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2023 Kent State Golden Flashes Positional Previews: Offensive Skill Positions

Kent State loses all 11 starters on offense. So who are the candidates to replace those starters at the skill positions?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 16 Eastern Michigan at Kent State Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Throw out every stat you know about Kent State’s offense from last year, because none of it applies this fall.

It’s a completely new era of Golden Flashes football, particularly on offense. When fifth-year head coach Sean Lewis departed for the Colorado offensive coordinator gig last December, it created a massive domino effect which consumed the majority of the 2022 coaching staff and the key contributors on the roster.

What was left? Zero returning offensive starters. Not a single primary starter from 2022 remains rostered. Kent State must start from scratch under first-year head coach Kenni Burns. But there are still some remnants of last year’s personnel, including offensive coordinator Matt Johnson. The former Bowling Green quarterback worked with the running backs last season, but an offensive coordinator vacancy opened when Andrew Sowder departed for an assistant job at Minnesota. First-year offensive line coach Matt Limegrover arrived from Arkansas State and will also operate in a co-offensive coordinator role, assisting Johnson in that regard.

Kent State ran one of the most high-speed offenses in the country under Lewis, the “Flash Fast” offense, which involved quick decision-making, heavy RPO utilization, and wide receivers fully spread out from boundary to boundary. With new personnel to work with, it’s unclear if Burns plans to retain any of these concepts when constructing his new offense in the MAC.

Burns, Johnson, and Limegrover will be tasked with a significant rebuild, but we recently saw Sean Lewis inherit an offense which ranked 129th in scoring and turn it into the No. 1 scoring unit in the country in a 3-year timespan. With many backups rising into first-time starting roles and inexperienced transfers on lookout for increased playing time, here’s what the new-look Kent State offense has in store for 2023:


NCAA Football: Kansas State at Oklahoma State
Jaren Lewis is one of two FBS transfers Kent State brought in this offseason to compete with Devin Kargman and Tommy Ulatowski.
Sarah Phipps-USA TODAY Sports

Kent State only enjoyed one year of the Collin Schlee experience at quarterback, and when Schlee was healthy, the offense sustained some of its success from the Dustin Crum era. The Third Team All-MAC selection fired for 2,109 yards, 13 aerial touchdowns, and five interceptions while proving his dual-threat nature with 489 rushing yards and four touchdowns in the ground game. Schlee departed west for UCLA, where he is currently fighting true freshman Dante Moore and incumbent backup Ethan Garbers for a starting job.

That leaves Devin Kargman as the most experienced quarterback for Kent State. As a true freshman, Kargman started one contest last season in the Wagon Wheel victory over Akron, completing 14-of-26 passes for 213 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Kargman was then thrust into a relief quarterback role when Schlee suffered an injury against Eastern Michigan, and the New Jersey native finished 7-of-19 that game. Another Schlee injury caused Kargman to see the field in the season finale, where he completed 5-of-18 passes against Buffalo.

Kargman ended up throwing for a 2022 total of 348 yards, three touchdowns, and three interceptions on a 41.4 percent completion rate, but with his true freshman season in the rearview and more first team reps in practice, a sharp improvement could be witnessed in 2023.

In the season finale, Kargman was subbed out for Tommy Ulatowski, who remains on the roster as a true sophomore. Ulatowski connected on 6-of-11 passing attempts in the season finale, guiding a 14-point fourth quarter comeback and delivering the game-winning touchdown strike to Devontez Walker in overtime. That impressive rally is in the only sample size we’ve seen of Ulatowski running the offense, and it seems likely he’d be included in candidacy for the 2023 starting quarterback role.

Kent State also brought in two FBS transfers to compete alongside the incumbent quarterbacks this fall camp. Jaren Lewis comes from Kansas State, where he appeared in four contests in 2021, completing 12-of-23 passes for 154 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. The majority of those reps occurred in a 31-20 loss to Oklahoma State where Lewis checked in for Will Howard to create a spark for the Wildcats.

The other transfer is Michael Alaimo, who was one of three Purdue quarterbacks to take a swing at LSU in a 63-7 Citrus Bowl annihilation. Alaimo threw the only Boilermaker touchdown of the contest, hitting TJ Sheffield on a 16-yard strike to sweeten a 4-of-11 stat-line that afternoon.

Senior Griffin Brewster and true freshman Dru DeShields are the other two quarterbacks on the roster, but Kent State’s preseason quarterback battle could be a 4-way competition between the four names listed above — all of which have some, albeit limited, in-game experience. In the Sean Lewis era, the Golden Flashes preferred quarterbacks like Crum and Schlee who could run the zone read to a T, but the jury remains out on the running capabilities of the QBs on the roster, simply due to limited sample size.

Running back

NCAA Football: Guaranteed Rate Bowl-Minnesota at West Virginia
Ky Thomas won Offensive MVP honors of the 2021 Guaranteed Rate Bowl with Minnesota, with Kenni Burns serving as his running backs coach.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

You’ll notice a common theme on Kent State’s offense. Last year, there was an All-MAC skill position player, and this fall, he has since transferred to another program. That is the case at running back where First Team All-MAC honoree Marquez Cooper relocated to Ball State after posting 1,331 rushing yards (second in MAC) and 13 touchdowns for the Golden Flashes. It was Cooper’s second time eclipsing 1,200 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in a season for Kent State, and the team must break in a new lead back for 2023.

Kent State’s bruising secondary back Bryan Bradford, who stood 6’0”, 251 pounds, also entered the transfer portal this offseason but has yet to find a landing spot. Still, he is not expected to appear on the roster in 2023.

