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2021 MAC Football Positional Previews: Kent State Golden Flashes offensive skill positions

Dual-threat QB Dustin Crum and a deep rushing attack return in hopes of retaining the status as the highest-scoring offense in the land.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 28 Kent State at Buffalo Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s the highest scoring offense in the land. In his third season as a head coach, Sean Lewis completed the 180 degree turnaround, inheriting the 129th scoring offense and rapidly turning it into No. 1. Of course, Kent State played a limited four-game schedule and two of those opponents were MAC cellar dwellers, Bowling Green and Akron.

Still, the offensive improvement Kent State has shown in the past two seasons is astounding, and averaging 49.8 points per game against any FBS schedule is worth celebrating. Here is the cast of characters for the high-flying offense, which hopes to sustain its dominance for the full 12-game slate in 2021.

Quarterback

Kent State’s offensive prowess all starts at quarterback, and fortunately for the Flashes, they have the best one in the conference. Dustin Crum is entering his third year as the primary starter. His dual threat abilities and his mastery of the zone read make him one of the most dangerous offensive players in the entire FBS. As a passer, Crum attained 1,181 yards (10.5 yards per attempt) and 12 touchdowns in four games. As a rusher, he managed 240 yards and four touchdowns on 5.5 yards per carry.

In his last full season in 2019, Crum threw for 2,625 yards and rushed for 707, accounting for 26 of Kent State’s touchdowns. Early on in that campaign, he played a key factor in Kent State breaking the program’s single game offense record by registering 750 yards in a 62-20 walloping of Bowling Green.

Crum is the model of accuracy, completing 69.3 percent of passes in his junior 2019 season before elevating that number to 73.5 percent last season. He remains free of mistakes and has a jaw-dropping touchdown-to-interception ratio of 32-to-4 since becoming the Golden Flashes’ starter in 2019.

Crum has won seven of his last eight starts, and he is currently riding a 9-game streak of completing at least 64 percent of his passes. The returning senior has never thrown multiple interceptions in a game either.

Kent State no longer has Woody Barrett V as Crum’s backup, as the former Auburn transfer entered the transfer portal once again this offseason. That leaves the second-string role to Collin Schlee, who appeared in 75 percent of Kent State’s games last year. Schlee handled mop-up duties in blowouts by throwing 15 passes — two that went for touchdowns. He also exhibits dual threat tendencies similar to Crum, which were on full display when he racked up 62 yards and a touchdown on eight carries at Bowling Green last November.

Running Back

Kent State runs three deep in the ground game, and all three backs were vital to the Flashes finishing second in rushing yards per game in 2020 with an average of 289. Only Air Force’s triple option based attack accumulated more rushing yards per game than the Flashes.

Marquez Cooper attacks with a short stature but a powerful frame. With a low center of gravity, the 5’6”, 184 pound back is an esteemed tackle breaker, and he sprinted his way to a team-high 282 yards and five touchdowns last fall.

Bryan Bradford presents a more massive build at 6’0” and 243 pounds. The bulldozer averaged 6.9 yards per carry and operated as the secondary back behind Cooper with 254 yards.

Xavier Williams, the fastest halfback of the trio, rounds out the unit after average a team-best 8.0 yards per carry last season. Attaining nine touchdowns in his last nine games, Williams is becoming one of the more prolific members of the offense. The Maryland native is an established veteran on this roster, initially joining the program under the Paul Haynes regime in 2017.

To get an idea of how Kent State will manage the load between the trio, the number of rushing attempts for Cooper, Bradford, and Williams in 2020 were 56, 37, and 27, respectively. It is worth noting that the Golden Flashes played in a fair share of lopsided games last season, but the balance between the trio should stick, given the effectiveness each back showed in his respective role. Of course, Crum often takes on the role of a running back, so add him to the mix, and that’s a 4-headed monster in a wealthy backfield.

Wide Receiver

Kent State lost its top wide receiver, Isaiah McKoy, to the NFL. McKoy, an often-utilized vertical threat in Kent State’s offense, is aiming to continue to his football career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Golden Flashes also lost Antwan Dixon, who did not play in 2020. Dixon was an inspirational figure to many, successfully defeating a rare blood disease known as aplastic anemia. His leadership off the field, as well as his presence as one of Kent State’s top receivers, will be missed greatly as he transferred to the Division II level in the middle of the fall 2020 season.

Still, a horde of familiar faces return as Crum’s targets in the explosive Flash Fast offense. Ja’Shaun Poke should inherit the role as No. 1 receiver in McKoy’s absence after a breakout sophomore season with 21 receptions, 326 yards, and three touchdowns — all ranking second on the team behind McKoy.

Dante Cephas and Isaac Vance were other names that rose to the occasion despite Kent State fielding a rather inexperienced receiving group last fall. Cephas excelled as a deep threat with 136 yards on 11 receptions while Vance proved useful near the sticks with 148 yards on 17 catches. For four wide receiver sets, Keshunn Abram may join the bunch. The former community college transfer should see a massive expansion in his role this season after hauling in 10 receptions his previous two years on campus.

Kent State also acquired former Syracuse wide receiver Nykeim Johnson who could step into a starting spot. Johnson played a major part of the Orange’s offense in 2018 when they finished 10-3, amassing 41 receptions and 565 yards. He is reuniting with Sean Lewis, who served as Syracuse’s offensive coordinator when he enrolled in 2017. Johnson provides a burst of speed to offense as a slot receiver and also adds a dimension to the special teams unit as a return specialist.

Tight End

Kent State bulked up its tight end depth this offseason. Another Syracuse transfer from Lewis’ offensive coordinator days made the trek from New York to Kent, OH. Aaron Hackett is Syracuse’s all-time program leader in touchdown receptions for a tight end with nine. The accomplished pass-catcher snagged in six touchdown receptions and recorded 203 yards in 2019 for the Orange. He likely earns a crack at a starting role after posting a solid résumé in the ACC for three seasons.

The Golden Flashes also return a familiar face in Keenan Orr who sat out the entire 2020 season. Orr fielded six receptions in 2019 and served primarily as a blocking tight end. Another member of the unit that played a similar role was Adam Dulka, who tallied 15 combined receptions in 2018 and 2019, while assisting for one of the nation’s top rushing units a year ago. Tight ends aren’t frequently utilized as receiving options in Kent State’s offense, but blocking for the highest scoring offense and one of the top rushing units in the country is a vital task which will be required again in 2021.