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Can Kent State football save Paul Haynes’ job in 2017? Ehhhhhhhh...

Five years after one glorious season, the Golden Flashes are still searching.

NCAA Football: Kent State at Penn State Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

I was about 50 words into the intro for this piece, marveling at Kent State’s near bid into a BCS bowl five years ago, until I realized I had already written the same intro last year.

It remains one of the more incredible outlier moments in football's recent history: In 2012, Kent State was an overtime away. The winner of the MAC Championship between 11-1 NIU and Kent teams was a de facto play-in.

Darrell Hazell, only in his second year, had inherited a team that just hadn't been able to get over the hump. The Golden Flashes finished 5-7 in each of Doug Martin's last two years and hit five wins again in Hazell's debut. But now that the offense truly had a pulse, the program took a huge step forward.

NIU survived in overtime; the Huskies advanced to the Orange Bowl, where they trailed Florida State by just seven heading into the fourth quarter but faded and lost, 31-10. Kent State lost Hazell to Purdue and lost the GoDaddy.com Bowl to Arkansas State.

There was magic, and Kent State has been trying to recapture it ever since.

The margins in coaching are so small that sometimes you can’t even see them. Successful and unsuccessful coaches do so many of the same things that sometimes it’s hard to know why something didn’t work. And when something does work, it’s hard to know why it stops a month later.

Over the last six years — two at Kent State and four at Purdue — Hazell’s record is 25-43. He began 6-8, ripped off 10 consecutive wins, then went 9-35. He didn’t suddenly become a worse coach the moment that win streak ended.

Similarly, Kent State wasn’t fundamentally any different during its magical 2012 than it was before or after. But in the 33 seasons before that fleeting run, the Flashes averaged 2.9 wins per year. In the four since, they’ve averaged three.

The school hired Hazell because of his TresselBall experience; the 25-year (at the time) veteran had spent the seven previous years at Ohio State as Jim Tressel’s receivers coach. His ball-control tendencies translated well, so when Hazell took the Purdue job, Kent attempted to follow the same script, replacing him with...a 20-year veteran who had spent seven seasons at Ohio State.

Hazell couldn’t replicate his magic at Purdue, and Haynes hasn’t come anywhere close to Hazell’s brief success.

Haynes is a Kent State graduate, and aside from one year with the Jacksonville Jaguars and one year at Arkansas, his entire career has taken place within the MAC/Big Ten footprint. He appeared custom-built to bring success to Kent.

Haynes’ contract runs through 2017, and...that appears to be the reason he still has a job. After a Football Scoop report that Haynes and Kent State were “expected to part ways” following another three-win season, athletic director Joel Nielsen responded with this:

And that was that. Haynes gets a fifth year.

Aside from a 10-game blip, Kent State has been one of the steadiest programs in the country, for all the wrong reasons.

Kent State S&P+ progression

Is there anything Haynes can do to change this trajectory? The answer basically comes down to whether there’s anything he can do about the offense. Haynes’ defenses have been generally solid. His offenses, generally miserable.


2016 in review

2016 Kent State statistical profile.

Technically, the Kent State offense improved. After fielding in 2015 what was, per S&P+, the nation’s second-worst offense of the last 12 seasons (the only team with a worse rating since 2005: 2006’s 0-12 FIU), the Golden Flashes improved to merely bad on offense.

But they were creatively bad, at least.

  • Thanks to injury and ineffectiveness, four quarterbacks threw at least 15 passes each, and a fifth — QB-turned-WR Colin Reardon — threw three.
  • Nick Holley ended up with 868 passing yards, 1,038 rushing yards (omitting sacks), and 135 receiving yards, one of the strangest stat lines you’ll ever see. He spent the first month as a skill position guy, rushing 13 times and catching 13 passes. Thanks to injury, he moved to quarterback in Week 5 and won MAC East player of the week honors, rushing for 117 and throwing for 285 against Akron.
  • True freshman walk-on running back Justin Rankin led the team...in receptions.

