YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Masks, social distancing and temperature checks – and that was just for the fans in the stands.
Youngstown State University’s football team endured a 1-6 record in a unique spring season after the 2020 fall season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Games were played during the spring with constant testing and adherence to pandemic protocols for the 82 team members, which diminished as the season progressed – the result of injuries, positive coronavirus tests and contact tracing.
Things are back to normal this fall. And with a plethora of young players, coach Doug Phillips was ecstatic to hold an actual training camp, something that was reduced to Zoom sessions and brief fall training sessions just a year ago.
The Penguins are coming off an abbreviated seven-game season where it had no more than a 21-point differential in any of its games – including a two-point loss at FCS national runner-up South Dakota State University.
“The one thing that I thought coming out of spring is our kids play hard,” says Phillips, who had 106 players on the roster heading into the team’s first practice on Aug. 4. “We’ve got good enough players to win football games. So we’ve got to pay attention to the details. We’ve got to master the fundamentals.
“Then in the third and fourth quarters, if we want something so bad, we’ve got to go take it.”
ON THE SCHEDULE
YSU begins the season Sept. 2 hosting the University of the Incarnate Word of San Antonio, Texas. The Penguins’ defense will battle the Jerry Rice Award winner, which goes to the top freshman in the Football Championship Subdivision, Cameron Ward, who finished the spring season with 2,260 yards passing with 24 touchdowns in six games.
YSU travels to Michigan State on Sept. 11 before starting its eight-game Missouri Valley Football Conference schedule Sept. 25 when the Penguins will host Western Illinois. YSU hosts South Dakota State on Oct. 30 and North Dakota State on Nov. 13.
Phillips says his team’s focus, for now, is on constant improvement.
“We’ve got to put this team together to play four quarters of football the Youngstown way, which is tough, physical and never quitting,” he says.
The Penguins averaged 15.4 points per game, along with 100.4 yards passing during the 2021 spring season out of the 11 MVFC teams.
Indiana State opted out of last season’s play because of coronavirus concerns. YSU played seven of the eight games scheduled with a home game against North Dakota being canceled at the end of the season.
Phillips says his team has to simplify the formations and know what it is capable of on game days.
“We know we have to score 28 points a game so we have to find a way,” he says. “We have to be a little bit different and we know we can run the football.”
Senior tailback Jaleel McLaughlin was second in the MVFC this spring with 133 carries for 691 yards, averaging 98.7 yards per game.
He says the offense has been working hard in the offseason to improve. Quarterbacks were in the team group chat, telling the wide receivers and running backs to practice together during the summer months when it’s 90 degrees outside.
“That’s what is ultimately going to push Youngstown State’s offense to be better this summer,” says McLaughlin, who was a second-team conference preseason selection.
The spring season was unusual with contact tracing eliminating players from competition. Timing and reps were not happening consistently because of the medical protocols.
Sophomore Mark Waid took most of the snaps at quarterback this spring.
“It would be a new guy every, single week,” he says. “We’re not making excuses. We’ve got to get better. We’ve got to work, and that’s what we’ve been doing all offseason.”
Waid, who came from a high-powered offense at nearby Girard High School, knows 15 points a game is unacceptable for this team.
“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Waid says. “Everybody says run better plays. Do this. That’s not how you score points. You score points by 11 guys coming together on the football field and drive down the field.
“It doesn’t take one person. It takes all 11. That’s what we’ve been harping on all offseason.”
Fifth-year senior linebacker Grant Dixon transferred to YSU from Marist College after the 2019 season. He says the team was getting more confident as the spring season progressed and feels confident heading into the fall campaign.
YSU’s defense ranked seventh, giving up 21.9 points per game, while its rushing defense surrendered 148.4 yards per outing. The passing defense ranked third with 163.7 yards each game, playing out of a 2-5 zone look – meaning two linebackers and five defensive backs were in this formation.
“You can look at it as more responsibility. But it’s more opportunity to make plays,” Dixon says. “As long as everybody does their job and runs to the ball, we’ll be able to make some plays and get some turnovers for the offense.”
Senior defensive back Zaire Jones says the more speedy players you have on the field, the better. He says his coaches instilled in him and his teammates to constantly run.
“When you run to the ball and play fast, and play with effort and attitude, it will erase everything else,” says Jones, who transferred from Vanderbilt University after the 2018 season.
Pictured at top: Youngstown State University head football coach Doug Phillips, center, talks to his team during practice.