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2022 MAC Football Positional Previews: Kent State Golden Flashes offensive skill positions

A potent running back trio of Cooper, Williams, and Bradford is back to lead the Flash Fast offense to great heights.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 03 NIU at Kent State Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When Sean Lewis accepted the head coaching job at Kent State in 2017, he inherited an offense which ranked 129th out of 130 programs by averaging 12.8 points per game. By 2020, the Golden Flashes completed an unfathomable 180-degree turnaround and led the FBS in points per game with 49.8.

Lewis and offensive coordinator Andrew Sowder established themselves as offensive masterminds in the past several seasons in Kent, OH. The offensive success from the 2020 pandemic-shortened season prolonged into 2021 as the Golden Flashes ranked third in the FBS — and first among all non-triple option based teams — by racking up 248.6 rushing yards per contest. Kent State, a leaderboard frequenter on the offensive end, also held distinction as the top-five team in total offense and first downs accumulated last season.

Kent State’s signature “Flash Fast” offense moves at a tempo higher than almost every team in the nation. It’s an RPO-heavy scheme which features spread-out personnel, quick decision making, and learning on the fly. The past three seasons featured a reliable conductor in Dustin Crum, who ushered in the program’s first bowl win in 2019 and led the Golden Flashes to a MAC Championship Game appearance in 2021. But with Crum no longer on campus, his understudy Collin Schlee becomes the new facilitator in this scheme.

Schlee appearances were not a rarity in 2021. Due to the nature of Kent State’s scoring margins, Schlee became a fourth quarter staple in the offense. The now-redshirt junior quarterback led seven touchdown drives last season, complete with 238 passing yards on 9.9 yards per attempt and 127 rushing yards on 6.4 yards per attempt. Schlee’s overall performance ensured no quarterback battle would transpire this offseason, and the dual threat oriented quarterback will take over the reins for Crum in September.

As suggested in an RPO-based offense, Kent State enjoys keeping the ball grounded. The Golden Flashes exhibit plenty of diversity in their play calls when running ball, which can be especially lethal with a versatile three-running back system. All three of the Golden Flashes main halfbacks — Marquez Cooper, Xavier Williams, and Bryan Bradford — produced at least 5.0 yards per carry to spearhead the MAC’s most dangerous rushing attack. And they’re all back for another round in 2022.

Cooper is the headliner of the unit as one of six MAC players on the Maxwell Award preseason watchlist. He registered 1,205 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns a year ago, blasting past the century mark in half of the Golden Flashes’ 14 games. Cooper ran free in a 173-yard, 2-touchdown statement performance in a November victory over Northern Illinois, proving his ability to completely take over a game from the backfield.

Williams adds doses of speed and agility to the backfield and is no stranger of breaking away for long touchdown runs. Four of his six scores since 2020 stemmed from more than 30 yards out. Posting 812 rushing yards on 6.5 yards per carry, Williams made noteworthy contributions throughout last season, but none were more vital than his 168-yard outing which lifted Kent State to the MAC Championship Game in a must-win situation against Miami (OH).

Finally, Bradford completes the three-headed monster as the team’s wrecking ball. The 6’0”, 243 pound power back demonstrates impressive acceleration and consistently sheds tacklers with his downhill running style. Bradford boasts a career rushing average of 6.4 yards, and his finest work was exhibited in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl last December when he collected 109 yards on eight carries.

The wide receiver room does not have the luxury of returning depth possessed by the running back group. Kent State utilized four main receivers last year and two of them — Nykeim Johnson and Keshunn Abram — participated in pro day last spring to jump-start their professional football careers. That leaves Dante Cephas and Ja’Shaun Poke as the primary targets for Schlee.

Cephas developed into one of the MAC’s breakout stars in 2021. The wideout exponentially boosted his production to 82 receptions, 1,240 yards, and nine touchdowns, and the nation is taking notice. After checking in at 16th in the country in receiving yards, Cephas became one of 52 players on the 2022 Walter Camp Award watchlist which recognizes the sport’s best player. Cephas’ signature speed makes him an ideal target on slant and fly routes, but he also has an underrated strength to push past defenders when fighting for extra yards.

He’ll be complemented by a developed threat in Poke, who ranked second on the team in 2020 in receptions and receiving yards, averaging 81.5 of the latter per game. But they’ll need additional faces to step up in order to field a complete unit. One of those faces is Isaac Vance, who served as a steady option two seasons ago with 17 receptions to rank third on the roster. Other players set to round out the rotation are Devontez Walker, Luke Floriea, and Raymond James — who all caught between five and 10 passes a season ago. Cephas emerged from an 11-reception season to an All-MAC campaign over the course of one offseason, so the potential for stardom certainly lies within these receivers.

Kent State is one of two MAC schools, along with its rival Bowling Green, to claim a John Mackey Award watchlist candidate at tight end. Kris Leach only snagged seven catches for 93 yards in 2021, but his role in paving pathways for one of college football’s elite rushing attacks did not go unnoticed. The Flash Fast offense doesn’t call for too many two tight end sets when operating outside goal line situations, but after one year of using Syracuse transfer Aaron Hackett in the second tight end spot, Kent State can now refortify its depth with Keenan Orr. Orr playing sparingly last year, but saw the bulk of his repetitions occur in 2019 when he caught a pair of touchdown passes. Overall, the Golden Flashes should be comfortable with the veteran talent returning at this position.

The skill position players have been the backbone of this team since 2019, and that should remain the case again in 2022. The running back depth is one of the most impressive in the FBS, and Schlee’s mobility should help propel the rushing unit to numbers similar to the ones produced in 2020 and 2021. More question marks exist in the passing game, which ranked 57th a year ago in yards per game. Luckily for Kent State, having one of the conference’s top receivers in Cephas should ease the transition for Schlee into his first full-time collegiate starting role.

However, a grueling non-conference schedule featuring road trips to Washington, Oklahoma, and Georgia could have Kent State’s offense in a bit of a funk until Week 5 — similar to what unfolded last year when the Golden Flashes opened the season with a slate of Texas A&M, Iowa, and Maryland and averaged 11 points per game in those contests. Yet, they still fielded a top 30 scoring offense by the conclusion of the season. That being said, this is a team which could perform very differently at the skill positions once MAC play launches after enduring the ultimate grind in September.