Turning around a football program isn’t something that just happens overnight.
There are no corners to be cut when attempting to revitalize a program that’s won only nine games over the last three seasons.
Kent State coach Paul Haynes is in the midst of just such a daunting task. He is working hard to resurrect a program that has struggled mightily since his predecessor, Darrell Hazell, led the Golden Flashes to 11 wins and an appearance in the GoDaddy.com Bowl in 2012.
After that magical season, Hazell departed to become head coach at Purdue University — and it has seemed as if the success of the program left with him.
The clock is now ticking on Haynes as he heads into his fourth year as the leader of the Flashes, who have gone 4-8 in 2013, 2-9 in 2014 and 3-9 in 2015 under his tutelage. But Haynes made it clear he’s not pressed for immediate results.
“We want to be a blue-collar, hard-nosed fundamentally sound football team,” Haynes said after a practice last week. “It goes along with our vision, which is to wake up every day and be the best football players we can possibly be. We’re not result-oriented — it’s about what we do day in and day out.”
It’s fair to say the Flashes failed to execute on a consistent basis in all three phases of the game last season. Kent State averaged 13.1 points per game while conceding 26.1 to the opposition.
When asked if there’s a different approach this season, Haynes referenced an effort to change the mentality of his team.
“I think every year is different when it comes to practice,” he said. “This game is a lot more mental than you’d think. So we’ve worked more on the mental aspect and the mindset of the team.”
Looking for leaders
Haynes said he is relying on upperclassmen to set the tone in the locker room, and near the head of that group is senior safety Nate Holley.
“It’s a big role to fill when you’re looked to as that guy,” Holley said. “It’s a little more pressure added because you’re expected to do things maybe others aren’t.”
Holley was named first-team All-MAC after leading the Mid-American Conference in total tackles last season with 141. He’s now being asked to be the voice of reason in the locker room, and he’s not backing down.
“I embrace it and enjoy it,” Holley said. “For us, it’s just about staying locked in and keeping guys focused on the task at hand. Last year we could’ve closed numerous games out, but we let them slip away.”
Relying on youth
It’s no secret the Flashes’ biggest weakness over the last few seasons has been at the quarterback position. The lack of consistent production there has crippled the offense.
This year, Haynes is relying on a quarterback-by-committee approach. He has three options at the position — sophomore George Bollas, freshman Justin Agner and redshirt freshman Mylik Mitchell.
“We haven’t named the starter yet,” Haynes said. “I think all three of them have done a good job. We’ll name a starter, but all three of those guys are going to play.”
Of the three, Bollas is the only one who’s previously played for Kent State. He started five games for the Flashes in 2015, but made appearances in all 12 games.
Haynes said the quarterback group has more depth than in previous years, and said he believes that could be a potential strength of the team.
“There’s more depth at a lot positions,” Haynes said. “There’s a lot of positions that guys are fighting for spots and that’s what you want.”
More than a spot
Stefano Millin, a sophomore center, is one of the players who’s earned a starting spot. He’s also earned much more than that.
Millin was chosen by his coaches to carry on the legacy of the late Jason Bitsko, a former Kent State center who passed away suddenly from an enlarged heart in 2014. Millin will honor Bitsko by wearing his No. 54 this season.
“It’s a huge honor,” Millin said. “I knew him for a couple of months before he passed. When you look around and you see how much he meant to the guys that really knew him on this team, it’s a very humbling experience. It’s just an absolute honor to be able to represent him and his family.”
After much debate among coaches and players, it was decided the number should be worn again after it had been retired for one season. But the jersey can’t be worn by anybody — it must be an offensive lineman who embodies the same pride, passion and devotion Bitsko displayed throughout his life.
“Stefano has all the attributes that this jersey stands for,” Haynes said. “When you think about Jason, you think about a hard-nosed player and a leader. You think about a great teammate and a guy that runs the show. I’m sure Stefano will represent the jersey well.”
Millin said he enters the season with high hopes, despite the expectations of those outside the program.
Beginning on road
The Flashes will travel to Penn State on Sept. 3 for their season opener. The game will be televised by Big Ten Network with the kickoff set for 3:30 p.m.
Kent State will also travel to defending national champion Alabama on Sept. 24.
“I think everybody knows all of the experts have overlooked us,” Millin said. “Everybody is just focused on that one common theme and goal.”
With training camp winding down, Millin echoed a message that was sent by many of his teammates.
“I’m ready to go now,” he said. “I wish game day was tomorrow. I’m sick and tired of hitting on my teammates. I want to be up close and personal with some Nittany Lions.”