The signing almost seemed to be swept under the rug, unnoticed around the area.
One of the more high-profile players in the Mahoning Valley during the last two years joined the Youngstown State University football team. The commitment came late in the school year, so not too many people took notice, but that will change during the next few years.
Liberty's Asim Pleas earned a partial scholarship with the Penguins, and while the acquisition may not have been heavily publicized, Pleas has all the tools to be a star for the Penguins.
Pleas, a two-way standout for the Leopards, was originally set to join Ohio Dominican University after he thought YSU gave up on him, but a miscommunication of sorts is the only reason the Penguins' pursuit slowed, according to YSU coach Eric Wolford.
"The coach I had recruiting (Trumbull County) left our staff, and kids can get lost in the shuffle," he said. "Sometimes there's some miscommunication about what's going on and what's reality."
First-year tight ends coach Dan Gerberry, an Austintown High School graduate, took over the recruiting role in Trumbull County late last year, and he immediately let Pleas know the Penguins were still very interested in attaining the quarterback/defensive back. They eventually won him over, and Pleas is already taking classes at the university.
YSU is bringing Pleas along as a safety, a position he played sparingly in high school. Most of his starts came at corner for the Leopards over the last two seasons, and he snatched nine interceptions during that time, but at 6 feet 2 and 180 pounds, he has the build of a safety. Either way, Pleas will soon find a spot in the Penguins' secondary, an area that has long been problematic for YSU.
The Penguins ranked last in the Missouri Valley Football Conference in pass defense each of the last two seasons. They've possessed some talent at corner and safety during that time, but they've never had above-average players at all four positions (two corners, strong and free safety). Ursuline graduate Dale Peterman was YSU's best corner last year, but he graduated, and while fellow starter Julius Childs returns, he was picked on repeatedly last year and will be used as a nickel back.
Pleas could eventually become an elite player in that secondary. He has the size, ball skills and mentality to be a great player at the FCS level, but it's unlikely to happen right away (camp opens Aug. 1, by the way). He needs to continue to improve his speed and strength because being a three-sport athlete at Liberty (football, basketball and track) left him little time to further develop his talents.
Considering he was one of the better shutdown corners in the area despite playing multiple positions on both sides of the ball - including quarterback - gives Wolford hope that with the right tutelage, Pleas could be a star.
"Mike Zordich is our defensive back coach, he played 13 years in the NFL and he said, 'I think this guy has a chance to be a really great player,' " Wolford said. "With some (added) weight, the sky's the limit as far as what he can be."
The added bonus is that Pleas is a local kid who is looking forward to attending YSU. Often times it seems like kids from this area join the Penguins as a last resort, and that's odd. It's a Division I school - albeit at the FCS level - with great tradition and top-of-the-line facilities. The coaching staff is loaded with guys from premier Division I schools. Others played in the NFL, and some have been head coaches elsewhere. Point being: They know how to develop talent, and if you're talented enough and put forth the effort, you can reach the NFL.
At least five former Penguins have made NFL rosters during the past decade (WR Donald Jones, S Brandian Ross, RBs Marcus Mason and Jamaine Cook, LB Tim Johnson and S Russell Stuvaints) and several players from last year's team have chances to do the same during upcoming training camps.
It's hard to say if Pleas has that type of talent or if his signing will open the door for other local athletes to join the program, but more notice should be paid to the acquisition. As someone who saw what he can do first hand, believe me, the kid can flat out play. He's one of the most clutch performers and coachable players I've ever seen.
The Penguins could use a few more guys like him in the secondary.