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Kent State’s new coach has already brought a little hope to one of college football’s hardest jobs

Sean Lewis is attempting an identity change and has to know it’ll take a while. But he wanted the job. That’s enough for now.

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Kent State

The DNA bleeds over from school to school in the MAC. There is no particularly storied program, no planet around which most of the conference’s history orbits. Instead, there’s a collective of memories.

Kent State has a couple of high-ranking teams on that collective list.

  • That team that had Don James, Nick Saban, Jack Lambert, and Gary Pinkel. In 1972, James’ Golden Flashes won the MAC and went to the Tangerine Bowl against Tampa — a game I wrote about in The 50 Best* College Football Teams of All Time — with a six-time national champion coach at safety, Pro Football Hall of Famer at linebacker, and Missouri’s future all-time wins leader at tight end. They went just 6-5-1 that year and 9-2 the next, but this team is brought up more than any other MAC team in history.
  • The 2012 team. After a long drought, Kent surged from 5-7 to 11-1 under Darrell Hazell, beating a ranked Rutgers, rising to 18th in the AP poll, and going to overtime in the MAC Championship with a surprising Orange Bowl bid on the line. They fell short, 44-37, and Hazell left for Purdue.

I just named almost literally the only two good teams in Kent State’s FBS history. The Flashes have bowled only twice, and in the 30 seasons since Glen Mason went 7-4 and left after his second season, they have enjoyed just the single winning year. Worse, they have won between zero and two games in 14 of those seasons.

Early in this annual preview series, I talk about a lot of the hardest jobs in FBS. UTEP is hard. ULM is hard. There are plenty of competitors. But in terms of results, Kent State has a case to make as the hardest of the bunch.

From 2004-10, Doug Martin won either five or six games at Kent four times in seven years before resigning; looking back, that’s almost as big a miracle as his latest accomplishment, taking NMSU to its first bowl in 57 years.

Paul Haynes succeeded Hazell in 2013 and proceeded to win just 12 games in four years. It was easy to assume that he would be fired following a 3-9 2016, but it was like the school never got around to it. He was run out the rest of his contract 2017, too, and while he fought off a cancer scare, he could still only win two more games.

Kent finally put itself on the market for a new coach ... and struggled to find many options. After names like South Dakota head coach Bob Nielson and former Ohio State offensive coordinator Ed Warinner wafted in and out, athletic director Joel Nielsen ended up homing in on Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich and Syracuse offensive co-coordinator Sean Lewis. He chose the latter. More importantly, Lewis accepted.

Coaching hires are a crap shoot. The success of the search and the success of the hire are often at odds — Pete Carroll famously being USC’s sixth choice in 2000 is the shining example. And while hiring the co-OC of a team that went 8-16 over the last two years isn’t going to move the needle, Lewis still has a chance.

He hired some hungry, young assistants, and on short notice they went out and signed an improbably good recruiting class. Per the 247Sports Composite, their 2018 haul ranked fifth in the MAC — their highest mark since the 2009 class that featured quite a few 2012 difference-makers — and included twice as many three-star prospects (eight) as the previous two classes combined (four).

Recruiting is only the first piece of the puzzle, but Lewis immediately provided fans with hope that hadn’t existed in a while.

Offense

2017 Kent State offensive radar

Haynes’ final season never really had a chance to succeed, in part because it was an extreme lame-duck situation and in part because whatever talent the two-deep had couldn’t stay on the field.

  • In 2016, Nick Holley moved from receiver to quarterback and brought a brief spark to the offense; in 2017, he lasted three games before injuring his knee.
  • QB Mylik Mitchell, the rare three-star signee, started against Alabama as a redshirt freshman in 2016 and broke his wrist (which eventually led to Holley moving from WR to QB); in 2017, he suffered a knee injury before the season even began.
  • Running back Myles Washington missed nine games, and Will Matthews missed three.
  • The left guard and right tackle positions became revolving doors, and in total, seven linemen ended up making at least four starts each. (Five return in 2018.)

Three different QBs threw at least 20 passes in 2017 — this after four threw at least 15 passes in 2016 — and for the second straight year, former walk-on running back Justin Rankin led the team in receptions. For the fourth straight season, the Golden Flashes ranked in the nation’s bottom 10 in Off. S&P+ — bottom two, actually. Only UTEP’s was worse.

This presents an obvious problem for Lewis and coordinator Andrew Sowder. The two worked together under Dino Babers at both Eastern Illinois (2012-13) and Bowling Green (2014-15), and, well, the Babers offense is a passing offense.

Syracuse ran the ball just 48 percent of the time on standard downs last year, 122nd in FBS. Kent State? Seventy-one percent (19th). Syracuse’s top two wideouts caught 194 passes last year; Kent State’s caught 31. Not that Kent had much of an offensive identity beyond “bad,” but to the extent that there was one, the shift will be stark.

Kent State v Clemson
Trey Harrell
Photo by Todd Bennett/Getty Images

They won’t lack for options at QB, at least. As of December, Bollas was weighing whether or not to remain in Kent, and Holley, potentially a candidate for a sixth-year of eligibility, was unsure as well. But with or without them, the Flashes will still have Mitchell — if the run of bad injuries luck is over, anyway — along with sophomore Dustin Crum, whose marginal efficiency and explosiveness were both better than Bollas’ in a small sample size.

