One winning season in 15 years. Zero bowl wins. Three bowl appearances in decades and decades of history. This was the situation a local quarterback from Grafton, OH strolled into when Kent State was the only college to present him an offer in the fall of 2016.
When he handled his final snap in December 2021, the program’s accolades increased in exponential fashion. Kent State compiled three consecutive seasons at .500 or better for the first time since the early 1970s. For the first time ever, players donning the Blue and Gold qualified for multiple bowl games during their college careers. And to make things sweeter, Kent State expanded its trophy case by securing its first-ever bowl win in 2019. Two seasons later, the team continued its roll by punching a ticket to the MAC Championship Game for the second time since the event’s inception in 1997.
During Dustin Crum’s three-year reign as starting quarterback, the Golden Flashes were defined by newfound successes. Crum elevated Kent State to new heights, and the university returned the favor for the quarterback’s game. Following the revolution of an entire program, Crum is aiming for his next challenge — landing a spot on the NFL stage.
Rise to stardom
Matt Johnson currently works on staff as the running backs coach at Kent State. A former star quarterback at Bowling Green, Johnson served on Kent State’s staff as an offensive quality control coach and graduate assistant in 2018 and 2019, working closely with the quarterback room. The former MAC Offensive Player of the Year formed an especially close bond with Crum and mentored the young quarterback into becoming the next MAC great.
Johnson first noticed flashes of potential from the quarterback in a phase of the game colloquially known as “garbage time.” But that garbage time on a November night in Buffalo wasn’t all for naught — it ultimately changed the trajectory of Kent State football, despite an unfavorable 48-0 etched into the scoreboard at the moment. With the game long out of reach, Crum was inserted into the 11-man huddle and suddenly, the offense ignited. In a span of two possessions, Crum connected on 7-of-8 passes for 57 yards, rushed for an additional 66 yards, and accounted for two touchdowns to prevent a shutout.
“Throughout the 2018 season, there were some games that didn’t necessarily go our way early on and Crum was able to go in toward the end of games and show what he could do with the offense,” Johnson said. “I remember the Buffalo game in 2018. We were getting absolutely destroyed, terrible weather, and he came in and he took the offense down the field and just scored. He didn’t care what the situation was. It was his time and he was gonna make the most of it, and that’s what we fell in love with was his competitiveness.”
Crum didn’t win the starting job until the 2019 season. As soon as he was thrust into the QB No. 1 role, history was made. Kent State garnered a program-record 750 yards in his second opportunity as a collegiate starter. Crum’s stat-line that afternoon was nearly flawless — 26-of-31, 310 passing yards, three touchdowns, and 65 rushing yards on nine attempts. While that game signified the quarterback’s arrival, a different game 90 days later made him realize his pro potential.
“NFL-wise, I think it was the Frisco Bowl,” Crum said. “Going out there against [Green Bay Packers 2020 first round draft pick] Jordan Love and winning that quarterback battle on that night, and knowing he was gonna be a first or second round guy — being able to perform on the same level, if not outperform him, gave me the confidence that I could play on the next level.”
Echoing that Bowling Green performance, Crum dazzled in Frisco, Texas, with a completion percentage hovering above 80 percent. Connecting on 21-of-26 attempts, Crum cashed his throws in for 289 yards and two touchdowns. But that 2019 Frisco Bowl also served as his most prolific game as a rushing option. The fleet-footed quarterback accumulated a career-high 147 rushing yards and iced the game on a beautifully-designed zone read where he split a pair of Utah State defenders for paydirt.
“I remember we called timeout at the very end of the game. It was fourth-and-one, and we were talking about kicking a field goal,” Johnson said, discussing Kent State’s options from the Utah State 5-yard line with 2:01 remaining in the fourth quarter. “And it ultimately came down to us putting the ball in Crum’s hands. That was the trust that he earned. That was the trust that he built through every single day being as consistent as he was. Coach Lewis made a great play call, put the ball in his hands, he made the right decision. First-ever bowl win in program history.”
Transforming Kent State
Dustin Crum needed Kent State. And Kent State needed Dustin Crum. The marriage couldn’t have worked any better for either side. When the parties separated at the conclusion of the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in December, both the quarterback and the program were in far superior places than seemingly possible in 2017.
After all, Kent State was the only program to pull the trigger and present Crum with an offer. The quarterback was a two-time finalist for Mr. Football in the state of Ohio, capturing dozens of eyeballs in the early stages of his high school career. After his sophomore season, the noise quelled to an extent, but the Golden Flashes’ belief never wavered.
That belief allowed the program to capture that sought-after bowl win, qualify for a MAC division championship, and attain accolades the program hadn’t experienced in its extensive history.
