By MIKE McLAIN
YOUNGSTOWN - With college spring football practices coming to an end, it might be too soon to think about December playoffs.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael?Semple
Youngstown State football coach?Eric Wolford will lead the Penguins into their 40th annual?Red-White Game on Friday night at Stambaugh?Stadium. The 2012 season will be Wolford’s third.
An exception can be made for teams that came so close to advancing last year that the pain of missing out still burns deeply. The Youngstown State University Penguins were a win over Missouri State in the final game of the 2011 regular season from making a run at the FCS playoffs, but a second-half collapse cost them the game, 38-34, and postseason action.
Coach Eric Wolford expects that to change next season. Before the Penguins wrap up spring drills with the annual Red-White game Friday at Stambaugh Stadium, Wolford would consider anything short of the playoffs to be disappointing.
"We've expected to be there every year I've been here," said Wolford, who will enter his third season as coach next September. "I think it's legitimate, genuine, and our players expect to be there. I don't know in the past if they legitimately expected it or not. Sometimes you have a bunch of guys that sit around and hope, but they haven't done enough good things to merit it. I think we're finally in a position to strike."
Wolford spoke Wednesday at the Bob Dove Luncheon at the DeBartolo Stadium Club along with offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery and first-year defensive coordinator Joe Tresey. Montgomery will call plays for the Red offense, and outside linebackers coach Ron Stoops Jr. will make the defensive calls. Tresey will call defensive plays for the White team, with tight ends coach Mauro Monz calling the offensive plays.
Wolford will keep a close eye on everything that takes place. He expects the quartet of coaches to have their areas of expertise under control, especially on the defensive side.
"I'll just sit back and observe the overall process and what's going on and holding assistant coaches accountable for the way guys play," Wolford said. "You have a responsibility as a coach here to get your players to get the job done. If I don't think it's getting done, then I get to call you in and have a sit-down talk with you and say, 'Hey, this needs to be better.' "
Tresey, a 1976 Warren John F. Kennedy graduate, will have the unenviable task of upgrading a defense that struggled in big games the last two seasons. While the high-powered offense has had very few changes to deal with, the defense is undergoing major changes.
"Once we go through spring and evaluate the film, then we can make decisions on what we're good at and what we can get better at," Tresey said. "Really take a look at what our strengths were in the spring and what are weaknesses were and evaluate if you can make those weaknesses into strengths or if you just have to go in another direction."
Montgomery has the luxury of having most of the key pieces back, led by junior quarterback Kurt Hess and senior running back Jamaine Cook. That doesn't mean he isn't trying to take things up another notch.
"I tell them all the time that we can be probably as good as we want to be," Montgomery said. "They can't be complacent. It doesn't matter who we play. We can't roll the football out there and think we're going to line up and be successful.
"Even with the success we had last year at times, we felt like we still left a lot of points out there. There were certain games when we left two or three touchdowns out there. Sometimes instead of it being a close game in the fourth quarter, we could have maybe put it away and put some young players in there and rested our starters. We have a long ways to go."
One of Montgomery's primary goals will be for the offense to avoid momentary letdowns that can be the difference between winning and losing.
"One weakness we had last year was we had a chance in probably three or four games to finish it, and a couple of them we were able to win and couple we couldn't hold onto the lead," Montgomery said. "You want to be conservative at times, and other times you're going to need to throw the ball. Having an offensive line back that has that much experience, we can lean on those guys and our running backs."
READY FOR SUMMER: The players were to vote Wednesday on player representatives that will lead drills during the summer months, when coaches aren't allowed to have contact with them. This is the first offseason Wolford has decided to use the representative system.
"Obviously they will be guys that we suspect will be candidates to be captains in the fall," Wolford said. "I feel we're at the point now where we probably have enough guys that will take some ownership and lead that group."
ONE MORE TIME: The Red-White game won't be the final spring practice. Wolford will conduct a practice Monday in which the player reps will lead part of the session.