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1. A trying year, to say the least
A MAC team's reward for making the right hire and winning some games is getting to make another hire. This year's MAC Life Cycle fill-in-the-blank gets filled in by the good folks in Kent, Ohio:
In , [Kent State] hired [Darrell Hazell], who broke through in a way that previous coach [Doug Martin] could not. The [Golden Flashes] showed promise in [Hazell's] first year, then erupted in his second, starting the season [10-1] and reaching the MAC title game before they [lost to NIU]. [Hazell] was hired away by [Purdue], and the [Flashes] were forced to start over again, especially when stars [Dri Archer and Roosevelt Nix] graduated as well.
Kent State's 2014 probably made sense: historically unsuccessful MAC program experiences breakthrough, loses coach, goes back to the back of the line. And to be sure, after the happy blip of 2012, Kent State reestablished a pretty clear curve.
There's nothing easy about winning at Kent State -- almost nobody has been able to do it. Since the great Don James left in 1974, 12 coaches have been hired. Eight left without producing a single winning record, 10 without attending a bowl. In one of the more fun out-of-nowhere stories, Hazell got the Golden Flashes to the MAC title game in 2012 and kept them in the AP polls for a few weeks. They were on the doorstep of taking what would become Northern Illinois' Orange Bowl bid. Hazell left for Purdue. KSU fell back onto the curve.
This all makes sense if you weren't paying attention. But it took a lot -- a lot -- for the Flashes to fall back the way they did.
First, second-hear head coach Paul Haynes battled pneumonia in spring practice. And when the season began, Kent was without star running back Trayion Durham (the thunder to Dri Archer's lightning), who was lost with injury. More injuries pared down the two-deep to dangerous levels, and a sprinkling of academic issues didn't help. And in the middle of everything, a teammate passed away.
Kent State starting center Jason Bitsko died unexpectedly Wednesday, the school announced. Bitsko was found unresponsive in his apartment by his roommate after he failed to show up to practice. He was 21.
It was later ruled that he died of natural causes associated with having "an enlarged heart."
And in the middle of all of this, the Golden Flashes had to play football. It shouldn't be a surprise that they didn't do it very well. They began 0-6 and finished 2-9.
There's good news, however: 2014's over. In theory, Kent State gets Durham back, along with a few other 2013 contributors who watched from the sidelines. Haynes signed what was a rather impressive recruiting class in February, and assuming a regression-to-the-mean when it comes to general injuries luck, the 2015 KSU two-deep should be deeper, faster, and more athletic.
And here's a little bit more good news: KSU had improved drastically by the time 2014 ended.
2014 Schedule & Results
|Record: 2-9 | Adj. Record: 2-9 | Final F/+ Rk: 107|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|13-Sep||at Ohio State||1||0-66||L||2%||-50.0||0%|
|4-Oct||at Northern Illinois||69||14-17||L||29%||-13.0||8%|
|25-Oct||at Miami (Ohio)||103||3-10||L||32%||-10.9||45%|
|12-Nov||at Bowling Green||98||20-30||L||49%||-0.4||63%|
|Points Per Game||16.4||123||29.0||83|
2. Undeniable improvement
Using the second-order win total, derived from adding up the Win Expectancy values above, Kent State played more like a 4-7 team than 2-9. That's a marginal compliment, but by looking at the bounces from each game, KSU had a better than 50 percent chance of beating Ohio (a 17-14 loss) and BGSU (30-20 loss) and a nearly 50 percent chance of beating Miami (10-3 loss). The team's turnovers luck, injuries luck, and coulda-shoulda-woulda luck were all bad.
But in the middle of all of this, there was an upward trend.
- Average Percentile Performance (first 4 games): 17% (record: 0-4)
- Average Percentile Performance (last 7 games): 43% (record: 2-5)
The Kent State-Buffalo game, canceled in late-November because of hellacious snow, would have pitted two of the hotter teams in the conference, as strange as that may sound.