“Coming here, this was my only offer, so being able to give back to the one school that truly believed in me as a player and give them a football team to be proud of again at a place that hasn’t had a lot of teams that they could be — that’s something I really wanted to do in my time here,” Crum said.
Even after that polished Frisco Bowl performance, it was not easy for Crum and Kent State to remain in the spotlight. The COVID-19 pandemic struck roughly three months after that fateful night in the Dallas metroplex, and by August, the Mid-American Conference announced its cancellation of the 2020 football season. After drawing eyeballs from draft prospects in December 2019, the quarterback didn’t know when his follow-up act would transpire.
The MAC eventually reversed its course and implemented a 6-game regular season schedule for all 12 member institutions. Due to a pair of in-season cancellations, Kent State’s 2020 schedule was limited to a mere four games. Yet, the team rallied around Crum to piece together one of its strongest teams in program history.
“It was probably the biggest challenge I faced as a leader in football,” Crum said of the abbreviated 2020 campaign. “You’re working with guys trying to make sure you’re ready and if you are gonna be playing, you need to continue to outwork your opponents. At the same time, you’ve got to keep the real mindset that we’re in a pandemic and we’ve got to keep everyone safe. I was trying to keep the sword sharp and also take care of each other and be smart as well. It was very difficult trying to find that balance and making sure everyone was locked in and ready to go.”
Under Crum’s direction, Kent State’s offense led the entire nation in scoring at 49.8 points per game. The dual threat quarterback guided the unit to top 10 finishes in both the passing and rushing departments. He accounted for 16 total touchdowns in four games while serving as the model of accuracy with a 73.5 percent completion clip and just two interceptions on 113 attempts.
Those accuracy numbers and interceptions weren’t a result of a limited sample size — that’s who Crum was in each of his three years as the starting quarterback. Across 807 attempts from 2019 through 2021, he only tossed 10 interceptions and found his receivers’ hands on 67.4 percent of his throws.
“His preparation leading up to games, that’s why he didn’t throw interceptions,” Johnson said. “He knew what teams were gonna do before they did it because he’s an absolute gym rat. He was in Coach Lewis’ office every single night watching film... He was constantly asking very good questions, and that’s what really led to that performance.”
Crum received a minimal canvas to operate with in that 2020 season. But due to his dominance in that 4-game stretch, he painted a realistic self portrait of a future NFL Draft prospect.
“Those four games, it was almost like a tease for us,” Johnson said. “To Dustin, it wasn’t like, ‘This season doesn’t count. It’s just four games, I’m coming back next year.’ No. Every single rep matters to that kid. It was just another sample of what he could do — his leadership, his accuracy, his arm strength, his ability to throw on time. All those things were on display and it didn’t matter who we were playing. When he steps between the white lines, it’s game on, and that’s the top thing I can say about him.”
Flash Fast offense
Operating as the face of the Kent State offense meant that Crum was the ambassador of “Flash Fast.” These words refer to the program’s signature style of offense which coincided with head coach Sean Lewis’ arrival in 2018.
This RPO-heavy offense operates at a tempo which causes ESPN networks to display a ‘time between snaps’ clock in the upper corner of the broadcasts. It is also a system which utilizes the entire width of the field and empowers the quarterback to make his own decisions as plays unfold. Thus, Crum’s level of preparation, ability to read defenses at warp speed, and dual-threat abilities made him the archetypical signal caller for Lewis’ “Flash Fast” style.
“They do a great job of giving us a system our talents can truly flourish in,” Crum said. “My skillset and what I brought to the table as a football player was maximized in Coach Lewis’ offense — being able to go fast, and read defenses quickly, and think fast. Also, be very consistent and accurate, have the ability to push the ball down the field and use my athleticism when needed.”
When Kent State racking up an FBS-best 49.8 points per contest in 2020, the execution of the scheme was a major factor. The offense is adaptable in nature, serving as much of a threat through the air as on the ground. With Crum serving as a focal point in both facets of the game, Kent State ranked 10th in passing yards per game and second in rushing yards that season. The fast-paced offense generated over 80 snaps per game and led the country in first downs by a significant margin (32.3 per game vs. second place UCF’s 28.3).
“If you’re out there thinking, you’re gonna be too slow,” Crum said. “You have to be truly prepared, especially at the quarterback position. You always have to be the most prepared guy on the field and you have to be ready for truly anything. Teams threw just about every look they could at us. If you can think fast and know the answers and know where the ball needs to go, then you can dissect any defense.”
Crum believes captaining this offense solidifies his ability to assimilate to the NFL. While spread, up-tempo offenses aren’t the norm at the professional level, making such defensive reads on fly could pay its dues when facing defenders that cover ground at unforeseen rates and shed blocks in the blink of an eye.
