YSU Penguins Looking to Buck Past Trends

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — The Penguins have been here before.

The overpowering defense, the middling offense, the powerhouse conference slate, the season following up a late season slide – none of it is new to the Youngstown State University football team.

And in the second year of the Bo Pelini regime, all efforts through training camp have been on rectifying the shortcomings and improving on what went well in years past.

So far, the head coach says, the steps taken in spring and fall camps – combined with lessons learned in season one – are pushing the team forward.

“Hopefully the culture we’re trying to install around here has grown,” Pelini says. “It’s a more disciplined group, a more accountable group. If that’s the case – and we’re seeing signs that it’s moving in that direction – then we’ll be a better football team.”

The mantra is being repeated day in and day out by coaches and players in the program. LeRoy Alexander III, the Penguins’ starting strong safety, has been with Pelini for four seasons dating back to the coach’s time at Nebraska and is thoroughly entrenched in the system. For the Penguins, he says, everything about the program is taken day-by-day.

“I’ve been with Bo Pelini so long that I’m a game-by-game kind of guy,” the safety says. “The work we put in will be the outcome. It’s all day-by-day and game-by game.”

It’s on Alexander’s side of the ball that the Penguins will be most impressive. The unit brings in two preseason All-Americans in Alexander and defensive end Derek Rivers. On top of that, the defense was among the nation’s best last year by almost every measure.

The Penguins were seventh nationally in yards allowed per game with 288.7, allowing 4.83 yards per play and 32 touchdowns.

“We believe we can be a better defense that we were a year ago just by understanding schemes better, playing faster and with more confidence,” says defensive coordinator Carl Pelini.

In year two of the scheme, the defensive coordinator says, players are better adapted and the focus so far in camp has been on the details of the scheme and playing faster and more physically.

“Everyone knows the Xs and Os a lot better,” Carl Pelini says. “So there’s more confidence and swagger than a year ago.”

Also helping matters is the return of almost all defensive starters from the 2015 season, as only three players who started a majority of games graduated. In total, the Penguins’ top six defensive players are all returning.

“We had some injuries at defensive tackle and the guys who came in stepped up. Aside from that, just about everyone’s back,” he continues. “The defensive backs are playing well, the linebackers are communicating and playing physically and the d-line is the strength of our team.”

What will make or break the defense this year, defensive end Rivers says, is the communication behind the line and backfield. To have an effective defense, the All-American explains, the two groups have to work in tandem, each making up for the shortcomings of the other.

“Nobody plays a perfect game. If they mess up, it’s on us to correct for them,” he says. “Our defense is in the second year of the system, so everyone’s connecting. We’re all flying around, playing a lot faster.”

On the opposite side of the field, the YSU offense is seeing question marks at several positions. In spring camp, the quarterback battle has been between all four on the roster. Returning are QBs Hunter Wells, who started all 11 games last season, and Ricky Davis, who saw limited playing time in the second half of the season, mostly as a running quarterback. Newcomers are redshirt freshman Nathan Mays and Trent Hosick, a transfer from Arizona Western College.

Midway through camp, Bo Pelini and offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery narrowed the battle down to two players: Wells and Davis, the returning QBs. What should be a boon for the Penguins this season is the fact that all four have taken snaps with the first-team offense, giving them all-important experience.

“If we were to play tomorrow, I know which way I’d go. But there’s still a lot of practice left,” head coach Pelini says. “The competition, I think, is making all of them better.”

Montgomery, who also serves at the quarterbacks coach, notes that the battle is being at least partially driven by the rest of the offense. Comfort with who’s taking snaps, he explains, is what drives the entire unit, so seeing who clicks best with everyone else is a major factor in the eventual decision.

“They’re all doing well and eventually we’ll settle on a starter or maybe play two. But we’ve got four quarterbacks that we feel good about,” he says. “We have guys with different talents, so we may use two guys to take advantage of that. At some point, somebody’s going to get banged up and the next guy has to be ready to go.”

In the backfield, Jody Webb and Martin Ruiz both return, giving YSU reliable options in the running game. Webb was the Penguins’ top rusher last year with 857 yards and nine touchdowns, ranking sixth in the nation with just over seven yards per carry. Ruiz, who got the lion’s share of carries for the team, ran for 739 yards and four touchdowns.

At wide receiver, Montgomery calls the corps “as deep and talented as we’ve ever seen” in his seven years at Youngstown State. He basis that assessment on the return of Isiah Scott and Darien Townsend and the arrival of three transfers in Stefan Derrick, Damoun Patterson and Alvin Bailey, who came to YSU from Florida. There, Bailey had three catches for 49 yards.

With all the (hopefully) right pieces assembled and prepared for the regular season, the eyes in the Youngstown State locker room are firmly planted on avoiding the mistakes of past seasons. Last year, the team lost four of its last six games. The two years before, they lost the last three games of the season. In 2012, the Penguins lost four straight in October to bounce them from playoff contention.

“We need everybody to get better. We can’t zero in on one [person or position]. We have to get better across the board,” Bo Pelini says. “We could have been much better. I don’t get caught up in statistics – it all comes down to winning games, and we do what it takes to win games.”

What makes things challenging is the quality of Missouri Valley Football Conference, which last year sent a record-tying five teams to the playoffs, including North Dakota State University, winner of the past five national titles. This year, the Penguins play four of last year’s top five conference teams, traveling to North Dakota State, Illinois State University and South Dakota State University and playing University of Northern Iowa at home.

Out-of-conference, YSU opens the season Sept. 1 at home against Duquesne University before traveling to West Virignia University, a member of the Big 12. Non-conference play closes against Robert Morris University.

“We’ll be a good football team. … It’s hard to predict,” Montgomery says. “We play in the toughest league in the country and with our nonconference schedule, this is probably the most challenging schedule we’ve had since I’ve been here.”

With so many things looking so similar to years past, what Youngstown State has to focus on this season is correcting past faults. Whether through weight training to reduce injuries, speeding through practice because everyone better understands the playbook, or a maintained intensity throughout the season, everyone in the Penguins camp feels the sky is the limit for this team.

“I don’t think there is a ceiling,” says defensive coordinator Carl Pelini. “If we can play fast and keep studying our responsibilities and communicate well, we can be the best defense in the country.”

On the opposite side of the ball, Montgomery provides a similar analysis for the offense.

“When you get to the season and are playing a different opponent every week, it’s not hard to get guys motivated,” he says. “We have the talent to compete for a championship, but it takes work day in and day out. We can’t take any days off.”

The head coach didn’t offer any outlooks for the season. Instead, midway through camp, he said which game stands out on the schedule.

“Duquesne,” he says abruptly. “And we’ll just go from there.”

Pictured: As he prepares to begin his second season at the helm, Penguins head coach Bo Pelini aims to overcome the late-season troubles that have plagued YSU in recent years.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.