The Youngstown State football team has spent the past two seasons under Head Coach Eric Wolford being competitive in every football game they have played in. Now, in 2012, the Penguins have adopted a "No Excuses" motto that they hope will take them from being competitive to putting the nation on notice that they are back in the national title hunt.
In Coach Wolford's second season in 2011, YSU won six games, lost four conference games by a total of 17 points and trailed Big Ten Legends Division Champion Michigan State by just eight points late in the third quarter.
In November, the Penguins accomplished something that no team was able to during the season: beat National Champion North Dakota State. YSU knocked off the top-ranked Bison with a gritty effort in a 27-24 come-from-behind win. NDSU went on to win the FCS championship, and the Penguins' victory stood as the lone blemish on its record.
In the six wins, YSU dominated its opponents. The Penguins outscored their opponents 278-121 in victories. In its four Missouri Valley Football Conference defeats, Youngstown State lost by four (twice), two and seven points – a total of 17. YSU had fourth-quarter leads in three of those games and lost 37-35 at Indiana State after falling behind 21-0.
This fall, the Penguins spent time in camp improving a defense that ranked 49th in the FCS last season in total defense and 53rd in scoring defense. At times, that unit has dominated a vaunted and talented offense, which was fifth in the country in total offense and sixth in scoring. Now after pushing one another, YSU embarks on a journey that will hopefully lead to the program's 12th FCS playoff appearance since 1987.
The offense returns all 11 starters from a year ago. Of a possible 121 starts (11 games, 11 spots) for the entire unit, 17 were from players who are not going to see action this year, and 10 were by wide receiver Jelani Berassa, who YSU lost to a knee injury in fall camp for the second time in three years. During the regular season, the Penguins were the only FCS squad to amass more than 2,500 rushing yards and 2,500 yards passing. YSU set school records averaging 36.2 points per game and 458.6 yards of total offense a contest. The balance of the unit was impressive averaging 231.1 on the ground and 227.5 through the air per game.
Quarterback Kurt Hess was a first-team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference selection last year. Hess became just the second sophomore in the league's 30-year history to be selected while he was the first YSU quarterback since entering the MVFC to be named to the first team. He completed 186-of-387 passes for a school-record for 2,460 yards and school-record 26 touchdown passes with just eight interceptions. Backing up Hess are sophomore Patrick Angle, redshirt freshman Dante Nania and true freshmen Jeff Clegg and Nick Wargo.
The tailback spot continues to be a strong point for the program. First-team All-MVFC selection Jamaine Cook returns and is looking for his third straight 1,000-yard campaign. Cook rushed for 1,276 yards in 2010 and had a career-high 1,386 yards in 2011. The coaching staff plans to lighten his load (512 carries the past two years) with a bevy of talented tailbacks.
Torrian Pace had 25 carries for 150 yards in 2011, Adaris Bellamy rushed for 345 yards on 60 attempts last year while Demond Hymes redshirted. YSU has added newcomers Lawrence Hughes and John Medina for the upcoming campaign.
At tight end, Will Shaw has emerged as an NFL prospect. A match-up nightmare on the FCS level, the former safety-turned-linebacker-now tight end, caught eight passes for 200 yards and had three touchdowns in 2011. Of his eight receptions, seven came in the final three games. Carson Sharbaugh had five catches while Nate Adams caught one pass last year.
The offensive line featured the same starting five in every game last year, and this season all of those players return - LT Andrew Radakovich, LG Lamar Mady, C Mark Pratt, RG Chris Elkins and RT D.J. Main. That unit helped pave the way for Hess and Cook to have standout individual years while the offense set school marks in points and total offense as well as passing touchdowns. The Penguins yielded just nine sacks for the year, ranking 11th in the FCS in fewest sacks allowed per contest.
The line was bolstered with the off-season addition of left-tackle Kyle Bryant, a Bowling Green transfer. A strong second-unit of guards Dana Harris and Fred Herdman, tackle Andrew Sinko and center Stephen Page give the group significant depth. YSU has added freshmen Brock Eisenhuth, Dylan Colucci and Mason Giacomelli while J.P. May returns.
At wide receiver, sophomore Christian Bryan will anchor the group. Bryan led the Penguins last year with 46 receptions for 722 yards and six touchdowns. His 46 grabs were a school mark for a freshman. Berassa, who had 37 receptions and eight touchdowns in 2011, was lost for the season in August with a knee injury, so plenty of opportunities are available to fill the vacancy.
Kevin Watts caught 28 passes last year while Kintrell Disher had eight and Andre Stubbs finished with four. Andrew Williams, who did not catch a pass but did play some special teams last year, has stepped up in fall camp and will take Berassa's spot in the starting lineup. Newcomers Michael Wheary and Marcel Caver have made strong catches in practice and should factor in the mix. Brandon Thomas also returns for his second campaign.
One unit with something to prove in 2012 is the defense. Only twice in 2011 did the unit allow 20 points or fewer and the offense scored 77 and 56 points in those games. If anything, 24 seemed to be a magic number. When the defense held an opponent to under 24 points, the Penguins were 5-1 with the lone loss coming at UNI. When YSU allowed 25-or-more points, it was 1-4.
