KENT: It has been 40 years since Kent State last won a football championship, and there have been familiar signs every year that indicate when things are headed the wrong way.
This season for Kent State — the second for coach Darrell Hazell and his staff — optimism surrounds the program as the Golden Flashes get set to kick off the season at 7 p.m. Thursday against Towson.
Here are six signs — three good and three bad — that will indicate which way the Flashes’ season will go in 2012.
A winning start: Hazell wasn’t being overly dramatic when he called the game Thursday “critically important” to the mental state of his team. A win right out of the gate (albeit against a Football Championship Subdivision opponent) would keep those here-we-go-again thoughts from creeping into the players’ minds and do wonders to help the Flashes believe they can compete with and even beat Kentucky in the second week.
Strong play by quarterbacks, and some protection, too: The ultimate would be quarterback Spencer Keith getting to play the entire season behind a much-improved offensive line. And there’s no denying what a bonus it is to have a capable backup in junior college transfer David Fisher (a luxury the Flashes didn’t have last year). But a full season by Keith, a four-year starter who won the job in camp over Fisher and freshman Colin Reardon, would mean two things: First, he didn’t get hurt enough to miss time as he has in each of the past three seasons, and second, he isn’t struggling and throwing interceptions like he did that added to the Flashes’ 1-6 start last season.
“We just felt Spencer is the best guy to lead us this year, we want him to grab this team by the ears and lead us to a MAC championship,” offensive coordinator/QB coach Brian Rock said.
A porous offensive line last season didn’t help Keith at all, who became so skittish in the pocket, he would duck and run at the first sign of penetration instead of standing tall in the face of danger to deliver a throw. The coaches were able to make some late-season adjustments to the line that made a big difference and led to a 4-1 finish. Now this season, the offensive line looks to be one of the Flashes’ strengths, anchored by senior left tackle and NFL prospect Brian Winters.
Defenses can’t stop the one-two punch of running backs Dri Archer and Trayion Durham: Game-planning to stop the 6-foot, 250-pound Durham with a full head of steam is tough enough. But doing so on top of having to account for the speedy 5-foot-8 Archer in the same backfield is enough to cause opposing defensive coordinators nightmares.
“Trayion will have the bulk of the carries out of the backfield, but we’ve mandated that Dri get a certain amount of carries as well,” said Hazell, who noted the Flashes have a handful of packages that utilize both backs together. “To have those two guys that are both weapons who can hurt you, it creates a heck of a personal match up problem for the defense.”
Receiver Tyshon Goode struggles to get healthy: The Flashes never managed to get much of a passing game going last season, a point of contention they planned to make moot this year. But on the first day of preseason camp, top receiver Goode suffered a left hamstring injury that sidelined him for the remainder of camp. Hazell has already ruled him out for the opener, with the hope that Goode is ready to rejoin the team for the second week. If Goode takes longer to heal or has a setback, it’s still unknown whether backups Matt Hurdle and Eric Adeyemi can step in as Keith’s No. 1 target.
“We have to try to get Tyshon back gradually without hurting him and re-aggravating that thing,” Hazell said. “The worst thing we can do is push him then have to sit him down for another three or four weeks.”
Punting becomes a weakness all season: The final battle in preseason camp came down to the final day before freshman Anthony Melchiori (Aurora) slightly edged sophomore Andrew Horning (Stow) for the starting job. The reason the punting was the last job decided is because Melchiori and Horning had technique issues throughout camp. Horning showed a tendency to shank his kicks, and Melchiori was still adjusting to quickness of the college game.
“We like to get [the ball off] in 1.95 [seconds] or somewhere right around there,” Hazell said. “Melchiori’s a little higher than that right now. The biggest concern with him is tempo. He’s got a big leg, but we need to get the ball punted. Andrew’s time was good, but we needed him to be a little more consistent.”
The Roosevelt Nix of 2010 never resurfaces: Despite being undersized for a defensive tackle at 5-foot-11, Nix shocked the Mid-American Conference his first season by winning the league’s Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards. But a painful turf toe injury suffered in preseason camp last year resulted in Nix returning as a shadow of himself. As a sophomore, he rarely practiced during the week so that he could play on game days. Now relatively healthy after an offseason of rest, Nix is looking to regain the form that made him a household name two seasons ago.
“I always give my best, but last year my toe, it really limited what I can do,” Nix said. “But this year is a whole new year and I’m back.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.