YOUNGSTOWN - The process of returning the Youngstown State University football team to a national contender is one coach Eric Wolford believes is at its final stage.
Wolford, now in his fourth season, spoke on Monday at a press conference for spring practice. He touched on numerous subjects, including the Penguins inability to reach the postseason in his first few years as coach. Most of the team is now made up of players he recruited, and much of the coaching staff has been together long enough to create continuity, which are two reasons Wolford is looking forward to a productive spring.
"We embrace the expectation of continuing to improve," he said. "The last two years, in our eyes, we felt like we were a game away from getting in to the postseason. We have to, at some point, say, 'Hey, we're going to stop leaving this up to some committee or someone else's decision.' As of right now, we're in control of our destiny, and when you give that up, it's in someone else's hands.
"But I don't think there's any question that we have the pieces in place to be a good football team."
Some of those pieces will be different in 2013. Gone is leading rusher and preseason Walter Payton Award candidate Jamaine Cook, who ran for 1,279 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2012. His replacement could be one of three players. The most likely candidate is senior Adaris Bellamy, a three-year letter winner who entered the program with high expectations.
"I think that's going to be an interesting position to watch unfold," Wolford said. "I feel very comfortable about our running back position, starting with Adaris Bellamy. He's a guy who was highly touted, recruiting wise. He came in, played pretty well as a freshman, but he had to continue to grow up and mature. I refused to give him any wiggle room. I could have easily played him and made him the starter, but I wanted to make an example that you're going to do things in a specific manner here - what people from Youngstown expect. He's down to 207 pounds. He's lean, he's cut, and I think we're going to see the guy that we expected."
Another candidate is Warren G. Harding graduate Demond Hymes. The sophomore saw limited action last year (11 carries, 93 yards, two touchdowns), but Wolford said that will change this season, especially if he has a good spring.
"He's a guy who we haven't seen a whole lot of football from," he said. "That's not going to happen again. We're going to make sure we find a way to get Demond in the ball game and give him an opportunity to see what he can do. Because I don't think we've had a chance to make a fair assessment of what I think his potential is."
He'll have to battle with Bellamy and Torrian Pace, another senior who possesses a downhill style of running. Pace is the biggest of the three at 5-feet-11, 230 pounds and has the most experience as he finished second on the team with 320 yards. Bellamy (5-10, 210) and Hymes (5-11, 200) provide more speed and open-field moves. The variations in their styles could lead to a running back by committee in the backfield.
One area that isn't up for grabs is quarterback, where senior Kurt Hess is now in his third year as the starter. Hess has set several school records, but he hasn't yet taken the Penguins to the playoffs. Wolford said part of the reason is turnovers. Hess threw seven interceptions last season, and the Penguins fumbled the ball 16 times. That number is too high for Wolford.
"When we do things like we're capable of, make good decisions and take care of the football we're a pretty good football team," he said. "When we don't take care of the football, we're not a very good team. So that's something we have to continue to improve on.
"We have the pieces in place. We need the experience. We've got to get the reps."
That's what spring practices are for.