Football season preview: Watch out for the 2022 Golden Flashes

Kent+State+wide+receiver+Dante+Cephas+runs+toward+the+end+zone+for+a+touchdown+after+catching+a+Dustin+Crum+pass+in+the+first+quarter+of+the+Famous+Idaho+Potato+Bowl+game+in+Boise%2C+Idaho+on+Dec.+21%2C+2021.+The+80-yard+play+tied+the+score+at+7-7.+Kent+State+lost+to+the+University+of+Wyoming+Cowboys+52-38.+Photo+by+Bob+Christy%2F+Courtesy+of+Kent+State+University

Bob Christy / Courtesy of Kent State

Kent State wide receiver Dante Cephas runs toward the end zone for a touchdown after catching a Dustin Crum pass in the first quarter of the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl game in Boise, Idaho on Dec. 21, 2021. The 80-yard play tied the score at 7-7. Kent State lost to the University of Wyoming Cowboys 52-38. Photo by Bob Christy/ Courtesy of Kent State University

Isabella Schreck, Sports Editor

Last season’s victories created high expectations for this year, including a Mid-American Conference East title to defend.

Yet, despite any pressure, Kent State football team’s head coach Sean Lewis sounded calm and collected with only 16 days left until his team’s first game.

“This past year, we positioned ourselves in a good spot, but we have to go show and earn where we finish up,” Lewis said. “I want to make sure we continue to get better, continue to stay healthy and continue to create an environment where our guys can be the best versions of themselves. This 2022 team has to come together, and we’ve been able to start that process through training camp and will continue to carry that over the next few weeks.”

After defeating Miami in November, capturing the MAC East division for the first time since 2012, the program fought against Northern Illinois in the conference championships. But its win-streak did not continue.

Coming off a loss to the Huskies, Kent State did qualify for the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl weeks later. However, the program fell again, this time to the University of Wyoming, finishing 7-7 overall and 6-2 in the conference.

Going into this season, the Flashes were picked second in the 2022 MAC Preseason Poll.

New year, new quarterback

New starting quarterback Collin Schlee has big cleats to fill with Dustin Crum signing with the Kansas City Chiefs as an undrafted free agent.

But the redshirt junior is ready for the challenge.

“I’ve been preparing for this moment since I was a young kid,” Schlee said. “I’m excited and ready to go. Crum taught me a lot about the whole offense and how to run it, so I’m just going to follow what I’ve been doing, and hopefully we can go far.”

Finding playing time sounds tough as last season’s backup QB, but after playing in 10 games, Schlee completed 71 percent of his passes for 238 yards. He passed for one touchdown with no interceptions.

This comes on the heels of a part-time role in 2020, where he passed for 113 yards and two touchdowns in three games.

Schlee listed his versatility as his greatest strength.

“Being a dual-threat quarterback is one of my biggest strengths,” he said. “I can run the ball and get the ball downfield to outside receivers and our slot receivers, who are our weapons.”

His most prolific performances came from just that in the last two battles of the season.

At December’s MAC Championship game against Northern Illinois, Schlee came in with less than six minutes left in the fourth quarter. With five seconds on the clock, he threw his first and only touchdown of the year. Two weeks later, this time at the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, the then-redshirt sophomore threw for a season-best 72 yards.

According to his head coach, Schlee’s leadership in his new role has brought him even closer with his teammates.

“He’s open, and he’s honest,” Lewis said. “He’s willing to be vulnerable with the team, which the guys respect. And then they gravitate towards him because of that, because he knows he’s going to put them in the best position for the team to have success.”

Strong offense meets young O-line

Complementing the new starting QB will be a host of talented receivers, running backs and a strong offensive line. At season’s end, last year’s total offense ranked in the top 10 nationally in yards per game.

Wide receiver Dante Cephas remains the face of the receiving corps, leading his team in catches, yards and touchdowns.

To get these high numbers, a receiver needs a good relationship with his quarterback. The redshirt junior said that will be no problem for him and new QB Schlee this year.

“Freshman year, we actually lived together,” Cephas said. “We’ve been connected ever since. We understood that eventually he would end up being a starter. We just built that connection early so we wouldn’t waste time down the road.”

