This position group was the difference between Kent State punching a ticket to Detroit for the MAC Championship Game and spending the first week of December at home.
On a chilly day in Kent, OH, Miami (OH) quarterback Brett Gabbert launched a deep ball down the sideline and wide receiver Jalen Walker made a mid-air adjustment to score a critical overtime touchdown. At that point, the RedHawks trailed 48-47 to Kent State, but they had no intentions on prolonging the shootout. Miami kept the offense on the field for the 2-point conversion and got its star receiver Jack Sorenson on an island against Golden Flashes cornerback Montre Miller.
Gabbert fired the slant but Miller flew right in front, and spiked the ball to the ground. Thanks to the one of the most crucial pass breakups of the college football season, Kent State was MAC Championship Game bound for the first time since 2012.
Miller led a Kent State unit which made a name for itself by manufacturing turnovers with regularity. The Golden Flashes recorded four interceptions in each of their first two games last year and sustained their high takeaway rate throughout the season, finishing top 10 nationally in interceptions secured and turnovers gained.
However, the Golden Flashes formed a defensive identity of ‘turnover or bust.’ If Kent State didn’t create a takeaway, things were often dreary for the defense. Stops were hard to come by on the ground and through the air. As a passing defense, the secondary allowed 266 yards per game — ranking 15th from the nadir of the FBS.
Generating stops is a more sustainable foundation for a defense, so while Kent State hopes those high turnover numbers remain similar in 2022, improving man coverage and tackling should be focal points for the defensive backs. Third downs were especially lethal to the secondary and Kent State ranked 123rd out of 130 FBS teams in opponent conversion percentage in third down situations.
The defense loses one of its starting cornerbacks in Elvis Hines, but the unit still retains a vast veteran presence. Miller, the architect of the 48-47 win over Miami, returns to man one of the corner spots. He looks to build on his impressive numbers from 2021 which included a team-high four interceptions to go along with eight pass breakups and 48 tackles.
Lining up on the opposite side of Miller should be Capone Blue, who started the Central Michigan game last year in Miller’s absence. In his lone start as a Golden Flash, Blue compiled four solo tackles and deflected one pass. Similar to Miller’s ramp up in production from 2020 to 2021, Blue should experience a massive leap in playing time as he commences his senior season.
Blue faces a potential challenger for the starting spot, however. Kent State brought in Maryland transfer Lavonte Gater who made two starts at cornerback for the Terrapins in 2021. Gater was a late addition to the roster in July, and he brings 59 tackles of experience to the cornerback room. He has previous experience going head-to-head against Kent State receivers as he recorded two tackles in Maryland’s win over the Golden Flashes last September.
Heskin Smith, Alex Branch, and Mario Nunez are among other returning cornerbacks who have seen limited action at Kent State with possible role expansions en route in 2022. But an additional transfer who should see plenty of time in the rotation is D.J. Miller Jr. Hailing from Iowa State, Miller made 28 appearances in three seasons as a Big 12 cornerback, posting a career stat-line of 18 tackles and four pass breakups.
Kent State typically accompanies its cornerbacks with three starting safeties in its 4-2-5 defense, so there will be no shortage of defensive backs on the field at most times. The majority of the team’s safeties are seniors or graduate students, so experience is one of the calling cards of this position group.
One of the guaranteed starters is Dean Clark, who lapped all other Golden Flashes in the tackling department with 116 in 2021. Clark aims to lead the team in the category for the third consecutive season, and he’ll be in great shape if he carries the momentum from last December with him, as he collected 25 total tackles in the MAC title game and Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Nico Bolden and C.J. Holmes recorded a significant number of starts last season, and the two could very well return to the lineup, especially after the graduation of longtime contributor K.J. Sherald. Bolden ranked third on the team in tackles while playing his hand in the turnover game with two interceptions and two forced fumbles. Holmes managed 44 tackles, and he’ll likely compete with Antwaine Richardson for that final spot.
Richardson was a promising transfer brought in from Maryland during the 2021 offseason. He logged 15 starts as a Terrapin with his first transpiring in 2017. Richardson was all over the field in the opener against Texas A&M last fall, recording three stops and an assisted tackle for loss before a season-ending injury stifled his progress in the first half. A healthy Richardson could work wonders for this defense which ranked 123rd in average yards allowed, especially in the open-field tackling aspect of the game.
Further depth supporting the four aforementioned seniors comes in the form of JoJo Evans. The Marshall transfer was an integral part of the Thundering Herd secondary rotation in 2021, recording 21 stops in his final season in Huntington, WV. JUCO transfer Bryce Sheppert could witness recurring action in the defensive backfield as well.
If Kent State hopes to return to Detroit, defensive improvement is of utmost importance. The secondary has seniors galore and a litany of ballhawks, but they must prevent blown coverages and missed tackles to improve upon those 2021 numbers. Tons of potential lies within this unit if it can remain healthy. And in that Miami game last year, the secondary proved that when it matters most, it can make a play to change the trajectory of the season.