With Durham likely back, along with quarterback Colin Reardon, four offensive line starters, and most of the first-string defense, it's not hard to think that a luckier, more seasoned Kent State team could take a few steps forward, both on paper and in the win column.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||36.2%||113||Succ. Rt. +||82.6||122|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||27.8||26||Def. FP+||105.0||20|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||3.3||122||Redzone S&P+||70.7||128|
|Q1 Rk||125||1st Down Rk||112|
|Q2 Rk||101||2nd Down Rk||121|
|Q3 Rk||119||3rd Down Rk||60|
3. All the worst aspects of a pass-first offense, none of the benefit
Click for daily MAC
Click for daily MAC
Perhaps out of preference, perhaps out of necessity, Kent State became an extreme pass-first offense. That wasn't a good thing.
With young running backs playing larger roles than anticipated, the Golden Flashes' run game was almost non-existent, which put too much pressure on quarterback Colin Reardon to make plays. He had efficient moments -- he was 27-for-40 for 360 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception against Army -- but despite extreme pass rates (which featured awful red-zone scoring numbers), there were none of the happy side effects.
There wasn't any sustained sense of passing to set up the run; running back Nick Holley did find more success over the last half of the season (first 6 games: 3.2 yards per carry; last 5 games: 5.2), but between two of his best games (26 combined carries for 190 yards against Toledo and Akron) came one of his worst (11 for 21 against BGSU).
There also wasn't any sustained semblance of efficiency. Despite averaging an efficiency-first 10.8 yards per completion, Reardon completed 65 percent of his passes three times in 11 games. He completed 54 percent or worse in six, and he threw a ridiculous 16 interceptions. Four interceptions sabotaged an otherwise promising game against Bowling Green, and ... 16! While averaging 10.8 yards per completion and rarely getting sacked!
Reardon must cut down on the mistakes, which could be problematic considering he's replacing both his go-to efficiency target (tight end Casey Pierce, with his 65 percent catch rate) and what was almost his only big-play weapon (Z-receiver Chris Humphrey, with his 12.5 yards per catch). But he'll probably have a stronger run game to lean on.
He'll also have a new offensive coordinator. Don Treadwell, former Michigan State offensive coordinator and Miami (Ohio) head coach, moves up after serving as running backs coach a year ago. He isn't as run-happy as the "former Michigan State offensive coordinator" moniker might have once suggested, but he did strive for balance (that he never really achieved) at Miami. And he'll have a large stable of interesting backs at his disposal, assuming he wants to run more.
Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Colin Reardon||6'1, 202||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||NR||228||400||2466||14||16||57.0%||11||2.7%||5.8|
|Nathan Strock||6'2, 185||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7984||16||40||104||2||1||40.0%||7||14.9%||1.7|
|Mylik Mitchell||6'4, 181||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8200|
|Trayion Durham (2013)||RB||6'1, 248||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8400||182||766||6||4.2||4.2||28.6%||N/A||N/A|
|Nick Holley||RB||5'10, 191||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7333||125||516||3||4.1||5.2||32.0%||2||0|
|Colin Reardon||QB||6'1, 202||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||NR||48||232||2||4.8||4.0||47.9%||2||2|
|Miles Hibbler||RB||5'11, 187||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7619||12||37||0||3.1||3.0||33.3%||0||0|
|Nathan Strock||QB||6'2, 185||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7984||8||89||0||11.1||15.7||50.0%||1||1|
|Ernest Calhoun||WR||5'6, 151||Jr.||NR||NR||6||-20||0||-3.3||5.5||16.7%||2||0|
|James Brooks||WR||5'9, 200||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8371||4||24||0||6.0||14.1||50.0%||1||0|
|Raekwon James||RB||5'9, 185||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7744|
|P.J. Simmons||RB||5'11, 181||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8392|
|Myles Washington||RB||5'10, 210||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7956|
4. Hello again, identity
First things first: neither junior Nick Holley, nor sophomore Miles Hibbler, nor redshirt freshman Raekwon James, nor incoming freshman P.J. Simmons is likely to pull a strong Dri Archer impression.
And to be sure, a good portion of Trayion Durham's effectiveness came because defenses had to deal with both Durham's bowling ball impersonation and Archer's quickness. So with Durham healthy, that doesn't mean Kent State's run game is going to be super-dangerous. But there are options now.
