By John Vargo
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Winning its regular-season finale, Youngstown State University’s football team was optimistic about advancing to the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs in 2022.
However, despite playing in the nation’s best conference, which ended up producing the 2022 national champion and runner-up, the selection committee denied the Penguins their first playoff appearance since 2016 after posting a 7-4 record.
Youngstown State University head football coach Doug Phillips calls it a good season, with a caveat, saying it would’ve been great with a playoff run. Making the playoffs has become a focal point of this year’s YSU team.
The Penguins return many players on offense and defense, and Phillips says he does not want the fate of the 2023 team left in the hands of a committee even though YSU plays in the Missouri Valley Football Conference – the toughest in the subdivision. The conference includes defending national champion South Dakota State University, whom the Penguins host on Nov. 11 in their final regular-season home game.
Robert Morris, Southern Illinois, Illinois State and Missouri State are some of the other home football games.
The Penguins will be on the road at Northern Iowa to start MVFC play on Sept. 30, followed by road games at South Dakota, Indiana State and league newcomer Murray State on Nov. 16 to close out the regular season.
“We’re ready to start that climb, starting with camp and into the season, trying to be the best version of ourselves as a football program,” says Phillips, whose team starts the season Aug. 31 against Valparaiso University.
Senior defensive end Dylan Wudke says confidence and communication are keys for this Penguin team.
“We are returning so many guys. So our cohesiveness is already there,” he says. “This fall will just build on that.”
This fall also means a trip back to the state capital Sept. 9 to play The Ohio State University for the first time since 2008.
“I think it’s great for fans, alumni,” Phillips says. “It’ll be great for our kids at the time but we’re focused on improving throughout fall camp and have the best practices we can each day.”
This year’s practices have some new faces in the coaching staff because of some departures. Wide receivers coach Armon Binns headed to Northwestern University, Josh Sinagoga is now an offensive analyst at the University of Michigan, and Devon Spalding is the running backs coach at the University of Wisconsin.
Jeremy Larkin from the University of Notre Dame comes to YSU as the new running backs coach. Reggie Gamble, who spent more than a decade at Ashland University, is the Penguins’ tight ends coach. Former YSU wide receiver and Florida A&M assistant coach Jeliani Berassa comes back to Youngstown as a wide receivers coach.
“As a coach, our job is to make sure all the arrows are pointing in the same direction that we’re aligned,” Phillips says. “So going through the spring with them, I feel we’re very aligned.”
Depth is definitely not an issue for this YSU football team. If a player gets injured, the Penguins have the manpower to fill the position.
“So, if you’re a wide receiver and you got a hamstring injury, there’s a guy right behind me that’s going to start getting repetitions,” Phillips says. “There’s the opportunity for him to take over. I’m excited to see where this team can go.”
Seniors Bryce Oliver (wide receiver), Dylan Wudke (defensive line) and junior Jaison Williams (defensive line) were named to the Missouri Valley Football Conference first team preseason, while junior defensive lineman Chris Fitzgerald and junior long snapper Sam Merryman were picked second team. Senior safety Quincy Lenton, senior tight end Jake Benio and senior linebacker Greg Benton Jr. were named honorable mention.
Oliver was named to the Stats Perform FCS Preseason All-America Team. It is the second preseason honor for Oliver, who was named third team by Phil Steele.
Out of the more than 110 on the roster, more than 20 are from the Mahoning Valley or nearby western Pennsylvania.
Senior cornerback Jordan Trowers from Valley Christian High School, sophomore defensive lineman Michael Voitus from Poland Seminary High School, and sophomore tight end Brandon Serrano from Struthers High School went from nonscholarship players to being rewarded with scholarships.
These players might not have been highly recruited. But they are dedicated to the YSU brand and the football team was able to take care of them financially. Phillips says 10 scholarships have been given out in the last 10 months.
“If we did analytics with the transfer portal with people putting money back into their program with their walk-ons or taking that money to go get a transfer, I’m proud to say we’re going to take care of our homegrown,” he says.
Trowers redshirted his first year, didn’t play during 2020 because of the pandemic and then battled minor injuries. He credits YSU assistant coach Christian Dukes for instilling belief in him to do his best in his football career. Trowers is representative of the culture the Penguins exude.
“It means to embody the culture and the toughness of the city,” he says. “They call Youngstown Grit U. If you want to play for this football team, that is one thing you cannot lack – grit and toughness.”
Dra Rushton played running back for Liberty High School. He says he is grateful every day to be playing for the Penguins and owes so much to the university.
“To see all my family and friends at home games is something I’d never take for granted,” he says. “I wouldn’t have wanted my journey to have happened any other way in any other place.”
Some area athletes do not share that feeling about the Penguins and would rather take their talents elsewhere.
But for Rushton, YSU is home.
“Having the ability to not only represent yourself and your family and the community as well, I feel is a very special feeling,” he says.
Mitch Davidson, who played at Salem High School, remembers hearing the stories of the 1990s and four Division I-AA national championships under former YSU head coach and President Jim Tressel. He appreciates the legacy he left the Penguins and what those teams embodied. That motivates him and other local players to strive for greatness.
“Those teams were full of local guys, a lot of them,” Davidson says. “It motivates us to bring that back because Youngstown is dying for a great football team.”
Beau Brungard is a second-generation Penguin football player. His father, Mark, was a two-time national champion quarterback for YSU in the mid-’90s. Both Beau and his father graduated from Springfield High School, where Beau led his team to two state championship games.
“This town loves football,” Phillips says. “A guy like Beau Brungard, the minute Beau has opportunities to get on the field, this town will go crazy.”
However, winning is the foremost thing for these Penguins.
“You’ve got to win games,” Phillips says. “I think basketball showed that. You win games, people are going to fill arenas, fill stadiums no matter who is playing.”
The YSU men’s basketball team, which won 24 games and the Horizon League Championship, played before capacity crowds at Beeghly Center.
Pictured at top: Youngstown State University head football coach Doug Phillips talks to his team during a recent practice. The Penguins have plenty of returning players on the defensive and offensive sides heading into 2023 season. Photo: YSU Athletics.