YOUNGSTOWN - There always seems to be a few players who aren't heard of much during spring practice but come through when the bright lights of Stambaugh Stadium come on.
Two of those players at Youngstown State University's annual Red-White Spring Game were speedy wide receivers Kevin Watts and Michael Wheary.
Watts was the most exciting offensive player on the field Friday. He only caught one pass for 4 yards, but he burned the Red Team's defense on four different occasions when he went in motion and took a handoff around the end for big gains. He finished with a game-high 83 rushing yards on those four touches (a 20.8-yard average). The senior wasn't immediately available for comment after the game, but his play - and coach - did enough talking for him.
"The kid's had a lot of difficult situations," YSU coach Eric Wolford said. "He lost his dad a year ago, and it's been something that's been on his mind, and it's been a process getting through it. But I think we're going to get Watts back to being the guy he was his freshman year."
Watts played in 11 games and started nine as a true freshman. He caught 11 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns and also ran the ball 15 times for 72 yards. He started just eight games over the next two years and wasn't much of a factor last year when he made one start. Wolford said the 6-foot, 225-pound Watts could become a factor if he takes care of his body.
"He can be a slot receiver-type guy, and he can obviously be a back-up returner," Wolford said. "The biggest thing we've had to deal with Watts is getting his weight back under control - we're going to try and get him down to 215. He can become an impact player, and he has a chance to do it."
Wheary, one of the fastest players on the team, led everyone with 47 yards receiving on four catches. He made the longest catch of the night when he dove to snag a 39-yard pass from quarterback Kurt Hess. Wheary, a 5-11, 175-pound sophomore, endured an up-and-down spring but could earn playing time because of his speed and big-play ability, Wolford said.
BACK-UP BATTLE: Neither of the two players jockeying to become the No. 2 quarterback to Hess played especially well Friday.
Redshirt freshman Nick Wargo and sophomore Dante Nania struggled to move the ball with the second-team offense. Nania started the game for the White Team and threw an interception on his first pass attempt. He had a screen pass tipped up and picked off inside the White's 5-yard line. The Red Team scored three plays later. The dual-threat quarterback did rush for 29 yards, but that was negated by the six sacks he took, which led to minus-32 yards. He finished 3 of 8 through the air for 22 yards and one interception.
Wargo was a more impressive 8-of-11 passing for 60 yards and zero interceptions. He made a nice over-the-shoulder pass to Justin Getz, a Liberty High School graduate, for a 6-yard touchdown. He was a bit inconsistent though as he was lucky not to have two of of his passes picked off - one of which would have been returned for a touchdown if corner Brandon Thomas didn't drop it.
Wolford didn't make it easy on the young QBs as the Red Team sent exotic blitzes on a regular basis.
"In spring games, there's two ways you can approach it," he said. "You can say, 'Hey, we're going to play basic defense and not blitz, or we're going to throw the book at you,' and obviously you can see we blitzed almost every play. I wanted to see if we could handle it. Anyone can line up and play against a base defense."
HYMES' TIME: Sophomore running back Demond Hymes, a 2011 Warren G. Harding graduate, started and scored the Red Team's only offensive touchdown. While it was only a 2-yard score, Hymes showed good patience as he waited for the blocks to develop before bulling his way into the end zone. He finished with 46 yards on 15 carries. He made one major mistake when a quick outlet pass bounced off his hands and into the arms of corner Jamarious Boatwright for an interception.
"As soon as I turned around, the ball was right there," Hymes said. "It hit my hands though, so I should have caught it.
"I'd give myself a C-plus," added Hymes about his overall performance. "I ain't going to complain, but I could do better."