Flashes football returns to the field for spring practice

Tim Dorst

The Kent State football team took the field on a chilly Tuesday morning for the first time since completing its most successful season in more than 40 years, and it did so with a new head coach. Paul Haynes, hired in December to replace two-year head coach Darrell Hazell, stepped onto the turf of Dix Stadium wearing shorts and a Kent State sweatshirt for the first of 14 spring practices scheduled for the month of April.

It was a feeling of nostalgia for Haynes, who played safety for the Flashes from 1987-91 and worked as a special teams coach at Kent State from 1999-2000. Haynes was certainly eager to begin his new role with his old team, and the anticipation for the first spring practice made sleeping the night before difficult.

“I kept waking up and getting ready because I couldn’t wait for this day to get here,” Haynes said in a press release. “It was an awesome feeling to finally get out here on the game field. I hadn’t been back out there in a long time, so it was great to get out there and run around with the guys and watch them compete.”

Not all coaches in college football are willing to take a hands-on approach to instructing their players, but Haynes did not hesitate to take a more physical angle with his coaching strategy. Whether it was holding blocking pads during individual drills or working personally with the safeties, Haynes found ways to keep himself involved as the players began their task of getting into game shape before the 2013 season commences.

Haynes said his moving around the field during practice and staying physically involved is just a part of his character as a coach and teacher.

“I’m not a stand-around guy,” Haynes said. “I probably never will be. I have to stay involved in some way. You’ll never see me just standing around. It’s just not me.”

Haynes said while different players may respond differently to his method of coaching, it’s all about being himself every time he hits the field.

“I’ve just got to be me, and that’s who I am,” Haynes said. “To be involved and be around and moving, and I’ll probably never change until I can’t move.”

The Flashes started their practice at 8:30 a.m. and went for a little more than two hours, participating mostly in early preparation drill and condition exercises. The first day back was mostly to just get the players mentally focused and physically prepared for what lies ahead.

For senior safety Luke Wollet, it was nice seeing a head coach jump right into the action with the rest of the defense.

“It just shows that he’s a defensive-mentality coach who wants to get in there and hit just like we want to get out there and hit,” Wollet said.

Archer tries hand at punt returning

Running back Dri Archer seemingly came out of nowhere last season and quickly became one of the most dynamic players in college football. His explosive speed on kickoff returns, on which he average 34.8 yards per return and collected three return touchdowns, prompt opposing teams to avoid kicking in Archer’s direction at all costs.

Now, Archer is prepared to make it even harder for other teams and coaches to strategize against him as he spent time working on punt returns through much of the first spring practice.

Archer only returned one punt in 2012, which resulted in a four-yard loss. Despite that, Archer said he is excited for the opportunity to impact the game in yet another way and add to his repertoire.

“I feel like teams are going to stop kicking to me, so I need to find another way to get the ball,” Archer said. “It’s going to be hard for teams to punt away from me if there’s only one returner back there. So it’s going be a new road for me.”

Archer has kept himself prepared by attacking the weight room in the offseason and putting on a few more pounds of muscle mass, factors that could become apparent very early in the new season.

“I just hit the weights and added about five more pounds,” Archer said. “I got a little bit bigger, a little bit faster and more explosive.”

The idea of a faster Dri Archer could be scary for opposing coaches after the junior is coming off a season in which he rushed for 1,429 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns. Archer was also the Flashes’ primary option in the receiving game, recording 561 yards on 39 catches and four touchdowns.

Team prepared for high expectations

After qualifying for their first bowl game appearance since 1972, the Flashes will likely feel the pressure of higher expectations from supporters and critics alike than they did at the beginning for the 2012 season. But Haynes said he and the rest of team welcome that kind of pressure.

“It’s pressure, but it’s pressure that I love,” Haynes said. “It shows that we have a lot of passionate fans, which I love, so we invite that pressure. Now you know you have a program when you have those expectations every year to go to a bowl game and to be successful.”

Kent State will welcome a number of new faces this season after the departure of many key players, such as starting quarterback Spencer Keith, linebacker Luke Batton and three starting offensive linemen. There are also positions up for grabs at safety, cornerback and kicker.

Haynes said while the players on the field may be different, the overall makeup of the team will remain much like it was last season.

“We’re going to be about what we were last year,” Haynes said. “We’re not going to change that much. We’re going to be 60-40 and balanced on offense, whether it’s pass or run. It depends on what we’re going to do the best.”

These position battles, including the starting quarterback contest between returning players David Fisher and Colin Reardon, will not be settled until fall practice starts up. For Haynes, it’s about taking everything one day at a time.

“The focus is to go out there and get better every day,” Haynes said. “Focus on the fundamentals and techniques of getting better, just like they did last year. They just played good football, and that’s what we have to continue to do. If we do the little things right, big things will happen.”