By ed puskas
It was a dreary, rainy post-Superstorm Sandy afternoon, but Jon Heacock wore a broad smile as the Kent State football team finished practice and the players headed for the field house exits.
Heacock and the Golden Flashes have every reason to feel good these days, which are perhaps the best times Kent State has enjoyed in years.
The bowl-bound Golden Flashes are 7-1 overall and lead the Mid-American Conference’s East Division at 4-0.
Kent State, which last played in a bowl game in 1972, has already become bowl-eligible with four regular-season games to play. The Golden Flashes are coming off the first victory over a Top 25 team in the program’s history — a 35-23 road win over then-No. 18 Rutgers last week.
Heacock’s defense has been a major part of Kent State’s football rebirth and the unit had a starring role in the upset of the Scarlet Knights. The Golden Flashes, who host Akron today, have forced 27 turnovers (16 interceptions and 11 fumbles), including seven against Rutgers.
“I really felt like we had a shot at it if we went in and played well,” Heacock said. “Our guys had a great week of preparation. I thought we matched up [defensively] with some of the things they did. I thought we could control some of the things they did with some of the folks we had.”
He was right. The opportunistic nature of Heacock’s defense is the primary reason Kent State leads the MAC and the entire nation in turnover margin (plus-19).
No wonder the former Youngstown State head coach is smiling.
“I feel good,” Heacock said. “I love coaching defense. It’s exciting for me. That part of it, I think, sometimes helps me relax. I don’t know if I look relaxed or if my stomach feels relaxed every week. That part hasn’t changed.”
Heacock was 60-44 in nine seasons and a two-time Gateway Football Conference Coach of the Year (2005 and ’06) at YSU, but after only one playoff appearance (’06), he resigned under pressure after the ’09 season.
After a year off, Heacock took the Kent State defensive coordinator job under former college teammate Darrell Hazel in January 2011.
Now, in the middle of just their second season with the Golden Flashes, they’ve started to change the football culture in a college town better known for its black squirrels than winning games.
“Darrell is very sharp,” Heacock said. “He had a plan and we’ve stuck to it since day one.”
Mahoning Valley natives Luke Wollet (Poland) and Jordan Italiano (Canfield) are among the defensive contributors who have bought into the new Kent State program.
Wollet is a junior and a three-year starter at strong safety.
He is the Golden Flashes’ second-leading tackler (61 stops) and leads the team with three interceptions. One of those picks came against Rutgers in a game in which Kent State intercepted six passes.
Wollet is enjoying the new buzz around a long-dormant program.
“I’ve only been here for two losing seasons, but I know people who’ve been following Kent State football for 40 years and I know it means a lot to them,” he said. “It’s exciting to be part of something that means so much to them.”
Italiano, a freshman, has played in seven of eight games this season, including a start against Western Michigan two weeks ago.
Italiano has made 13 tackles, intercepted a pass, broke up another and a recorded a QB hurry.
“It’s a great feeling to be a part of this,” Italiano said. “Coming in here, I heard from all the coaches and players that they were going to turn this place around, and I believed it.”