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2021 MAC Football Positional Previews: Kent State Golden Flashes defensive front seven

DE Zayin West and ILB Mandela Lawrence-Burke will be key contributors in ensuring that Kent State has a MAC championship caliber defense.

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

The Kent State Golden Flashes are in a place they haven’t been many times in their history. At MAC media day, they were officially voted as MAC East favorites. It’s easy to see why, given Sean Lewis and Co.’s mastery of the offense. After nearly posting 50 points per game and sending out one of the top dual threat quarterbacks in the country, it’s easy to fall in love with the high-octane offense. But as 2020 Ball State, 2019 Miami (OH), and 2018 Northern Illinois showed us, it’s the defensive element which wins conference championships.

Thus, for Kent State to claim its first MAC crown since 1972, the defensive front seven proves to be the x-factor.

Kent State showed promise up front as the team tied for 16th in the country by producing three sacks per game. As solid as Kent State’s pressure on opposing quarterbacks was, the Golden Flashes need to convert that duress into turnovers after only producing 1.3 takeaways per game in 2020. Then again, the sample size was extremely limited due to COVID-19 cancelations, so this team never received ample time to gel defensively.

However, things weren’t always smooth for the unit, which allowed the fifth most rushing yards per game in the entire country. A brutal 70-41 walloping by Buffalo certainly inflated Kent State’s undesirable defensive numbers, as the Flashes permitted All-American running back Jaret Patterson to rush for 409 yards (second most in FBS history) and eight touchdowns (tied for most in FBS history) in a single afternoon.

It wasn’t only Patterson. Two of the conference’s most dormant offenses — Akron and Bowling Green — each produced a 160-yard rusher on Kent State’s defense. The Zips’ Teon Dollard broke out for 202 yards and four touchdowns while the Falcons’ Terion Stewart managed 162 yards and a pair of end zone appearances. After allowing three running backs to enjoy career days in a 4-game schedule, Kent State’s number one priority in the quest to win the 2021 MAC championship is to amend the holes in the run defense.

Defensive Line

Zayin West is the focal point of the Golden Flashes’ 3-man defensive line, and he dons the coveted defensive lineman No. 0 jersey. West ranked second on the team in tackles in 2020 with 23 — well on pace to break his season-highs in sacks, tackles for loss, and total tackles had it been a standard length season. His breakout campaign was solidified in Kent State’s season finale as he swallowed up ball carriers for a career-best 12 tackles, including nine solo takedowns.

Joining West on the boundaries of the line will likely be Sekou Diaby. The fifth year senior tasted his first hints of success in 2019, when he recorded a key third down stop to lead to a 21-point comeback against Buffalo. He also wrapped up Jordan Love for a crucial sack in the Frisco Bowl to preserve the Kent State defense from allowing a go-ahead Utah State touchdown. Diaby, a former community college product, should be primed to elevate his role this season and return to the backfield for his first sack since that unforgettable Frisco Bowl night.

There are a litany of transfers and returning talent in the mix to challenge for a starting defensive end slot, or possibly move into the defensive tackle role. The most experienced is Jordan Revels, who started six games for Texas State in 2020. He registered 33 tackles and three tackles for loss, proving to be a serviceable starter in the Sun Belt.

Kent State also added Damir Faison from the transfer portal. Faison, a former East Carolina Pirate, operated as a multipurpose player on special teams and as an extra blocker in the offense at his prior stop. Last fall, he settled in as a defensive end and contributed 19 tackles. The Golden Flashes also hauled in Asher Frow, who arrived at North Texas after a successful junior college run. A potential rotation player on the defensive line, he recorded nine tackles and two sacks for the Mean Green in 2019. Kent State also brought defensive end Antoine Cook to the program as a grad transfer from FCS program Youngstown State.

In terms of returning reserve talent at defensive end, Jabbar Price (15 tackles, 1.5 TFLs in 2020) and Adin Huntington (6 tackles) are names to watch on the unit.

Transfer portal losses include Oly Okombi, a reserve defensive tackle who recorded one sack in his redshirt freshman season in Kent in 2020. The Flashes’ interior defensive line will also miss the presence of nose tackle Buddha Jones, who appeared on the verge of a breakout season after a career-high four tackles in the 2019 Frisco Bowl. Jones’ transfer thins out the depth in the interior as he moves closer to his Florida home by enrolling at Troy.

The nose tackle remains more of a question mark as the 2021 season draws near. Unless one of the aforementioned defensive ends slides into the center, Kent State has one compelling candidate to anchor the line despite a lack of experience. C.J. West is by far the Golden Flashes’ most massive lineman at an impressive 6’2” and 330 pound build. He checked into the Bowling Green game last season and recorded his first career tackle — possibly his first of many more if the Flashes feel he is suited for the starting nose tackle role.

Linebackers

Inside linebacker Mandela Lawrence-Burke is only two years removed from a showcase 2019 season. In that impressive campaign, the wide receiver-turned-linebacker led the team with 104 tackles, recovered a game-sealing fumble to beat Ball State and save bowl eligibility, and concluded the year with 10 tackles and an interception in the Frisco Bowl. Lawrence-Burke kicked off the 2020 season with the same swagger by recording 12 tackles and two sacks in a win over Eastern Michigan.

Alongside the fifth-year senior in the 3-4 defense is inside linebacker Brandon Coleman, who registered more tackles than any linebacker on the roster last season. He molded into a starter as a redshirt freshman and produced 18 tackles and three sacks while adjusting to the speed of the collegiate game. As a sophomore, improvements are expected across the board for the promising linebacker.

On the outsides, the long-tenured Kesean Gamble is expected to pick up where he left off as he enters his fourth year as a starter. Gamble, at 6’1” and 274 pounds, is the chief backfield disruptor from the linebacking corps, totaling 10 tackles for loss and five sacks in his last 10 outings.

Gamble’s pass rushing tendencies could be complemented by the presence of Matt Harmon, who remains in contention for the other starting outside linebacker position after three years of limited playing experience and one start in 2018. Another player who could ease into that position is Khalib Johns, who started in the Wagon Wheel win over Akron last November and produced 12 tackles on the year. Lastly, a seasoned special teams contributor in A.J. Musolino may make recurring appearances on defense after starring on kickoff and punt coverage over the past three seasons.

To bolster the linebacker depth, additions from the transfer market feature Alexander Sims who generated 81 tackles in the 2019 FCS season with Southern Utah, and Marvin Pierre who played seven games for Murray State during the 2020 FCS spring campaign. Additionally, former Syracuse special teams artist Juan Wallace sat out the 2020 season due to transfer rules but is capable of handling linebacking duties for the Flashes.

The main departing member from the team is massive 6’7” outside linebacker Prince Okituama, a reserve contributor from the 2020 squad. Thus, one of the outside linebacking spots remains relatively open, but the presence of veterans in Lawrence-Burke and Gamble — as well as the rising level of play from Coleman — should make the linebacking group a solid one in 2021.