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2022 MAC Football Positional Previews: Kent State Golden Flashes defensive front seven

Kent State aims to sharpen the first two levels of its defense on its pathway back to Detroit.

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

The Kent State Golden Flashes fit the label as a ‘program on the rise’. After years of dwelling in the basement of college football, Sean Lewis has not only resurrected the program to respectability. He brought it to unforeseen heights. The Golden Flashes just strung together three straight .500+ seasons for the first time since 1972-74, and they complemented this run of success with a 2021 MAC Championship Game appearance and the program’s first-ever bowl victory in 2019.

After faring 7-7 a year ago, how can the Golden Flashes rise even higher? It starts with refining the front seven. Last season, Kent State’s defense ranked in the bottom 10 in points allowed per game by yielding 36.3. They struggled equally in containing the ground and the air by ranking 15th-to-last in both facets — permitting 266 passing yards and 206 rushing yards on average.

Improved defensive line play is a point of emphasis which can rewrite both of these numbers. While the front seven is more associated with limiting the run, generating a consistent pass rush is the foundation for improving coverage. Kent State finished with 1.64 sacks per game, falling below the FBS top 100 in the category. The Golden Flashes have a promising slate to work with as they return their sack leader C.J. West, who provides a commanding presence from the nose tackle position. West notched four sacks and eight tackles for loss in 2021 in a breakout sophomore campaign, and he could further that production with a year of starting experience under his belt.

Lining up on one side of West in Kent State’s 3-man defensive line is another player of the same namesake — Zayin West. This West, a longtime rotation player, was elevated to starter status last season and racked up 57 tackles to lead all defensive linemen on the roster.

The other defensive end spot likely comes down to one of several familiar faces. One is Sekou Diaby, who missed the entire of 2021 with an injury after expanding his playing time in 2020. Another is Adin Huntington, who stepped up in Diaby’s absence last year with seven tackles for loss and three sacks — checking in at second in both categories among returning Golden Flashes.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 03 NIU at Kent State
Inside linebacker Khalib Johns (32) and defensive end Adin Huntington (53) are among the many returning faces to Kent State’s experience-loaded front seven.
Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Diaby and Huntington are two viable candidates, but Kent State trots out several additional defensive ends with starting experience to their name. Antoine Cook logged seven starts last fall and accrued career-highs in tackles (3) and sacks (1.0) in a thrilling shootout win over Buffalo. Also, Saivon Taylor-Davis tallied six tackles for loss and two sacks while making three starts in November.

Supporting depth in Kent State’s veteran-heavy line includes A.J. Campbell, a UCLA transfer who redshirted his freshman season last year. The Akron native, pegged as the No. 50 edge rusher in the 2021 recruiting class per 247Sports, appeared in one game with the Bruins before relocating back to his home state. Kent State has many options at defensive end but the nose tackle depth is primarily anchored by one man in Macyo Williams. The 6’3”, 265 pound sophomore saw considerable action in his first year out of high school, appearing in over half of Kent State’s contests last fall.

At linebacker, the Golden Flashes lose graduated senior A.J. Musolino, who arose from special teams status to their do-it-all defender last season. They face the daunting task of replacing Musolino’s versatile production, which included 92 tackles (most among linebackers), 10.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, and an interception. But if Musolino taught us anything, it’s that any linebacker on the roster is capable of emerging to star status over the course of one offseason.

Kent State returns one of the linebackers whose absence led to the rise of Musolino, however. Inside linebacker Kesean Gamble gets another crack at a senior season after missing every matchup but the opener in 2021. Gamble is one of the longest tenured players on the roster, recording his first start for Kent State in 2017 prior to Coach Lewis’ arrival. With career stats featuring 108 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss, Gamble will be a welcome addition to a linebacking corps in need of a boost.

The other projected starters in the Golden Flashes’ 3-3-5 concept are set to be outside linebacker Matt Harmon — a returning starter from 2021 — and graduate student Marvin Pierre, who operated as a reliable reserve inside backer last season. Pierre doesn’t have starting experience, but he certainly fits the part with the second most tackles among returning linebackers. The former Murray State transfer especially excelled toward the end of his first FBS season by garnering 16 collective tackles in Kent State’s final two outings.

Khalib Johns is the key reserve to watch in the linebacking unit. Johns capitalized on his one starting opportunity last year by registering season-highs in tackles and tackles for loss in a midweek victory over eventual MAC champion Northern Illinois. Also playing a likely contributory role off the bench with Johns will be Juan Wallace, a Syracuse transfer who totaled 10 tackles in his first year as a Golden Flash.

The horde of incumbent linebackers are accompanied in the rotation by Arkansas State transfer C.J. Harris. In 2020 Harris started six games for the Red Wolves, checking in at sixth on the team in tackles. His established starting presence will be welcomed by a linebacking corps looking for its first All-MAC selection since Matt Dellinger in 2015.

Harris isn’t the only prospect Kent State brought in from elsewhere. Khali Saunders joins the crew after suiting up in black and gold for Purdue in 2021. Saunders collected 12 tackles in three seasons as a Boilermaker, and a third of them transpired in the unforgettable Music City Bowl against Tennessee — one of the most exhilarating games of the season.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel
Purdue transfer Khali Saunders joins Kent State after emerging on the triumphant side of a thrilling Music City Bowl. In that bowl, Saunders notched a career-high four tackles.
Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Overall, Kent State does not lack returning starters nor veteran presence in this front seven. The Golden Flashes hope this blanket of experience translates to an uptick in production under first-year coordinator Jeremiah Johnson, who engineered relentless defenses at Northern Iowa for nine years in the FCS.

Offense has been Kent State’s defining element during this era which is one of the best stretches of football in school history. Kent State’s defense has been very effective at producing turnovers, but the unit needs to focus on generating stops for sustainability purposes. If the front seven displays noticeable improvements in rushing the quarterback and preventing ball carriers from breaking through the second level of defense, we will continue to see the rise of this program.

That defense will certainly be put to the test early with Washington, Oklahoma, and Georgia on the docket in September non-conference play.