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2023 Kent State Golden Flashes Positional Previews: Defensive Front Seven

Kent State’s veteran linebacking corps includes budding star Khalib Johns, Mizzou transfer Devin Nicholson, and other established starters.

Kent State v Georgia Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

When comparing the 2022 version versus the 2023 version of each college football program, you’ll observe some of the greatest contrasts within the Kent State Golden Flashes.

Kent State brought in head coach Kenni Burns to replace Sean Lewis in December, and Burns overhauled the staff with new faces, including defensive coordinator Dave Duggan who had past stops including Southern Miss and Arkansas State.

While the offense returns zero starters from 2022, the defense still contains remnants of the Sean Lewis era. Improving the defense has been an emphasis for quite some time at Kent State and that will remain a focus for Duggan and the new-look Golden Flashes. Last year’s squad allowed 29.0 points per game, which was a substantial improvement from 2021 when 36.3 points were surrendered per contest.

Key stats relevant to the front seven include sacks, where Kent State finished in the top 50th percentile, tied for 61st in the FBS with 2.17 per game. The Golden Flashes fared similarly in the tackles for loss department as the country’s 63rd best unit in that regard. The run defense — albeit much improved from 2021 — yielded 160 yards per game to rank 81st nationally. However, only 3.9 yards were allowed per carry, and only 56 programs held opponents below 4.0 last season.

How applicable are these stats to the 2023 personnel? Well, Kent State’s defensive line returns one starter, but the linebacking corps retains a wealth of experience with a healthy mix of established transfers and incumbent talent. Below is a full preview of the Golden Flashes’ defensive line and linebacker depth, assuming the team sustains its 4-3 base which was run in years past.

Defensive Line

NCAA Football: MAC Championship-Kent State vs Northern Illinois
Defensive tackle CJ West spent the past two seasons as a starter for Kent State and possesses the most experience on the defensive line.
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The defensive line is headlined by CJ West, who returns for his third season as a full-time starter. The 6’3”, 315 pound defensive tackle was especially a force in 2021 when he registered 8.0 tackles for loss and a team-high 4.0 sacks for the MAC West champion Golden Flashes.

The other projected starting defensive tackle is Macyo Williams, who participated in 17 games across the last two seasons, despite not cracking the starting lineup. Williams watched his play time increase significantly in 2022, and he cashed in on increased reps with 13 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks — the latter which were all recorded in a rivalry win over Akron. Kent State will heavily rely on the West’s veteran presence to clog the interior and help facilitate pass rush lanes for Williams and the new starting defensive ends.

One of the candidates to start alongside these two at defensive end is Maryland transfer Tyler Baylor. The former Terrapin spent five seasons at his previous school, logging substantial experience in the form of 26 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and a sack. Despite checking into 37 games, Baylor still awaits his first start and arriving at Kent State during this transition season can provide that opportunity.

Mattheus Carroll is the other arrival from another FBS program to Kent State’s defensive line. Carroll played sparingly at Virginia Tech, collecting two assisted tackles in the 2021 season. The 6’5” defensive end only wields three games of experience, but the Golden Flashes hope the former Hokie can become a breakout candidate in his third season since graduating high school. The defensive line receives additional assistance from other levels of college football. Marcus Winfield arrives from the FCS level where he was a 2021 All-MEAC selection at Delaware State, and he’ll compete for playing time in his new home of Kent, OH.

Stephen Daley and Oliver Billotte are true sophomore defensive ends with 10 and 12 appearances last year, respectively. They should remain valuable pieces of the defensive line rotation, but with an uptick in production after shedding their freshman status. Daley produced four tackles and one TFL in 2022, while Billotte chipped in 11 and two.

Looking at the defensive tackle depth, Kent State acquired a handful of transfers which could become useful members of the rotation. Javier Duran arrives from FCS program Tarlenton State, where he racked up All-WAC honors in 2021. Mason Maddox traveled in the opposite direction of Sean Lewis this offseason, departing Colorado in order to transfer to Kent State. Maddox has yet to make an in-game appearance, but time is certainly on the true freshman’s side.

