By John Vargo
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – During the past five seasons, the Youngstown State University football team amassed a record of 20-31.
The last time YSU made the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision playoffs was the 2016 season, when the Penguins were national runners-up.
With a young team the past two seasons, COVID-19 restrictions and an abbreviated offseason since the pandemic started in March 2020, YSU has recorded a 4-13 mark – way below the standards of a team boasting four national championships and four runners-up crowns in its history.
This year’s Penguins enjoyed a full offseason and boast arguably the best player in the FCS in senior tailback Jaleel McLaughlin, no quarterback controversy and plenty of quality transfers and returning players.
MORE THAN A RUNNING OFFENSE
It starts with sophomore quarterback Demeatric Crenshaw, who completed 97 of 156 throws for 791 yards and rushed for 599 yards on 132 carries, with a combined 13 touchdowns.
Improving his footwork was something Crenshaw focused on in the offseason.
With YSU assistant coach Josh Sinagoga, Crenshaw and the other quarterbacks worked on their mobility on the field.
“The throwing motion is going to come, but he teaches once we keep our feet under us and stay more in rhythm, the better the ball will come out,” Crenshaw says.
Completing more passes this season is imperative for the offense to average more than 25 points per game, and that’s coming from a quarterback who can throw the ball 70 yards.
“Just know the ball is going to come to them and stay with it – trust the process,” Crenshaw says.
Having a running back like McLaughlin in the backfield with him is important for the vitality of this offense.
“We know how important he is,” Crenshaw says. “He sets up a lot of play action for me. He does what he’s got to do and we’re going to have a great year.”
YSU head coach Doug Phillips, who is in his third season with the Penguins, knows the team’s pass protection is a key to the team’s success. The quarterbacks and receivers must be in sync with one another – something that is being emphasized this season.
The Penguins are a run-first offense but setting that up with passing is important.
Junior Bryce Oliver, McLaughlin and sophomore C.J. Charleston were three of the top four receivers last season. Last year’s top pass catcher, Andrew Ogletree, was selected by the Indianapolis Colts in the 2022 NFL Draft. Oliver leads the returners with 266 yards on 24 catches with eight touchdowns.
“We’ve got players on the perimeter to get the ball downfield,” Phillips says. “If you got those threats to get the ball downfield, they’re not going to put nine guys in the box [on the line of scrimmage] to stop your run.
“You’ve got to be able to utilize the pass to set up the run.”
The YSU quarterbacks can sense when to throw a 50-50 ball to a receiver who has given himself more than half a chance to catch it.
“I think the opportunities will be there given what the defense gives us,” Phillips says.
IT STARTS UP FRONT
Not seeing enough sacks or tackles for loss by the defensive line last season concerns Phillips. He questions if different sets, rotating more players or getting pass rushers on third down are necessary.
It starts with returning leading tacklers and sophomore defensive linemen Chris Fitzgerald and Dylan Wudke.
“It’ll be interesting how we utilize the depth there to generate those losses or more sacks there,” he says. “To win in this league, you better be an offensive-line, defensive-line driven program. That’s where we put our emphasis in recruiting.”
Accounting for more than 1,100 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns for last year’s 3-7 team, the Penguins rely on McLaughlin to kickstart the offense. However, he says none of his exploits are possible without the protection of his offensive line.
“They make it easier for me,” McLaughlin says. “I try to follow behind those guys. They’re out there working hard. I try to do the same thing and work hard for them.”
Giving up about 35 points per game is something junior linebacker Griffin Hoak does not want to experience again this season.
Stopping opposing offenses at the line of scrimmage and covering those players in the middle and back of the YSU defense is imperative, he says.
Offenses facing YSU should have a fear factor this fall, Hoak says, starting with trying to contain Fitzgerald from busting through their offensive line.
“We got a lot stronger,” he says. “We got a couple of new guys playing behind me at safety or cornerback.
“I think we’ll do a good job on defense.”
As for Hoak, he takes pride in making sure the players around him are doing what is necessary to put on a quality product for the fans.
“I’m always supporting my teammates,” he says. “I want my guys to get better. Along those same lines, I want myself to get better. I’m hoping they’re pushing me back as much as I’m pushing them.”
Staying as a cohesive unit and knowing the playbook is what sophomore defensive back D’Marco Augustin says is a key for his unit.
He says he’s seen where he needs to adjust his eyes and alignment on the playing surface by watching replays of his performances. “It starts in the film room, knowing the little concepts and details,” Augustin says.
TRANSFERRING TO YOUNGSTOWN
Ohio State University transfer safety Marcus Hooker and linebacker Caleb Burr from Lafayette College have impressed Augustin in camp.
“They’re the real deal,” Augustin says. “We just need to get them on the same page with us, get them familiar with the playbook.
“I feel like we’re going to have a great year.”
These transfers and freshmen are starting to get the concepts of YSU football.
“They’re getting used to it pretty well,” he says.
Phillips knows YSU sometimes comes out short in the transfer aspect when players from Florida, or even his quarterback, Crenshaw, of Columbus, head home for the offseason. There, they may talk to people who think they have that player’s best interest at heart, he says.
“It’s educating our young men to shut off the noise because everyone is an expert out there,” Phillips says. “Our young men have to be able to put blinders on and limit the noise that goes in the ears.
“Once in a while we will lose someone.”
For the most part, YSU has had its share of gains in the transfer process.
Ezekiel Blake, a junior defensive back from Independence (Kansas) Community College, comes in as a strong weight room-type player – bench pressing 225 pounds 12 times.
Junior defensive back Andrew Hardin from Monroe (Michigan) College comes in with Western Illinois transfer and senior linebacker Greg Benton Jr.
On the defensive line, there’s junior Devin Lee from Coffeyville (Kansas) Community College and redshirt freshman Jaelen Crider from Toledo.
Redshirt freshman Latrell Fordham from Eastern Michigan, senior Joey Groeber from Cincinnati and junior Errol Walker from Grambling are offensive linemen.
Junior Trenton Gillison came in from Michigan State. He was the top-ranked tight end in the state of Ohio a couple of years ago, coming out of Pickerington Central High School – the same school that produced Crenshaw. The two won a state championship when Gillison was a senior and Crenshaw was a sophomore.
“I’m excited to see what those guys can do,” Phillips says.
Pictured at top: YSU began practicing with uniforms Aug. 3 at Stambaugh Stadium.