Spring couldn't come soon enough for the Kent State football team. The Golden Flashes would like nothing more than to put behind them a disappointing 2007 campaign that started with so much promise but ended with seven straight losses.
With 15 spring sessions scheduled through April 19, the Golden Flashes will work to replace several key starters and develop the depth that might help them overcome the key injuries that doomed their season last fall.
Head coach Doug Martin was excited by what he saw during the first session Wednesday morning at Dix Stadium.
"I was very impressed with the retention; we've got a lot of starters coming back, a lot of experience, and we were able to do things for our first practice that was well ahead of where you normally are," Martin said. "I liked the way the kids ran around; they showed a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of speed."
Heading into spring, Martin knew he had several key issues to resolve. The first is to replace guards Joe Marafine and Shawn Donaldson. Newcomer Mike Roder, a transfer from Scottsdale Community College, and redshirt freshman Mike Fay have an early hold on the spots.
"The guard situation, I feel pretty comfortable with," he said. "I think what I've seen from Mike Roder, once he learns the system, he's going to be pretty good. Physically, he's stronger and more athletic than the guards we played with last year and so is Michael Fay. So, I really kind of like what we have going there."
There might not be a position more closely contested than the quarterback spot. Rising senior Julian Edelman returns as the starter after having his junior season cut short after breaking his arm. He hobbled through most of the first eight games on a knee he injured in the second game of the season.
His replacement, freshman Giorgio Morgan, lasted just six quarters before having his season end with a knee injury. But, both players showed Martin enough to prove they both can win games when called upon.
"The quarterback deal I'm really confident in Giorgio and Julian to be able to make plays and I've seen them do that in games," Martin said. "I think that's going to be an interesting competition and I think it's going to make both of them better. I'm not against playing them both next year if it comes down to that."
While all eyes will be on the quarterback situation, the Golden Flashes have an even bigger need in the defensive secondary where they have to replace standouts Jack Williams at cornerback and Fritz Jacques at safety.
"The most pressing issue for me is in the secondary," Martin said. "We really didn't play the ball very well last year, pass defense, I think we need some people to step up back there and prove that they can go get the ball and make plays."
Over the next several weeks, the Kent State players will eat, sleep and drink football. The coaches will push them to learn the playbook, their responsibilities and develop the timing that will help them during game situations next fall.
But, the players aren't the only ones expected to learn. Martin said it's important that he continues to learn as he gains more and more coaching experience.
"I think any time you stop learning you're finished," he said. "You're not going to get any better."
Martin said he learned a lot last season watching Edelman play through the knee pain that hampered his performance. If he had to do it over again-knowing what he knows now-he said he'd have inserted Morgan at quarterback much earlier in the season.
"In our situation, at the time obviously I didn't know that Giorgio would be that good when he came in and we didn't really know the extent of Julian's injury," he said. "He's pretty good at playing with pain and doesn't show it. The kid was really hurt, bad, but we didn't know it at the time.
"That's part of learning. Now that Giorgio has that experience it would be a lot easier to make that decision."
Learning the hard way, like Martin did last season with the quarterback issue, often can cut a coach's career short. That's why Martin takes every chance he can to pick the brain of successful coaches around the country.
"I think there's a lot of things you can learn that's why one of the things I love doing is talking to a lot of older coaches that have been around," he said. (Former longtime college coach) Jim Young came in here and gave us great advice a couple years ago; April 8 I've got (former Northern Illinois head coach) Joe Novak coming in here for four days. He's going to watch us practice and evaluate us-coaches, players and everything. There's a great guy to learn from; he's got experience that will take me 30 years to get."
Asking for advice from others might be difficult for some coaches, but Martin has no trouble pushing aside his sports ego to improve himself.
"All athletes and coaches I think have egos, it's just sports and I'm sure (I'm) the worst," he said. "I just have a lot of respect for what Joe did because he took over the same type of program I did and he's been very gracious to me every year. I just thought, you know what, there's a guy that just retired that would probably like to do it. I talked to him and he was more than willing to do it. I think it will be good for us."
Now you see them, now you don't
Each year every college football team across the country signs a new crop of talented high school football players to fill holes in its roster. And each year every college team-Kent State included-loses some of its scholarship players. Whether it's due to academics, discipline or personal reasons, many players opt to leave school.
This year the Golden Flashes lost several players, but Martin isn't concerned with the players that depart the program.
"We had a couple that were academic issues, a couple were off the field issues," he said. "We've instilled a real discipline in our players here that there's a standard you have to hold on to. So, if they couldn't hold up to that then you move on. Some guys always see themselves as maybe not being able to play and want to transfer to I-AA. That to me is usually a pretty healthy deal though because you are weeding out weak links and I think we've done that."
Many of those players leave on good terms with the coaching staff. A parent of one departed player contacted the KentSportsReport.com staff to pass along some kind words for the coaching staff.
"My son was having academic problems and coach Martin told him he could take some time away from football to get his academics in order and not worry about football," the parent said. "We think the world of coach Martin."
No Meat Grinder in 2008
Last fall Kent State opened the 2007 season at Iowa State then played at Kentucky, a second straight BCS conference school, before opening the home schedule with Delaware State. Later, the Golden Flashes traveled to Columbus to face Ohio State. That's not exactly the type of schedule that leads to a successful non-conference season for a mid-major program.
"When you have to face Ohio State, Kentucky, Iowa State in one year, that's tough duty on anybody," Martin said.
The 2008 schedule is a bit more favorable.
"I was really, really pleased with it, particularly the non-conference schedule," Martin said. "We've got Boston College who will be a Top 20 team; it's going to be a difficult challenge. Then we've got Iowa State, who's another BCS team that is up and coming that we played very well last year. We got Louisiana-Lafayette, a team very similar to us, then Delaware State again. I think that's a very fair non-conference schedule and I think it's one that will help us get better."
That slate of non-conference games is exactly what was suggested by Coach Young several years ago.
"When Jim Young came here a couple years ago he gave us a model of what we should follow as far as the type of teams we want to schedule; this is really the first time we've hit that model," Martin said.
Bring on the Buckeyes
While Martin is satisfied with the 2008 schedule, he'd much rather face the No. 1 team in the country every week then watch his son Cory pitch for the Kent State baseball team.
"I would rather play Ohio State any time than to watch him pitch, as far as the nerves," Martin said. "I enjoy watching him pitch, but it is a nerve-wracking deal."
During spring break Martin had the chance to hit the road and catch his son pitch for the Golden Flashes.
"I've traveled to a couple of games here over spring break. I got to watch him play on the computer when they played Washington State. I went down and watched them play at Greensboro and at Louisville and I watched him (Tuesday) here at home," he said. "It's fun. He's the typical freshman. He's learning how to compete at a higher level. I think he's really enjoying it and he's really happy with the choice he made."
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