Haynes had nice things to say about James in the offseason, and Simmons is one of the most prized recruits on the roster. But hopes will be mostly on Durham and Holley forming a lovely inside-outside combination. Holley had better success late in the season, which is intriguing.
And despite woeful full-season numbers, it's not a bad thing that of the nine linemen who finished 2014 with starting experience, eight return. (And of the 64 combined returning starts, 56 belong to players who will still have eligibility in 2016.) The right side of the line saw immense shuffling, but one year's uncertainty can be the next year's experience.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Ernest Calhoun||SLOT||5'6, 151||Jr.||NR||NR||50||33||319||66.0%||12.0%||52.0%||6.4||-78||6.3||40.0|
|Kris White||WR-X||6'1, 210||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7400||43||25||270||58.1%||10.3%||55.8%||6.3||-38||6.3||33.8|
|Nick Holley||RB||5'10, 191||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7333||39||27||199||69.2%||9.4%||71.8%||5.1||-123||4.9||24.9|
|Josh Boyle||SLOT||5'9, 173||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||37||21||160||56.8%||8.9%||51.4%||4.3||-100||4.3||20.0|
|James Brooks||WR-X||5'9, 200||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8371||34||16||283||47.1%||8.2%||35.3%||8.3||76||7.1||35.4|
|Charles Chandler||WR-Z||6'2, 197||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||8||4||31||50.0%||1.9%||50.0%||3.9||-20||4.5||3.9|
|Miles Hibbler||RB||5'11, 187||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7619||4||0||0||0.0%||1.0%||0.0%||0.0||-6||N/A||0.0|
|William Woods||WR||5'9, 184||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||NR||2||1||3||50.0%||0.5%||0.0%||1.5||-10||N/A||0.4|
|Brice Fackler||TE||6'3, 234||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7300|
|Antwan Dixon||WR||5'8, 170||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8074|
|Conor Brumfield||TE||6'4, 235||Fr.||NR||0.8000|
5. Half-full vs. half-empty
In last year's KSU preview, I noted that Reardon was good at passing-downs magic acts, which might be a sign of more all-around success in the future. In 2014, we saw similar traits -- KSU's IsoPPP+ ratings (which measure big plays) ranked 117th on standard downs but 87th on passing downs -- but the interceptions showed that Reardon's magic acts are risks that don't always pay off. His interception rate increased from a decent 2.8 percent in 2013 to an awful 4.0.
Reardon's numbers aren't guaranteed to improve in his third year. Pierce and Chris Humphrey combined for nearly half of KSU's targets in 2014, and their absence can't be spun as a good thing. But their production (combined: 6.9 yards per target) was replaceable with the right players.
Slot receiver Ernest Calhoun and then-freshman Kris White averaged 6.3 yards per target in more limited roles, and former star recruit James Brooks showed flashes, averaging a team-best 8.3 yards per target (though most of his damage came in two games: 10 catches for 184 yards against Virginia and Army, six catches for 99 yards against everybody else).
Though the top two are gone, KSU does return five who were targeted at least 34 times, and either of a pair of three-star freshmen (according to the Composite) could crack the rotation. If you're a glass-half-full person, you see a deep receiving corps combining with a more effective running game. If you're half-empty, you note that these returnees did next to nothing for most of last year and now have to take on much bigger roles.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Reno Reda||LT||6'6, 292||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7619||17|
|Wayne Scott||LG||6'3, 320||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7000||16|
|Alex Nielsen||C||6'4, 294||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7585||11|
|Brock Macaulay||RT||6'5, 290||So.||NR||0.7933||6|
|Nathan Puthoff||RG||6'4, 296||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||5|
|Jim Katusha||LG||6'5, 290||Sr.||NR||NR||4|
|Anthony Pruitt||RG||6'2, 300||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||4|
|Tad France||C||6'4, 285||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7552||1|
|Jake Witucki||LT||6'5, 293||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8072||0|
|Bryce Gibbs||OL||6'4, 291||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7959|
|Chase Van Hoef||OL||6'4, 285||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8019|
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||43.5%||88||Succ. Rt. +||98.4||75|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||28.6||104||Off. FP+||99.0||78|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.3||64||Redzone S&P+||96.1||78|
|Q1 Rk||79||1st Down Rk||84|
|Q2 Rk||87||2nd Down Rk||79|
|Q3 Rk||81||3rd Down Rk||37|
6. Minimal breakage
The offense didn't live up to its end of the bargain for most of the year, but the defense tried its best to make up the difference. The Golden Flashes ranked 79th in Def. S&P+, which wasn't as good as the strangely dominant 2010-12 run (43rd in 2010, 15th! in 2011, 58th in 2012) but represented as step forward.