That leaves several up-for-grabs vacancies in the running back room. Luckily for the Golden Flashes, they obtained some experienced playmakers from the transfer portal to fill the voids left behind. One of those experienced running backs is Ky Thomas, who had previous stops at Minnesota (with Kenni Burns as his running backs coach) and Kansas.

Thomas darted for 826 rushing yards and six touchdowns for the Golden Gophers in 2021, earning ample playing time due to a season-ending injury from starter Mohamed Ibrahim. Thomas wrapped up his time at Minnesota with a 144-yard performance in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, winning Offensive MVP honors in the aftermath. At Kansas, his repetitions decreased and he posted 162 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns for the winningest Jayhawks team since 2008 — although he contributed two touchdowns (one rushing, one receiving) in the thrilling Liberty Bowl shootout versus Arkansas. Given the success of his past endeavors, namely at Minnesota, Thomas is likely the top candidate to replace Cooper as Kent State’s workhorse back.

Another Thomas that Kent State secured from the transfer portal is Jaylen Thomas from Colorado State. Jaylen Thomas rushed for 222 yards in 2019, 180 in 2021, and 46 in 2022. Over that span, he also dabbled in the receiving facet of the game with 30 receptions and 235 yards. The former Ram is an ideal replacement for the Bradford role and should be prominently featured in this offense of rotating parts.

Kent State also adds two incumbent running backs to the main rotation, both which have seen the field a substantial amount of times. Gavin Garcia ranked fourth on the team (and first among returning players) in rushing last season, racking up 211 yards on an impressive 6.0 yards per carry. Additionally, the program welcomes back its speedy 5’9” tailback Xavier Williams, a key cog to the 2021 MAC East division title run. That season, Williams posted 812 rushing yards and three touchdowns — most notably gunning for 168 yards in the regular season finale against Miami (OH). Williams’ whereabouts were unknown last season, but if he is able to see the field in 2023, Kent State is fairly deep with experience in a renovated running back room.

And if Kent State wants to add any true freshmen to the mix, it has several options at its disposal including Marques Hicks from New Jersey, Curtis Douglas from Florida, and Dominique Hill from Texas.

Wide receiver

NCAA Football: Kent State at Texas A&M
Kent State must operate without two First Team All-MAC wide receivers, including Dante Cephas, who has the second-best receiving season in program history (1,240 yards in 2021).
Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

The most dominant receiving duo in the MAC is no more. Kent State attained two First Team All-MAC selections at wide receiver last year, but Dante Cephas (744 yards, 3 touchdowns) transferred to Penn State and Devontez Walker (921 yards, 11 touchdowns) transferred to North Carolina. Even the established tertiary receiver Ja’Shaun Poke (362 yards, 1 touchdowns) bolted for West Virginia, leaving the receiving room in new hands.

However, Kent State didn’t replace the departed talent with seasoned veterans from the portal, so the team must primarily rely on internal talent to lead the way.

Trell Harris gathered the most receiving yards in 2022 among the returning players, picking up 136 yards and a touchdown on 13 receptions. Harris concluded his true freshman season with his strongest showing to date and that 5-reception, 52-yard performance against Buffalo looks like a solid springboard into a breakout sophomore campaign.

Luke Floriea is another reserve receiver from 2022 poised to enter a starting role this season. Floriea snagged four receptions last season with an appearance in all 12 contests, and he hauled in 10 catches the year prior. Now suiting up in a No. 0 uniform, Floriea should become one of the most essential pieces of this offense.

Kent State also employs a slew of incumbent receivers looking to make their first catch in a Golden Flashes uniform including Chrishon McCray, J.B. Awolowo (a frequent contributor on special teams), and Jameel Gardner Jr. Considering Devontez Walker transformed from a seldom-utilized receiver with five receptions in 2021 to a First Team All-MAC selection in 2022, the potential to find hidden gems in this group certainly exists.

Transfer receivers joining this crew include Isaiah Batton from Fresno State who has two in-game appearances without recording a statistic and Ali Fisher from Buffalo who has yet to log his first collegiate snap on offense. Jack Coulson arrives from Holy Cross of the FCS where he generated two receptions, while Treymon Echols is a JUCO transfer from Hutchinson Community College, responsible or leading his school to the NJCAA national championship game.

Rounding out the newcomers are the true freshmen — Dash Dorsey, Jahzae Kimbrough, and Jared Kelley. Given the lack of experience in the receiving corps, extended playing time for multiple true freshmen is on the table in year one of the Kenni Burns era.

Tight End

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 20 Kent State at Akron
Hayden Junker (87) is the top candidate to emerge as Kent State’s new starting tight end for 2023.

This is the one position where Kent State didn’t lose its starter to the transfer portal. Instead, Kris Leach is testing the waters of the NFL after a brief stint with the Denver Broncos in the spring. Tight end usage wasn’t too common in the Flash Fast offense, and Leach led all tight ends with eight receptions and 94 yards in 2022.

Kent State didn’t make any transfer portal acquisitions at this position from the FBS, FCS, or community college levels, so the Flashes will rely on the pieces they return and one true freshman.

The likely starter is Hayden Junker, who has been used a rotation piece — primarily on blocking plays — over the past two seasons. Junker is the only tight end on the roster with a reception to his name, as he corralled a 6-yard touchdown in the 2021 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl against Wyoming.

Justin Holmes follows Junker as a likely second option, having appeared in nine of Kent State’s 12 games last fall. Holmes has yet to secure a reception, but the opportunities should increase as he slides up a spot on the depth chart.

Tyler Dostin and Mohammed Hazime are the two sophomore tight ends yet to register on-field action at Kent State, and the tight end room is rounded out by the lone true freshman Peyton Faulkner. Faulkner, a Pittsburgh native, was ranked the third-highest tight end recruit in Pennsylvania last year and was a first team all-conference selection on a state title game qualifier.