By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
Kent State football coach Paul Haynes missed his second straight spring practice on Wednesday because of pneumonia.
Haynes fell ill last week, then made a trip to Robinson Memorial Hospital following practice on Saturday and was diagnosed with pneumonia. He has not been with the team since then.
Offensive coordinator Brian Rock, a fourth-year assistant coach for the Golden Flashes, who has coached in the collegiate ranks since 1985, stood in for Haynes and addressed the team following Wednesday morning's practice.
"(Haynes is) a little under the weather, but he's done a great job of putting everything in place," said Rock. "It's our job to make sure that practice operates smoothly. He gave us the practice plans weeks ago, so it's all in place. We've gotta drive the train."
Haynes has reportedly been unable to speak for several days. Kent State director of football operations Zack Tilves, who is typically in constant contact with Haynes regarding various team issues, has been sending messages to Haynes' wife, Danita, who passes them on when possible. Danita then forwards Haynes' reply back to Tilves.
No one is sure when Haynes will return to the team.
"The head coach is kind of the guy that sets the tempo," said Rock. "Each individual coach just needs to step up and take care of his job."
Tight end Casey Pierce shines in practice
Casey Pierce stole the show during Wednesday morning's spring practice.
The redshirt senior tight end made big plays all over the field, the best of the best being a 40-yard touchdown pass he hauled in after splitting out wide and beating the safety on a go-route down the sideline.
"I like being on the outside. It gives me a little bit of room to work," said a smiling Pierce. "I like to go up top. I play basketball all the time and I hate when guys bounce pass it in to me, just throw it up and I'll go get it."
Pierce emerged as a unique weapon in the passing game last season, when the 6-foot-4, 235-pound former walk-on from Parma Normandy caught a team-high five touchdown passes and finished third on the team in catches (33) and receiving yards (364).
But if Wednesday's practice is any indication, last year's production may have merely provided a hint of what's to come. Pierce's size and athleticism make him a receiving threat that opponents are going to have an even more difficult time dealing with next fall.
"He's progressed really well," said KSU offensive coordinator Brian Rock. "We've always thought he was a real good passing threat, and we want him to continue to improve in the run-blocking aspect. But he's got a chance to be a really good tight end."
Pierce had to endure some difficult times before earning his shot to shine.
After playing quarterback in high school, Pierce switched to tight end and was redshirted as a freshman in 2010 under then-Kent State head coach Doug Martin. While making the position adjustment he continued to toil in anonymity during the early portion of his collegiate career.
"I was a walk-on the first two years. That was probably the toughest thing I've ever done in my life honestly," said Pierce. "Grueling football every day without seeing anything from it is pretty tough. But I started making an impact, and finally got my full-ride scholarship."
Pierce still remembers the day his second head coach at Kent State, current Purdue mentor Darrell Hazell, awarded him a scholarship like it was yesterday.
"My sophomore season after the fourth game, coach Hazell pulled me into his office. He gave me, (former offensive lineman) Pat McSane and (current junior long snapper) Chad Bushley scholarships," said Pierce. "That was a pretty big day. That's my biggest accomplishment in my life so far."
Pierce caught just one pass as a sophomore in 2012, but opened last season by snagging a 6-yard touchdown catch in the season-opening win over Liberty. He went on to catch at least one pass in each game of 2013, and closed by snagging 17 balls for 217 yards in the Flashes' final four games.
Pierce has picked up right where he left off this spring.
"Casey's one of those guys that's played a lot of football, and he understands what it takes to make plays," said Rock. "Not just in games, but in practice situations you need to have guys step up and make plays, and Casey's one of those guys that wants the ball in his hands. There's a trust factor with everyone else on the football team, and the quarterbacks - he's a guy that they look for."
Pierce admits that he's not a finished product. The traits that make him a great receiving tight end are actually detriments in the running game, when he's trying to block much bigger and stronger defensive ends.
"Last year I wasn't as good as I wanted to be in the run (game), and everyone knows that," said Pierce. "I really want to be an every-down tight end and never come out of the game. I just want to be an overall better player."
Pierce is certainly playing like a man on a mission so far this spring.
"The spring's been great," he said. "I'm just trying to make our team better, lead us. We have a great team this year and we're looking forward to the season."
Facebook: Allen Moff, Record-Courier