KENT: New Kent State football coach Paul Haynes wandered into enemy territory, but lucked out when no one recognized him hanging out in the University of Akron’s Stile Field House.
It probably won’t be like that for long. But on Thursday, Haynes was able to slip onto the Zips’ campus and watch his son’s soccer practice in relative anonymity.
With spring football practice beginning today, both Haynes and the Golden Flashes aren’t likely to be overlooked any longer.
With former coach Darrell Hazell making the KSU football program relevant last season for the first time in decades before moving on to Purdue, the Flashes won’t be able to sneak up on anybody this season under another assistant from the Jim Tressel coaching tree.
Not after Kent State went 11-3, won the Mid-American Conference East Division and reached its first bowl game in 40 years last season.
Still, one standout season doesn’t guarantee another — especially with the Flashes making a transition to another new coaching staff, looking to fill gaps at a handful of important skill positions and staring down one of the toughest schedules the program has ever seen.
“Our goal is to win the MAC,” said Haynes, who spent seven seasons at Ohio State (2005-11) as the defensive backs coach before moving to Arkansas last season as defensive coordinator. “You still have to concentrate on your MAC games — and we have one early [against Bowling Green] that’s going to be a tough one.”
After taking on the Falcons, the Flashes play three of their next four games at LSU (Sept. 14), at Penn State (Sept. 21) and against reigning MAC champion Northern Illinois (Oct. 5).
“You go in there to win and give it your best and see what happens,” Haynes said of traveling to LSU and Penn State on back-to-back weekends. “Crazier things have happened. But you still have to play your best football in November; that’s when championships are won.”
Before the Flashes can worry about their tough schedule, they have to concentrate on finding the right players to take over at quarterback, offensive line, linebacker and kicker.
Battling to replace quarterback Spencer Keith are senior David Fisher (a junior college player brought in last season to battle Keith) and sophomore Colin Reardon (a Poland Seminary standout who was impressive in preseason practice last season as a true freshman).
“We’re not going to name a starter until the week heading up to the first game,” Haynes said. “As far as I’m concerned, the quarterback is week to week just like everybody else.
“Just because we name a starter, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the starter for the whole season. We have competition and players have to continue to do the things we ask them to do. If not, the other guy’s going to play.”
That doesn’t mean Haynes is advocating for a dual quarterback situation.
“I just want the quarterbacks to know it’s going to be a battle all year,” he said. “Hopefully, we get to a point where someone truly separates themself. But I don’t want them to get comfortable and think they’ve got the position locked up.”
The most glaring holes heading into spring camp are on the offensive line, where three players departed — including left tackle and NFL prospect Brian Winters.
“Honestly, my biggest red flag in terms of needing to find personnel at a particular position is at linebacker. We need more bodies there. I’m not super worried about the offensive line, we’ve got bodies there and we just have to get them to perform. First of all, I believe young guys get better. They’re also a year more mature and they’ll get stronger under [strength and conditioning] coach [Antoine] Sharp.
“Finally, I’m super excited about offensive line coach [Shawn] Clark. I’ve known him since 2000 and he’s developed guys who weren’t so-called five-star players and they’ve become five-star guys — that’s why I’m not really worried about the offensive line position.”
Filling the shoes of departed kicker Freddy Cortez won’t be easy, but Haynes is already comfortable handing the kicking duties over to sophomore punter Anthony Melchiori, who he believes can handle both roles. And why not? Last year as a true freshman, Melchiori, an Aurora native, stepped into the starting spot and proved to be one of the best punters in the league.
One of the big differences this season for the Flashes will be having a coach that comes from the defensive side of the ball. But that’s why retaining offensive coordinator Brian Rock from Hazell’s staff was so crucial.
During the time between Hazell’s departure and Haynes’ hiring, Rock was huge in holding down the all-important recruiting fort. He also is well versed in the strengths and weaknesses of lightning-quick running back/receiver Dri Archer and bruising runner Trayion Durham, who are the Flashes’ focus offensively.
Although Haynes is aware of the impact the Flashes’ one-two running back punch had, he’s tried his best to form his own opinion about all of his new players.
“I haven’t watched a lot of film on these guys from last year on purpose,” Haynes said. “I haven’t really asked the coaches that are still here about the guys. I want to form my own opinions on the players. That’s the beauty of having a new coaching staff, everyone starts over.”
But just like in Haynes’ case, the anonymity won’t last long.
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Kent State blog at http://www.ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.