By the end of 2021, Cephas became the first KSU player to receive 1000+ yards since 1997, made first team All-MAC honors and scored nine touchdowns in his 14 games. In preparation for this season, the star receiver said he is “working on [his] intermediate routes more than the deep ball,” with the graduation of gunslinger Crum.

Returning wideouts junior Luke Floriea and senior Ja’Shaun Poke should get a significant increase in playing time with Nykeim Johnson graduated and Keshunn Abram signed with the New York Jets as an undrafted agent.

On the ground, KSU returns a solid group of running backs to help extend the playing field beyond the passing game. Junior Marquez Cooper, graduate student Xavier Williams and redshirt junior Bryan Bradford will see time in the backfield.

With 1,205 net yards gained in last year’s campaign and a third-place MAC ranking in that category, Cooper has the opportunity to lead the conference in rushing this season.

Williams finished third in the MAC with an average 6.5 yards rushes per carry. Bradford averaged 6.1 yards per carry.

Protecting Schlee on the offensive line will be a plethora of new faces.

The Flashes needed to replace eight linemen, three of whom were O-line regulars. But Schlee is not fazed by a new offensive roster.

“We’re going to be good this year,” Schlee said. “We lost Crum and a couple of other guys, but we brought back some weapons. I think we’ll be better than we were last year.”

Along with six freshmen, Kent State picked up transfers junior Kevin Toth (Rutgers) and redshirt junior Cameron Golden (Georgia State).

Center graduate student Sam Allan and guard redshirt junior Jack Bailey are last season’s only remaining starters. Graduate student Kris Leach – with two TD last season – and redshirt junior Hayden Junker – one TD – were last season’s tight- end leaders and are back this year.

Shaky defense gets new coach

The Flashes’ defense gave up more points per game on average than their offense scored last season. Adding to the defensive issues, the D-line even gave up more yards on average than their offense tallied.

But new defensive coordinator Jeremiah Johnson brings hope for different results.

“We weren’t as consistent on that side of the ball as we wanted to be, but since coach Johnson has come in, I think we’ll have a more consistent output,” Lewis said. “He’s earned our respect for the way he conducts himself day in and day out. [We’re] looking for those guys to play with relentless effort and for us to do a great job leveraging the football and flying the football.”

Before joining Kent State’s program in January 2022, Johnson had been Northern Iowa’s defensive coordinator since 2013. The Northern Iowa Panthers averaged nearly 25 points a game to its opponents’ 18 in 2021.

“The biggest thing coach Johnson has brought us defensively is giving our guys opportunities to be playmakers, to be productive on the field and do what they do best,” linebackers coach Lee Stalker said.

Up front on the line, look for junior CJ West. He led his team in sacks, logging four on last season. His best defensive moves came out against Akron in November 2021, where he recorded five tackles and three sacks.

Accompanying CJ West will be Zayin West as one of the defensive end positions. The graduate student brought his best game to Dix Stadium against Buffalo in October 2021, with 12 tackles, one for a loss.

Junior Adin Huntington and senior Saivon Taylor- Davis finished with similar individual stats that year, with three sacks and at least 34 tackles a piece.

With consistent linebackers A.J. Musolino and Mandela Lawrence-Burke graduated, the Golden Flashes are looking to veterans and freshmen for big plays.

Stalker said graduate students Khalib Johns, Marvin Pierre and Juan Wallace are leading the pack of possible week-one starters.

“They are truly the heartbeat of our core and run really hard defense,” Stalker said. “Those guys have seen a lot of football in their days, and they take it personally how we practice and how we compete.”

Excluding graduated players, Marvin Pierre led his position in solo tackles and tackles last year. Johns accrued 26 tackles and caught one interception.

Wallace transferred from Syracuse to Kent in 2020. In his two seasons with the Orange, he accrued four tackles. In 2020, he sat out but went on to total four tackles last season.

In addition to some underclassmen, expect to see athletes who have seen little playing time in the past show off their abilities, too.

“Shane Slattery has really improved himself on the field mentally and physically,” Stalker said. “Luke Murphy is another guy you may see on the field, and a couple of our true freshmen, while they’re learning now, could later in the season find themselves giving us some type of reps in games.”

Slatter, a sophomore, and Murphy, a junior, have each played only one game for the Flashes in their collegiate career so far.

As for the secondary, redshirt senior Montre Miller, last year’s interception leader, he remains at the top of the cornerback list with four interceptions. Elvis Hines, who graduated last semester, was second in interceptions.

