Looks can be deceiving for YSU duo

YOUNGSTOWN – Nick Liste and Zach Miller don’t exactly look like they fit in on the Youngstown State University football team.

They’re both short, a little skinny and can actually be hidden by some of the mammoth offensive linemen on the Penguins. They’re not your prototypical Division I football players. Yet, they’re football players nonetheless – and one of them could be a potential NFL prospect.

Liste, a Niles High School graduate, is a senior kicker for the Penguins. He’s a three-year letter winner entering his final season in what has been an impressive yet unexpected career. The 5-foot-9 Liste came to YSU thinking he would be a field goal kicker, but he was asked to improve his punting skills, and they improved so much he became the Penguins’ full-time punter as a redshirt freshman. His average of 40.7 yards per punt last year only put him at seventh best in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, but he also kicks in Northeast Ohio, where the winds can bluster at speeds not normal in most parts of the country.

He averaged more than 50 yards per punt in dome stadiums last year, and he’s been a gamechanger for the Penguins by coming through with big kicks at critical moments.

“He’s a threat,” YSU coach Eric Wolford said. “He really is. He can boom the ball. He’s a guy who, if he has the type of senior year that I expect him to have, I think he’ll have opportunities to play on Sunday (in the NFL). He has that kind of leg.”

Liste is having a lot of fun doing it on Saturdays right now. He enjoys being one of the local guys on the team who can show the new guys around. Now that he’s a senior, he’s accepted other responsibilities as well.

“As a senior, you kind of have to take leadership and show them (the younger players) the ropes,” he said. “It’s new, but I enjoy it. I’m having fun.”

The physical education major said he’s focused on his eventual career as teacher, but he added that playing professionally has crossed his mind.

“It’s been a thought,” he said. “Obviously my education will come first, but it’s definitely in the back of my head. I’m always going to strive to be the best I can be on the field.”

Miller isn’t worried about the NFL. The 2011 LaBrae High School graduate had to earn a spot on the team last year as a walk-on. The 5-8, 185-pound fullback, whose nickname is, of course, “Miller Time,” did so with a relentless, never-give-up attitude Wolford couldn’t overlook.

“All football teams need guys like Zach Miller because of their work ethic and their toughness,” Wolford said. “They make people around them better and tougher. He’s a guy that I could see in a year’s time, really grooming himself into being a special teams/fullback type player. He could put a little more size on, but he’s deceiving. He’s a tough kid now. He’ll get after you.”

Miller, a third-team All-Ohio selection as a senior at LaBrae who said he still follows the Vikings, has seen a lot of playing time lately because of a multitude of injuries at the running back position. The increased role has helped the redshirt freshman gain a better understanding of the offense.

“I had to pick it up pretty fast, but I had a lot of help from ‘Bell (Adaris Bellamy) and Torrian (Pace) and Demond (Hymes), so I feel pretty good,” he said.

He said the mentality he took to gain a spot on the roster is the same one he has used all his career.

“You’ve just got to come out and go hard on every single play,” he said. “You have to earn your job. There are so many talented players, you’ve just got to win out. The game’s a lot faster (compared to high school), the guys are bigger and there’s a lot more talent. So you’ve got to come to work every day. You’ve got to eat, sleep and drink football.”

YSU continues spring practice Thursday. The Red-White Spring Game is April 19 at 7:30 p.m.