YOUNGSTOWN - In a lot of places in Ohio - mainly Cleveland - the back-up quarterback is the most popular player on a football team.
That doesn't seem to be the case at Youngstown State University.
Nothing against sophomore Dante Nania or redshirt freshman Nick Wargo, who are battling to be the No. 2 guy, but Penguins starter Kurt Hess is a former all-conference performer who possesses ideal size, a strong arm, precise accuracy and a complete understanding of the offense. While he regressed slightly last year, Hess, a senior, continued to showed signs of becoming one of the elite quarterbacks in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Still, Nania and Wargo are one play away from being under center, which makes their competition an interesting one. Both have endured their share of struggles throughout spring practices, with errant passes, fumbled handoffs, mishandled snaps and coaches ripping them on a daily basis, so their performances at 7:30 p.m. tonight during the Red-White Spring Game could go a long way in determining who earns the job.
"I want to see what Dante and Nick and do when the lights are on," YSU coach Eric Wolford said. "That's probably the most interesting thing that I want to see happen. I think they are handicapped a little bit, as far as playing with the second group, but hopefully they can come out and do some good things."
Nania was the third-stringer last year, but when Patrick Angle, who backed up Hess the last two seasons, transferred to Ohio Northern in February, that meant Nania and Wargo, a Walsh Jesuit High School graduate, would compete to for the spot.
Nania, a former wrestler from Hempfield Area High School in Pennsylvania, has shown impressive athleticism, so much so that he nearly made a position change early in spring. The 6-foot, 205-pound Nania tried his hand at safety, an area that lacks experience and depth. He switched back to quarterback a little over a week ago, which put him in a tough situation. He went from learning the offensive plays (signals, audibles, routes, etc.) to trying to grasp the concepts of the defense and the footwork and tendencies of a defensive back. And now, he's back to quarterback, a position that demands complete knowledge of the offense and where other players will be on any given play.
"You've probably seen me getting yelled at out here," he said with a laugh. "I'm rusty. I've got to get in the film room. I gotta work on my feet. It's more the mental aspect. I feel good about our scheme, but it takes a lot to know what the defense is doing."
Wolford likes Nania's dual-threat capability. He's able to avoid would-be pass rushers and quick and shifty in the open field.
"Dante brings the most to the table as a No. 2 quarterback as opposed to being a No. 2 safety or getting in a little bit in nickel or dime situations," Wolford said. "He can do some things at quarterback that Kurt can do. He's a definite threat running the football."
There's still a lot to learn for Wargo, who led Walsh Jesuit to the Division II, Region 5 title game as a senior, completing 89-of-137 passes (65 percent) for 1,331 yards and 13 touchdowns that season. Consistency has been a problem for the 6-3, 215-pound redshirt freshman. He displays great touch and accuracy on some plays but will be well off the mark on other throws.
One of the players on the receiving end of some of those those throws, wide receiver Christian Bryan, said Wargo has a lot to process because last year, during his redshirt season, he didn't learn much of the offense. The job of a scout-team quarterback is to run the offense of that week's opponent.
"So this was really Nick's first time learning the offense," Bryan said. "Once he gets in the playbook more and really understands the reads, the progressions, he'll get confident in himself and he'll be fine."
Both have their first chance to make a name for themselves tonight.