The Youngstown State football team will hold their first practice of the spring on Monday under second-year Head Coach Bo Pelini. YSU returns 14 starters from last season's squad.
All-Conference returning players include first-team honorees Derek Rivers, LeRoy Alexander and Zak Kennedy, second-team selections Jody Webb and Lee Wright and honorable-mention recipients Justin Spencer, Armand Dellovade and Shane Kuhn.
On offense, players who accounted for 417 of the 471 rushing attempts and 1,918 of the 2,198 yards return. However, YSU lost its top two receivers in Andrew Williams and Andre Stubbs. The two players combined for 71 of the Guins' 167 receptions and 1,054 of the 2,117 yards receiving in 2015. They also had eight of the 14 total touchdowns and all but two by the wide receivers. The other wide receivers on the roster last year combined for 40 receptions. The players who threw all 311 passing attempts and all 2,117 yards are back in 2016 as well.
At quarterback, starter Hunter Wells, dual-threat Ricky Davis and newcomer Trent Hosick will all get a fair amount of reps during spring drills. Nathan Mays will also be part of the mix after redshirting last year.
Wells started all 11 games and threw for 1,975 yards and had 13 touchdown passes. He completed 156-of-291 attempts in his sophomore campaign and has started 18 games in his two years with the program. Davis saw the most playing time of his career rushing four scores and throwing for another. He ran for 195 yards on 42 attempts and completed eight passes. He saw significantly more playing time in the final six games as the Penguins employed a dual-QB system.
Hosick joined the team in the spring after spending two seasons at Arizona Western Community College. Another dual-threat QB, he completed 52-of-101 passes for 787 yards and six touchdowns while rushing for 216 yards on 67 carries as a sophomore. He was 10-2 as a starter in his two seasons with the program.
Mays and Jon Saadey both redshirted in 2015.
YSU is again stacked at tailback with Webb, Martin Ruiz, Sidney Sandidge, Joe Alessi, Tevin McCaster and Ryan Moore all return. In his career, Ruiz has rushed for 3,153 yards while Webb has 1,917. Webb was the Penguins' top rusher last year running for 857 yards on 122 carries while Ruiz had 739 on 188 attempts. The duo combined for 13 touchdowns, with nine coming from Webb. McCaster and Sandidge each saw limited action a year ago.
Moore sat out last year after suffering a knee injury in the spring while Alessi redshirted.
The top returning receiver for the Penguins is I'tavious Harvin who caught 22 passes last year for 279 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Darien Townsend had a career-best 10 catches for 99 yards. Harvin and Townsend are the most experienced of the unit. Robert Byrd and Isiah Scott saw playing time last year.
The Guins were able to redshirt Darius Shackelford, Jaylon Brown, Jermiah Braswell, Tre'Von Williams, Zach Torbert, Ryan Emans and Chad Swanson last year. Those seven will get a good chance in the spring to show what they are capable of.
On the offensive line, starters Dylan Colucci, Spencer, Gavin Wiggins, Brock Eisenhuth and Cameron Fraser. Spencer was the only offensive lineman to start every game a year ago. During the season, nine different players started at least one game. Of the nine, six are back this spring (Cole Newsome is the other).
Colucci started 10 contests while Fraser started seven of the final eight. Wiggins did not play the first seven games, but came on strong to start the final four. Eisenhuth started the first five before being sidelined with a concussion. The ever-changing unit allowed just 14 sacks on the year. Only Jeff Rotheram returns who saw playing time during the 2015 campaign.
At tight end, the entire group from 2015 returns. Kuhn emerged as a rushing threat last season. He had 24 carries for 80 yards and four touchdowns. Jacob Wood started all 11 contests while Anthony Parente and Kevin Rader also had significant playing time. The group accounted for 16 receptions last year. YSU redshirted a pair of tight ends as well in Mark Schuler and Joey Davidson.
The top six tacklers from last year's vastly improved unit are back. Those individuals combined for an impressive 358 stops, including 218 solo tackles. In the FCS, YSU ranked in the top 10 in six defensive categories according to the final stats by the NCAA. Of note, the Penguins led the nation in Fewest Passing Yards Allowed (116.7), Fewest Completions Allowed (83) and tied for first in First-Downs Defense (145).
The unit will be led by third-team All-American defensive end Derek Rivers.
Rivers, a two-time first-team All-MVFC selection enters his final season as the program's leader in career sacks and is the only returning starter on the defensive line. He has 26 sacks entering his final year with the program.
The secondary returns first-team All-MVFC honoree Alexander, Jameel Smith and rotating starters Eric Thompson, David Rivers III and Nate Dortch. The five players combined to start 40 games last season. The only departure is Kenneth Durden who started all 11 games in 2015. Also returning are D.J. Thomas, Kenny Bishop, Deion Hall, Avery Larkin (who had one start), Solomon Warfield and Jalyn Powell. The only other member from last year's defensive backfield who does not return is Tre' Moore.
Combined the 11 members of the secondary who are back had 211 tackles whether they came on defense or on special teams.
Wright, a junior linebacker, was a second-team All-MVFC selection after a strong first year in the program. Wright led the team with 78 total tackles, including 48 solo stops. Impressively he had 9.5 TFLs and six sacks for the campaign.
Linebackers Jaylin Kelly and Dellovade combined for 97 tackles at the other linebacker positions. Dellovade had a strong true freshman season with 54 tackles and was an honorable-mention all-league recipient. Kelly ended up with 43 tackles on the year. Wright, Dellovade and Kelly combined for 175 tackles on the season.
On the front line, Rivers has the bulk of experience with the unit. YSU lost two every-game starters in Terrell Williams and Steve Zaborsky and another experienced player in Emmanuel Kromah. The trio was credited with 102 tackles in 2015. Cody Squiric returns after starting the first seven games of the year.
Senior defensive end Avery Moss will see an increased role in 2016. Moss had 25 total tackles and three sacks in his first year at YSU last year.
Kennedy and Nick Sheely return for their sophomore campaigns after handling the role of placekicker and punter in 2015.
Kennedy had an outstanding first season as he was named first-team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference. He was the first freshman placekicker to earn the award since 1992. He made a school-record 19 field goals on the campaign. Sheely punted 52 times, averaging 36.2 yards per boot. The coverage unit was stout allowing just 15 yards on 12 punt returns. Also, Connor McFadden returns after seeing the first playing time of his career a year ago.
Sophomore long snapper Steven Wethli returns while Sheely took over the holding duties late in the season.