Creativity counts for something, and Kent proved it was willing to get weird. But considering the number of signal-callers (and the fact that one of them, Holley, was a junior who hadn’t played quarterback since high school), it comes as no surprise to learn the Golden Flashes had the worst passing game in the country. Consequently, that meant brief excitement when Holley took over, then a return to normalcy.

  • First four games (1-3) — Avg. score: Opp 32, Kent 19 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 4.8, Kent 4.1 | Avg, percentile performance: 26%
  • Next two games (1-1) — Avg. score: Kent 36, Opp 26 | Avg. yards per play: Kent 6.3, Opp 5.5 | Avg, percentile performance: 44%
  • Last six games (1-5) — Avg. score: Opp 28, Kent 17 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.4, Kent 4.8 | Avg, percentile performance: 30%

The typically solid defense held Penn State and Alabama to a respectable 5.7 yards per play in September but faltered a bit in MAC play. Still, the Flashes allowed 24 or fewer points in five of nine games against non-top-40 teams. That should be enough to win more than three games.


Offense

Kent State offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Coaching is like bailing sand sometimes — you address one issue, and another slips through your fingers. In last year’s Kent State preview, I noted that the Flashes’ biggest problem in 2015 may have been run efficiency, and that to improve from worst-in-FBS status, “it's clear that Kent will have to actually be able to run a little bit.”

Kent State could! Don Treadwell’s offense improved from 120th to 81st in Rushing S&P+. In theory, that helped to create far more third-and-manageable situations.

Unfortunately, either freshmen or converted running backs were throwing, and the Flashes fell from 124th to 128th, dead last, in FBS passing. Kent quarterbacks completed just 50 percent of their passes (despite frequently dumping the ball to running backs out of the backfield, no less) and topped a 111 passer rating just twice against FBS defenses. The result: an offense that was still drastically inefficient, and not in an “all-or-nothing” way.

Kent State offensive efficiency and explosiveness.

The first step toward addressing Kent’s new biggest problem: Get everyone healthy. Justin Agner won the starting quarterback job as a true freshman and got hurt in the season opener against Penn State. Redshirt freshman Mylik Mitchell took over, then broke his wrist against Alabama. And when Holley got hurt and missed the season finale, it was George Bollas’ turn.

Be it with Holley, Mitchell, Agner, Bollas, or an incoming freshman like three-star Dustin Crum, continuity would mean a ton. It’s hard for QB-to-WR rapport to build if the QB is changing every week.

Fix your quarterback issues definitively, and you can move to the next issue: Does Kent have any receivers?

Leading wideout Ernest Calhoun and tight end Brice Fackler are gone, leaving slot man Raekwon James and a set of returning backup options who were less than impressive last year. Starting X receiver Johnny Woods caught just six of 23 passes for 48 yards — an almost inconceivable 2.1 yards per target — and sophomores Kavious Price, Mike Carrigan, and Trey Harrell combined for 42 targets, 23 catches, and 198 yards. Be it because of the quarterbacks or receivers, those numbers are gross. No wonder so many passes were directed at the running backs.

The passing game might not have to be good to free up space for an interesting run game. Holley is a unique weapon who averaged 5.7 yards per non-sack carry, and Mitchell was averaging a decent 4.8 per carry pre-injury. Meanwhile, three sophomores (Rankin, Will Matthews, part-time running back Price) flashed serious explosiveness, albeit through freshman-level efficiency.

NCAA Football: Kent State at Penn State
Justin Rankin
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Treadwell is throwing everything he can think of against the wall to see what sticks. He has a ton of mighty-mite guys — Rankin and James are 5’9, Matthews is 5’7, Price is 5’6, and Holley is a towering 5’10 — and tries to get them the ball in different areas of the field. There’s enough experience and versatility here to make things interesting, but you need your quarterback to actually deliver a ball downfield and a receiver to actually catch it.

NCAA Football: Kent State at Toledo
Raekwon James (24) and George Bollas (2)
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Kent State defensive radar

Kent State’s offense improved enough in 2016 to make opposing offenses work a little bit harder. Opponents had been able to stay rather vanilla in 2015, and a talented Kent State defense was able to take advantage. The Golden Flashes ranked 19th in Def. S&P+, allowing just 4.9 yards per play and giving up more than 6 per play just three times.

