by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

HC Darrell Hazell says his Kent State side has the talent to compete in the MAC East. That’s all fine coach-speak, but the media still picked the Golden Flashes to finish fourth in the division this season. However, playing Devil’s advocate, on paper, there is a line of logic that leads one to believe Hazell is right and the press is wrong.

Certainly, Kent’s defense figures to be one of the very best in the MAC. That platoon returns nine starters from a unit that ranked first or second in the conference in five defensive categories. Five projected starters have received all-league mention during their careers, led by two-time first team all-league DE Roosevelt Nix (right), who ranked third in the MAC in tackles-for-loss despite playing through a turf toe injury that slowed him last season after garnering the Defensive Player-of-the-Year title as a frosh in 2010. Linebackers Luke Batton (missed spring game with injury, but should be ready) and C.J. Malauulu combined for 185 tackles and were both named to the all league teams. A pair of defensive backs are all league players. Jr. safety Luke Wollett placed on the third team a year ago and fifth-year sr. CB Norman Wolfe was a second-team selection in 2010 when he had 75 tackles and five interceptions. Wolfe returns to his starting slot after sitting out last season due to academic ineligibility.

The Flash defense held opponents to 326 total yards per game, good for 21st in the country, and only gave up 3.5 ypc, well below the collegiate average of 4.2. The “D” forced 31 turnovers, helping Kent rank seventh in the nation in turnover ratio. The last two seasons the Golden Flash stop unit has held foes to a remarkable 4.8 and 4.4 yards per play, so this side of the ball is well-prepared to stop conference foes.

The offense was at the opposite end of the spectrum last season, as Hazell’s schemes seemed to completely escape QB Spencer Keith (left) in the first half of the year, when the attack was held to 200 yards or fewer in five of the first six games while logging a 1-5 SU and pointspread mark. Through seven games in 2011, o.c. Brian Rock was guiding the nation’s 120th-ranked offense. Then the lights started to go on for Arkansas native Keith, who threw for 202 ypg, completing 59% with 8 TD passes and no interceptions in leading his team to a 4-1 SU and pointspread run to end the season.

Keith is going to be pushed for his job this fall, as California juco David Fisher transferred in time to participate in spring drills and showed he’s a serious contender for the No. 1 spot by tossing a couple of TD passes in the spring game. Only two of the top six pass catchers return, but it’s tough to say they’ll be missed (let’s just say none of the departed players were drafted into the NFL). The ground game, which generated 2.9 ypc against TGS-rated teams, could be better if the offensive line can improve. The Flash “Thunder” and “Lightning” attack of bruising 250-lb. soph Trayion Durham (led team with 630 YR; reportedly maturing quickly) and speedy junior Dri Archer (one of the fastest players in the league but was academically ineligible LY) figures to give Rock some options. Archer might also be part of the solution at receiver, as he’s been penciled in as a slot starter as well as the second-choice running back. According to Hazell, “Dri...he’s a difference maker. Very explosive.”

The whole offense keys on the continued development of the offensive line. Four returning starters include three seniors led by second-team all-MAC left tackle Brian Winters, but this unit had issues last season. The OL struggled in every phase in 2011, yielding 30 sacks (11th in the conference) and contributing to the 2.9 ypc figure, as well as failing to alleviate the pressure on Keith, factoring heavily in the overall 51% completion percentage (12th in the MAC).

Summary: Down the stretch last season, Kent looked as if Hazell’s hire was paying dividends, but it could’ve been a mirage. The fact that he’s not sold on Keith at QB is a bad sign, and the schedule will pose a challenge if the Golden Flash is to contend for the MAC East title. Three tough conference road games will tell the tale, although the difference between visiting Alabama in the opener last season and hosting Towson State instead in this year’s lid-lifter should help in gaining bowl eligibility. (Hey, MAC teams filled four bowl slots last season!)


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