At the beginning of last November, Kent State was in the middle of what seemed to be another run of the mill season. The Golden Flashes sat at 3-6 overall (2-3 MAC), and looked destined to finish once again near the bottom of the MAC East. Things were improving in Sean Lewis’ second year leading the program, but the general sense was that the Flashes were still a year or two away.
Then, something funny happened: a furious fourth quarter rally gave Kent a 30-27 victory over Buffalo, keeping the teams’ bowl hopes alive. The momentum carried over, as the Flashes defeated Ball State and Eastern Michigan in the last two weeks of the season to reach 6-6 (and bowl eligibility) for the first time since 2012.
After defeating Utah State 51-41 in the Frisco Bowl, it’s not hard to see that the Kent State rebuild is well ahead of schedule. Entering his third season, many believe head coach Sean Lewis is a rising star who has the Flashes ready to compete with the best teams in the MAC. While it may appear that the Flashes are ready to take the next step, anyone who has followed the MAC historically knows that success can be hard to sustain at Kent State. Even in a recruiting hotbed like Northeast Ohio, the program hasn’t had back to back winning seasons since 1976-1977. Lewis is trying to change that, but he enters year three of his tenure with something that isn’t all that common at Kent: expectations.
It’s no secret that last years success started with Lewis’ “Flash Fast” up-tempo offense. After a season opening loss to Arizona State, Lewis turned the reins of the offense over to junior Dustin Crum. Crum responded by throwing for 2,625 yards on 69.3% completion and a 20:2 TD to INT ratio. Not only did he do it through the air, but the first year starter also finished the season as the Golden Flashes leading rusher with 707 yards. To put it simply, it all starts with Crum for the Golden Flashes. Former starter and Auburn transfer Woody Barrett stuck around for his senior season after being benched last year, and he gives the Flashes some depth at the position. While not as much of a threat through the air, Barrett did rush for 503 yards and seven TD’s in his lone year as the starter in 2018, and had some decent contributions in special packages in 2019.
When it comes to the wide receiver group, there’s good news and bad.
The good news is that 2019 leading receiver Isaiah McKoy returns, and he should be one of the best players in the conference after finishing 2019 with 57 receptions, 870 yards, and 8 TD’s. The bad news is that all three of the other starting receivers are gone, with Mike Carrigan and Kavious Price graduating and Antwan Dixon entering the transfer portal. Obviously, these absences will create some opportunities for lesser proven receivers on the depth chart. Former junior college transfer Keshunn Abram could step up into a bigger role in his senior year, after totaling only eight catches last year in his first season with the program. Also keep an eye on true freshman WR Luke Floriea, who was a three-star recruit and chose the Golden Flashes over Boston College. Given the lack of depth within this group, he could have an opportunity to make an instant impact.
In the backfield, Xavier Williams figures to be the lead back after the graduation of Will Matthews and Jo-El Shaw. Williams was third on the team with 393 yards last year and 4.6 yards per carry, and also added 105 yards and 2 TD’s through the air. Sean Lewis has been vocal about his desire to run the football, so expect Williams to receive an expanded role this year as the Flashes attempt to wear down their opponents.
The ability for the Flashes to run the ball as they want to will come down to the offensive line. Much like with the WR group, there’s good news and bad news here. First, the good news – the entire right side of the line is back, with C Julian Sams, RG Nathan Monnin and Adam Gregoire all returning. The Flashes were good up front in the run game last year, averaging 186.7 ypg, good for 40th-best in the country and sixth in the conference. When Kent State wants to run the ball, they should be able to. Now, for the bad news: Dustin Crum was constantly under pressure last year in passing downs, getting sacked 38 times. Any chance of success for the Flashes this year starts with Crum, so the line must get better in pass protection. Keeping Crum upright will be imperative if Kent State wants to challenge for the East division crown.
Unfortunately for the Golden Flashes and their fans, Kent State’s development on the offensive side of the ball last season was not replicated on defense. Under DC Tom Kaufman, the Flashes gave up 31.8 ppg, (97th in the NCAA), and 244.7 ypg on the ground, (127th of 130 eligible FBS programs.) Those numbers are not good, and they must improve if Kent State wants to be taken seriously as a contender in the conference. Adding to the trouble here is the fact that only five starters return from last years’ group, and losing DL Theo Majette will especially hurt up front. Majette led the Flashes with 5.5 sacks last year, and finding a replacement up front who can get pressure without blitzing will be key.
The linebackers should be a strength. Kesean Gamble, Mandela Lawrence-Burke, and Cepeda Phillips are all returning after submitting solid seasons in 2019. Lawrence-Burke and Phillips were the two leading tacklers last year, with 104 and 93 tackles respectively. Gamble, a former running back, contributed in his own way, adding 2.5 sacks as a situational edge rusher. With holes to fill elsewhere on the defense, the LB group will be leaned upon to cover up some of the depth and inexperience issues elsewhere.
In the defensive backfield, Maryland transfer Qwuantrezz Knight (grad transfer) and four-year starter Jamal Parker leave some huge shoes to fill. Parker tied for the team lead with 3 interceptions last year, while Knight tallied 74 tackles and 1.5 sacks from his safety spot. After splitting time between safety and corner for the past two years, Elvis Hines figures to step in and become a full-time starter for the first time. Keith Sherald Jr. returns at the other safety spot after turning in a solid junior season (86 tackles, 3 INT’s). There are a number of possibilities at the other two DB spots, though most indications point towards junior CB Jeremiah Salaam and spohomore safety Dean Clark to move into those vacant starting roles.
Kicker Matthew Trickett has been a pillar of the program for the past two years, and he returns for his junior season after making 29-of-34 field goals last year. Trickett has hit 98 percent of his extra points and 84 percent of his field goals in his career, and has even handled spot punting duties when called upon. Speaking of punting, Trickett may well be called upon for double-duty this year, as last year’s starter Derek Adams has transferred to Northwestern. Freshman Josh Smith is on campus and ready to contribute if the coaching staff decides to save Trickett for kicking duties.
Trickett very well may be the most versatile and valuable special teams player in the conference, and he could be the deciding factor if the Flashes find themselves in any close games this year.
Overall, things are pointed in the right direction for the Golden Flashes. The program was a mess at the end of the Paul Haynes era, and Sean Lewis appears to have been the correct hire to right the ship.
Kent State is ahead of schedule entering year three of the Lewis era. Now that the program has some expectations, the question becomes if the Flashes can take the next step. There’s talent on the roster, however the offensive line and the defensive backfield must improve if Kent wants to challenge for the eastern division crown.
If Kent State can keep Dustin Crum healthy and upright, and if the defense can improve upon their performance from last year, Kent State could certainly reach the MAC Championship Game for only the second time in program history. If either of those things don’t happen, the Flashes could find themselves in the middle of the division with other challengers Buffalo and Miami well ahead of them.