“People outside might have a perception that it’s truly just a college offense and it doesn’t apply a ton, but I honestly think that the things we did at Kent are gonna prepare me more so than a lot of the other schools and a lot of other quarterbacks coming into this draft class,” Crum said. “I think it gives me an upper hand being able to process information as fast as I was required to in this offense, and the level of preparation I was able to carry week in and week out.”
What makes Crum unique
Crum served as one of the elite rushing quarterbacks at the collegiate level. He eclipsed the 90-yard threshold with his mobility seven times from 2019 through 2021 and especially thrived in red zone situations. Crum registered 12 rushing touchdowns in his final season at Kent State, good for fifth among all FBS quarterbacks. While he doesn’t have the Michael Vick 40-yard dash time or the Josh Allen bulldozer build, Crum presents a crafty running style which allows him to slip through the crevices of the defense — a technique he developed in his youth when running Oklahoma drills in the front yard against his brother Devon, who eventually played at Ashland University.
“He was always older and bigger than me so I always had to find some way to be shiftier and get around him, even if I wasn’t the most athletic,” Crum said. “(Devon) was a linebacker/running back type. He’s kind of opposite build of me — probably 5’11” and about 230. He was a big, thick type and I was long and skinny, so I was never gonna run him over growing up.”
Johnson describes Crum’s running style as ‘slippery’ and ‘like schoolyard ball.’ More than ever in the modern era, NFL teams are valuing quarterbacks with a degree of mobility, and Crum’s mastery of the run game could serve as a valuable attribute.
“I’ve been playing this game for so long that it’s just something you get a feel for — just reading body positions and angles and being able to have some awareness of what’s going on around you, even if you’re not the most athletic guy out there,” Crum said.
Crum isn’t just a dual threat when it comes to slinging the pigskin and dazzling defenders.
Possessing multiple talents at once has been a theme of the NFL prospect’s life. In high school, he competed in football, basketball, and baseball. In college, the aspiring rocket scientist balanced a demanding major of aerospace engineering with the status of acting as one of 130 starting quarterbacks at college football’s highest level.
That same intellect evident in the classroom when calculating a maximum deflection angle of an oblique shockwave is just as noticeable when it comes to dissecting defenses.
“When he is on the field, he is one of the most competitive and perfectionist type kids I’ve ever been around, and it upped our level of coaching because we didn’t want to let him down,” Johnson said. “That kid’s football IQ is through the roof. He enjoys it and he works at it. It’s not just something like, ‘I got this. I understand this. I don’t need to review it anymore.’”
Roughly a week and a half after Crum handled his final snap in a Golden Flashes uniform, the transition to an NFL quarterback commenced. He flew out to train in New Jersey alongside Kenny Pickett, who many speculate as one of the first two quarterbacks off the draft board this April.
Crum also participated in the East-West Shrine Game in Las Vegas, where he completed 6-of-10 passing attempts and led the East in rushing yardage. Afterward, he landed a coveted spot at the NFL Combine — one of seven players from the MAC to receive the invitation.
At the Combine, he clocked in a 4.75-second 40-yard dash time, logged a vertical jump of 32.5 inches and a broad jump spanning 120 inches, and participated in a variety of quarterback drills in front of onlooking scouts.
“I thought I did well there,” Crum said. “My numbers were pretty much where I wanted them to be. I thought I threw the ball pretty well. I felt like I belonged there, so having that measuring tool and being able to see myself be right there with all the guys considered first rounders was cool.”
Crum wouldn’t be the first Kent State quarterback to enjoy an accomplished career if the dream comes to fruition. The NFL’s all-time leader in kickoff return touchdowns Joshua Cribbs served as quarterback for the Golden Flashes from 2001-04 before transitioning to wide receiver after college. Also, before Julian Edelman collected a Super Bowl MVP and rose to second all-time in NFL postseason receptions, he held the keys as quarterback of a Kent State offense. But a Kent State alum throwing a pass while listed as a quarterback on the depth chart has yet to transpire.
Crum, armed with preparation and perseverance, can enter that uncharted territory as he pursues his NFL opportunity. And those who have worked with him see the unforeseen vision of a Kent State quarterback thriving at the next level.
“I absolutely think he can make it in the NFL,” Johnson, who has previous experience as an undrafted free agent with the Cincinnati Bengals, said. “The one thing that’s gonna set him apart is wherever he goes, he’s gonna be one of the first people to learn the playbook. One of the coolest things Coach Lew told me this past season with Crum is day one of camp, he bought a brand new notebook and was taking notes like he was a true freshman again. Now take that to a place where he has no idea what the playbook is, he’s gonna work tirelessly to learn that stuff. I have no doubts about Crum.”