The KSU defense wasn't disruptive -- in fact, it was one of the least disruptive Ds in the country, ranking 123rd in Adj. Sack Rate and 116th in Stuff Rate (run stops behind the line). But it pulled an effective bend-don't-break routine. The Flashes allowed greater than 5.9 yards per play just four times, all in the first six games of the year. They allowed just 388.0 yards per game, 5.1 yards per play, and 22.2 points per game in their last five contests. They also gave you a relatively low 4.3 points per scoring opportunity. You can work with that, at least as long as you've got a semi-competent offense.
That the defense pulled off improvement without at least one key piece (injured outside linebacker Devante' Strickland) was awfully impressive. Now, Strickland is scheduled to return, as are four of the top five linemen, the top four linebackers, and the top five defensive backs. Depth could be an issue, especially in the secondary, but on paper this defense should be at least as decent.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jon Cunningham||NT||6'0, 295||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||11||25.5||3.9%||3.5||1.0||0||0||1||0|
|Terence Waugh||DE||6'1, 250||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7883||9||25.0||3.8%||3.0||1.5||0||1||0||0|
|Nate Terhune||DT||6'4, 270||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7000||11||24.0||3.6%||6.0||3.5||0||2||0||0|
|Jontey Byrd||DT||5'10, 275||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||10||20.5||3.1%||2.0||1.0||1||0||0||0|
|Chris Fairchild (2013)||DT||6'2, 312||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8004||12||14.5||2.3%||2.5||1.5||0||0||0||0|
|Clay Miller||DE||6'4, 270||Sr.||NR||NR||10||10.0||1.5%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Davonte James||DE||6'3, 250||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8667|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Matt Dellinger||LB||6'1, 225||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7400||11||63.0||9.6%||3.0||0.5||1||0||0||0|
|Elcee Refuge||LB||5'9, 230||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7333||10||45.0||6.8%||6.0||0.0||0||1||1||0|
|Devante' Strickland (2013)||OLB||6'1, 231||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||12||36.5||5.7%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Darius Redmond||LB||6'0, 210||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8200||9||28.0||4.2%||2.0||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Marques Moore||LEO||6'2, 200||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||10||20.5||3.1%||3.0||1.0||0||3||1||0|
|Matthew Sommers||LEO||6'2, 242||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||10||12.5||1.9%||0.5||0.0||0||0||1||0|
|James Alexander||LB||5'11, 242||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7383||6||4.0||0.6%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jim Jones||LB||6'1, 214||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8189|
7. The MAC's best linebacking corps?
That Kent State ranked 60th in Rushing S&P+ despite almost no push up front -- 90th in standard downs line yards per carry, 118th in opportunity rate, 119th in power success rate, 116th in stuff rate -- is remarkable. And while tackle Nate Terhune had his moments, this success speaks volumes about Kent State's linebacking corps, one that, again, was without Strickland. And while we're at it, only Dellinger played in all 11 games; KSU's linebacking corps represented well despite constant turnover.
