by Drae Smith
Sports Director and General Manager of Rookery Radio
Host of "The Drae Smith Show" Thursdays 8am-10am
A new era of Youngstown State Football is set to begin September 5th at Heinz Field against the Pittsburgh Panthers. The arrival of new head coach and Youngstown native, Bo Pelini, has created a new buzz and excitement around the program and community. At YSU Football Media Day, Pelini expressed a sense of cautious optimism about this 2015 team. While it is the debut season under new leadership, there is plenty to be excited about heading into the upcoming season.
The return of offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery and offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo provides crucial continuity and familiarity for an offense which showed great promise in 2014. Starting quarterback Hunter Wells also returns after an impressive redshirt freshman season. Wells comes into his sophomore year with a full year of experience in coach Montgomery’s offense and a full offseason program under his belt. At media day, Montgomery called Wells one of the most mentally advanced young quarterbacks he has ever coached. We could be ready to witness a breakout season for Wells, who has the potential to become one of the best quarterbacks in the FCS.
The dynamic running back duo of Martin Ruiz and Jody Webb also returns for the 2015 campaign. Ruiz, a second team all-conference performer, has rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons. He rushed for 1,320 yards in 2014 while Webb added over 700 yards. Heading into 2015, Ruiz has been named preseason first-team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference and has emerged as one of the team leaders on offense. The “thunder and lightning” combination of Ruiz and Webb makes for one of the most formidable backfields in the FCS.
The group who will block for Ruiz and Webb also features a great amount of experience and talent. The Penguins return four starters on the offensive line: Trevor Strickland, Dylan Colucci, Justin Spencer and Brock Eisenhuth. Spencer started all 12 games at right tackle last season as a redshirt freshman and has been named preseason first team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference. With a slew of talented young players also in the mix, the offensive line is sure to be one of the strongest units on the team.
All-conference wide receiver, Andrew Williams, will return as the number one option for QB Hunter Wells. Williams had a breakout season in 2014, leading the team in receiving with 976 yards and 6 touchdowns. He was named all-conference honorable mention and developed great chemistry with Wells over the course of the season. Also returning is senior slot receiver/wing back, Andre Stubbs, who is always a threat with his terrific speed.
The biggest question mark on offense is who will fill the remaining receiver spots aside from Williams and Stubbs. There will be a group of talented, but unproven players battling for playing time when the season starts. Leading the group is senior Kintrell Disher, who has caught the eye of players and coaches with a tremendous offseason. Other receivers who should be in the mix during preseason camp include Jaylon Brown, I’Tavious Harvin, Darien Townsend, and freshman Isiah Scott.
With so much talent and experience returning, the Penguins offense is poised to have a big season in 2015. The unit returns almost completely in tact under offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery, who happens to be one of the top play-callers at the FCS level. That type of familiarity and continuity should give YSU one of the most lethal offenses in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
Bo Pelini will look to use his proven defensive acumen to improve a group which has underperformed the past few seasons. With the offense in great shape under coach Montgomery, Pelini should be able to focus most of his attention on the defensive side.
The front seven is expected to be one of the best in the conference with proven playmakers like Terrell Williams and Derek Rivers returning. In 2014, Rivers had one of the best seasons in YSU history for a defensive lineman. He amassed 14 sacks and was named first team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference. Terrell Williams collected 10 sacks of his own and was selected to the second team. Experienced seniors Emmanuel Kromah and Steve Zaborsky also return to provide additional support.
However, perhaps the most intriguing part of the defensive line will be the play of newcomer Avery Moss. The 6 foot 3, 265 pound defensive end followed Bo Pelini from Nebraska after being suspended for off the field issues. Moss has freakish athletic ability and the potential to reek havoc at the FCS level. The combination of Moss, Rivers and Williams could be extremely scary for opposing offenses in 2015.
The linebacker position is also very solid with returning starters Jaylin Kelly and Dubem Nwadiogbu leading the way. Nwadiogbu led the team in tackles last season and was named all-conference honorable mention. Kelly was one of the most impressive players in spring ball and and seems poised for a big season in 2015.
The biggest questions for the defense lie in the secondary, where there will be some new faces playing key roles. There are many players competing for starting spots within a unit that has struggled in recent memory. At cornerback, those in the mix include returning starter Nate Dortch, Kenneth Durden, David Rivers III, D.J. Thomas and Deion Hall. At safety, the competition includes returning starter Tre' Moore, Nebraska transfer LeRoy Alexander, Michigan State transfer Jalyn Powell, Jameel Smith and Jamar Pinnock.
Under coach Pelini and co-defensive coordinators Ron Stoops and Carl Pelini, the Youngstown State defense could see vast improvement in 2015. That improvement will be necessary in order for the Penguins to have success against high-powered MVFC offenses like Illinois State and North Dakota State.
The kicking game must be completely overhauled with former place kicker and punter, Joey Cejudo, now graduated. In the mix to fill his shoes are place kicker Connor McFadden, punter/place kicker Zak Kennedy and punter Nick Sheely.
With a new coaching staff and an always difficult Missouri Valley schedule, things will certainly not be easy for the Penguins in 2015. However, the addition of an accomplished coach like Bo Pelini to the talented core that’s already in place, could be enough to get YSU back to the playoffs for the first time since 2006.