YOUNGSTOWN - There was an area of unknown for running back Demond Hymes when the Youngstown State University football team started spring practices in March.
The redshirt sophomore got just 17 touches last year with record-breaking senior Jamaine Cook carrying the load for the Penguins. Hymes, a 2011 Warren G. Harding graduate, entered the spring in a competition to become the starter with several other running backs. These days, there is no more competition.
The main reason is injuries to seniors Adaris Bellamy and Torrian Pace, who haven't practiced in nearly two weeks and will not play in Friday's Red-White Spring Game. The losses have placed Hymes front and center, and he hasn't disappointed. He's been one of the best players on the field over the past month and will have his first chance as the No. 1 running back at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Stambaugh Stadium.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
YSU running back Demond Hymes will be the number-one running back on Friday during YSU’s annual Red-White Spring Game.
"Demond's everything we thought he'd be," said YSU coach Eric Wolford, who admitted to being bothered by not giving Hymes more opportunities last year. "I know what Demond's potential is. He's very talented."
That became more obvious after Bellamy and Pace went down. Hymes received nearly every repetition with the first-team offense over the last two-and-a-half weeks. His quickness and agility were apparent from the start, but Wolford said he's noticed significant progress in Hymes' pass protection, an area Hymes struggled in last year.
"That's one the key things is being able to handle blitz pick-up," Wolford said. "We can't afford to have (starting quarterback) Kurt Hess stand back there and get hit, and you tell me, 'Oh, I missed that guy.' That doesn't fly. We've got to be able to protect our quarterback at all costs, so that's a big part of being a running back."
That's not the only area Hymes has developed. He rarely fumbles and can catch the ball out of the backfield. Wolford was a bit surprised by Hymes during last Saturday's scrimmage. One of Wolford's concerns was how Hymes would perform in short-yardage situations. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Hymes, who's bulked up since last season, erased most of those doubts with a 6-yard scoring run and a few third-and-short plays in which he bulled his way forward for extra yardage.
"I was really impressed with what I saw," he said. "He really stuck the ball up in there with a low pad level and kept his legs moving. He actually gained probably more yards than what was blocked for."
One of the men responsible for helping Hymes reach this point is first-year running back coach Eric Gallon, a former teammate of Wolford when the two played at Kansas State. He played a large role in improving Hymes' pass-protection skills. He emphasized the importance watching film of the opposing defense, so Hymes could recognize who was blitzing before the ball was snapped.
"We've worked on a lot of drills - a lot of times, and it's helped him out a lot. And he's learned how to do it. Not only from identification of knowing who's coming and being able to read and understand it, but physically being able to do it. Because not a lot of backs can. They can run. They can read holes, but they can't pick up blocks. That's key - especially in our offense, based on what we do."
His heavy workload during the spring was a blessing from that perspective, Hymes said. He has a better understanding of the offense, and, equally important, he is noticing tendencies of the defense that allow him to know who's blitzing. That allows Hymes to meet the defender before he reaches the backfield and gives him a running start to secure the block.
"Now that I'm identifying the person I'm supposed to get, pass blocking is a lot easier," he said. "(The extra work) helps me because everything is coming along faster. I'm getting a lot of repetition of the same plays, so it's first nature."
Though just a sophomore, Hymes shows good leadership skills and acts like a veteran, Wolford said. The fourth-year coach has talked about his positive mindset and no-nonsense attitude several times. It's a trait that seems to endear him to the coaches.
"I can't say enough good things about Demond Hymes," Wolford said. "He's just a good kid. Yes sir-no sir guy. He's a good example for a lot of young men in the valley. He works hard. He goes to class. He has great relationships with his teachers. He doesn't talk back. He does the things he needs to do. More kids need to be like Demond Hymes. We'd be in a lot better place if there were more guys like Demond Hymes."