Edelman, Martin key Kent State turnaround

Julian Edelman got letters, stacks of them, but no scholarship offers.

Then, one day, the phone rang. Finally, an offer.

"I thought it was Kentucky State or something like that," said Edelman, the quarterback for College of San Mateo, a community college located on the San Francisco Peninsula. "I was like, 'What's Kent? Maybe Kentucky, abbreviated.'"

Edelman thought for a moment, recalling those high school U.S. history classes. Kent State? Hmmm

"I had heard about May 4, 1970 -- something when the National Guard shot four students," Edelman said. "I remember learning about that.

"I didn't know they had a football team or anything."

Daniel Muir grew up on the other side of the country in Lanham, Md., a suburb of D.C. But like Edelman, Muir knew next to nothing about Kent State or its football program.

"People only know it for basketball," said Muir, a 285-pound defensive tackle. "Some people didn't even know we had a football team."

He paused.

"Now they know."

In a flash, make that a Golden Flash, Kent State football has an identity.

After a typical 1-10 flop last season, Kent State is off to a 5-2 start, its best in 19 years. The Flashes are 4-0 in MAC play for the first time ever and lead the East division by a game over Ohio (5-3 overall, 3-1 MAC), which visits Dix Stadium on Saturday.

Other Kent State milestones include: first five-game winning streak since 1976, first nonconference road win since 1987, first homecoming win since 2001.

"A lot more people are noticing us now," Muir said.

But before Kent State could earn respect from outsiders, it had to start respecting itself.

For years, Kent was college football's cesspool, a place where coaching careers died and road wins were sure things. Winning seasons were rare (only one since 1987), and losing became the custom (six streaks of 10 or more losses since 1972).

The best stiff-arms at Kent came from students who wanted nothing to do with the team. And though the school is located in the recruiting hotbed of northern Ohio, Kent couldn't get top prep players to bat an eyelash its way.

"The players, all they would ever here is negative things about the football program," third-year coach Doug Martin said. "And rightfully so. We hadn't had any success. Convincing them that they could do it when they're hearing nothing but negative things from the outside was a tough thing to overcome."

Martin credits Laing Kennedy for being "the only AD in the country that would have hired me." Given the program's sorry condition, though, Martin's statement easily could have been flipped around.

"There was no training table for the players to eat," Martin said. "The nutrition system was really bad. We had players losing 25 pounds over a season my first two years."

There were other snags.

"The video system, ours was really outdated," Martin said. "Our meeting rooms were not air-conditioned. They weren't really usable. And then we had a team roster cap of 95, so you can only take 10 walk-ons. That hurts you in practice, it hurts you in recruiting, it hurts a lot of things.

"There needed to be some things done from the administrative side."

Kennedy came through, leaving Martin to clear the bigger hurdle, Kent's losing tradition. Martin had helped cultivate East Carolina's renaissance -- the Pirates went to five bowls in his 11 years as an assistant -- but Kent was a greater challenge.

The Flashes flirted with success in Martin's first season, going 5-6 and finishing with a four-game win streak, the program's first since 1976. But injuries and youth punted them back to the basement in 2005, with their only win coming against Division I-AA Southeast Missouri State.

Muir said things began to turn at spring ball, when the team passed up its cozy indoor facility to practice in the snow. Every day.

"A couple guys came out complaining, but the coaches didn't say anything," Muir said. "The players got on each other. The coaches didn't have to. They could just coach."

Kent had a foundation in the secondary -- it ranked 24th nationally against the pass last year -- but it lost games at the line of scrimmage. The defense finished 106th nationally in rushing defense (202.6 ypg), while Kent's offense averaged 27 fewer rushing yards (45.9 ypg) than any other Division I-A team.

Martin needed an answer and found one in Edelman, an academic qualifier who wanted to spend only one season in junior college.

"We kind of come from the same background," Martin said. "He plays with a chip on his shoulder because nobody recruited him. I was always the kid from the wrong side of the tracks. Wanted to play Division I football very badly and didn't get recruited very heavily, either.

"But I wasn't the player he is."

Edelman ranks second in the MAC and 26th nationally in total offense (234.1 ypg). He ranks fifth among Division I-A quarterbacks in rushing average (59.7 ypg), providing a counterpunch to running back Eugene Jarvis (82.3 ypg).

Martin said Edelman runs as well as former Flashes quarterback Joshua Cribbs, now a wide receiver with the Cleveland Browns.

"I was told that I couldn't play at this level all my life," Edelman said. "I was told I couldn't play quarterback all my life. It just motivates me. I wasn't supposed to be here."

On defense, it was a matter of getting older and tougher. The Flashes had five returning starters who were freshmen or sophomores in 2005.

Muir and Stevon Moss guide an assertive front seven, which ranks 11th nationally in sacks (3.43 spg), but the unit is highlighted by a veteran secondary. Free safety Andre Kirkland (team-high 59 tackles, 2 INTs, 6 pass breakups) and cornerback Usama Young (four pass breakups) have lifted Kent to 14th nationally in pass defense (154.1 ypg) and ninth in pass efficiency defense (97.8 rating).

For dark-ages survivors like Muir, Kent's U-turn and the renewed buzz on campus has been especially gratifying.

"Students knew we had a football team, but nobody really respected it," he said. "When we're in the game, it's hard to hear the calls now. You could hear a bird chirp out there a couple years ago."

Added Martin: "Last year, we'd play in front of 8,000 people. This year, we haven't had a crowd less than 22,000. This place has been hungry for this for a long time. They're finally getting what they've been waiting for."

The fans' decade-long wait for a home win over rival Akron ended Sept. 30. But Kent is hoping to end a longer drought and reach its first bowl since 1972 (Tangerine).

"All of us weren't even born then, so it would really get this program jumpstarted," Muir said. "It would mean everything."

Adam Rittenberg covers college football for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.