YOUNGSTOWN - The month of October was one to forget for pretty much every player on the Youngstown State University football team.
But the secondary would rather those 31 days never existed. YSU gave up an average of 252 passing yards and three touchdowns per game during a four-game losing streak that ended any chances at reaching the playoffs. The secondary accounted for one interception through those four games, and it came in the fourth quarter of a blowout loss to South Dakota State University.
In fact, the Penguins made just four total interceptions as a team in 2012 and finished last in the conference in pass defense.
Junior free safety Donald D'Alesio and the rest of the YSU secondary are doing all they can to make sure that doesn't happen again in 2013.
"We definitely expect better things than what we did last year," said D'Alesio, a Cardinal Mooney graduate. "I guess you could say we under-performed. We didn't have too many interceptions and whatnot. We definitely expect to be a lot better than last year. Three of the starters are coming back that started every game (in the secondary). I think you can definitely expect better things from us."
Things took a step in the right direction on Thursday, the fifth session of spring practices. YSU's defense picked off two passes - both by walk-on Deion Hall of Bedford High School - and forced three fumbles during the scrimmage portion of practice. The secondary had not looked particularly strong since practices started on March 19, but on the first day of live hitting, that started to change. D'Alesio believes Thursday is a sign of things to come for a group that now has plenty of experience - albeit, not the most positive experience.
"Me and Julius Childs really play together on one side most of the game," said D'Alesio, referring to the corner who starts on his side of the field. "We kind of know what (the other is) going to do and what we might not. We know each other's strengths, our weaknesses. We talk to each other a lot. You've got to relay a lot of messages."
Back for the Penguins, along with D'Alesio and Childs, is corner Dale Peterman, a senior from Ursuline High School. That trio started every game together last year, but communication was still a problem, partly because several players filled in at strong safety and also because no one spent significant time as a starter prior to 2012. While those decisions are out of the players' hands, improving their athleticism is not.
D'Alesio spent the offseason working out - he put on 17 pounds of muscle - and is healthy for the first time in two years following a nagging shoulder injury that kept him out until the beginning of camp last season.
YSU coach Eric Wolford said he noticed the physical change in the 6-foot, 195-pound D'Alesio, who he believes can become a leader in the secondary. Wolford is looking forward to him taking charge of a group that needs to become more aggressive.
"We didn't get many interceptions last year," Wolford said. "That has to change. We have to attack the ball. We can't sit around and wait for something to happen. We needs guys who want to make it happen."