Those numbers slipped a bit, but only so much. Kent still allowed only 5.2 yards per play but fell to 65th in Def. S&P+. As with 2015, the pass defense was aggressive and exciting, but run defense remained an issue.

So was fatigue; after allowing 5 yards per play over 69.8 snaps per game through nine contests, those averages rose to 5.7 and 87, respectively, and the Flashes allowed at least 31 points in each of those games. A 42-7 loss to 4-8 Bowling Green was humbling, and it isn’t a coincidence that Kent played these three games without star safety Nate Holley.

NCAA Football: Miami (Ohio) at Kent State
Juantez McRae
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

At first glance, the balance could shift. Coordinator Ben Needham’s defense returns three of its top four tackles (including senior Jon Cunningham) and a pair of seasoned linebackers in Jim Jones and James Alexander. In theory, the run defense will either hold steady or improve.

The pass defense might have some issues. Star pass rusher Terence Waugh is gone, as are three of the top four safeties (including Holley). Juantez McRae is the only returning safety who recorded more than five tackles last year, and not a single returning defender recorded more than one sack. If you’re making fewer big plays in the backfield and suffering a few more glitches in the back, that is an issue.

There is depth at cornerback, at least. Last year’s top four (Jerrell Foster, Jamal Parker, Demetrius Monday, Darryl Marshall) are all back after combining for six interceptions and 16 breakups (much of which came from Foster).

Still, the edge guys face the burden of proof. End Theo Eboigbe is the default leader at end after recording five tackles for loss, but sophomore end Alex Hoag or a freshman linebacker might need to deliver quickly. The same goes for former three-star recruits like sophomore Akeam Peters, junior Erik Simpson, sophomore Carlos Pickett, or freshman Elvis Hines at safety. The offense might be improving just in time for the defense to further regress.

NCAA Football: Kent State at Minnesota
Jon Cunningham (90)
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Kent State was really only bad at one aspect of special teams — Shane Hynes’ kickoffs almost never reached the end zone, and the coverage unit was only decent, not great. That resulted in a kickoff efficiency ranking of 115th. Everything else was in the 60s to 80s range, neither strength nor weakness.

Everybody’s back, which is nice, but considering how many tiny speedsters Kent State has, uncovering a couple who can rip off some nice returns would help immensely. Having a mostly neutral special teams unit might be OK when you’re otherwise strong, but Kent could use all the help it can get.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep at Clemson 6 -40.4 1%
9-Sep Howard NR 30.2 96%
16-Sep at Marshall 101 -8.8 31%
23-Sep at Louisville 14 -36.2 2%
30-Sep Buffalo 128 7.0 66%
7-Oct at Northern Illinois 86 -11.7 25%
14-Oct Miami (Ohio) 88 -6.4 35%
21-Oct at Ohio 103 -7.7 33%
31-Oct Bowling Green 95 -4.7 39%
8-Nov at Western Michigan 74 -16.0 18%
14-Nov Central Michigan 97 -4.3 40%
21-Nov at Akron 122 -2.6 44%
Projected S&P+ Rk 123
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 125 / 91
Projected wins 4.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -12.1 (113)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 128 / 125
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 11 / 4.3
2016 TO Luck/Game +2.8
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 54% (62%, 47%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 4.1 (-1.1)

The bad news, from an S&P+ (or eyeballs) perspective, is that there’s no reason to believe Kent State will be dramatically better. The cynical/obvious suspicion is that the school kept Haynes around so it didn’t have to pay for a buyout. But you’d like to think there’s still a chance Haynes can move the ball forward.

The good news is that the schedule offers opportunities. (So did last year’s.) If the Golden Flashes can exceed their projections by just a little, the fact that they face five teams projected 101st or worse (not to mention four more between 86th and 97th) could pay off.

There’s not much room for error, though. A quarterback has to both step forward and remain on the damn field. A couple of receivers have to emerge as downfield threats. The run defense has to improve enough to offset regression in pass defense. If those things happen — and, one by one, none is unrealistic — then maybe there’s a path forward for Haynes at his alma mater.


Team preview stats

All preview data to date.