The 2023 offseason for the Kent State Golden Flashes was a chaotic whirlwind.
It all started the first week of December when head coach Sean Lewis shockingly stepped down from his head coaching role in favor of an offensive coordinator gig at Colorado. Suddenly, a mass exodus of transfers followed. Zero offensive starters remained.
Then, head coach Kenni Burns was hired and the program recouped some of its losses through the transfer portal. Burns then built nearly an entire staff from the ground up, and come Sept. 1, he’s ready to trot out a refurbished Golden Flashes team.
When Kent State kicks off its 2023 in Orlando against UCF, it will be the most unrecognizable group in the MAC when compared to its 2022 iteration. But the Golden Flashes successfully built from square one in the Lewis era, and now, they can only hope to do it again under a new regime.
Additions on the field
By losing an offensive guru in head coach Sean Lewis, as well as offensive coordinator Andrew Sowder, it’s no surprise Kent State lost the bulk of that unit this offseason. But it’s not commonplace in college football to replace all 11 starters from one year to the next, and that’s what the Golden Flashes must do in 2023.
Starting quarterback Collin Schlee flipped to UCLA this offseason, opening the quarterback spot for incumbent backup Devin Kargman. However, to compete with Kargman, Kent State brought in former Kansas State quarterback Jaren Lewis from the transfer portal. Lewis’ only substantial on-field action transpired in September 2021 against Oklahoma State, where he completed 10-of-19 passes for 148 yards with one touchdown and interception apiece. Former Purdue quarterback Michael Alaimo is another transfer in the mix hoping to replace Schlee. Alaimo threw 18 passes last season for the Boilermakers including 11 in the Citrus Bowl — acting as the second-string of the three Purdue quarterbacks to participate in that contest. He completed four attempts with one touchdown and one interception in the 63-7 loss to LSU.
Not only will the Golden Flashes need to replicate Schlee’s passing ability, but the All-MAC quarterback was a gifted runner as well. In fact, Kent State lost each of its top three rushers, which include Schlee and running backs Marquez Cooper and Bryan Bradford. But the Golden Flashes restocked nicely at this position with transfer Ky Thomas. Thomas had a brief stop at Kansas in 2022 after originally launching his collegiate career in Minnesota. It was in Minneapolis under the direction of Kenni Burns where Thomas posted an 824-yard campaign on an average of 5.0 yards per carry, complemented with six rushing touchdowns.
Ky Thomas isn’t Kent State’s only veteran running back addition donning ‘Thomas’ on his back. Jaylen Thomas spent four seasons at Colorado State, accumulating 448 rushing yards and five touchdowns in a Rams uniform before relocating to the midwest for his redshirt senior season.
The wide receiver room desperately needed veteran transfer talent after severe departures, including a pair of First Team All-MAC selections. Isaiah Batton is the only FBS transfer with in-game experience at the position, but the former Fresno State receiver has yet to record a stat in his career. Kent State also added intra-conference transfer Ali Fisher from Buffalo, who is hoping for his first crack at collegiate playing time this season. Treymon Echols also joins the group after a successful junior college stint at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas.
The offensive line took a severe hit with three departing transfers and two graduates among the 2022 starters. The most notable newcomer to this position group is former Temple lineman Jimto Obidegwu, who started one game at guard and one game at tackle in two seasons with the Owls. His experience manning both the interior and exterior components of the line should provide Kent State some options when restructuring the new front five. Tristan Bittner also enters the group after two seasons at Marshall, but he has yet to register a snap at the FBS level.
Kent State’s defense retains some familiar personnel to work with — unlike the offense — starting with the foundation of returning contributors CJ West and Khalib Johns. But there were plenty of senior departures from the defensive line and linebackers, combined with outgoing transfers in the secondary.
The most experienced FBS transfer brought in to bolster defensive line depth was Tyler Baylor. The Maryland transfer debuted his college career in 2019 and collected 26 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and a sack in a lengthy tenure with the Terrapins. Additionally, Mattheus Carroll arrives from Virginia Tech. Carroll didn’t make an appearance in the 2022 season, but the 6’5”, 244 pound defensive end saw action in three games in 2021, registering a pair of tackles for the Hokies. Rounding out FBS d-line transfers is Mason Maddox, who moved in the opposite direction of Sean Lewis this offseason. The Colorado transfer is a 6’3”, 290 pound defensive tackle looking to log his first in-game reps.
The Golden Flashes bolstered d-line depth with FCS talent, as 2021 All-MEAC defensive end Marcus Winfield joins the program after starting at Delaware State.
At linebacker, Kent State received its most impressive haul from the portal, in terms of experience. Former Mizzou linebacker Devin Nicholson enters MAC country with 152 tackles under his belt across four seasons with the Tigers, rounding out his career stat-line with nine tackles for loss and three sacks. Nicholson served the 2021 season as Mizzou’s primary starting middle linebacker and has totaled double-digit tackles in three separate games. Since last year’s leading tackler from the linebacker position Marvin Pierre graduated from the program, Nicholson can slide into that starting vacancy and immediately contribute in his final year of eligibility.
Nick Giacolone hails from New Mexico State and also provides ample experience to the linebacker corps. Giacolone brings 80 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, one interception, and two fumble recoveries to the Kent State defense, with the bulk of his production stemming from the 2021 campaign.
