By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Aug. 28, 2011
Alabama head coach Nick Saban probably doesn’t want anyone to talk about Kent State as a “tune-up” opponent, but honesty demands the Golden Flashes be described as such. Kent State had an ineffective offense in 2010, but was one of the country’s best teams at defending the run. Until late in the season, KSU managed to stay clear of any blowout losses, including a couple of respectable showings against Boston College and Penn State. But the Golden Flashes haven’t seen talent the likes of what they’ll face in Tuscaloosa.
Both teams run versions of the pro set attack. Kent State uses a full-time fullback in its base offense while Alabama utilizes two tight ends in an Ace look. Kent State had almost the exact number of rushing attempts as passing attempts in 2010, but whether that balance continues under new coach Darrell Hazell is yet to be seen. Hazell is in his first year as a head coach after serving as wide receivers coach for Ohio State in 2010. So far, nothing appears to have changed, at least in approach. The Golden Flashes finished ranked 100th in the nation in rushing and 74th in passing in 2010. Alabama, meanwhile, figures to continue with its balanced attack, especially given the Golden Flashes held just about everyone to low rushing totals in 2010.
Spencer Keith will start for Kent State, his third year under center. Keith fell victim to the sophomore slump in 2010, getting intercepted 11 times while throwing for just 8 touchdowns. He also averaged just over 10 yards per completion, which isn’t going to get the job done. The depth situation could be better; last year’s third-stringer, Sal Battles, returns, but Keith’s primary backup figures to be a true freshman, Cedric McCloud. For Alabama, there will be a new starter, whether it’s A.J. McCarron or Phillip Sims. McCarron is expected to get the nod in what has been a tight battle, if for no other reason than seniority. But both will play with the starters. Blake Sims also figures to see action, both in Wildcat packages and in the event Alabama gets a big lead. While Keith certainly has the edge in experience, Alabama’s two main QBs have superior skills, and the Tide has the depth advantage. Advantage: Alabama
Kent State starter Jacquise Terry has Alabama connections, being a native of Phenix City. Terry rushed for 7 touchdowns in 2010 despite getting only 151 carries, and finished the year with 542 yards (3.6 avg.). Depth took a hit when Dri Archer apparently was suspended this week for academic issues, which leaves Trayion Durham and Robert Holloman as the likely backups. All three backs have unique styles and builds. Terry is a typical running back size, while Holloman is a scatback and Durham a human manhole cover. Both Holloman and Durham are freshmen. At fullback, Lamar Washington and Trip Ison lead a pack of players. Alabama counters with Trent Richardson, who is finally out of the shadow of Mark Ingram. Eddie Lacy and Jalston Fowler will be the primary backups, although Blake Sims can play there as well. It’s unclear if Alabama will take the redshirt off either Christion Jones or Brent Calloway, but depending on the score, walk-ons Nick Tinker and Ben Howell could see action. Advantage: Alabama
If the quarterback can just get the ball to them, Kent State does field a competent group of receivers. Tyshon Goode caught 59 passes for 743 yards (12.6 avg.) and 5 touchdowns last year, while Sam Kirkland hauled in 599 yards himself but was more of a possession receiver. The Golden Flashes added Kentucky transfer Eric Adeyemi this season, while Matt Hurdle and Chris Gilbert round out the depth chart. Hurdle didn’t catch a pass last year, but had a promising 2009 and has good size. Tight end Justin Thompson is a capable target, while Tim Erjavec and Jon Simpson give good depth to the position. Alabama counters with Marquis Maze on one side and likely Brandon Gibson on the other, or perhaps DeAndrew White. Darius Hanks will miss this game and Penn State due to playing one game his true freshman year before redshirting. As it looks unlikely for Duron Carter to be ready to go for this game, depth will b e provided by Kenny Bell, Kevin Norwood and Michael Bowman. Maze has blazing speed, but sometimes goes entire games without ever being open. Not having Hanks, let alone Julio Jones to draw a double team will be something he’ll have to improve upon in 2011. Tight end Michael Williams returns, while Brad Smelley takes over at H-back for Preston Dial. Chris Underwood could wind up being the backup at both positions, while Harrison Jones and Brian Vogler should get some work. Until Alabama has someone step forward to replace Jones, this one is a close call especially given Hanks’ absence. Advantage: Alabama
Kent State was mediocre in 2010 even by MAC standards, finishing mid-pack in sacks allowed and opening few holes for its running backs on a consistent basis. Center Chris Anzevino is probably the best player on the line, either him or left tackle Brian Winters. Kent Cleveland starts at right guard with Josh Kline at right tackle. The lone new starter is left guard Tyler Arend. Underclassmen dot the depth chart, including two true freshmen, tackle Terrell Johnson and guad Tom Pizzuro. Phil Huff backs up center while Robert Kearney plays behind Winters. None of the backups has a varsity letter of experience. For Alabama, William Vlachos returns at center and D.J. Fluker at right tackle, but the rest will be a relative mystery and several combinations could be tried in this game. Barrett Jones will start somewhere, with either Chance Warmack, Anthony Steen or both playing guard, if Jones plays left tackle. If Jones moves in to guard, true freshman Cyrus Kouandjio will start at left tackle. Experienced players round out the depth chart, with Alfred McCullough and John Michael Boswell at guard and Tyler Love at tackle. Austin Shepherd and Kellen Williams are a pair of relative newcomers who will back up right tackle and center, respectively. There’s really no comparison between the two teams here. Advantage: Alabama
Kent State’s defense was stellar up front in 2010, but only five starters return and two of those are in the secondary, which was sometimes sketchy. The Golden Flashes employ both a 3-4 and a 4-3 scheme depending on the situation, and it’s sprinkled with upperclassmen throughout. Kent State finished ranked 4th in rush defense, 42nd in scoring defense, 47th in pass defense and 10th in total defense. Most impressive may have been its ranking of 8th in sacks with nearly 3 per game. Alabama counters with its 3-4 over/under scheme. The defensive line will be the unit to watch, as it replaces two-thirds of its starters and doesn’t have much in the way of experienced depth at end. The linebackers are the best in the nation and the defensive backfield isn’t far behind.
