Kent State is becoming more fun and talented. That’s enough for now
Still a long way to go, as always. I say something similar in virtually every Kent State preview: this is a really hard job. There are quite a few — UTEP, New Mexico State, ULM, UL-Lafayette, Eastern Michigan, UConn, UMass, etc. — but Kent State has appeared to be the hardest. In 57 years of top-division football, the Golden Flashes have been ranked in parts of two seasons — they peaked at 19th in 1973 and 18th in 2012 — and finished with a winning record just nine times. Worse yet, six of those happened more than 40 years ago. If you’re my age or younger, their 6-5 campaign under Dean Pees in 2001 was one of their shining moments. With a job like this, avoiding malaise is hard. In that regard, their choice to replace Paul Haynes in 2018 was inspired. A year into his tenure in Hard Job, Ohio, we don’t know if former Syracuse offensive co-coordinator Sean Lewis is going to succeed. But they hired the most energetic guy possible, and he might be moving the needle. Here’s what I said about Lewis this time last year: Coaching hires are a crap shoot. The success of the search and the success of the hire are often at odds — Pete Carroll famously being USC’s sixth choice in 2000 is the shining example. And while hiring the co-OC of a team that went 8-16 over the last two years isn’t going to move the needle, Lewis has a chance. He hired some hungry assistants, and on short notice they signed an improbably good recruiting class. Per the 247Sports Composite, their 2018 haul ranked fifth in the MAC — their highest mark since the 2009 class that featured quite a few 2012 difference-makers — and included twice as many three-star prospects (eight) as the previous two classes combined (four). Recruiting is only the first piece of the puzzle, but Lewis provided fans with hope that hadn’t existed in a while. Hope won’t last forever, but Lewis is still recruiting. His first full class featured 15 more three-star prospects and finished fourth in the MAC, despite a debut season that was about as rocky as you would imagine. After going 2-10 and ranking 126th in S&P+ in Haynes’ final season, the Golden Flashes went 2-10 and ranked 124th in 2018. I typically commend a coach who comes into a bad situation and holds the fort at first, and Lewis did that, but it was going to be hard to do worse than Haynes. Still, Lewis installed a massive change on offense — Kent was ninth in adjusted pace and 12th in solo tackles created after ranking a slow 120th and 90th, respectively, the year before. The offense improved its output by more than 11 points per game (a lot of that tempo-based, but still), and the Flashes scored 23 or more points seven times, as many as the two previous seasons combined. The defense was a nightmare and perhaps put into binds by an offense going three-and-out at mach speed. Overall, the down moments were as down as ever. Still, Kent was a more entertaining team, and they played in more close games — five games against FBS competition were decided by one possession, again as many as the previous two seasons combined. And now they return about as much production as anyone in the country. Good times ahead? “Good” could mean 4-8. But Lewis is putting together a team that is fun and as talented as most of its MAC peers. That’s a lot in and of itself. Offense Woody Barrett’s path to Kent was a unique one. A four-star prospect from Orlando, Barrett signed with Auburn and redshirted for a year, then transferred to Copiah-Lincoln Community College in summer 2017. He completed only 50 percent of his passes that fall but rushed for nearly 500 yards in nine games, and he signed to play the role of Eric Dungey for Lewis. (Dungey, Syracuse’s quarterback, added a physical, rushing element that made the offense different from some of Dino Babers’ previous units.) Barrett held up his end on the rushing side. Not including sacks, he averaged about 10 rushes and 61 yards per game. Running backs Jo-El Shaw and Justin Rankin threw in 21 combined carries and 103 yards per game, and 50 percent of Kent’s non-sack rushes gained at least four yards, an opportunity rate that ranked 36th in FBS. That was especially impressive considering the lack of continuity up front — seven linemen started at least five games, and only two (center Nate Warnock and guard Julian Sams) started all 12. Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports Woody BarrettThis was a pass-first offense, though. And the passing didn’t go too well. Barrett did complete nearly 59 percent of his passes but averaged only 9.8 yards per completion and took far too many sacks (112th in sack rate). Kent State ranked 72nd in rushing marginal efficiency but 123rd in passing marginal efficiency, bad for an offense that ran the ball just 52 percent of the time on standard downs (110th). Screens were a huge part of Kent’s game, perhaps more than anyone else in the MAC. Slot receiver Mike Carrigan turned into more of a downfield threat, going from 11.9 yards per catch through seven games to 15.8 over the last five, but the standard-downs attack was built around quick hitches and screens to Carrigan, freshman Isaiah McKoy, and junior Antwan Dixon. They didn’t really go anywhere. Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports Mike CarriganScreens will continue to be a major piece, and it would help if the blocking on the outside was better. Each of last year’s top five receivers are back, but they average 5’10, 176, which suggests there could be opportunity for bigger options like redshirt freshmen Lon’kevious McFadden (6’4, 201), Javaughn Williams (6’3, 185), or Mark Williams (6’4, 228). McFadden got action in three late-season games, caught six of eight passes, and enjoyed a 60-yard reception against Toledo. Just about everybody’s back. Rankin and right tackle Mike Marinelli depart, but barring transfers in the spring, that’s about it. This offense could step forward simply based on familiarity with the system, but we’ll see how much Barrett can improve at throwing. Defense For years, you could count on two things with Kent State football: a defense that could hold its own for a while and an offense that could not. In 2018, the Flashes ranked 115th in Off. S&P+, somehow their best ranking in five years. Of course, the defense plummeted to 121st in Def. S&P+, its first time below 94th in 10 years. When you’ve got an inefficient offense operating at a high tempo, your defense is going to get quite the stress test. The Flashes’ D did not pass that test. Coordinator Tom Kaufman ran a solid defense at Chattanooga before he came with Lewis to Kent. His Mocs defenses were based around big-play prevention, but there was little containment for the Golden Flashes in 2018, particularly against the run — they ranked 119th in marginal explosiveness and 124th in rushing marginal explosiveness. The Flashes were solid in the red zone, allowing 4.5 points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the defense’s 40), 57th in FBS. But that’s only going to mean so much when you’re giving opponents red zone chances on every drive. Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images Matt Bahr (6)There’s continuity in the back. Four of last year’s top five linebackers return, as do three of the top four safeties and two of three cornerbacks. The Flashes didn’t have that many disruptive players, but most return, led by safety Keith Sherald Jr. (5.5 tackles for loss, six passes defensed, two forced fumbles) and linebacker Matt Bahr (7.5 TFLs, three passes defensed). Kent also boasts five three-star true and redshirt freshmen in the secondary; that should become a strength. The line is undergoing a rebuild, and that might not be a bad thing. Last year’s top three ends are gone, but they only combined for seven tackles for loss. Tackle Kalil Morris (six TFLs) is gone, too, but Kaufman has to be hoping that two three-star JUCO ends — Sekou Diaby and Jabbar Price — and some youngsters can team with senior tackles Theo Majette and Dominic Hill to either make a few more plays up front, or at least do a better job of keeping blockers off of the linebackers. Probably can’t get worse, anyway. Special Teams Kent State has been the wrong kind of consistent in special teams — the Golden Flashes have ranked between 90th and 100th in Special Teams S&P+ for five of the last six years (they were 92nd in 2018). Place-kicker Matthew Trickett was automatic on shorter kicks as a freshman (33-for-34 on PATs, 13-for-14 on FGs under 40 yards), but neither he nor Derek Adams could do anything to prevent long punt returns. Kent ranked 126th in punt efficiency — Adams’ punts resulted an average return of 13.6 yards, and while Trickett booted more fair catches, he also gave up 16 yards per return. Theoretically, this is less costly if Kent is punting less, but it’s still in need of drastic improvement. The return game is mostly starting over, though Jamal Parker has shown upside in this regard. 2019 outlook 2019 Schedule & Projection Factors Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability 29-Aug at Arizona State 49 -22.1 10% 7-Sep Kennesaw State NR 8.4 69% 14-Sep at Auburn 8 -38.8 1% 5-Oct at Wisconsin 11 -36.3 2% TBD Ball State 110 1.7 54% TBD Bowling Green 123 8.2 68% TBD Buffalo 97 -4.2 40% TBD Miami (Ohio) 93 -6.3 36% TBD at Akron 124 3.7 58% TBD at Eastern Michigan 96 -9.8 29% TBD at Ohio 82 -14.3 20% TBD at Toledo 78 -15.0 19% Projected S&P+ Rk 111 Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 99 / 115 Projected wins 4.1 Five-Year S&P+ Rk -15.6 (123) 2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 105 2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -1 / -0.2 2018 TO Luck/Game -0.3 Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 79% (86%, 73%) 2018 Second-order wins (difference) 2.9 (-0.9) Lewis coached for six years under Babers, so he knows about taking his time. Babers went 15-11 in his first seasons at Eastern Illinois and BGSU, then went 22-5 in his second years. At Syracuse, it took two 4-8 campaigns to get the pieces before 2018’s 10-3 breakthrough. It’s going to take at least two foundation-laying years here, but that’s fine. Lewis and his staff are young and hungry, and that’ll carry them for a while. The schedule is daunting. The Flashes play at — gulp — Arizona State, Auburn, and Wisconsin in non-conference play (and their other non-con is against burgeoning FCS power Kennesaw State), then have to play at Ohio and Toledo. There are winnable games, but five nearly guaranteed losses means the win ceiling is probably four or five, if they win a majority of their close games. Of course, when you haven’t won more than three games in a season since 2013, four doesn’t sound too bad. The Flashes had more competitive moments last fall than they had in a while, and they were more fun, too. Expect both of those trends to continue. Offensive continuity suggests good things, and an increasingly talented secondary should hold its own, too. The weaknesses are obvious, but there are more strengths here than there have been in a while. Team preview stats All 2019 preview data to date.