Entering the 2011 season, Kent State has plenty of work to do to fill the gaping holes left by graduated linebackers Cobrani Mixon, Dorian Wood, Howard Bowens and Will Johnson and Monte Simmons, who played Buck End, a hybrid linebacker/defensive end in the 3-4 defense.
That group combined to start 82 of the 195 games they appeared in over the past four seasons.
Mixon, who started 31 of 33 games he appeared in from 2008-2010, is confident Kent State's younger players will be ready to step in and perform at a high level.
"Hopefully, I taught them a few things and by the end of the season (their inexperience) won't be the concern no more," he said. "I think they will play fine. (Former linebackers coach Jim) Fleming instilled in us that the linebackers are the heart of the defense and are the quarterbacks of the defense."
Fleming wasn't retained by new head coach Darrell Hazell, but Mixon is confident his replacement, Marcus Freeman, will be just as effective coaching the quarterbacks of the Golden Flashes defense.
"I met coach Freeman and he is a great dude," Mixon said. "I don't doubt at all that he will have them ready."
The Flashes aren't deep at linebacker, at least not with experienced players.
Hazell and defensive coordinator Jon Heacock will try to replace 239 tackles and 13 sacks with players that have combined for 124 tackles and 5 sacks.
The most experienced of the bunch is junior-to-be Luke Batton, who has started 12 of the 22 games he has played in during the past two seasons. Batton, the only returning starter at the position, recorded 68 tackles and ½ sack in 2010 and now has 94 tackles in his career.
"He is without a doubt the most experienced," Mixon said. "He is a leader on and off the field. Luke seems to always be in the right spot making plays. He was real productive at Sam linebacker and I think he will do great on the inside. He is a sure tackler. You don't find too many of them. You will rarely see him miss a tackle."
Jake Dooley started nine games in 2010, mostly while Simmons was out with an injury. He finished the year with 35 tackles and 5 ½ sacks. He certainly has the inside track on replacing Simmons.
Danny Gress, Kyle Reese, C.J. Steward and Byron Tyson all lettered last season and will look to contribute in 2011.
Tyson is the most veteran of the group as he has played in 24 games over three seasons, but most of his action came on special teams. He has just nine tackles in three seasons.
"Byron has came a long way from his freshman year," Mixon said. "He has all the tools to be a good player and I think he will get to prove that more this year. He has just been behind some good players."
Reese comes into 2011 with 22 game appearances, all on special teams. He made nine stops last season.
Mixon saw a lot of promise out of Reese in two seasons.
"I think Reese will contribute a lot this year to the defense," he said. "I think he is a smart, instinctive player and he has gotten better every year."
Gress played in 10 games last season, making one start. He posted just three stops on the year. Steward played in nine games in 2010 and Garrick Piggott played in two games but did not letter.
Mixon said he's confident Gress and freshman Steve Mehrer will factor more into the defensive game plan this season.
"Danny Gress has gotten a lot better, so I think he will play good this year and Steve is a good player. He just has to learn the defense. That's his huge obstacle."
Piggott earned high praise from Mixon.
"He is the most athletic of them all," Mixon said of Piggott, who moved to linebacker from safety. "If he learns the D he will be one of their best players. He strikes people."
There's a wildcard out there too, at least in Mixon's eyes.
He's confident walk-on linebacker Derek Jones is ready to emerge as one of the Flashes go-to guys. Jones, a 6-foot-3, 235-pounder, graduated from Westerville South High School in Columbus with 270 tackles, 23 sacks and three interceptions.
"Really, I think Derek Jones the linebacker has a chance to play," Mixon said. "He was a walk-on, but a real good player; one of the better ones."
When camp opens in the fall, the Flashes will have a few more bodies to work with at linebacker. Joe Kenn, C.J. Malauulu, Andre Parker and Devante' Strickland all signed letters of intent in February and are projected to play the position.
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