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2023 Kent State Golden Flashes Positional Previews: Defensive Backs

Kent State returns CBs Capone Blue and D.J. Miller, who will operate alongside Missouri transfer safety Jalani Williams in a new-look secondary.

NCAA Football: Kent State at Texas A&M Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

There is a recurring theme to these Kent State positional previews — the Golden Flashes are wholly a different squad this year.

The transfer portal affected the Golden Flashes more than any other MAC program this offseason, as a coaching change certainly contributed to some departures. Kent State lost two starters in its secondary to the portal and saw several major contributors graduate as well.

Last year, Kent State’s secondary ranked 118th in the country in passing yards allowed per game at 273 and the team yielded the third-highest completion percentage nationally at 69.9 percent. Similar numbers were observed in the 2021 season, but there was one major difference. In 2021, Kent State was one of the most turnover savvy teams in the FBS, gathering 16 interceptions in a single season. The Golden Flashes couldn’t rely on takeaways at the same rate in 2022 and only picked off seven passes. Of those seven interceptions, five were courtesy of the linebacker room and zero belonged to returning members of the secondary.

That being said, 2023 presents a golden opportunity for growth for this new-look unit under first-year defensive coordinator Dave Duggan. Secondary coach CJ Cox was retained by Kenni Burns from Sean Lewis’ staff, so there is some continuity in the defensive back room. Joining the staff this offseason is new safeties coach Kody Morgan, who previously served that role at North Dakota State.


UTEP v Oklahoma
D.J. Miller is Kent State’s most experienced cornerback returning for 2023, starting the majority of last season with the Golden Flashes.
Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Kent State’s transfer portal exodus was significant to say the least. While the offense was affected to a more lethal degree, the defense was not free of transfers. Cornerback Montre Miller was among the veteran Golden Flashes to change campuses this offseason, relocating south of the Ohio border to become a West Virginia Mountaineer. Miller provided two years of starter’s minutes to Kent State’s secondary, breaking up 16 passes and intercepting six across those seasons. That opens one starter spot expected to be occupied by Capone Blue.

Blue switched his jersey number from 12 to 1 this offseason — often an indication a player is taking on a more prominent role. Blue returns for his sixth year at Kent State, first appearing on the roster as part of Sean Lewis’ inaugural recruiting class. The San Diego native didn’t see significant on-field action until 2021, and he became a routine starter last year, manning the boundary against the likes Washington and Georgia. The cornerback only participated in five contests due to injury encounters, but he’ll enter this fall with a clean slate and high expectations as a projected starter.

The other projected starter also wields a single digit number now, as D.J. Miller exchanged his 35 into a 3 for his final season on campus. Miller arrived in Kent last fall after playing sparingly for Iowa State from 2019 to 2021. The former Cyclone instantly cracked the starting lineup and produced at a high level. He ranked fourth among all Golden Flashes in solo tackles and total tackles, deflecting four passes in the process. Miller will occupy the boundary on the opposite end of Blue — allowing Kent State to start two experienced corners in a program in the midst of transition.

Blue missing roughly half of last season with an injury allowed Alex Branch to familiarize himself with the college game. A true sophomore in 2022, Branch started each of the last five games at cornerback for the Golden Flashes, finishing the season with 34 tackles and three pass deflections. Expect Branch to see the field often this fall, especially when Kent State works in nickel and dime packages — especially against MAC East rivals with elite quarterbacks like Kurtis Rourke and Brett Gabbert.

Lavonte Gater, who transferred into the program from Maryland prior to last season, is also running it back under this new coaching staff. Gater suited up for seven games last year and tallied one tackle, but the cornerback accumulated vast experience at his prior stomping grounds. In 30 games with Maryland, Gater racked up 59 total tackles including 53 which were solo stops.

Kent State added two FBS transfer cornerbacks to the three seasoned starters. One is Naim Muhammad, who swapped places with Montre Miller by arriving from West Virginia in January. Muhammad only saw nine games in four years and totaled five tackles last season, but he’ll take advantage of a new school and coaching staff to amplify his playing time in 2023. The other transfer is Xavier Cokley, who started last September for FBS newcomer James Madison. Cokley limited himself to four games to preserve a redshirt, but the cornerback made the most of that action — recording five tackles en route to a 4-0 start.

But given the logjam of experienced cornerbacks with the addition of the transfers, there is a chance one of aforementioned players transitions to safety this offseason.

Other members contributing to this cornerback group include Terrell Miller, who registered two tackles in nine appearances last year. Additionally, junior Daeveon Buie, sophomore Jamir Gardner, and sophomore Tyler Bivens are returning roster members at the position.

True freshmen in the cornerback room include Joel Boamah, Freddie Lenix, and Damari Williams. Lenix and Boamah were among Kent State’s most coveted recruits in this class, both earning 3-star designation from several outlets.


NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Missouri
Missouri transfer Jalani Williams brings experience in the form of four starts to Kent State’s revamped safety room.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Kent State lost even a greater portion of its safety room, lacking both starters from the 2022 season. Nico Bolden, who reigned supreme in tackles with 102, is currently on the Carolina Panthers roster, while Jojo Evans (third in tackles) transferred to FIU. Additionally, Antwaine Richardson (38 tackles, 1.5 TFLs) departed from the program after utilizing his remaining eligibility. That forces the Golden Flashes to break in heaps of new talent at safety.

The most likely starter is Missouri transfer Jalani Williams. Williams played four seasons for the Tigers and made four starts in that timespan, including one in the regular season finale versus Arkansas last November. Due to preserving a redshirt and the COVID exemption year, Williams arrives with two years of eligibility — likely to be a fixture in the Kent State secondary for the start of the Kenni Burns era. The former SEC safety brings 43 tackles, one interception, and five deflections to a group in need of veteran leadership.

So who else might earning a starting spot, if Kent State doesn’t rotate a cornerback over? Bryce Sheppert is a graduate student who should see an uptick in snap count this year. Sheppert, in his first year after transferring from community college, started in the Golden Flashes’ win over eventual MAC East champion Ohio. In his lone start, he registered six solo tackles and tallied eight total. Sheppert also saw frequent utilization in the season finale versus Buffalo, where he contributed five tackles in another overtime victory over a bowl winner.

Josh Baka saw limited action as a true freshman last year, and the highly-touted Canadian prospect amassed three tackles for the Golden Flashes. Baka, in the midst of his second fall camp, is one name slated to get more involved in the defense this year.

One newcomer hoping for expanded playing time is Iowa graduate transfer Dallas Craddieth. The safety made recurring appearances on the Hawkeyes’ defense over the past four years and brings a résumé featuring three tackles to Kent State, hoping to build upon that in MAC country.

Tevin Tucker, an all-state honoree at Northwest Cabarrus High School in North Carolina, and Ohio natives CJ Young and Nick Cuva are the true freshman additions completing the 2023 safety room.