Redshirt senior Capone Blue, who would play opposite of Miller, had a total of 15 solo tackles in his 12 appearances last season.

Leading the way at the safety position is senior Dean Clark. There are big expectations for Clark, who led the team in total tackles, acureing 116 with two tackles for loss.

Safety graduate student Nico Bolden follows up Clark with the second-most tackles at 85. Of those returning, Bolden caught the second-most interceptions.

With Johnson as defensive coordinator, Stalker has already seen improvement this offseason.

“[He’s] made our defensive line, our linebacker corps and our defensive backs extremely confident,” Stalker said. “When there’s anything we do to improve the confidence of our guys on the field, we’re going to get great results.”

Special teams

Kent State’s special teams is led by two underclassmen players, sophomores Andrew Glass and Josh Smith.

Glass, the team’s kicker, went 21-28 overall in his first year in collegiate ball. He made three of his four attempts that were between 40 and 49 yards. Smith, Kent State’s punter, averaged 36 yards in 52 punts his first season at Kent State.

Tough schedule ahead

In their first four games, the Flashes will face three Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams, two of which are on the short list of possible National Championship contenders.

As in previous years, the football program plays four non-conference teams before its first MAC game.

“It’s a great stage, and it’s a great opportunity,” Lewis said. “It’s going to be a great opportunity to go compete, learn about our team and spend a whole bunch of time together so that we can gel and become connected, which I know will help forge the relationships we’re going to need to have a great MAC Championship run in the future.”

Also like last season, three of the games will be played away.

Sept. 3: Washington Huskies, the calm before the storm

The Huskies finished last season in the bottom half of the Pac-12, however, they have updated their offense with a new quarterback. QB Michael Penix Jr., a transfer from Indiana, threw for 4,197 yards during his four-year stint with the Hoosiers.

Sept. 10: Oklahoma Sooners, Big 12 favorites

OU, under new head coach Brent Venables, is predicted to finish first in the Big 12 and ranked ninth in the Associated Press (AP) Preseason Poll. The team has won its conference in six of the past seven seasons.

Sept 17 at Dix Stadium: Long Island University Sharks, a break before the big finale

The Sharks finished second to last in the Northeast Conference last season.

Sept. 24: Georgia Bulldogs, the defending National Champions. Enough said.

Since 2016, under the tutelage of coach Kirby Smart, the Bulldogs have gone 66-17. This team is coming off a National Championship and ranks third nationally in the AP Preseason Poll. Quarterback Stetson Bennett threw 29 touchdowns last season.

While Georgia will obviously be his team’s biggest battle, Cephas said he’s especially looking forward to his first match of the season.

“I can’t wait to get out on the West Coast to play ball, see the atmosphere and get the feel of the stadium for our first time against Washington,” he said.

Oct. 1 marks the start of MAC play. Kent State’s first conference game is against Ohio University at home.

A MAC battle with Miami (OH), picked first in the East this year by the media, follows on Oct. 8. Northern Illinois and Toledo were picked first and second in the MAC West, respectively.

The RedHawks’ quarterback, junior Brett Gabbert, is a threat to look out for. Before earning All-MAC honors last season, he brought his team to a MAC championship win in 2019. Gabbert also led the conference in touchdowns in 2021.

After that matchup, Kent State travels to Toledo, which is picked to finish second in the West.

Then comes the Wagon Wheel Challenge on Oct. 22 at Dix Stadium. Kent State won the last three games against Akron.

Lewis and Cephas both said they are looking forward to battling the Zips once again.

“They’re all really tough competitions,” Lewis said, “but if there’s one that means the most to us, it’s that one with the school down the road. That one means a lot.”

Ball State comes to Kent the following week. The Flashes play at Bowling Green a week later then are back to Dix Stadium against Eastern Michigan.

Kent State’s final regular-season game hits Nov. 26 at Buffalo.

Even in his rookie year as starting quarterback, Schlee hopes to lead his team to another successful season.

“[I’m looking forward to] walking out there on the first play of the game and seeing the atmosphere that we’re going to play in,” Schlee said, “and then being able to represent Kent State in a nice way, bringing a winning season to Kent State football and bringing back a MAC Championship and a bowl game.”

Isabella Schreck is sports editor. Contact her at [email protected]