May 17, 2010

10 things we learned in spring

With over three months remaining until Kent State opens the 2010 season hosting Murray State at Dix Stadium it's time to reflect back on what we learned about the Golden Flashes during their 15 spring practice sessions.

In no particular order, here's 10 things we learned in spring:

1. Spencer Keith is pretty good
It didn't take long for Keith to establish himself as the starter at Kent State. After subbing for injured starter Giorgio Morgan against Boston College and Iowa State, Keith played so well (30-for-46 for 326 yards) it became impossible for Kent State head coach Doug Martin to reinsert Morgan into the starting role he won in the spring of 2009. But, Keith suffered a season-ending injury of his own and had some work to do just to get back on the field for spring practice. He did that and more. He sparkled in the spring as he dissected the Flashes' defense and distributed the ball amongst his many wide receiver and running back options. Martin often cited his intelligence and snappy decision-making as a big reason for the rising sophomore's success.

2. Running back by committee doesn't sound so bad
Fantasy football players hate the phrase, "running back by committee." Normally it turns one or two solid contributors into carry-eating, touchdown sharing entities; and that's not good for fantasy football players. But, we're not talking fantasy football. We're talking about Kent State's depth at running back and don't look now but the Flashes have come a long way since the 2005 season when Kent State backs rushed for just 39 first downs and 1.8 yards per carry. With the addition of Eugene Jarvis, granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, and the emergence of Jacquise Terry and Dri Archer, the Flashes have three players capable of starting for many teams in the league. Add Andre Flowers to the mix and Kent State has four strong running back options that should enable Keith to enjoy even more success downfield.

3. Big play threats = more offense
Not that it comes as a surprise, but with big play threats looming on the perimeter any offense becomes more dangerous. Heck, just flashback to the Bowling Green game if you can stomach it and see what having Freddie Barnes did for the Falcons' offense. Kent State has lacked that big-play threat since Najah Pruden graduated, but the times, they are a-changing. First, Kendrick Pressley came on strong as a freshman in 2008 then last season Tyshon Goode became one of Kent State's most prolific freshman pass catchers. The duo combined for 74 catches for 1,056 yards in 2009. And this spring Sam Kirkland shook off some early jitters he had during the season to become a deep-ball favorite for Keith. Kirkland has exception size, speed and it now looks like he has the confidence to make Kent State's wide receivers corps something for opposing defenses to fear…and that leaves the running backs eager to carry the football.

4. The offense is only as good as the guys up front
No good offense comes without an exceptional offensive line. But that's just it; the players themselves don't have to be exceptional. They just have to come together as one unit to accomplish a common goal. Kent State's first offensive line can get that job done. They're young, but they have plenty of experience under their belts. Led by rising junior center Chris Anzevino, the projected starting offensive line has 57 starts to its credit. It doesn't take a math major to figure out this already is one of Kent State's most experienced lines heading into a season in a long time, and they won't lose a single starter after 2010. But, it's depth that rears its ugly head and that's where the Flashes have to improve. Martin said his squad was ready to go about seven-men deep on the offensive line. That's not enough. He knows it and so does his staff. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Flashes land a late addition to the 2010 recruiting class to help out in that area.

5. The Big 3 make a Big difference
With the success the Kent State offense had during the spring it was easy not to notice three of Kent State's best defenders missing all or a portion of spring practice. Seniors Monte Simmons and Cobrani Mixon mixed practice while they fully recovered from injuries. They'll be ready for 2010-Simmons at defensive end and Mixon at linebacker-but their absence left the defense shorthanded, and it showed. Lainhart, a safety, missed the spring game as he recovered from some bumps and bruises, but he participated in most of the spring session. Missing the big three allowed the coaching staff to get a good look at several other players that will see key minutes this season, which never is a bad thing. The downside, it doesn't look like any player distinguished himself in that role.

