Education

YSU Penguins Open Season with Renewed Confidence

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – There couldn’t have been a bigger difference between the final day of the 2016 campaign for the Youngstown State University Penguins and the start of fall camp eight months later.

In December, it was a less-than-balmy 23 degrees in Frisco, Texas, where 14,000 fans watched YSU play for a national title against James Madison University. It was the culmination of a five-game playoff run – the Penguins’ first postseason appearance since 2006 – that had YSU survive overtimes and be the recipient of a miracle against Eastern Washington University.

In August, as fall camp started, it was 83 degrees and sunny with nary a fan in the stands. Emphasis was back on fundamentals and conditioning. For the Penguins, that championship game is in the past.

“That’s the furthest thing from my mind, what happened last year,” said head coach Bo Pelini. “You gain some confidence in the guys that came back and it showed what we’re capable of doing. But this is a new team, new time, new year.”

Regardless, the past casts a shadow on the present. As fans gathered to watch the team board the buses to Frisco, shirts that celebrate YSU’s four national titles in the ’90s – a few of them even listing the school’s three titles, as the count stood in 1994 – were everywhere. The trophies are on display in Kilcawley Center.

Part of that legacy drives the football program. There’s no reason, says starting quarterback Hunter Wells, why YSU can’t compete year in and year out.

“You don’t come to Youngstown State to go .500 or a game over or two games over. You come here to play for a championship every year,” he says.

Hunter Wells is the starting quarterback for the 2017 Penguins.

Wells started the final nine games of the season, taking over for the injured Ricky Davis and Trent Hosick. During his stint as starter, he threw for 1,714 yards and 11 touchdowns, including eight in the playoffs. This year, Wells is the Day One starter, with Davis having moved to wide receiver.

Also in this year’s receiving corps is the 2016 leader in receptions, Alvin Bailey – 47 catches for 511 yards and five touchdowns – along with senior Damoun Patterson and tight end Kevin Rader, whose last-second catch against the back of an Eastern Washington defender sent YSU to Frisco.

In the backfield, Tevin McCaster is the top returner following the graduation of Martin Ruiz and Jody Webb. Last year, he posted 638 rushing yards and 11 TDs. Also competing for time at tailback are sophomore Joe Alessi, redshirt freshman London Pearson and freshman Christian Turner.

In front of all of them is an offensive line anchored by tackle Justin Spencer, voted to third-team All-America by Stats Inc.

“If you get our skills players in one-on-one situations, we’re in a good position,” Spencer says of the upcoming year. “For us, we just have to open up holes, protect Hunter [Wells] and make things happen.”

Justin Spencer, No. 61, was named a third-team All-American by Stats Inc.

If there are any questions marks regarding this year’s team, it’s on the opposite side of the ball as the defense works to replace half of last year’s starting lineup, including defensive ends Derek Rivers and Avery Moss. They were selected in the third and fifth rounds of the NFL draft.

“Those two guys, as good as they were on the field, they were just as good off the field. They were the leaders of this team and the leaders of my room,” says defensive line coach Donald D’Alesio.

“They have the experience of playing that allowed them to teach guys differently than I can. … They took a lot of these younger guys under their wings and we see it paying off.”

This year’s defensive line will be manned primarily by Johnson Louigene, Fazson Chapman and Savon Smith. Louigene and Chapman filled in for Moss when he was injured last year.

“They got us to play to our own standard,” Smith says of the lessons the team learned from Rivers and Moss. “We have standards here at YSU and within that, we have a different standard on the D-line. We play to our potential, not down to our opponents.”

Savon Smith is a leader on the defensive line, which lost two players to the NFL.

On special teams, kicker Zak Kennedy returns after setting the school record for field goal attempts with 29, converting 19 and putting up 96 points for the Penguins. This year’s punter is Colin Burdette, a freshman from Hubbard.

The team opens against University of Pittsburgh for the second time in three years, the last match a 45-37 loss in 2015. In last year’s matchup against an upper-level FBS team, YSU lost to West Virginia University 38-21 after being tied at the half.

What could help YSU return to the playoffs is a schedule that has the Penguins face reigning league champion North Dakota State University – a team that saw its streak of five consecutive national titles ended last year – at home Oct. 14, as well as runner-up South Dakota State University Sept. 30.

“They’re good football teams and we’ll be ready when they come here,” Pelini says. “Hopefully we’ll have some excited fans because that helps bring the energy to the football field.”

This year’s home schedule includes Robert Morris University Sept. 9, Central Connecticut State University Sept. 16, Illinois State University Oct. 28 and Missouri State University as the season finale Nov. 18.

On the road, YSU plays Pitt, University of South Dakota, University of Northern Iowa, Indiana State University and Southern Illinois University.

“The first thing we need to work on is the conference. We need to win the conference. If we win there, it puts us in a great position to go back to Frisco and win it all,” Smith says. “That’s our focus this year: winning conference and dominating every game that we can.”

Pictured, top:  In his second year as head coach of the Penguins, Bo Pelini last season led the team to its first playoff appearance since 2006 and first championship appearance since 1999.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.