We are on the verge of year two of Sean Lewis’ rebuilding project at Kent State.
Kent State’s struggles as a program are well-documented. The Golden Flashes are one of four programs to a) have existed in the FBS prior to the 2010s and b) win zero bowl games.
Kent State nearly achieved its pinnacle with a BCS bowl appearance in 2012, but a double-overtime loss to Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship Game derailed the opportunity. Since, the Golden Flashes have achieved stability in the cellar, winning between two and four games each of the last six seasons.
Enter Sean Lewis. The former Wisconsin tight end was hired as the youngest coach in the FBS prior to the 2018 season. Lewis ushered in promise to a sunken program that can only rise back uphill after the five-year fiasco under Paul Haynes (14-45).
Lewis’ first year at Kent State certainly didn’t produce results — reiterating the 2-10 record from Haynes’ final year — but signs of change were evident, especially in non-conference play. Kent State entered halftime on the road at Illinois with a 17-3 advantage. The Golden Flashes trailed No. 11 Penn State 21-10 with less than a minute remaining in the second quarter. This same program stood just seven points behind Ole Miss with under 10 minutes to play in Oxford. All three of those games resulted in losses for Kent State, but watching the Golden Flashes hold their own against three Power 5 opponents was an early sign of an upward trend in the Lewis era.
Kent State’s only two wins of 2018 involved a 54-14 slaughtering of an FCS team, Howard, and a 7-point victory in Bowling Green. While winning streaks have been short-lived in Kent, Lewis will attempt to build on those highs as he enters the second season in effort to refurbish the program.
Offensive Outlook — Barrett, skill position players remain
From the Illinois game, one thing about Kent State’s new-look offense was clear: they had a quarterback who could sling the football. It’d been a while since the Golden Flashes had a cannon-armed quarterback running the offense, but Auburn transfer Woody Barrett was a nice change of pace for a previously option-based program. Barrett completed 58.7% of his passes for 2,339 yards last season with 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He excelled as a rusher by eclipsing the half-millennium mark and adding seven touchdowns in the ground game.
Barrett will enter his junior season and his second year as a starting quarterback after appearing in all 12 of Kent State’s 2018 outings. He’ll be joined in the backfield by the team’s leading rusher from a season ago, Jo-El Shaw. While splitting the backfield with Justin Rankin (who has since transferred to Northwest Missouri State), Shaw obtained 657 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on 138 carries while also enjoying a role as a recurring target of Barrett’s quick screens. Will Matthews is expected to operate as the secondary halfback behind Shaw after scattered appearances on the field last season.
Kent State retains plenty of skill position players and many of them reside in the receiving corps. Each of the Golden Flashes’ three primary wide receivers return for 2019 — Mike Carrigan, Antwan Dixon, and Isaiah McKoy. The 5’9” Carrigan is entering his third year as a starter while doubling as a track star for the university. Dixon is one of the most impressive comeback stories in college football. A life-threatening blood disorder forced Dixon to leave Kent State, but a successful bone marrow transplant placed him back on the field last fall, where he snagged in a team-high 52 receptions. Dixon was recognized as one of three winners of the inaugural Mayo Clinic Comeback Player of the Year after a triumphant victory in a battle with a rare disease. Carrigan, Dixon, and McKoy combined for 1,552 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns last season and the trio returns to add necessary chemistry to an experienced offensive unit.
The offensive line is primarily composed of upperclassmen. Seniors Bryce Gibbs and Nate Warnock will likely anchor down the left tackle and center positions, respectively. The right side of the line will be guided by junior guard Nathan Monnin and junior tackle Adam Gregoire. At left guard, sophomore Julian Sams returns after starting all 12 games in his true freshman season.
Kent State’s defense ranked 117th in both yards allowed (467) and points allowed (36.7) per game in 2018. The defense struggled in a variety of areas but the inability to provide pressure on opposing quarterbacks and force interceptions caused the unit to remain on the field for extended periods of time last year.
Nose tackle Kalil Morris, Kent State’s only 2018 non-special teams All-MAC selection, creates a gaping hole in the middle of the defensive line as a result of his graduation. Morris stuffed the middle with 47 tackles and six tackles for loss during his final year in Kent.