They’ll also have Woody Barrett. The mid-three-star JUCO transfer, and former Auburn signee, was the gem of Lewis’ first recruiting class after passing for 1,294 yards and rushing for 485 yards in nine games at Copiah-Lincoln CC in 2017. Throw in three-star true freshman Marquez Glover, and maybe there’s a solid QB somewhere in there?

I’m curious how they’ll utilize Rankin. At 5’9, 206 pounds, Rankin was more successful as a receiver (just 7.4 yards per catch, but with the best marginal efficiency on the team) than a running back and could be interesting in the slot. That would open up opportunity for big sophomore Kesean Gamble (also a linebacker), Mathews, Washington, or JUCO transfer Jo-El Shaw at RB. No matter what, it’ll be hard for the run game to get worse.

Juniors Trey Harrell, Mike Carrigan, and Kavious Price at least proved that they could occasionally haul in passes downfield. They caught just 38 of 87 passes in 2017 but averaged 19.9 yards per catch between them. And Lewis signed five freshman receivers as well, including three-stars Keke McFadden and Isaiah McKoy.

Defense

2017 Kent State defensive radar

Kent’s constant offensive ineptitude was made even more frustrating by the fact that it wasted a lot of decent defenses. Kent has ranked 75th or better in Def. S&P+ seven times in the last 12 years but has had only one semi-viable offense in that time.

Last year’s defense (87th) was one of Haynes’ worst, but it still wasn’t the problem. The Golden Flashes were, as usual, undersized but speedy. They were all sorts of disruptive — fourth in Adj. Sack Rate, 30th in stuff rate — but also sturdy in short-yardage situations (19th in power success rate).

Kent seemed to know its only chance of winning was to make big stops on defense and was willing to risk big gains in search of them. The result was admirably all-or-nothing: the Flashes ranked 42nd in success rate but allowed 3.1 gains per game of 30-plus yards, 120th in FBS.

It will be interesting to see how much that changes with the offensive shift. In theory, taking risks and attacking makes sense when you’ve got (what you intend to be) a fast-paced offense — it could create turnover opportunities, and if nothing else, giving up big plays prevents you from getting fatigued.

New defensive coordinator Tom Kaufman’s style, however, appears to be based around containment. Kaufman worked with Lewis as a position coach at EIU, BGSU, and Syracuse before taking over the Chattanooga defense in 2017 and thriving. The Mocs allowed just 326.4 yards and 25.8 points per game despite a hapless offense, but they did so with only a 13.6 percent havoc rate. That would have ranked 104th in FBS in 2017.

NCAA Football: Kent State at Louisville
Jamal Parker
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Kent returns most of last year’s two-deep, though only two of last year’s six most disruptive players return. Junior nickel Jamal Parker (two tackles for loss, 12 passes defensed) and senior OLB Jim Jones (eight TFLs, six sacks) will be useful with any defensive identity, but along with maybe undersized tackle Theo Majette (6.5 TFLs, four sacks) or safety Mandela Lawrence-Burke (6.5 TFLs), they are the only proven attackers.

Still, experience will be an asset. Unless he takes a particular liking to some of the newcomers, Kaufman could start a lineup of mostly juniors and seniors. There’s not a lot of size here — that appeared to be a focus of the 2018 class — but once again, I’m doubting defense will be Kent’s issue.

NCAA Football: Kent State at Alabama
Jim Jones
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Kent has the thing a bad offense needs most — a good punter in Derek Adams, who averaged 43.6 yards per kick despite being asked to punt 79 times, 11th most in FBS. He averaged just 39.3 yards over his final three games, but we’ll blame that on fatigue. He’s solid, as is the punt return tandem of Raymond James and Kavious Price.

The Golden Flashes will have a new place-kicker, but that’s not as much of a concern until the offense is actually worth something.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at Illinois 99 -10.3 28%
8-Sep Howard NR 26.6 94%
15-Sep at Penn State 8 -38.1 1%
22-Sep at Ole Miss 25 -28.7 5%
29-Sep at Ball State 117 -5.9 37%
6-Oct Ohio 68 -13.0 23%
13-Oct at Miami (Ohio) 82 -15.8 18%
20-Oct Akron 119 -0.3 49%
30-Oct at Bowling Green 97 -11.5 25%
6-Nov at Buffalo 93 -12.4 24%
15-Nov Toledo 49 -16.8 17%
23-Nov Eastern Michigan 96 -6.7 35%
Projected S&P+ Rk 127
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 127 / 99
Projected wins 3.5
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -12.2 (118)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 119 / 126
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -7 / -3.9
2017 TO Luck/Game -1.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 78% (88%, 68%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 2.3 (-0.3)

Kent is undergoing a massive shift in offensive identity and might be changing the focus of its defense, too. When you’ve been so bad for so long, that’s not exactly a scary thing, but it does mean that any major progress might take a while.

So be it. Lewis made a lovely statement with his first recruiting class, and if the Haynes tenure proved anything, it’s that Kent realizes it has to be patient. That’s good because even if there’s some improvement this year, the schedule is rugged enough that wins will be few and far between.

The Golden Flashes travel to Penn State and Ole Miss in non-conference, and the home-road split in MAC play is awkward — Toledo and Ohio come to Kent but are probably too good for an upset, and games against Ball State, BGSU, and Buffalo, which might be semi-winnable at home, are on the road. S&P+ gives Kent a better than 28 percent chance of winning in just four games, better than 37 percent in just two.

So yeah. This will probably take some time.

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