The secondary saw key pieces from 2022 scatter all across the country with landing spots such as Fresno State, FIU, and West Virginia. But transfer portal taketh, transfer portal giveth, and Kent State was very active in the market for defensive backs. While West Virginia landed longtime starting cornerback Montre Miller, the Golden Flashes received a Mountaineer in exchange in Naim Muhammad. Muhammad is a grad transfer with seldom playing experience, churning out just seven tackles from 2019 to 2022. But perhaps the cornerback can expand upon his playing time with a fresh slate, a new coaching staff, and few returning pieces in the secondary. Another cornerback joining Muhammad in Kent this offseason is Xavier Cokley, who contributed five tackles in 2022 for FBS upstart James Madison.
Kent State also renovated its new defensive backfield with Big Ten transfers Lem Watley-Neely and Dallas Craddieth. Watley-Neely comes from Indiana as a redshirt junior with 13 games of experience under his belt. The former Hoosier is credited with nine career tackles and a pass deflection and will be another cornerback looking to amplify his playing time in Kent. Meanwhile, Craddieth arrives from Iowa where he produced three tackles in two seasons at safety. With Kent State losing safeties such as Antwaine Richardson, Nico Bolden, and JoJo Evans, Craddieth should also expect an uptick in production when donning the navy blue and gold.
Kent State finished last in MAC recruiting class rankings, according to 247Sports, and there was plenty of separation from Bowling Green’s next-to-last ranked class. Overall, the Golden Flashes fielded the 121st best recruiting class, landing six three-star recruits in the process.
Dash Dorsey was one of Kent State’s more highly-touted offensive recruits. Labeled as an “athlete” in the recruiting cycle, the versatile Dorsey will line up at receiver for the Golden Flashes and could see immediate playing time in an offense which lost the likes of Dante Cephas, Devontez Walker, and Ja’Shaun Poke.
On defense, one of the Golden Flashes’ three-star adds was Joel Boamah. The 6’0” New Jersey native earned two all-conference honors at defensive back at Hudson Catholic before committing to Kent State.
Other true freshmen on the roster include running back Dominique Hill, wide receiver Jahzae Kimbrough, tight end Peyton Faulkner, linebacker Sayed Abuhamdeh, long snapper Ethan Mouyeos, defensive backs Tevin Tucker, CJ Young, Freddie Lenix, and Damari Williams, defensive linemen Kaden Beatty, and Bryce Faulk, and a horde of offensive linemen — Braylon Smith, Cecil Wilson, Evan Cooke, and Andrew Page.
Additions on the sideline
Sean Lewis coached four full seasons at Kent State, as well as a pandemic-abbreviated 2020, and finished with an overall record of 24-31 — five wins short of the program’s winningest coach. It was a historic tenure, as Lewis led Kent State to a 2019 Frisco Bowl victory over Utah State, signaling the first bowl win since the inception of Golden Flashes football. Kent State participated in one conference championship and one other bowl during Lewis’ tenure — making him the only Golden Flashes coach to qualify for multiple bowl games.
But when Lewis departed for the Colorado offensive coordinator job in December, Kent State was tasked with replacing one of the most prosperous stretches in program history. Lewis’ successor was selected to be Kenni Burns, who most recently operated as an associate head coach and running backs coach at Minnesota. Burns conducted top 30 rushing attacks in each of the last two seasons with the Golden Gophers and saw his bellcow back Mohamed Ibrahim attain 1,000 yards three times.
Leading the 2023 Golden Flashes will be Burns’ first stab at a head coaching gig at any level. Prior to his five-year stint at Minnesota, he worked as Western Michigan’s running back coach during the 2016 Cotton Bowl season and as a wide receivers coach for Wyoming in 2014.
Burns didn’t completely revamp his staff when arriving at Kent. He retained assistant Matt Johnson (the former Bowling Green quarterback) and promoted him to an offensive coordinator role. He also kept Kent State’s longest tenured coach Colin Ferrell — who serves as an assistant head coach in addition to his duties conducting the defensive line. Cornerbacks coach CJ Cox also maintained his position during the transition from Lewis to Burns.
New additions to Burns’ staff include co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Matt Limegrover, a veteran o-line coach who last worked on Arkansas State’s staff in 2021 and 2022. Rounding out the offensive assistants, Burns brought in Minnesota colleague Nick Faus to coach the receivers, former Charlotte offensive coordinator Mark Carney for the tight end room, and Mark Watson from Southern Illinois of the FCS to lead the running backs.
Guiding the defense is first-year defensive coordinator Dave Duggan, who brings almost 40 years of coaching experience to a young staff. Kent State’s third defensive coordinator in three years, Duggan arrives after most recently serving as Troy’s director of recruiting. Duggan’s most recent defensive coordinator role transpired in 2019 and 2020 at Arkansas State, and the seasoned coach also held DC positions with Southern Miss and with several NFL Europe squads throughout the 2000s.
Duggan’s new defensive assistants include Kody Morgan and CJ Robbins. Morgan is the safeties coach and special teams coordinator, and he operated in both roles at his prior stop of North Dakota State. Robbins is the rush ends coach and he hails from a similar region as Morgan, having most recently coached outside linebackers at South Dakota.
From the roster personnel to the coaching staff, the 2023 Kent State Golden Flashes are one of college football’s most revamped teams, and Burns will attempt to sustain their recent track record of success from the get-go.