In its 4-down look, Kent State will have Dana Brown and Roosevelt Nix inside with Jake Dooley and either Richard Gray or Lee Stalker at end. Size is an issue there, especially with Nix, who goes only 6’0”, 240 pounds. However, he won the was the conference’s defensive player of the year winner last year despite being just a true freshman. Ishmaa’ily Kitchen moves up to nosetackle when KSU goes to a 3-man look, with Nix sliding outside across from Stalker or Gray. Mark Fackler provides depth outside, while Andrew Christopher, who could also be in the mix at tight end, and Carlows Brown are available at tackle. Other than Kitchen, Gray and Stalker, the rest of the line is smallish. But they were effective in 2010, even against bigger offensive lines, thanks to their quickness. For Alabama, all that is known is that Josh Chapman will start in the middle and Damion Square will start somewhere else. The other end position is up for grabs between Ed Stinson, Quinton Dial and Jesse Williams. Stinson held it coming out of spring, but the recent money is on either Dial or Williams, with Williams the favorite. Nick Gentry and Brandon Ivory will back up Chapman, while Undra Billingsley and Brandon Lewis will add to the depth at end. Alabama has the advantage in depth here, but Kent State was more effective in 2010. Still, it’s hard to give the edge to a team with only a couple of SEC-quality players on its side. Advantage: Alabama
Luke Batton is a good linebacker for Kent State and JUCO transfer C.J. Malauulu has a lot of potential, but Kent State doesn’t come close to standing up to Alabama here. In addition to Batton, Byron Tyson will start at the other outside linebacker position in the 4-3 front with Kyle Reese the starter inside. Jake Dooley moves up from end when KSU switches to a 3-man front. C.J. Steward and Dan Gress add depth along with Derek Jones and Zack Hitchens. For Alabama, Dont’a Hightower is back for what figures to be his last year, even though he could play in 2012 if he wanted. Hightower is finally moving at full speed again. Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley will split the other inside position, while Chris Jordan backs up Hightower and will play in a lot of Alabama’s pass defense packages. Courtney Upshaw finished 2010 on a high note and looked unstoppable in the spring. He’ll start at the Jack position. The strongside linebacker slot is finally Jerrell Harris’, and this time there’s not a lot that can be done if he can’t handle it. Alex Watkins and Jonathan Atchison provide depth on that side, while Watkins also will back up Upshaw along with Adrian Hubbard and true freshman Xzavier Dickson. Trey DePriest, another true freshman, and Tana Patrick add to the depth at inside linebacker. The only question is how well Harris will play at SLB. Advantage: Alabama
Starting cornerbacks Josh Pleasant and Norman Wolfe, both seniors, return for the Golden Flashes. Wolfe was a ballhawk in 2010, but at only 5’8” (and he’s probably actually shorter than that), even Alabama’s average-height receivers will give him trouble. Pleasant is bigger, but not really big. The safeties are new. Luke Wollet and Leon Green will start with Fabrice Platt and Brian Hummer the top backups. Interestingly enough, spare cornerbacks Darius Polk and Sidney Saulter are both tall for cornerbacks, but how much of the field they will see is in question. For Alabama, Dre Kirkpatrick starts at one cornerback slot, while DeQuan Menzie or Dee Milliner will start at the other. As soon as Alabama goes to nickel, however, Menzie will move to Star safety. Mark Barron and Robert Lester return at safety, with Will Lowery the likely dime back. Jarrick Williams and Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix are also in the mix at safety along with Nick Perry, while John Fulton and Phelon Jones offer depth at corner. KSU isn’t terrible, but Alabama is on another plane. Advantage: Alabama
Like seemingly every other mid-level team in the country, Kent State has a pair of kickers who may end up in the NFL some day. Punter Matt Rinehart may be the best one Alabama sees in 2011, while kicker Freddy Cortez has a powerful leg. The Golden Flashes need help in the return game, however. Alabama counters with either Cade Foster or Jeremy Shelley at placekicker and either Cody Mandell or Jay Williams at punter. Expect Foster and Shelley to split time depending on the length of the kick, just as in 2010, with Foster kicking off. Mandell apparently pulled ahead of Williams late in fall camp to retain the job he held last year. Marquis Maze will probably return punts and kicks, with Dee Milliner and Blake Sims also in the discussion. Alabama has a better return game and will probably cover kicks better, but Kent State has advantages at both kicking slots. Advantage: Kent State
Alabama leads in seven categories, Kent State in one. The Golden Flashes are overmatched, but this was a fundamentally sound team in 2010 that could easily have gotten bowl-eligible with just a couple of breaks here or there. In other words, this is not Georgia State.
Alabama will use the game to hopefully sort its quarterback situation out, although most expect McCarron and Sims to split the position at least through the North Texas game in Week 3. The primary concern for the Crimson Tide here is avoiding injuries, but it’s also important to test-drive the defensive line rotation and try to develop some clarity in the wide receiver corps prior to heading to Happy Valley to play Penn State.
Expect a comfortable opener, and the start of what will hopefully be a championship season.
Kent State 3
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