YOUNGSTOWN - Like it or not, when a football team doesn't reach a certain expectation, the blame usually falls on the quarterback.
And at Youngstown State University, the goal is to play in the postseason. That hasn't happened since 2006, and since senior Kurt Hess has been the quarterback for the last two years, plenty of criticism was directed his way after the Penguins again came up short in 2012.
The 6-feet-3, 230-pound Hess put up record-breaking numbers and looked like one of the better quarterbacks in the Football Championship Subdivision as a sophomore, but last season he made questionable decisions at key moments of close games and nearly lost his job. YSU coach Eric Wolford acknowledged that Hess may have become a victim of trying to do too much.
"He's done some good things, but last year, without speaking for him, I think he felt the pressure," said Wolford as the Penguins opened up spring practices on Tuesday at the Watts Center. "The weight of the world was probably on his shoulders. Nobody wants to win more than Kurt does. We live and die this game. Sometimes you get into a situation that you want something so bad that you may be a little too antsy or you try to force something. Kurt's a guy that I think learned from it. It was really the first time he's had any adversity."
The tough times came in October. YSU was the No. 3-ranked team in the country and had impressive wins over Pitt and Northern Iowa going into a clash with top-ranked North Dakota State, but after suffering a 48-7 loss to the Bison, the Penguins lost three straight games and fell out of the top 25 and the playoff picture. Hess helped YSU regroup and win their final three games, and the fact that he was able to keep his composure during a rough stretch showed the perseverance Wolford was hoping to see. He also pointed out that some of the interceptions and missed throws weren't always Hess' fault.
"He came back and played pretty strong at the end of the year," he said. "He just needs to do the things that he's asked to do. I can't necessarily say what game or when, but there were times that Kurt threw the ball and expected a guy to be there, and he wasn't there. Unfortunately, all we see from afar is the interception on Sunday in the paper. If a guy doesn't run the right route, and you're expecting that guy to be there and you throw there ... that's not fair to him."
Hess set the bar high as a sophomore in 2011, when he broke school records for touchdowns (26), completion percentage (64.8) and was named to the All-Missouri Valley Football Conference's first team. That made a solid junior campaign (he threw 15 TDs and seven interceptions) look worse than it may have been. Still, Hess admitted he made some bad choices in tight games, and he hopes returning his focus to the basics will help him return to form.
"I got away from my footwork last year, and I think that took away from my accuracy at times," Hess said. "Sometimes I fell off balance, or I just took bad initial steps. It kind of got me off my throwing motion. I definitely want to get back to my fundamentals. I think two years ago, my footwork was better than it was last year."
Hess said he was a bit rusty on the first day of the spring practice but felt good overall. Wolford is confident the kinks will beworked out by the fall.
"We expect big things from Kurt," Wolford said. "He's a leader. He'll play well, and we'll go as he goes."