YOUNGSTOWN - Eric Wolford was brought to Youngstown State University because of his background as a great recruiter.
Fans of the Penguins will soon find out how great - or not so great.
Wolford, entering his fifth season, leads a team that is now made up almost entirely of his players (there is only one player, Jelani Berassa, recruited by former coach Jon Heacock still on the roster). Wolford has shown improvement in his first four years - as the Penguins' win total has increased every season (from three in 2010 to eight in 2013) since he arrived. However, YSU has yet to qualify for the postseason, and the Penguins must now attempt to do it without record-setting quarterback Kurt Hess, who graduated.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
Youngstown State’s Antoine Cox (32) wraps his arms around Sidney Sandidge and brings him to the ground during the annual Red-White spring game at YSU on April 25.
YSU will have competition at several positions - including quarterback, where the battle between junior Dante Nania and redshirt freshman Ricky Davis is at a standstill - during the fall. The rest of the roster possesses plenty of talent, and the following gives fans a grade of which positions are rich in talent, and which ones need some work.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A-
Aside from being known as a top-notch recruiter, Wolford also was known as a great offensive line coach prior to coming to YSU. He's lived up to the billing as far as the line goes. The Penguins have allowed an average of 14 sacks per season in Wolford's four-year tenure, and despite replacing three starters, YSU should be very good up front again. Led by starters Brock Eisenhuth and Trevor Strickland, the o-line is bigger than it's been in several years and has the potential to dominate.
RUNNING BACKS: A
There is no shortage of talent at running back, where Martin Ruiz was named both Freshman and Newcomer of the Year by the Missouri Valley Football Conference after rushing for 1,129 yards - a school record for a freshman. Ruiz will be pushed for playing time by Jody Webb, a University of Toledo transfer who has incredible quickness and dazzling open-field moves. Former Warren G. Harding graduate Demond Hymes is another threat when healthy, which has been a problem for the short and stocky junior.
WIDE RECEIVERS: B
The Penguins' offense possesses quite a few game-breakers on the outside, along with a couple sure-handed slot receivers. Marcel Caver and Andrew Williams are 6 foot 3 and 6-4, respectively, and two of the fastest players on the team. Senior Christian Bryan has the best hands on the team, and Andre Stubbs has enough quicks and agility to give opposing offenses fits. Berassa, a sixth-year senior, is 6-4 with decent speed and good route-running skills, but his leadership might be his best quality.
There seems to be more uncertainty than excitement when it comes to Nania and Davis, who are both mobile quarterbacks with decent to above-average arm strength. Nania nearly changed positions last spring when the coaching staff moved him to safety because of a lack of depth at the position. He moved back after struggling at safety and backed up Hess. He was thought to be a better runner than a passer, but he showed off his arm strength when he tossed a beautiful 54-yard touchdown pass (49 yards through the air) to Williams in the spring game. Davis is pretty similar, but he's 3 inches taller at 6-3 and may have a slightly better arm. His youth and inexperience leave him at a slight disadvantage in the QB race. Third on the list is Tanner Garry, a 6-2 sophomore who possesses good poise and nice touch on his passes. At times he has problems with quick, short passes.
DEFENSIVE LINE: C-
This was probably the worst unit on the team in 2013. The Penguins struggled mightily to pressure opposing quarterbacks, and they were pushed around in key losses to North Dakota State and South Dakota State. There does seem to be potential, with players like Vince Coleman, Derek Rivers, Octavius Brown and Terrell Williams. There needs to be a major upgrade if the YSU defense is going to improve on finishing last in the conference in yards allowed (410.5 per game).
There hasn't been one of those versatile, playmaking linebackers at YSU in quite a while, something that seemed to be a staple for the past two decades. There doesn't seem to be one on the current roster, either. There are a lot of average to above-average players with varying skills but none who possess the total package. Teven Williams, who led YSU in tackles the last three years, was inexplicably kicked off the team in March, so the position is more depleted than usual. His replacement, hard-hitting sophomore Jaylin Kelly, could be an intimidating force, but he lacks experience. Weak-side linebacker Travis Williams returns as the leader of a group that leaves something to be desired.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: D
This has been a problematic area for the Penguins during Wolford's tenure. YSU was dead last in the conference in allowing 247.2 passing yards per game in 2013, and losing its best player, Dale Peterman, to graduation isn't going to help. Returning starter Julius Childs was moved to the nickel back after struggling at times last year. Promising sophomore Eric Thompson showed good instincts when he picked off Nania by jumping an out route in the spring game, but he's unproven. Cardinal Mooney product Donald D'Alesio is a good strong safety, but he's been plagued by injuries. Free safety Jameel Smith showed flashes of being a good player last year, and his progress will be something to watch. Again, significant improvement is needed for the Penguins' defense to be the type of unit that can take a team to the playoffs.
The offense is loaded, with the only question mark being at quarterback. Wolford needs to get it right at QB because another year out of the postseason isn't going to sit well at a school that put a ton of money into its football program. The lack of talent on the defensive side is what's more concerning. YSU had a pretty solid defense two years ago, but aside from that season, they've been bad. Wolford is on his third defensive coordinator in the the last four years. It's time to stop blaming coordinators and start looking at the talent on the field. If he can get that side of the ball playing as well as the offense, there's no reason YSU can't be a perennial playoff contender again.