Sure his Golden Flashes were given about as

By Allen Moff Record-Courier staff writer Published:

Sure his Golden Flashes were given about as much respect as the great Rodney himself, but if the shoe fits ...

"The bottom line is that we haven't done anything to give anyone any reason to vote us any higher," Pees readily admitted. "You've got to earn respect. No one's going to hand it to you."

Last year's disappointing 1-10 showing obviously didn't impress MAC media members, who placed Kent State (107) ahead of only Buffalo in the East. But while Pees understands their logic, he also believes his '01 Flashes have the ability to prove them wrong.

"Maybe things have progressed a little slower than we expected, but I'm really excited about the group we've developed," said Pees. "We'll finally put mostly juniors and seniors on the field instead of freshmen and sophomores, so that in itself is a source for optimism."

Kent State's veteran defensive front seven should be extremely solid this fall, although the secondary remains a question mark. But the biggest mystery overall remains at the most integral position _ quarterback.

Redshirt sophomore Ben McDaniels, who once guided local high school power Canton McKinley to a pair of state titles, emerged from spring drills as KSU's No. 1 signal-caller. McDaniels' leadership skills are exceptional, but he has thrown just 10 passes as a collegian and isn't as physically gifted (6-foot, 175 pounds) as most Division I-A quarterbacks.

"Ben's not a prototypical quarterback. He's not big or tall, but he's a winner," said Pees. "He brings intangibles to the huddle that I'm not sure any quarterback has in this program for a long, long time."

Still, Pees insists that highly-touted recruit Joshua Cribbs (Washington D.C. Dunbar High School) will be given an opportunity to win the starting quarterback job during two-a-days.

"Josh was just named the MVP of an all-star game in Maryland. He can definitely play," said Pees. "We're going to decide who our quarterback is five or six days into two-a-days, and we're going to go with him."

Not surprisingly, the MAC teams picked to win their respective divisions have established quarterbacks returning in 2001.

Four-time defending champion Marshall (344 points, 41 first-place votes) was an overwhelming choice to win the East thanks in major part to heralded junior Byron Leftwich, who threw for 3,358 yards and 21 touchdowns as a first-year starter in '00.

Toledo (287, 36) edged reigning West winner Western Michigan (254, 14) in the division voting, and was also declared the favorite to win the MAC Championship Game that will be hosted by the West champ on Nov. 30. The Rockets have nearly every key performer from last year's 10-1 squad returning in 2001, including senior quarterback Tavares Bolden (1,987 all-purpose yards, 16 TDs) and senior tailback Chester Taylor (1,470 yards rushing, 18 TDs).

"We're picked No. 1 because we have (16) starters back, but that doesn't guarantee us one victory," said rookie coach Tom Amstutz, an 11-year Rocket assistant who took over the program after former mentor Gary Pinkel (Kent State) was hired as head coach at Missouri. "We're going to start from scratch and build a football team. If we were picked last, we'd approach it the same way."

Defending East Division co-champion Akron was chosen fourth in the East despite having 13 starters back in uniform. Likely reasons for the predicted drop include the loss of quarterback Butchie Washington, who is currently playing for the CFL's Hamilton franchise, and a brutal schedule that includes road dates with Ohio State, Purdue, Western Michigan, Miami, Marshall and Central Florida.

"I think with (sophomore) Nick Sparks and several other guys playing well at quarterback that we'll be fine there," said seventh-year Zips coach Lee Owens. "Playing seven road games is certainly tough, but we actually played better on the road last year than we did at home. I think experience and maturity helps you when you travel, and we have that. So the schedule may not be as big a concern as some people have made it out to be."

Akron and Kent State's freshmen will report for camp on Monday, Aug. 6, followed by the veterans on Thursday, Aug. 9.

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E-mail: amoff@recordpub.net

Phone: (330) 678-5460

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