The Kent State football team was riding high, winning its first three games and looking to compete in the Mid-American Conference Championship.
A blowout loss to Buffalo and two cancellations due to COVID-19 later, the 2020 season was over.
But the Flashes are expected to bounce back in a big way. They have been polled to win the East Division of the MAC. Head coach Sean Lewis signed a five-year contract extension with the team. Just two years ago, Lewis led the team to its first bowl win.
If Lewis can lead KSU to a winning record, it would be the first time since 1971-73 that the Flashes would have three consecutive winning seasons.
In the 2020 season, the Flashes were an offensive powerhouse. They led the MAC in points per game, with an average of 49.8, and in yards per game, with an average of 606.5. Toledo, who was second, only averaged 494.
Quarterback Dustin Crum is returning for his fifth season as a Flash after the NCAA approved a waiver granting fall sport athletes an additional year of eligibility.
Crum was a First-Team All-MAC player in 2020. He threw for 1,182 yards and 12 touchdowns with only two interceptions. He led the conference in completion percentage with 73.2 percent.
He is just as dangerous with his feet, leading MAC quarterbacks in rushing yards (240) and rushing touchdowns (4) last season.
Crum has received national attention, not only for being the best quarterback in the MAC, but being one of the best in all of college football. The upcoming season has big implications for his future, including the possibility of being picked in the NFL draft.
Lewis said that all of that is the last thing on Crum’s mind.
“The beauty of who [Crum] is and what he’s about,” Lewis said. “Is the last thing he’s thinking about is ‘Hey, I got to have a great game so I can look good individually to help my draft status.’”
The Flashes lost wide receiver Isaiah McKoy, who led the team in virtually every receiving stat category, to the NFL.
Junior Ja’Shaun Poke is expected to be a top target for Crum. He averaged 81.5 yards per game along with three touchdowns on the season. Isaac Vance, in his fifth year with the team, and redshirt sophomore Dante Cephas also return.
Nykeim Johnson, a transfer from Syracuse who averaged around 30 yards per game, will also be a part of the receiving core.
KSU had four rushers who had over 200 yards in the 2020 season, including Crum. All four of those players return this season, with sophomore Marquez Cooper leading the backfield. Cooper led the team with 282 rushing yards while averaging a team high 70.5 yards per game. He also had a team-leading five rushing touchdowns.
Redshirt sophomore Bryan Bradford, who was second on the team in rushing yards per game (63.5) and total yards (254), and Xavier Williams, who is in his fifth year on the team and led the team with an average of eight yards per carry last season, are both also expected to bolster the backfield.
Along with aiding the rushing game, the Flashes’ offensive line only allowed five sacks in four games, third in the MAC in sacks per game. They are one of the most experienced lines in the MAC, with four of the five players having at least three years of experience.
The right side of the line looks to be extremely formidable, with fifth year right guard Nathan Monnin and redshirt senior right tackle Bill Kuduk both receiving All-Conference honors last season.
Defense was one of the biggest problems plaguing the Flashes in 2019. They gave up 473.5 yards per game, the worst in the MAC.
KSU cut that down to 424 yards per game in 2020, putting it in the middle among MAC teams.
A big reason for that improvement was the Flashes’ secondary. They allowed only 162 passing yards per game, two touchdowns and a completion percentage of .516, the best in the MAC.
The Flashes have some intimidating pass rushers who are returning this season.
Linebacker Kesean Gamble, in his fifth year with the team, had three sacks along with six tackles for a loss, both team-highs. Redshirt sophomore linebacker Brandon Coleman adds to KSU’s linebacker threat. He had three sacks and four tackles for a loss in 2020.
The area the Flashes need the most improvement in is their run defense. They gave up 262 rushing yards per game, second most in the MAC. They allowed 19 rushing touchdowns, tied for the most, and an average of 6.2 yards per carry, third among MAC teams.
Lewis said their defense is where games will be won.
“The rush defense has been talked about a lot recently,” he said. “We know that we have got to be better, and our kids have embraced that challenge.”
KSU lost one of the best kickers in all of college football when Matthew Trickett transferred to Minnesota. They also lost punter Ian Henzi when he graduated, leaving the team with the need for two new kickers.
Freshman Josh Smith will be taking over the punting duties while freshman Andrew Glass won the kicking job.
Poke will be a key player in the Flashes’ return team as he led the team in return yards per kickoff with 25.25 last season.
KSU is looking at a bounce back season where it not only has the potential to return to the MAC Championship, but to get the second bowl victory in school history.
The Flashes have a dangerous offense, with one of the best quarterbacks in college football at the helm. They have a solid passing defense, but their run defense is lacking. If they improve in the run game, they may be one of the most complete teams in college football.
KSU opens up the season at Texas A&M on Saturday at 8 p.m. It will be its first non-conference game since 2019, and with the Aggies ranked No. 7 in the nation, it will be a tough first challenge for the Flashes.
Jimmy Oswald is a sports editor. Contact him at email@example.com