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By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
As far as spring football games go, they don't get much better from a coach's standpoint.
April Goss kicked an extra point on the final play to give the White team a 21-20 comeback victory over the Blue team in the Kent State football team's annual Spring Game, played before a sizable crowd on a gorgeous spring Saturday afternoon at Dix Stadium.
Fans were treated to big plays on offense, stout overall play on defense, and a hard-hitting yet injury-free scrimmage that left everyone involved with the program feeling good about where Kent State football is and where it's headed -- especially second-year head coach Paul Haynes.
"You can't ask for a better day," said Haynes. "I know we are a better football team than we were at this time last year. We still have a ways to go with some fundamentals and technique, but our work ethic, our commitment to being great and our leadership is all where we want it to be right now. Now it's all about what we do from here on in."
Saturday's scrimmage featured big plays generated by both offenses, and a pair of huge boots by star junior kicker/punter Anthony Melchiori.
The former Aurora High School standout first booted a 37-yard field goal into a stiff wind to put the Blue team up 3-0, then added a 53-yarder with the wind at his back before halftime to give his squad a 20-7 lead at intermission.
"The wind was brutal today going away from the scoreboard," Melchiori admitted. "The first field goal and my first punt, I was shocked. I literally ran off the field and couldn't believe the first field goal went in and that first punt got in the air."
The Blue team, quarterbacked by sophomore returning starter Colin Reardon, took a 17-0 lead in the second quarter. First sophomore wide receiver Ernest Calhoun caught a 23-yard touchdown pass on a post pattern, then senior wideout Chris Humphrey snared a bubble screen and broke loose for a 47-yard score.
Humphrey, last year's leading receiver (613 yards), finished with six catches for 120 yards.
"Colin and I have been building up better chemistry after last season," said Humphey. "We bumped up the intensity, changed some things. We're looking forward to this year and we're all really excited."
After Humphrey's score, the White team countered on its next play when senior tight end Casey Pierce out-fought redshirt freshman safety Kevin Bourne for a ball thrown by redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Strock, then broke free for a 75-yard touchdown. Bourne did get a measure of revenge later by intercepting a Strock pass late in the first half.
But Strock struck again by finding sophomore wide receiver James Brooks, a Florida product who showed some southern speed while cutting almost completely across the field after snagging a pass and outrunning the entire secondary for a 76-yard score that made it 20-14.
Brooks and Calhoun give the Flashes a pair of breakaway threats, which they need after losing speedster Dri Archer.
"Both of those guys have the ability to go 80 yards," said Haynes. "Then you look at our tight end position with Casey, he brings a whole different element. He's a matchup nightmare for a lot of football teams."
The winning boot by Goss was set up by a 3-yard touchdown pass from Strock to Pierce as the clock ran out -- and by Haynes, who gave the White team a field-position boost of about 30 yards to start its final drive with hopes of giving Goss a chance to win it.
"April's a huge part of this team. She's got 100 big brothers on this football team, and they all love her," said Haynes. "There's one person you see before and after every practice out there kicking, and that's April. Hopefully we can get her in a game this year. That's my goal."
Although Haynes insists that every position on the team is up for grabs, Reardon has the inside track to start at quarterback for the second straight year. He completed 16-of-31 passes for 190 yards on Saturday, while Strock was 9-of-19 for 196 yards.
"Colin Reardon is going to be a great quarterback for us, but it all depends on what he does this summer and in fall camp to improve himself because Nathan Strock is a good quarterback too," said Haynes. "Those two compliment each other and they make each other better. Both of those guys are learning, both are getting better. And the good thing is both of them are still young."
Haynes was also impressed by the play of several players on the front line of his defense. The teams were constructed with the idea of pitting first-team defensive linemen on the Blue team against first-team offensive linemen on the White team.
"You had guys like Nate Terhune, Chris Fairchild, Terence Waugh and Richard Gray putting pressure on the quarterback," said Haynes. "The more we can get four-man pressure, the better off we will be. As a unit I thought those guys played very well."
As a team, Haynes feels good about where his Flashes are heading into the summer.
"I really feel right now that we're gonna be a good football team," he said.
The Flashes will open the 2014 season at home against Ohio on Aug. 30.
Haynes continues to try to ease the kicking burden on Melchiori, who is one of the best punters in the country. Last year the Aurora product handled kickoffs, kicks and punts, and missed three games after suffering a hamstring injury while making a tackle on a kickoff return at Ball State.
The Flashes added kicker Shane Hynes to the 2013 recruiting class, believing he may be able to ease the burden on Melchiori by handling the kicking chores.
"I still want (Melchiori) to concentrate on punting and long field goals. If we can get someone else to be that mid-range guy, I still think that will give him a little bit of (a break)," said Haynes.
But Melchiori has no intention of giving up any of his duties.
"When it comes down to it it's a job, and as of last year and right now it's mine," said Melchiori of his role as kicker. "Best of luck to (Hynes) when he comes in for camp, but it's my job and I plan on keeping it."
Melchiori's hamstring has completely healed, and he seems more comfortable than ever kicking the football.
"This spring I've progressed really well as a kicker," he said. "I kicked those last two games (in 2013) but wasn't at 100 percent. Now my leg's feeling 100 percent, and I've been able to get back to fundamentals and mechanics. I really feel this spring was a huge confidence builder going into the summer and fall camp."
Haynes certainly has confidence in Melchiori.
"He's a first round draft choice (kicker/punter) in my opinion," said Haynes.
The annual spring awards were presented during the break between the third and fourth quarters.
Defensive back Elcee Refuge received the Jack Lambert Award as the defensive player who made the biggest improvement during spring practice. Offensive lineman Brock Macaulay received the Don Nottingham as the offensive player who made the biggest improvement during the spring.
Safety Nate Holley and offensive lineman Jason Bitsko shared the Gerald and Victoria Read Award, which is given each spring to the player who exemplifies hard work and dedication beyond the call of duty. Defensive back Nick Cuthbert received the Leo Strang Award given to the upperclassman with the highest cumulative GPA.
Running back Nick Holley and tight end Casey Pierce shared the Matt Ramser Award, which is given to a member of the football team who best exemplifies the qualities of "courage, dedication, attitude, and commitment" that Matt did during his fight with cancer.
"We take time and we think about as a coaching staff who we want to give these awards to. It's a big deal," said Haynes, a former standout defensive back for the Flashes. "I still have my little plaque for winning the Jack Lambert award in my office."
Following practice, former Kent State quarterback and current New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman addressed the team.
"I thought it was cool that he still shows appreciation for his alma mater and that he really cares," said Reardon. "It was also cool for me considering he played my position when he was here. With everything he told us, about what he writes down in meetings, how he pays attention, and the things he lives by on the field, it was great to have the chance to listen and learn from someone like that."
On Friday night Edelman served as celebrity co-host at Kent State's third annual Athletics Scholarship Auction.
Among those who did not play on Saturday was starting junior safety Jordan Italiano.
"He pulled his hamstring a couple weeks ago," said Haynes. "He probably (could have played). I want everybody 100 percent when we go June 9 into the summer."
Senior running back Trayion Durham and senior safety Calvin Tiggle missed the entire spring while recovering from offseason foot surgeries.