6. Take a breath; the Flashes are lining up to kick
In the past, Kent State's special teams often left spectators wondering just how much they paid to attend the circus instead of a football game. Backward punts, field goals drilling the snapper in the behind…you never knew what you were going to see. Through two seasons of punter Matt Rinehart and the successful debut of kicker Freddy Cortez it looks like those days are behind the Flashes, and not a moment too soon for Martin. Rinehart looked better than ever during the spring session and while Cortez wasn't perfect, his kicks "look like a college kick," to steal a favorite phrase of Martin's. And it's not just the kicking game that has put a smile on Martin's face. The return game has the potential to dynamically alter the outcome of games. The Flashes have several weapons with speed and elusiveness that can turn field position in their favor. The key is to find the right combination of return men to get the job done.

7. Back-end needs some work
Kent State struggled in defending against the pass in 2010. Some of that could be attributed to a lack of a pass rush, teams often playing in a spread offense, injuries, and any other number of excuses. The fact remains the secondary has to improve. That's a tall order considering the lack of depth at cornerback. Both safeties-Lainhart and Danny Hartman--return, which should help matters, but with Josh Pleasant the only starter returning at cornerback, the Flashes need at least one more every down player to emerge. Norman Wolfe saw plenty of action last fall, but he hasn't won the job outright. The Flashes likely will look to several younger players to make their move at the position or rely on wildcard Kirk Belgrave to return to form after missing last season.

8. The Future is Bright
Count 'em…there are just nine seniors listed among Kent State's 24 starters (including punter and kicker). That's just nine starting players that will exhaust their eligibility after the 2010 season. Of those nine, just four have made a significant impact over the past few seasons: Simmons, Lainhart, Mixon and Hartman, all defenders. Defensive lineman Quinton Rainey and linebacker Will Johnson also are in their final year of eligibility. On offense, the Flashes will lose tight end Jon Simpson and wide receiver Leneric Muldrow, but both have played minor roles for the Flashes. That means the Flashes are a young team, but unlike in season's past this group have plenty of experience to its credit. From Keith at quarterback to the young, mature offensive line to the big-play wide receivers, the Golden Flashes finally have a combination of talent and experience across the board. That offense will only get better, and they'll need to in 2011 when they have to replace four key starters on defense.

9. Hard work pays off
Kent State's recruiting efforts often don't follow the book-you know, the book most coaches use to identify talent. The Kent State coaching staff looks beyond the numbers: 40 times aren't important; neither is height and weight. The KSU staff wrote its own book, and so far you can't argue with the results. They've identified players others have passed on. In fact, in most cases 118 other schools passed on Kent State's signees. Take recent NFL draft pick Jameson Konz, for instance. Kent State was his only Division I offer. Now he's collecting a paycheck in professional football. Spencer Keith, Arkansas' most prolific high school passer, ended up at Kent State for a reason. Eugene Jarvis. The list goes on and on. Argue all you want with Doug Martin's decision to throw a bubble screen on 3rd-and-7, but it's hard to disagree with his recruiting strategy. He's built a program in his tenure at Kent State and it's about time he sees the benefits of his-and his staff's-hard work.

10. It's not just a Game
I sure hope new athletic director Joel Neilsen was paying attention on Apr. 30 during the Flashes' spring game. It doesn't matter if he remembered the score, or even who won the game (the Blue defeated the White, 14-0). But, it's key for him to remember the atmosphere and to build upon that success. Because on the field, it was just another scrimmage with the key element remaining healthy. Off the field, it was much, much more than that. From KSU's NFL alumni returning home to sign autographs to fans, to the band filling seats in the student section and a host of high school prospects taking in the sights and sounds, KSU put together one heck of a spring game event. You want to put butts in the seats? The easiest way to do that is win games. That's not rocket science. But, to fill a stadium for a fledgling program, even one on the rise like Kent State, it takes work. It takes out-of-the-box thinking and creativity. It means drawing on the program's successes and featuring those highlights. It means allowing fans to take ownership of the program. Couple that with winning and a sleeping giant in Northeast Ohio awakens. Go get 'em Mr. Nielsen.

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