KENT: One Division I school offered Dri Archer a football scholarship as a senior coming out of Florida’s Venice High School.
Archer was blessed with sprinter speed, clocking a 4.3 in the 40-yard dash.
But even at a now generously listed 5-foot-8 and 175-pounds, he was typecast by most coaches as too small to handle the rigors of a 12-game regular season among the big boys of college football.
But former Kent State coach Doug Martin took a gamble on Archer, who began playing for the Golden Flashes as a true freshman in 2009.
But it wasn’t until this season, while lining up for KSU in the backfield as a running back, in the slot as a receiver or on special teams as a kick returner, that Archer, a junior, really began to show the nation’s coaches exactly what they missed.
Archer was ineligible last season due to an error by an academic counselor but his return this season helped to spark the Golden Flashes (11-1, 8-0 Mid-American Conference) into the national consciousness.
“Once the season was over last year, I was ready,” said Archer, who practiced lightly Tuesday after sitting out Sunday’s practice. “I knew it was my time to play again and I was going to make the most of it. I hit the weight room as much as I could and got in the film room to study as much as I could, so I was ready to play as soon as we started practicing.”
Despite battling nagging injuries to both ankles throughout the season, Archer will lead No. 17 Kent State into battle against No. 21 Northern Illinois (11-1, 8-0) Friday in the MAC Championship game at Detroit’s Ford Field.
“I’d seen Dri do some good things before, but there was one moment in practice this fall when we were inside that really opened my eyes as to what he could do,” Hazell said. “During this one play when he got into the hole, there were three guys standing there waiting for him. But none of them touched him; they didn’t even put a glove on him. That was a ‘Wow!’ moment for me.”
Archer has been wowing Hazell and opponents ever since. He leads the nation in kick-return average, is fifth in all-purpose yards and tied for ninth in scoring. He is KSU’s single-season record holder in touchdowns with 21.
With the Flashes looking to knock off the defending MAC champion Huskies, Archer leads the way with 1,337 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns on 138 carries, 458 yards and four touchdowns on 30 receptions and 573 yards and three touchdowns on kick returns.
“I don’t even know what or how I do things sometimes,” Archer said, shaking his head in genuine disbelief. “It’s just natural. It’s just the way my body reacts.”
Even when teams stopped taking chances by kicking to Archer after the first four games of the season, the threat of his presence alone has been beneficial to the Flashes. With teams going out of their way to not allow a return by Archer, the Flashes’ average drive starting point has been at the 36.7 yard line.
It’s a tactic Hazell would employ, as well, if he were in the opposing coach’s shoes.
“I still think [kicking away from Archer] is the lesser of two evils,” Hazell said. “I wouldn’t kick to him, either. It’s a starting point of 36.7 or a potential touchdown every time he touches the ball — what would you do?”
At the beginning of the season, Hazell and his staff were careful to just sprinkle Archer in among the game plan in an effort not to overuse him and keep him from taking too much of a pounding.
“Early on, we had to limit what Dri did because we knew we wouldn’t have him right now if we didn’t,” Hazell said.
But with only two games remaining in Kent State’s dream season — Friday’s title game and an ensuing bowl game — the kid gloves are off, and Archer is full go.
Last week, TV cameras followed the team for an all-access, behind-the-scenes look that aired on EPSNU on Tuesday evening. Coach Darrell Hazell is expected to be a call-in guest on ESPN’s SportsCenter at about 10:40 a.m. today.
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Kent State blog at http://www.ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.