YOUNGSTOWN - Every year since Eric Wolford took over the Youngstown State Football team, the Penguins' record has improved.
A fifth-straight year of progress isn't going to be easy.
YSU will be without graduated quarterback and team leader Kurt Hess for the first time in four seasons. Who will replace him is still very much in question, and none of the candidates have ever started a collegiate game.
A defense that finished last in the Missouri Valley Football Conference lost its best lineman, linebacker and corner. It was torched in the spring game and is under the tutelage of a new defensive coordinator - Jamie Bryant - for the third time in four years.
In other words, the Penguins face an uphill battle (think Mt. Everest) to return to the postseason for the first time since 2006. With preseason camp just underway, here are five things to watch as YSU prepares for its season opener at Illinois on Aug. 30:
1. QB BATTLE:
Tribune Chronicle / Jeff Lange
Youngstown State University running back Demond Hymes, left, takes a handoff from quarterback Hunter Wells during the Penguins’ first practice of training camp on Friday.
The focal point of the team will be in the hands of an unproven starter with little-to-no experience, regardless of who wins the competition. Junior Dante Nania (6 foot, 205 pounds) brings mobility and the most playing time (he's played in five career games, completing 12 of 21 passes for 182 yards and rushing for 35 yards on 11 carries). Redshirt freshman Ricky Davis (6-3, 190) is a highly touted prospect who showed flashes of living up to those expectations during the spring but followed it up with inconsistencies. It's unlikely true freshman Hunter Wells (6-5, 190) will win the battle, but Wolford said Wells is "one those guys fighting for the quarterback job."
2. LINEBACKER PLAY:
Travis Williams is the only returning starter at a position that hasn't been strong in quite a while. Kevon Caffey started six games later in the year at strong-side linebacker, and his potential emergence will be a vital to the Penguins' success - or failure - on 'D'. The same can be said for Jaylin Kelly, likely the new middle linebacker after Teven Williams was kicked off the team for undisclosed reasons just prior to spring practices. Teven Williams led YSU in tackles the past three seasons. Kelly played mostly on special teams in 2013. The Penguins do welcome Iowa transfer Laron Taylor, a sophomore, and he could be a pleasant surprise. Whether it's Travis Williams, Kelly, Caffey or a newcomer, someone needs to step up and not only be a playmaker but a leader as well.
3. LINE CHANGE:
Offensive line hasn't been much of an issue during the Wolford era. In fact, that group has probably been the the most consistent (along with running back) since he took over in 2010. But YSU lost its top two linemen in center Chris Elkins (an All-American) and left tackle Kyle Bryant (an NFL prospect). Both are key positions, so the pressure will be on Newton Falls graduate Stephen Page - the likely starter at center - Trevor Strickland - the probable left tackle - and Brock Eisenhuth, a returning starter at guard. Their combined measurements average 6-5 and 303 pounds. A bigger line could be important against the perennial powerhouses of the league ( aka. North Dakota and South Dakota State), which owned the trenches during huge victories in Youngstown last season.
4. DEFENSE, DEFENSE, DEFENSE:
As bad as some of the numbers were in 2013 for the last-place YSU defense, there were a few games that really skewed the stats in the wrong direction, so it wasn't as bad as the stats indicated. That said, the defense just wasn't that talented. The line lacked size and skill. The linebackers were solid but rarely stood out, and the defensive backs were injured, inconsistent and made bad plays at the worst possible moments. Point being: There needs to be an overhaul. The scheme is different - and allegedly more simplistic - with Bryant, but if the players don't make major strides, both physically and mentally, the results won't change. The players need to have a good grasp of the system, so they can do more moving and less thinking. If that doesn't happen right away, it's going to be a long year.
5. THE OTHER PHASE:
The often forgotten third phase of football, special teams, was a pleasant surprise for YSU last year. The Penguins led the league in several categories and had two special teams players on the MVFC first team (punter Nick Liste and return specialist Andre Stubbs). Liste, a four-year starter, was a senior, and Bryant, the special teams coach in 2013, is now the defensive coordinator. Two coaches (Kenny Carter and Mike Zordich) have paired up to lead this year's special teams. It will be interesting to see how they fare because no matter what some may think, special teams is a key phase of the game. It can win or lose a contest - and as YSU learned last year when they were left out of the playoffs, partly because of a last-second field goal in a 22-20 loss to UNI, every game counts in the MVFC.