March 25, 2011

Plenty of questions this spring

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When Darrell Hazell opens spring practice on Tuesday, the first-year head coach will have plenty of questions to answer in 15 practice sessions as he prepares his Kent State squad to open the 2011 season at Alabama.

Hazell inherited a program that won 23 games over the past five seasons, the most successful five-year span for the program since the mid-1980s.

He also returns nine starters on offense, six on defense and both specialists from the team that finished 5-7 in 2010.

But, introducing those returning starters, and the players that will fill the vacant spots, to new offensive and defensive schemes and having them buy into new coaching styles and philosophies in just over three weeks will be no easy task.

Here's a look at a few of the hurdles Hazell and his staff must clear this spring:

1. Synchronize the program

Although there was very little roster turnover, the entire coaching staff has been replaced and with those staff changes come new coaching styles and philosophies and of course, new offense, defensive and special teams game plans.

With just 15 spring practice sessions-14 if you don't include the spring game on April 16-Hazell and his staff doesn't have much time to introduce the new offensive and defensive packages, familiarize themselves with their personnel and make the necessary adjustments to the depth chart.

Organized and efficient practices certainly will help to alleviate the pressure the coaching staff feels to do so much in so little time.

Implementing the game plan is only part of the problem the coaching staff faces. Each position coach must familiarize himself with his players. Not every player responds to the same type of coaching. In other words, where one player might respond to the simplest of coaching techniques, another may need more attention.

2. Set the tempo

During his introductory press conference back in December, Hazell said his Flashes would run a fast-paced offense to try to keep the defense off balance. That style of play isn't new to the returning players, but each coach has a different interpretation of "fast-paced," and it will be up to Hazell and his staff to clearly set the tempo for his squad.

Beginning and ending drills in the allotted time and encouraging hustle on and off the field establish that tempo.

 It isn't difficult to stick to a schedule or to encourage hustle. The trick is doing both while also getting the players to perform at a high level.

3. Fill the gaps

Spring practice won't settle the depth chart, but it will determine what the coaching staff does with its time in the summer.

If the staff is confident in its personnel at the conclusion of spring drills, the coaches can concentrate on game planning during the summer. If Hazell and his coaches aren't confident the Flashes can fill a position, even with the incoming recruiting class, the staff might spend part of the summer re-recruiting the country to find a player that can fill that hole.

Obviously, linebacker is the most glaring position of need with Cobrani Mixon, Howard Bowens, Will Johnson and Dorian Wood having exhausted their eligibility. Mixon and Wood were mainstays in the Kent State defense and won't be easily replaced.

Sophomore Luke Batton has had a strong start to his career at Kent State and the Flashes will be counting on incoming JUCO transfer C.J. Malauulu to come in and play right away. But, this spring, some of the other returning players have to show they have what it takes to consistently make plays.

Safety isn't much of a concern, despite losing two four-year starters. Obviously, a Brian Lainhart-type of player can't be replaced but freshman Luke Wollet made plenty of plays in 2010 and even was referred to as a "Little Brian Lainhart" by the previous coaching staff. Zack Gonosz also returns after sitting out the 2010 season with an injury and should push to fill out the starting lineup.

4. Find a Quarterback

While Spencer Keith has started 19 of the 22 games he has played in during his two seasons at Kent State, including all 12 last fall, it isn't a given that he'll open the 2011 season under center for the Flashes.

Under new offensive coordinator Brian Rock, the Flashes are expected to throw 60-percent of the time and, according to Hazell, stretch the field vertically.

Keith had a strong freshman season, completing 57.1-percent of his passes for 2,147 yards and 14 touchdowns to 11 interceptions.

Last fall, his passing numbers increased in every area except for touchdowns to interceptions thrown. He completed 59.1-percent of his passes for 2,212 yards but threw only eight touchdowns to 11 picks.

He also seemed to play with less confidence than he did the previous season.

Whether or not Rock's offense is better suited for Keith's skills remains to be seen. But, the coaching staff must conclude spring practice knowing if that's the case.

If not, Hazell and Rock might have to look at Giorgio Morgan, who began the 2009 season as the starter before suffering an injury that opened the door for Keith to win the job.

Morgan really struggled in 2009, completing just 36-of-72 passes for 279 yards and no touchdowns to five interceptions.

Last fall, as a backup, he completed 11-of-19 passes (57.9-percent) for 165 yards and two TDs to two interceptions.

Reserves Sal Battles and Cedric McCloud each offer a unique skill set, but have no real game experience.

Incoming freshman Luke Smurthwaite probably has the best arm of the bunch, at least in terms of arm strength and accuracy, but relying on a true freshman quarterback to start the season is just asking for a disastrous season.

5. Sell the Vision

Back when Hazell was introduced as the new head coach at Kent State he explained why he took the job.

"I took this job for three reasons," Hazell said. "One, the people I talked to, because those people will make this thing happen. Second reason, I know we can win here. I spent a lot of time studying film this week…we are real close. Third reason is an opportunity for me to build a football program the way I want to build it, with integrity, character and getting the right people in our organization."

Hazell must use his 15 practice sessions to instill confidence in his players that he is the right guy to lead them to a Mid-American Conference title. He has to show them he has the leadership skills, organization and knowledge to lead a new coaching staff through the good times and the bad.

That starts with commanding his players' respect and attention.

His players must believe in him and want to work harder than ever before to make him successful.

We'll find out soon if he can get that done.

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