The Golden Flashes return four experienced linebackers to spearhead the run-stopping game. Inside linebacker Matt Bahr was especially instrumental in this realm a year ago after recording a team-high 91 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, and three sacks. Nick Faulkner, Cepeda Phillips, and Kesean Gamble each managed over 35 tackles last season, and Kent State’s developing linebacker corps should be the team’s strong suit on defense in 2019.
The secondary remains in good shape too with safety K.J. Sherald back on campus after wrapping up for 90 tackles in 2018. Sherald ranked third on the team with six passes defended behind cornerbacks Jamal Parker and Elvis Hines. Parker and Hines will man the outsides of the defense once again, creating a formidable duo at cornerback that could give Kent State an edge against opposing air attacks in the conference.
Kent State also gains depth in the secondary from the transfer portal. Qwuantrezz Knight, a former Maryland safety, was granted immediately eligibility by the NCAA. Knight’s waiver request was initially denied, but after a successful appeal, the veteran defensive back can take his experience from the Terrapins to Northeast Ohio.
Kent State fields the best player at one position in the MAC — kicker. While his abilities haven’t been able to swing games in crunch-time yet, Matthew Trickett demonstrated incredible accuracy in his freshman season. The First Team All-MAC kicker converted on 14 of his 17 field goal attempts, sunk more than 97% of his extra points, and even shined in punting duties for the Flashes. Trickett may be the most valuable special teams player in the conference due to his versatility and consistency in the kicking game.
2019 Kent State Golden Flashes Schedule
|August 29 - Thu||@ Arizona State||N/A|
|September 7 - Sat||vs. Kennesaw State (FCS)||N/A|
|September 14 - Sat||@ Auburn||N/A|
|September 21 - Sat||vs. Bowling Green||W, 35-28|
|October 5 - Sat||@ Wisconsin||N/A|
|October 12 - Sat||@ Akron||L, 23-24|
|October 19 - Sat||@ Ohio||L, 26-27|
|October 26 - Sat||vs. Miami OH||L, 6-31|
|November 5 - Tue||@ Toledo||L, 34-56|
|November 14 - Thu||vs. Buffalo||L, 14-48|
|November 23 - Sat||vs. Ball State||L, 24-52|
|November 29 - Fri||@ Eastern Michigan||L, 20-28|
Kent State keeps its formula of one FCS and three Power 5 teams as the non-conference opponents. This year’s Power 5 slate turns up the difficulty notch from last year, featuring road games at Arizona State, Auburn, and Wisconsin — all three finished 2018 with winning records.
In the break between the road trip to Auburn and a bye week, Kent State kicks off MAC play early with a home game against Bowling Green. The Falcons were the only conference opponent to be defeated by Kent State in 2018, and this year’s edition of the rivalry will transpire in Kent. Kent State’s final seven games of the season are against teams that bested the Flashes in 2018.
Kent State’s second half schedule will produce irregular intervals between games. The Golden Flashes don’t have seven days between any contests following the October 26 matchup versus Miami (OH). The final five weeks of the schedule feature games on Saturday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Friday, creating variable waiting times in between contests. Kent State is given only one true midweek game this year in a November 5 clash with Toledo.
Kent State isn’t expected to compete for bowl games or conference championships yet, but Sean Lewis sure hopes to get this program ahead of its rebuilding schedule. The MAC East is wide open this year after key departures affected depth charts in Ohio, Buffalo, and Miami (OH). Kent State retains a lot of veterans from the 2018 lineup, including a stable starting quarterback in Woody Barrett, its wide receiver trio, and its two top tacklers in Matt Bahr and K.J. Sherald.
Kent State’s non-conference record is likely 1-3 once again, but what the Flashes should be looking for in those games is progress. The entire nation watched this program provide first half scares to Illinois, Penn State, and Ole Miss so exhibiting competitiveness in these road challenges should be a reassuring sign that Lewis’ mission with the program is within reach.
What needs to change for Kent State this year is how the team fares in MAC play. There are plenty of winnable games in the conference slate. Improvement on defense will be the x-factor in determining the outcome of several of these MAC games. Kent State could realistically pick up three or four wins in conference play to achieve its best record since 2012.
There’s nothing to lose, but there’s hope in the air. Kent State football has only had three winning seasons since the 1980s began and the youngest coach in college football is set on creating a masterpiece on the blank canvas he was handed.