Other members of the defensive line include sophomore defensive end Antoine Campbell Jr. (who made two appearances in 2022), sophomore defensive tackle John Jackson, and a horde of true freshmen — Kaden Beatty, Bryce Sisak, Andrew Nesler, and Bryce Faulk. Beatty, a three-star recruit and state championship winner in Virginia, is widely regarded by recruiting outlets as Kent State’s top defensive line prospect for 2023.


NCAA Football: Georgia at Missouri
Devin Nicholson started the majority of games from 2019 to 2021 for Missouri, amassing 152 tackles in his time with the Tigers.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

In the midst of a dramatic offseason featuring massive turnover, Kent State’s linebacking corps emerged from the chaos as one of the stronger units in the MAC. Seven Golden Flashes linebackers have multiple games of FBS starting experience, which should bode well in 2023.

It appeared a star was breaking out in the linebacker room during non-conference play last September. Outside linebacker Khalib Johns rose into a full-time starting role and took full advantage, tallying 21 tackles, 7.0 tackles for loss, and 4.0 sacks in his first four games — against intense competition which included Washington, Oklahoma, and Georgia. However, Johns’ potential All-MAC campaign came to a sudden halt when suffering a season-ending injury. Johns is set to return to the lineup for his seventh career start in Kent State’s Thursday night opener against UCF on Aug. 31, looking to build on his success from 2022 non-conference play.

Khali Saunders likely holds down the fort at the middle linebacker spot after starting the final seven contests there last season. Saunders, who transferred in from Purdue prior to 2022, excelled in his first year playing major minutes. He ranked fifth on the team with 55 tackles, and particularly shined in the month of November. In his last three outings, Saunders posted a collective 25 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss, and he’ll aim to use that as a springboard into 2023.

After Saunders’ instantly flourished following his transfer, Kent State consulted the portal to land another linebacker. Devin Nicholson arrives from Missouri and he is one of the most experienced transfers joining the MAC this season. Nicholson amassed 152 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks in four seasons with the Tigers, additionally forcing three fumbles and recording one interception. Nicholson moved into a starting gig toward the end of 2019 and sustained it through the 2021 season. He attained double-digit tackles on three occasions, reaching a personal best of 13 on two occasions. The former SEC starter should instantly be a force in Kent State’s lineup, operating in the outside linebacker position opposite of Johns.

Kent State bolstered depth through the portal with one other FBS addition in Nick Giacolone. The former New Mexico State linebacker was a mainstay in the Aggies’ 2021 lineup, racking up 54 tackles, complemented by one interception, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. Giacolone likely enters as a backup outside linebacker, but he’ll earn plenty of in-game reps, along with seasoned incumbents like CJ Harris and Matt Harmon.

CJ Harris stepped into a starting outside linebacker role when Johns went down for the season and should be a highly-utilized contributor, even if Johns and Nicholson end up claiming the starting spots. Harris, who has 14 starts (six at Arkansas State, eight at Kent State) under his belt, produced 35 tackles last year and demonstrated his coverage skills with five pass breakups and a team-high two interceptions.

Harmon, who started 11 games and accumulated 29 tackles during Kent State’s 2021 MAC West title season, is another established member of this veteran linebacking corps. He reverted to a bench role last season which coincided with Saunders’ transfer into the program, but should remain a valuable part of the rotation again this year.

The seventh linebacker with multiple starts is Rocco Nicholl, who cracked the lineup for the Toledo and Eastern Michigan games as a true freshman. Nicholl upgrades to sophomore status this year with a résumé featuring eight tackles and two tackles for loss.

Other linebackers which saw the field on a routine basis in 2022 included inside linebacker Shane Slattery, who started one game versus Ohio and posted 14 tackles in seven outings. Outside linebacker Luke Murphy suited up in 11 contests and contributed 13 tackles. Both Slattery and Murphy prepare to launch their junior seasons this fall. Sophomore Chase Fortkamp, who is usually seen on special teams, and true freshman Sayed Abuhamdeh complete the remainder of an experienced linebacker room.