New coordinator Jim Tresey has brought a fast-paced style to the program that the players have followed since he first arrived in the spring. This fall, the unit took major steps forward and sometimes had the upperhand on the offense.
Four seniors headline the defensive line with Josh Fenderson, Aronde Stanton, Nick DeKraker and Luis Quinones all leading the way. The four transferred in from junior colleges last year and have one year with the program under their belts.
Stanton jumped right in last year and started all 11 games at defensive tackle. He finished the year with 32 total tackles, including two sacks. He was the only member of the squad with an interception and a fumble recovery. Fenderson (six) and Quinones (four) battled injuries and between the two, played in a total of 10 games and combined for four tackles. DeKraker played in all 11 games and started three times at defensive end, but has been moved inside this year. He was credited with 17 total tackles, including a sack.
The position will rely on a group of hard-working redshirt freshmen as second-teamers. Eric Myers, Steve Zaborsky, Emmanuel Kromah and Trevor Strickland all practiced but did not play while redshirting last year. Newcomer Terrell Williams has seen some time at end for the unit this fall.
Another senior, Chuck Lengyel, is a pass-rush specialist who primarily played special teams last year and could be called on in key situations. D.J. Moss, Anthony Szymczak and Matt Bell will all add some size to the unit.
The linebackers are led by Teven and Travis Williams. Teven Williams led the team with 67 total tackles and 38 solo stops as a true freshman in 2011. After not starting the first three games, Williams was in the starting lineup for the final eight contests of the season. Travis Williams started all 11 games after transferring from Miami (Fla.). He was second on the team with 58 total tackles.
This fall, Dubem Nwadiogbu and Dom Rich have produced and could be in the starting lineup on opening night. Rich played in the first three games of the season a year ago before being sidelined with an injury. Nwadiogbu, whose nickname is Bam, had nine tackles as a reserve linebacker and member of special teams. Ali Cheaib is in the mix as well. He played in eight games last season and recorded 27 total stops, including 16 solos. True freshman Terry Johnson has played with the top unit and the second group as a middle linebacker. Freshmen Donte Harvey and Kevon Caffey round out the unit.
The secondary has two new coaches and a lot of new faces this year. Tresey coaches the safeties while Glenn Davis has joined the program as the cornerbacks coach. The safeties have some familiar faces, but the corners feature plenty of new additions.
At safety, Jeremey Edwards and Josh Garner combined to start 16 games last year. Edwards was third on the team in tackles with 54 while ranking second with 34 solo stops. Garner had 47 tackles, including an impressive 32 solos.
Donald D'Alesio, who played corner his first two seasons and was lost to an injury in week three last year, has shown some solid signs of stepping into one of the safety spots. He had six tackles before suffering a season-ending injury against Illinois State. Otherwise, junior college transfers Chris Charles and Twin Fernandes along with freshmen Jameel Smith and Khilque Harris are new to the program. Senior Deionte Williams returns after missing the 2011 season with a hand injury.
At corner, D'Alesio and Jamarious Boatwright are the only two on the roster with YSU starts at the position. Now, D'Alesio is playing safety while Boatwright's three starts came in 2010. He missed all of last year after suffering a knee injury in spring drills in 2011.
Newcomers Dale Peterman and Julius Childs have stepped into starting roles at both cornerback spots. Peterman did not play college football last fall while Childs is a junior college transfer. Boatwright, who did play in 11 games in 2010, is healthy and will see playing time while USF transfer Ricardo Dixon, who is recovering from a knee injury of his own, joined the program this fall.
Tresey's defense features plenty of nickelback, and Parnell Taylor has seen the bulk of the workload in fall camp. Taylor played running back last year and was on special teams before he made the move to defense in the fall. Other members of the secondary will be called on to fill that role.
Liste's average wasn't as impressive as his 2010 totals (41.4-39.8), but he placed 16 kicks inside the 20 while booming eight of 50 yards or more. Those final two totals were career highs. Plus, he did not have a punt blocked during the campaign in 53 attempts compared two having two blocked in 43 attempts in 2010. Liste handled kickoff duties for the first time in 2011 and will do so again this year.
Brown was near automatic on PAT kicks, making 53-of-56 tries. On field goals, he nailed his final three of the season, including two in the victory at North Dakota State. His 30-yard field goal in the third quarter proved to be the difference in the contest.
Long snapper Nathan Gibbs is back for his second year at the position after a solid freshman campaign. Backup quarterback Dante Nania will serve as the holder, replacing four-year holder Marc Kanetsky at the position.
In the return game, Stubbs started the year strong averaging 27 yards on eight kickoff returns, but was sidelined with a season-ending injury against Illinois State. Watts had a team-best 23 returns for 480 yards, but Stubbs and Hymes enter the season as the No. 1 kickoff tandem. On punts, Stubbs and Bryan could both see time in the return game.