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All-Americans Signal Improving Penguins Team

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Every season has its moments that seem to play out over and over and over again. For the 2015 Youngstown State University Penguins, it might have been defensive end Derek Rivers blowing past a lineman and putting his shoulders squarely into a quarterback’s chest for a sack.

Or maybe it was kicker Zak Kennedy lining up and drilling a field goal dead center through the uprights.

Or LeRoy Alexander III keeping a close watch on the QB’s eyes before a pass and following them to make a clutch interception.

Those plays didn’t go unnoticed by fans, coaches or outsiders. In early August, the three were named FCS preseason All-Americans by Stats, a sports data company based in Chicago.

Before this season, YSU had only two players on the preseason list this decade.

Rivers, a senior, is familiar with such recognition. He was a preseason All-American last season as well when he made 52 tackles, good for fifth on the team and tops on the defensive line. He also recorded 15.5 tackles that resulted in a loss – nine were sacks – to lead the Penguins.

In his final training camp at Youngstown State, Rivers, a first-team All-American, is among the team’s leaders. It’s not uncommon to see him talking with teammates after standing back and watching them throughout their drills. During his own reps, he explodes off the line and hits tackling dummies as hard as he can.

“Bring more energy. Play harder. Play faster. You always have to get better,” Rivers says of his training camp goals. “For me, it’s my footwork. I love having Avery [Moss] on the other side, even the young guys in the middle, but the one thing we all can work on is our footwork. That’s what I’m worried about and my main focus.”

Lining up behind Rivers on defense, Alexander is also his making his last go-round at Stambaugh Stadium, although the first time with the preseason accolade as a second-team All-American.

With his pink Under Armour gloves and crop top jersey, Alexander stands out in the defensive backfield with his uniform and backs it up with his play.

Last season, he led the Penguins with four interceptions, including returning one for a touchdown against Pittsburgh, and was one of two defenders to rack up a fumble recovery – and the only one to advance one, carrying it 50 yards. Alexander finished 2015 with 67 tackles, second on the team.

While the recognition is welcome, Alexander says he isn’t paying attention to it, a common thread among the trio.

“I’m not big into that. I didn’t know until someone told me about it,” he says. “I’m humbled and I appreciate whoever put me in there, but I’m just excited to play this season. It’s my last go with a good group of guys. I’m ready to get to it.”

On special teams, sophomore Kennedy has perhaps the biggest transition to make among the Penguins’ All-Americans. Rivers is in his second year under Pelini’s defense and Alexander in his fourth – he began his college career at Nebraska while Pelini was still coach – and both are familiar with the defensive playbook.

Kennedy, meanwhile, is working with a new holder. With that, he explains, comes working out the minor details of the precise timing that involves snapper, holder and kicker.

“We had everything down to a T last year,” the third-team All-American says. “Everything was consistent. This year, with a different holder, we’re trying to get him into everything and get back to being [as] consistent.”

Consistent may be an understatement. Last season, Kennedy hit 34 of 36 extra point attempts and 19 of 23 field goal attempts, setting the YSU record for converted field goals.

In the Football Championship Subdivision, only three returning players had a higher completion percentage and only one converted more tries.

Even with his numbers among the best in the country, Kennedy says he’d be more than happy to see a drop off in his sophomore year.

“I’d rather have less field goals. I’m a team guy,” he says. “I hope we can score more touchdowns and win more games than have to go out and kick all these field goals.”

While it is important to keep in mind that these are preseason awards based on projections rather than hard statistics, they do say something as to the quality of this year’s Penguin team.

From the start of the decade through last season, YSU had two players named to the preseason list: Rivers last year and running back Jamaine Cook in 2011. This year, with three All-Americans, Alexander expects the team to do more.

“It shows we’re going in the right direction. Before, the defense wasn’t up to par and last year we took a big step to be one of the best in the FCS,” he says. “This year, we’re looking forward to taking a bigger step with Derek leading the D-line and Avery [Moss] on the other side.”

As for what they bring to the team, all three are reticent about their own skills and prefer discussing the support of the players around them. Coaches, too, aren’t willing to talk up just a couple of players of team. They turn to the theme that a rising tide lifts all teams.

“They bring a lot to the team. But we’ve got a good end on the other side, a good safety on the other side and linebackers who are proud of the way they play,” says defensive coordinator Carl Pelini. “Our expectations for the All-Americans are no different from the other guys.”

And, adds head coach Bo Pelini, “[Rivers and Alexander] are both good football players. We have a number of good guys up front and they all understand the system a lot better. … And [Kennedy’s] been slowly but surely getting better as camp’s gone on.”

Pictured: Derek Rivers has been named a preseason All-American for the second time. He led YSU with nine sacks in 2015.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.