Kent State coach Darrell Hazell always seems to sneak in a comment about the importance of special teams no matter what aspect of his team he is discussing.
Yet, for most of the season, punter Anthony Melchiori’s efforts have been overshadowed by the likes of running backs Trayion Durham and Dri Archer and the Golden Flashes’ turnover machine that is its defense.
The punting unit has been just as much a weapon for Kent State (8-1, 5-0 in the Mid-American Conference). Led by the strong leg of Melchiori, a freshman, the punt team has routinely flipped the field and consistently forced opponents to have to piece together long drives just to reach the red zone, let alone score.
Melchiori and the punting unit have done their jobs so well, Kent State opponents have combined for just 15 return yards in nine games. Melchiori, 5-foot-11, 186-pounds, also leads the Mid-American Conference with a 42.2-yard punting average.
“Our young men have done a phenomenal job,” Hazell said Monday during his weekly news conference. “Ball placement, the punter, it’s almost like a competitive thing amongst our players to [see] who can get that guy stopped the fastest. And it’s across the board; not only our snipers, but it’s also our other guys on the other side as well.”
In the 35-24 victory Saturday over the University of Akron, Melchiori punted five times for 245 yards with a long of 61 yards. That’s an average of 49 yards per punt, with two expertly dropped inside the 20-yard line. UA punt returner Dee Frieson returned three of the kicks, but the longest was for eight yards and another went for a loss giving him a total of just four yards.
Melchiori nailed a 59-yarder and had three kicks placed inside the 20-yard line in KSU’s 31-17 victory over Army on Oct. 13. The previous week in a 41-14 drubbing of Eastern Michigan, Melchiori, a former receiver at Aurora, advanced the ball 42 yards on a fake punt in addition to placing three punts inside the 20.
All the stingy statistics make a statement about Melchiori’s contributions to the Flashes’ success, but he also displays a maturity beyond his years that adds to the team’s strong leadership.
“With the success we continue to have as a punt unit, we exceed ourselves every week,” Melchiori said. “It’s not just me back there. It’s everyone, even [freshman] Chad Bushley, our long snapper, getting the ball back to me quickly. Our operation time is doing very well. Our snipers on the outside [junior cornerback) Malcom Pannell had a great day [Saturday] covering, and the whole punt team had a great day covering. My job is to catch the snap and punt the ball. When everyone does their job, you know you are going to have success.”
In addition to the excitement the Flashes’ success has caused around the Kent campus, it’s also caused quite a stir in the Melchiori household in nearby Aurora.
“My dad [Ray Melchiori] played here in the 1980s and not once has he ever seen the success Kent State is having right now,” Melchiori said. “He is more excited than a lot of people … my grandpa lives in Kent and a majority of my family lives in Kent and [we have] a ton of friends in the community. All they talk about is Kent State football.
“Everyone is excited, and to be a part of it right now, especially as a freshman, is an unbelievable feeling. For Kent State to be the talk of the community is great and motivates us to do better because we want to hear people talk about us.”
Junior defensive tackle Roosevelt Nix was named the MAC East Division Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts Saturday. Nix made a career-high nine tackles (six solo), had a sack and forced the game’s only turnover that led to the Flashes go-ahead touchdown over the Zips. Nix, the league’s 2010 Freshman and Defensive Player of the Year who played last season with a toe injury, leads all Football Bowl Subdivision players with 49.5 career tackles for loss.
“He was really disruptive in the second half, constantly in the backfield making plays and creating another fumble — the only turnover of the day,” Hazell said.
The Flashes take their seven- game winning streak on the road Saturday when they travel to Miami (4-5, 3-2) for a MAC East Division game at 1 p.m.
Stephanie Storm can be reached at email@example.com. 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.