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Opponent Defensive Preview: Kent State Golden Flashes

Will Johnson be the miracle-worker that fixes KSU’s defensive sieve?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 27 Miami OH at Kent State Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Heading into 2022, Kent State has the look of a program that is rounding the corner and is on the rise... at least on offense. As Jeff’s broken down so eloquently, Sean Lewis has turned around the Golden Flashes offense to the tune of 33 points per game, good for a top 30 finish nationally. However, their defense was what kept the KSU from truly capitalizing on their offensive renaissance after yielding 36 points per game for a national bottom 30 finish in scoring defense.

After parting ways with DC Tom Kaufman after the 2021 season, Lewis sought out the services of then-Northern Iowa defensive coordinator Jeremiah Johnson to bring his brand of gritty, yet innovative Plain State defense to Ohio. Despite making a move up from the FCS ranks, Johnson shouldn’t feel out of place in the MAC after coaching multiple Panthers teams to top 15 scoring defenses against Missouri Valley Conference opponents such as North Dakota State, as well as a strong showing against then #7 Iowa State (loss, 10-16) last season. While he’s only been on-campus for nine months, incremental improvements shouldn’t be hard for a defense that couldn’t decide whether to slow opponents down in the air or on the ground and ended up doing neither very well last year.

New Coordinator - New Scheme

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 25 Kent State at Maryland Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After spending almost 15 years at UNI, 8 years as DC, Jeremiah Johnson knows exactly what he wants out of a defense. First and foremost, Johnson’s defenses will look to stop the run. In most base down situations, we should expect to see a conventional 4-down defensive front with either 2 or 3 LBs behind them depending on offensive personnel. However, our offense can’t count on seeing a base 4-down front the entire game because Johnson likes to mix in a lot of 3-man fronts with versatile 3-3-5 personnel behind it to show anything from a 3, 4, 5, or 6-man front on any given down. These sub-packages usually get rolled out in long-yardage and passing situations, but there’s also a good chance we see these packages if we lean on 11 personnel and they deem our TE to be a multi-faceted threat.

Johnson utilizes multiple looks in his run fits to manipulate the blocking scheme. Often times, one or more member of the back-7 will line up on the LOS to present a 5 or 6-man front. Sometimes this is a CB, and other times its one of the OLBs. The thinking here is that even if some of these players drop into coverage after the snap, the offensive line has to block for the worst case scenario, and the more bodies that are on the LOS, the fewer double teams an offense can utilize to move the DL off the ball. This works great against zone-heavy offenses (the Patriots used this tactic against the Rams in the 2019 Super Bowl), but it doesn’t work as well against gap-run teams where the defense can’t scrape exchange gaps at the second level.

Johnson accounts for this with the secondary. Much like our new defense, Kent State will lean on shallow 2-high shells that will allow the secondary to get involved in the run fit. However, instead of focusing on clogging the middle, the Golden Flashes will play their DEs and overhang players (either their OLBs or Nickel) as force players to funnel run plays back into the interior. This narrows the focus of the safeties’ run fit responsibilities, as well as allow them to get more creative with their coverages. At UNI, Johnson used a traditional safety and a bigger “Rover” on the boundary side who was a de facto strong safety that played more run clean up, but on occasion he’d run 3 safety packages that were similar to Matt Campbell’s Cyclone defenses. These packages were designed to counter Air Raid concepts by flooding the underneath zones and eliminating the deep crossing routes with the mid-field robber safety, but they open up the defense to off-tackle runs and RPOs that put the overhang defenders in run/pass conflicts.

Key Players & Personnel

The best scheme in the world doesn’t matter if you don’t have the guys to execute it, and Johnson has an experienced roster to work with. Across the defensive 2-deep, starters most are 5th or 6th year players, and there is a deep defensive rotation with experience. Up front, CJ West returns as the anchor of a pretty big DL for a G5 program. West led the team last year with 4 sacks and 8 TFLs, but they’ll look to DEs Zayin West, Saivon Taylor-Davis, and Matt Harmon to replace graduated LB AJ Musolino’s 3 sacks and 10.5 TFLs. Transfers AJ Campbell (DL, UCLA), CJ Harris (OLB, Arkansas State), and Khali Saunders (OLB, Purdue) add to the defensive depth, and former LB, now-DE Kesean Gamble returns from injury as a seasoned vet who brings some versatility to the DE position.

On the back end, Montre Miller returns as the Golden Flashes’ INT leader with lanky 6-3 CB Capone Blue covering the other side of the field. Outside of Blue, none of the KSU DBs have enough length to match up with our WR corps, but like the defensive front, the Golden Flashes won’t be relying on individual stars to buoy the team. Instead, Johnson will be leaning on the scheme to prove that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts on defense.

Conclusion

In my opinion, the scheme on paper could give our offense fits if we don’t do our due diligence and prepare for them. We all learned our lesson last year against Montana what happens when we don’t respect a team that we should match up well against. With a more experienced roster, Kent State might be able to implement their new scheme to a better extent than other programs, but I doubt that they’ll be able to roll out every sub-package that’s in Jeremiah Johnson’s playbook.

With a more cohesive rushing attack, we should be able to keep the offense balanced, but with such an aggressive defensive structure that is selling out on committing bodies to the LOS, I’m not expecting to rush for over 200 yards like many of KSU’s opponents did last year. Instead, if we can lean on tempo, isolate our best WR match ups, and maintain 6-man protections against KSU’s simulated pressure looks, our passing game could have a field day. Against North Dakota State last year, Johnson’s UNI Panthers couldn’t contain Christian Watson and still commit bodies to stop the Bison’s multiple run game. If we’re running 5-deep at WR, imagine the type of conflict we’d put KSU’s safeties in. All we need to do is execute our fundamentals and let the talent show itself this weekend.