Burns, Kent State seek better result in Week 2

By: Bob Holt Bob Holt's Twitter account
Published: Wednesday, September 6, 2023
Kent State head coach Kenni Burns greets players along the sideline after a field goal during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Central Florida, Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Kent State head coach Kenni Burns greets players along the sideline after a field goal during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Central Florida, Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

FAYETTEVILLE — Kenni Burns isn’t easing his way into being a first-time head coach at Kent State.

In Burns’ debut last Thursday, the Golden Flashes of the Mid-American Conference opened with a 56-6 road loss to new Big 12 member Central Florida and Coach Gus Malzahn, the former University of Arkansas offensive coordinator.

Burns, 39, and Kent State will be on the road again to take on Arkansas at 3 p.m. on Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

“The one thing I’ve learned is, control what you can control,” Burns said Monday on a media call. “I can’t control the schedule right now. What we can do as a team is just keep getting better as we go.

“Obviously, two really good opponents. But looking at it the other way, it also lets you know where you stand with quality opponents, and where you’ve got to get yourself to as a program.

“I think the UCF game showed us a lot about who we are. I still feel like we’re a really talented football team. We’ve just got to close the gap, and hopefully we can show that this week as we play Arkansas.”

Burns, an assistant coach at Minnesota the past six years, took over a program gutted by the transfer portal after Sean Lewis, who led Kent State to a 24-31 record in five seasons with two bowl bids, left to become Colorado’s offensive coordinator.

All nine of the Golden Flashes who earned All-MAC honors last season transferred.

The departures included quarterback Collin Schlee (UCLA), receivers Devontez Walker (North Carolina), Dante Cephas (Penn State) and Ja’Shaun Poke (West Virginia), offensive linemen Savion Washington (Colorado), Jack Bailey (Colorado) and Marcellus Marshall (UCF), running back Marquez Cooper (Ball State), cornerback Montre Miller (West Virginia) and safety Dean Clark (Fresno State).

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Kent State didn’t return a starter on offense and lost 92% of its rushing and receiving yards from a 5-7 team that finished 4-4 in the MAC.

Among the 19 transfers Burns and his staff added was quarterback Mike Alaimo, a redshirt junior from Purdue.

Alaimo, who played in four games with the Boilermakers, made his first career start against Central Florida and completed 12 of 31 passes for 145 yards with 1 interception.

“One thing I like about Mike is he’s a leader and he’s got a great presence about him,” Burns said. “I think he started the game 6 of 9, so he was rolling pretty good there. And then I think they did some things to trick him up with the look and he threw a couple balls he shouldn’t have.

“The thing about Mike is he has a ton of ability. He’s got a strong arm. … I think he’s going to be a really good player for us some day. I think he’s still learning how to do that, but I love his energy and the work he’s putting into it.”

Kent State’s offensive line includes transfers Jimto Obidegwu (Temple) and Tristen Bittner (Marshall) and true freshman center Andrew Page.

“I think it’s great, it’s baptism by fire,” Burns said of Page snapping against an Arkansas defensive line that includes eight seniors. “Playing against some of the best D-linemen, I think, in the country right now in the first two games.

“So I think he’s getting a good taste of what it’s going to be like if he wants to play championship football. And I think what you saw last week is that he got better as the game went on.”

Burns said his offensive line needs more playing time together.

“We know we have challenges up front with the inexperience, but it’s not a talent issue to us,” he said. “It’s just that guys need to play more and more football together and they can rely on each other, trust each other. Hopefully one day it all clicks and we have a really good O-line.”

Sophomore running back Gavin Garcia led the Golden Flashes at Central Florida with 18 carries for 45 yards, and sophomore receiver Chrishon McCray had 3 catches for 61 yards and 3 kickoff returns for 80 yards.

Senior linebacker Devin Nicholson, a transfer from Missouri, had a team-high 13 tackles at Central Florida. He had 152 tackles in 39 games at Missouri.

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“If we get more guys playing like him, we’ll be in really good shape,” Burns said. “His experience in the SEC and his familiarity with this league is definitely something we’re going to utilize playing in that environment at Arkansas.

“He’s a guy that’s really become an anchor on our defense since he’s been here. We’re going to rely on him a lot to get us in situations to make plays, and to really lead our defense.”

Senior safety Jalani Williams also is a transfer from Missouri, where he played in 33 games with four starts.

Kent State’s three returning starters, all on defense, tie Colorado for the fewest overall returning starters in the country.

Central Florida outgained the Golden Flashes 723-240 in total offense as Kent State’s lone points came on field goals of 45 and 43 yards by junior Andrew Glass.

“We didn’t play well enough, obviously, to win,” Burns said. “But I still feel really good about our team.

“There were glimpses that you saw where we can be really good and build off, and there are things that we’ve really got to look at how we’re doing it and what we’re doing to make it better.”

Burns said he learned in the Central Florida game where to “deploy your eyes and at what time” as a head coach.

“There’s so many times as an offensive coach that your eyes are in certain places that you’re looking at during a game that as a head coach, your eyes are a little bit of everywhere,” said Burns, who coached running backs at Minnesota. “I’m starting to learn that a little bit, offensively where I want my eyes to be and then defensively where they need to be, and then also controlling the clock and managing the game clock and every situation you get on the field.

“I attempted to prepare for it by watching tons of games and going through different stuff, but you really don’t know it until you’re there.

“Definitely a different type of challenge, but definitely one I’m up to and ready for.”


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