Last year sure was fun, but it’s done.
That’s the message rookie Kent State head coach Paul Haynes has been attempting to hammer home since taking over the football program last January, following its record-setting 11-win 2012 season that featured its first championship of any kind (Mid-American Conference East Division) and first bowl bid in 40 years.
Tonight he’ll find out if his Golden Flashes are actually getting the message when they open the hotly anticipated 2013 campaign against FCS (formerly NCAA I-AA) foe Liberty, with KSU seeking its 11th consecutive regular-season victory and ninth straight triumph at home, whether they’re still living in the past or ready to make history of their own this year.
“I think the big thing is handling success, everyone sitting there patting you on the back telling you how great last year was,” said Haynes, a former star defensive back for Kent State. “Last year is over. There’s no reason to talk about it, no reason for anyone that stands in front of this team to say how much they enjoyed last year. You can go from the penthouse to the outhouse real fast if you keep thinking about that.”
Senior strong safety Luke Wollet, a third-year starter who earned All-MAC honors for the second straight season in 2012, believes the Flashes have gotten Haynes’ message.
“We’re all focused on this year and getting away from last year. That’s the most important thing,” said Wollet. “Last year has no effect on how we do this year. I think we’re refocused and starting to turn the corner as far as what we have to do this season to be successful.”
A successful 2013 season will need to start with a victory over the Flames, but that won’t necessarily be an easy achievement. Just ask Wake Forest, which had to eke out a 20-17 victory over Liberty in last year’s season opener despite being outgained 363-293.
“No matter who you’re playing you have to respect your opponent,” said Wollet. “You’ve seen it too many times where bigger teams lose to teams that are maybe from a conference with less talent. The MAC did a great job of illustrating that last year against the bigger conferences. You see (FCS) teams competing (with FBS teams) all the time. Liberty lost to Wake Forest last year by three points and missed a field goal, so Liberty has a good team and we know that. They aren’t gonna sneak up on us.”
The Flames (6-5 in 2012) closed last season by winning six of their last seven games to capture a share of the Big South championship in head coach Turner Gill’s rookie season. Gill, the former Nebraska star quarterback, turned Buffalo’s program around during a four-year stint from 2006-09 before accepting the top job at Kansas. Gill was fired after two years with the Jayhawks, then took over the Liberty program a year ago.
Haynes admittedly knew little about the Flames when asked about them earlier this week, especially since Gill refused to exchange film with Kent State.
“They didn’t exchange film, so we don’t know much,” said Haynes. “The thing about it is you never know a lot of times ’cause there could be some transfer guys come up and things like that. But they have a very talented football team. We’ve gotta expect anything.”
The Flames feature an explosive running back in Aldreakis Allen, who rushed for over 1,000 yards a year ago, but he’s been suspended for the first two games following an arrest in Lynchburg (Va.) for attempted robbery of a residence and malicious wounding. They do return sophomore quarterback Josh Woodrum, who completed 183-of-267 passes for 1,966 yards and 11 touchdowns with nine interceptions a year ago.
Wollet said the Flashes have been able to watch Liberty’s last six games from a year ago, along with the Wake Forest game, which Allen also missed due to a suspension.
“They run a different kind of offense, formations that you don’t normally see, and it presents a lot of challenges. A lot of motions, a lot of misdirections to see how disciplined you are,” said Wollet. “It’s a game that’ll really challenge your fundamentals. We’re gonna get a bunch of crazy stuff thrown at us that first week and see where we’re at as a defense. We’re up for that challenge.”
Defensively, junior linebacker Nick Sigmon (11 tackles for loss, First Team All-Big South in 2012) is the leading returner from a unit that surrendered a Big South-low 126 yards rushing per contest in 2012 and is considered the strength of the team this season.
So Liberty has the weapons in place to make things difficult for Kent State, and will without doubt have some surprises in store for its athletically superior FBS foe. But Haynes enters his first game as a head coach after 20 years as an assistant much more focused on his own team coming off its stunning, record-setting season than its foe.
“You’ve just gotta concentrate on yourself,” said Haynes. “We’ve just gotta keep preparing. We’ve gotta be ready to do a good job of coaching, be ready to make adjustments and just play our game. That’s what it comes down to. We’ve gotta play our game and do the things we do well.”
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