The Youngstown State football team starts spring drills on Saturday morning looking to replace a four-year starter at quarterback, four of five offensive lineman and face various other position battles. But the Penguins are looking forward to the opportunities that await them this spring.
The most discussed and scrutinized position of the spring will be at quarterback. Kurt Hess started the last 47 games for the program, every contest under fifth-year Head Coach Eric Wolford. Now this spring, Dante Nania, Tanner Garry, Nick Wargo and Ricky Davis all jump into the fold trying to fill Hess's big shoes.
Hess set numerous school season and career records in his standout four-year career. Outside of some big first-half lead appearances and late-game duty, the only tight-game play for any of the signal callers came last year against North Dakota State. Nania and Garry played admirably against the eventual National Champion Bison.
No matter who wins the quarterback battle, the running-back position is chalk full of experience led by MVFC Newcomer and Freshman of the Year Martin Ruiz. Ruiz had a breakout freshman campaign setting school first-year marks for carries (192), touchdowns (15) and yards (1,094). He was a second-team all-league pick and finished third in the voting for the Jerry Rice Award, which goes to the top FCS freshman.
Behind Ruiz are Demond Hymes, Jody Webb, Ryan Mosora, Ian Banks-Tillman and newcomers Ryan Moore, Edmund Jacobs and Sidney Sandidge. Webb also had a solid first year rushing for 345 yards on 48 attempts and had six touchdowns. He averaged 7.2 yards per rush. Hymes had a solid start to fall camp, but an ankle injury slowed his season and set the stage for Ruiz and Webb to step forward. Hymes had 23 carries for 110 yards on the season.
On the offensive line, Brock Eisenhuth returns at guard while part-time starter Trevor Strickland is also back. Eisenhuth started the first eight games before missing three of the last four with an injury. Strickland started twice at left tackle and three times at right tackle last year. Senior Stephen Page has starting experience at center and will replace second-team All-American Chris Elkins. A group of Matt Bell, Dylan Colucci, Milton Williams, Jacob Griffith, Dana Harris, Cole Newsome, Anthony Parente, Justin Spencer and Christian Wilson will all be trying to crack the lineup.
At tight end, Nate Adams leads the unit with most of the experience. He had 15 receptions for 225 yards and four touchdowns. Jacob Wood played as a true freshman in 2013. Kevin Rader will be part of the squad this spring while Kintrell Disher will be out this spring recovering a from a knee injury.
The wide receivers feature mainstays Andre Stubbs, Christian Bryan, Jelani Berassa, Andrew Williams, Marcel Caver and Michael Wheary to go with redshirts Anthony Marchionda, Derrick Burgess and Brad Good. The six returnees caught 124 passes for 1,722 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. Stubbs led the way with 29 grabs for 359 yards and five touchdowns. Williams caught 26 passes for a team-leading 395 yards and two scores. Bryan had 26 receptions for 306 yards and two TDs, Caver had 393 yards on 21 catches and three scores while Wheary had 16 grabs for 195 yards and a score while Berassa had six receptions for 74 yards.
The defense will undergo a transformation under new defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant.
On the defensive line, Steve Zaborsky, Terrell Williams and Emmanuel Kromah are back. YSU lost one starter from the unit in Kyle Sirl. Pass-rush specialists Vince Coleman and Derek Rivers will be counted on to help put heat on the opposing quarterbacks. Williams had 30 total tackles, including 17 solo stops while Kromah had 39 tackles, incuding six TFLs and four sacks. Zaborsky started eight games and had 14 tackles. Octavious Brown and Rickey Hagood will play key roles up the middle after seeing time last year. Brown played in 11 games and was credited with 18 tackles. Eric Myers and Desmond Williams saw action in 2013 while Chavien Nolcox and DaShawn Scott will be looking step up this spring.
At linebacker, Travis Williams and Kevon Caffey will lead the group. Williams started eight games while Caffey had six starts last season. Williams posted 51 total tackles, including 29 solo stops, while Caffey finished with 38 tackles, 21 of which were solos. He was second on the team with 6.5 TFLs. Freshmen who played on special teams last year and late in games were Jaylin Kelly and B.J. Welch while Dubem Nwadiogbu looks to remain healthy and see an increased role. Terry Johnson bounced around between offense and defense, but the heavy-hitter should settle in at linebacker going forward. Three redshirts from last year include Cole Kochman, Rhamir Thomas and Mike Palumbo while Antoine Cox and Tyler Carter have been with the program the past two seasons.
In the secondary, Julius Childs, Donald D'Alesio and Jameel Smith are starters who return. Childs was third on the team with 68 tackles while Smith was fourth with 60. D'Alesio, who was the team's second-leading tackler, will miss the spring with a shoulder injury allowing time for Tre' Moore, Kenny Bishop and Grant Mercer to get the reps at the position. Eric Thompson saw action on special teams as a freshman and will be counted on to fill in for the departed Dale Peterman. Also in the mix is Kevin Cylar.
On special teams, Joey Cejudo returns along with long snapper Nathan Gibbs. Cejudo will see time at punter this spring following the departure of Nick Liste. Last year as placekicker, Cejudo made 6-of-8 field-goal attempts and went 49-of-51 on point-after conversions. Stubbs was a first-team all-conferencer performer as a kickoff returner averaging 26.9 yards a return.
YSU will practice each Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday through April 25. The Penguins will not practice Saturday, April 19 and the spring game is set for 7 p.m. on Friday, April 25.