By Drae Smith
Rookery Radio YSU Football Insider
YSU Football Sideline Reporter (570 WKBN / iHeartRadio)
The Youngstown State football team will begin its second season under Head Coach Bo Pelini this Thursday night against Duquesne. The contest will kickoff at 7:30 and will be aired on 570 WKBN and ESPN3. The Penguins return 16 seniors and 14 starters (8 offense/6 defense) from last year’s team that finished with a disappointing 5-6 record. With plenty of experience and talent back, this could finally be the year YSU ends a playoff drought that stretches back to 2006.
Pelini’s team should feature one of the best defensive units in the FCS again this season. In 2015, the group led the nation in fewest passing yards allowed per game at 116.7. Leading the talented defense will be preseason second-team All-American safety LeRoy Alexander and preseason first-team All-American defensive end Derek Rivers. Rivers is YSU’s all-time leader in sacks with 26 and is considered one of the top NFL prospects in the conference. The top six tacklers return to a defense which ranked in the top 10 in six defensive categories last season.
The biggest question for the Penguins is how the coaching staff is going to handle the quarterback position. Last year’s starter, junior Hunter Wells, has been in close competition throughout fall camp with junior Ricky Davis and junior JUCO-transfer Trent Hosick. Davis saw an increased role in the second half of last season, being used primarily as a runner. Both Davis and Hosick provide the dual threat, running capabilities that Wells does not. However, Wells has the experience of starting 18 games over the past two seasons. Pelini has been noncommittal and said there is a chance that all three QBs could see the field at some point.
Whoever starts at quarterback will be throwing to a group of young and mostly unproven wide receivers. Junior I’tavious Harvin is the only returning wideout who caught more than 10 passes in 2015. He caught 22 passes for 279 yards and two touchdowns which was third on the team behind Andre Stubbs and Andrew Williams who have both graduated. Isiah Scott, Darien Townsend, Robert Byrd, JUCO-transfer Stefan Derrick and Florida-transfer Alvin Bailey should join Harvin as the top targets. The offensive line and backfield will be much more experienced and settled. There has been some repositioning on the line but four of the five projected starters have seen significant playing time. JUCO-transfer Vitas Hrynkiwicz is the lone newcomer at center.
With accomplished senior tailbacks Martin Ruiz and Jody Webb running behind an experienced offensive line, the Penguins could have one of the more formidable running games in the Missouri Valley. Ruiz was named second-team All-MVFC in 2014 and rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons at YSU. Ruiz’s running mate, Jody Webb, had a breakout season in 2015 and was a second-team All-MVFC selection himself. He led the team with 857 yards rushing on 122 carries and had a team-high nine touchdowns. Webb finished sixth in the FCS and first in the MVFC with an average of 7.02 yards per rush.
Youngstown State will be facing a Duquesne team which has enjoyed great success in recent years. In 2015, they finished 8-4 and won their third conference title in five years under Head Coach Jerry Schmitt. The Dukes also made their first ever appearance in the FCS Playoffs, losing a 52-49 thriller to CAA powerhouse William & Mary in the first round. The Northeast Conference preseason favorites return 13 starters, seven on offense and six on defense. The headliner is senior linebacker Christian Kuntz, who is one of the best defensive players in the country. In 2015, he was a STATS first-team All-American and the NEC Defensive Player of the Year. He led the nation in tackles for loss with 26 while collecting 72 total tackles, 11 sacks, 4 interceptions and two touchdowns.
The Dukes also return firepower on offense, led by strong-armed senior QB, Dillon Buechel, who enters his fourth year as a starter. In 2015, he amassed 2,871 passing yards, 24 TD and 8 INT on his way to being named second-team All-NEC. He also threw for a career-high 423 yards and a school-record tying 6 TD passes in their playoff loss at William & Mary. Buechel will be joined by senior wide receiver Wayne Capers Jr. who led the Dukes with 9 TD grabs last season. The 2015 second team All-NEC honoree was second on the team with career highs of 51 receptions and 804 yards. The team unexpectedly lost their leading rusher from last season, Rafiq Douglas, and will now be forced to rely on unproven sophomore P.J. Fulmore.
Duquesne’s high-powered passing offense will be a great test for YSU’s talented and promising defense. However, the Dukes are replacing three starters on the offensive line which could be problematic against an elite pass rusher like Derek Rivers. The Penguins’ offense will also be challenged by a very talented defense which forced 26 turnovers in 2015. Pelini has stated before that his team has one goal, to make the FCS playoffs and compete for a championship. The long road to making that goal a reality begins Thursday night with this difficult non-conference matchup. With a Missouri Valley Football Conference schedule that seems to get more rigorous and daunting each year, this is a game that YSU absolutely must have.