7 is possible for KSU going into 2017.