YOUNGSTOWN - All 96 members of the Youngstown State football team were in attendance for Media Day at the Watts Center on Friday, but the focus was clearly on three specific players.
It was no surprise that Dante Nania and Ricky Davis were in the spotlight, as the two emerged from spring practices deadlocked in a quarterback competition, but a third player entered the frey on Friday. YSU coach Eric Wolford said true freshman Hunter Wells, a highly touted recruit from Navarre Fairless High School, will be in the hunt to earn the starting job, which is vacant after the graduation of Kurt Hess.
Nania and Davis split reps with the first team during the spring, and neither pulled away and won the job. That left the door open for the 6-foot-5, 190-pound Wells, a first-team Division V All-Ohio selection who threw for a school-record 3,558 yards and 33 touchdown passes and completed 257 of 414 attempts (62.1 percent) as a senior.
Wolford said he's confident one of the three will show they're capable of starting, and part of his belief stems from the talent surrounding them.
"They key thing is we've got to find a guy who can manage the game," Wolford said. "We feel good about where we are with those guys (Nania and Davis) starting out. Obviously, Hunter Wells is here and he's going to try to make a late push. The biggest thing we've done as a staff is we scripted practices to recreate every type of situation that can happen in a game. We're going to put them in those moments throughout the course of practice. Who's going to respond? Who's going to do the things that we ask them to do? You have plenty of guys around you, just manage the game and do what you're coached to do."
Nania, a junior, is the only quarterback with any experience, but even he only has brief appearances in four games. He is very mobile and possesses a solid arm, but he has suffered some injuries during his time with the Penguins. His understanding of the offense may give him a slight edge as the competition wears on, but Wolford has said that if the competition is even in the end, the job will go to the younger player (aka. Davis or Wells).
Youngstown State quarterback Hunter Wells throws a pass during the team's first day of fall practice. Wells is one of three vying for the starting quarterback job.
"I definitely have to separate myself," said Nania, who spoke for the first time since early in the spring because Wolford didn't allow the quarterbacks to talk. "I want to make it as easy as possible on the coaches to make myself the clear-cut starter. But, may the best man win. We're great friends, so there's really no hard feelings."
Davis exhibits similar traits as Nania. He's a little bigger at 6-3 and is equally mobile, but he's been inconsistent at times in practice and is still figuring out all the nuances of the offense. His height and potential make him a viable candidate to win the job, but he knows he has work to do to earn it.
"We're both pretty good quarterbacks, but to win the job it's going to take managing the offense," said Davis, who elaborated by saying "managing" means to take care of the ball, take calculated chances and move the chains. "I really got a grasp of the offense in the spring, but my biggest weakness right now is reading the defense - knowing where to look as far as defensive coverages. The game slowed down a lot this year, so it's getting easier."
Wells is the darkhorse of the crew. He's more of a prototypical quarterback, a pocket passer with good size and a strong arm. He does have decent mobility, but it's not his strength. He looked pretty good in Friday's practice - throwing a long touchdown pass and stepping up and making throws when the pocket collapsed - but the players weren't wearing full pads. His youth and the fact that he has an entire playbook to learn means he'll have an uphill battle to leapfrog Nania and Davis.
"I've got to earn my stripes," Wells said. "They're all good quarterbacks. It's going to be competitive. I'm not looking to come in and start and just take people's position without earning it. I have to earn my spot."
Offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery estimated the coaching staff taking about two weeks before making a decision on a starter. The option of using two quarterbacks to start the season still exists.
"Both of them (Nania and Davis) had a good enough spring where I think they can both help us," Montgomery said. "I know we can win with both of them. Neither one of them limits us in what we can do."
The battle continues at 4 p.m. today.