West Virginia transfer Davonte James joins the rotation up front, which can't hurt, but between Dellinger, Elcee Refuge, exciting sophomore Marques Moore, Strickland, and maybe three-star freshman Jim Jones, it isn't hard to see this unit as one of the MAC's best in 2015. With a little more push from a seasoned line, this unit could do some pretty significant damage.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Nate Holley||FS||5'11, 200||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7333||11||106.0||16.1%||4||0||0||2||2||0|
|Jordan Italiano||SS||5'10, 207||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7800||11||72.0||10.9%||3.5||0||3||2||3||0|
|Demetrius Monday||CB||5'10, 197||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8246||11||31.0||4.7%||1.5||0||1||7||0||0|
|Nick Cuthbert||SS||6'0, 208||Jr.||NR||NR||11||29.5||4.5%||1||0||0||1||0||0|
|Najee Murray||CB||5'9, 180||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8915||7||18.5||2.8%||0.5||0||0||3||0||0|
|Marcus Elliott||DB||6'1, 195||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7433||6||2.0||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Kevin Bourne||S||5'10, 191||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7333|
|Erik Simpson||S||5'11, 175||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8090|
|Juantez McRae||S||5'11, 170||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8570|
|Carlos Pickett||S||5'11, 175||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8029|
|D'Andre Smart||CB||5'11, 157||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7856|
8. Wanted: a second string
Of course, the linebackers got some help from a ferocious pair of safeties. Only four Golden Flashes had three or more non-sack tackles for loss, and Nate Holley (four) and Jordan Italiano (3.5) were two of them. They were able to hang out near the line of scrimmage, but the secondary was still strong enough to prevent serious damage from big plays. KSU prevented big plays on standard downs and played efficient defense on passing downs. That's a solid combination, and the DBs had a lot to do with it.
It's pretty exciting that last year's top five DBs all return, including Ohio State transfer Najee Murray. If these five stay mostly healthy, KSU could have one of the better MAC secondaries. There could be some questions, if there are injuries. None of the next five players on the tacklers list was listed on the roster at the end of the year, so the second string will feature quite a few inexperienced players. Now, KSU has recruited well in the secondary of late -- three-star redshirt freshman Erik Simpson waits his turn, and Juantez McRae might have been the jewel of the 2015 signing class -- but you never want to rely too much on freshmen, especially considering the size involved.
|Anthony Melchiori||5'11, 186||Sr.||67||44.3||3||19||26||67.2%|
|Anthony Melchiori||5'11, 186||Sr.||44||61.6||13||1||29.5%|
|Anthony Melchiori||5'11, 186||Sr.||16-18||8-13||61.5%||2-5||40.0%|
|Ernest Calhoun||KR||5'6, 151||Jr.||34||20.8||0|
|Josh Boyle||KR||5'9, 173||Sr.||3||24.3||0|
|James Brooks||PR||5'9, 200||Jr.||12||6.0||0|
|Ernest Calhoun||PR||5'6, 151||Jr.||2||13.0||0|
|Special Teams F/+||99|
|Field Goal Efficiency||124|
|Punt Return Efficiency||90|
|Kick Return Efficiency||78|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||93|
9. Your best offensive player
Kent State's Five Factors offensive ratings above are pretty funny: 128th in Redzone S&P+, 122nd in Success Rate+, 110th in IsoPPP+ ... and 20th in Field Position+. Despite awful efficiency numbers, the Golden Flashes were continuously able to create good field position for their defense because of the booming leg of Anthony Melchiori, who averaged more than 44 yards per punt with strong hang time. He left a bit to be desired from a place-kicking perspective (to put it nicely), but his return will help immensely, especially if a more efficient offense is able to pick up more first downs here and there.
2015 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||2014 F/+ Rk|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-16.7% (93)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||121 / 120|
|2014 TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-4 / -3.0|
|2014 TO Luck/Game||-0.5|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||18 (8, 10)|
|2014 Second-order wins (difference)||3.8 (-1.8)|
10. Maybe not too far away
I'm not going to pretend Kent State is a darkhorse MAC contender by any means, but the Golden Flashes were dealt an impossible hand and figured out how to improve. Now they return a boatload of contributors that were either too banged up or too young to make a difference in 2014.
If the receiving corps produces a decent No. 1 target, if experience leads to improvement in the trenches, and the Flashes are bitten a more standard amount by the injury bug, then this could at least be a mid-tier MAC team.
Of course, we'll see what that means, considering the brutal schedule. KSU visits Minnesota and Illinois and hosts Marshall in non-conference play and gets only six opponents that ranked 100th or worse in F/+ last year. (That's not very many by MAC standards.) If they play well at home and steal a road game against a UMass or Ohio, then they could threaten to make a run at six wins.
The bar won't be set much higher than that, but that would be a strong step forward.