Penguins starting to come together

YOUNGSTOWN – The Youngstown State University locker room underwent some renovations this summer, but this wasn’t a typical remodeling project.

In the past, players were given lockers based on their positions. For instance, all the receivers were in one area, while all the quarterbacks were in another. YSU coach Eric Wolford decided it was time for a change, mainly because he felt there were some “selfish” players on last year’s team, and he wanted to create a better team chemistry for 2013.

“It’s no longer by group,” he said. “I’ve got them split up all around the room. I’ve got leaders around different guys who have a tendency to stray. So, I’ve got guys in lockers next to each other that would probably never talk to each other. All these guys want to spend their lives on the phone, so when you’re getting dressed and showered and stuff, you can’t be on your phone, so you’ll have a conversation with the guy next to you who you normally wouldn’t talk to. I like that dimension.”

Players admit they’ve noticed a difference. Running back Torrian Pace wasn’t even asked about the close-knit atmosphere, but his thoughts took him there as he was explaining how he was looking forward to going up against someone other than his own teammates on Thursday in the season opener against Dayton.

“What I see this year is more of a family,” he said. “We’ve all been getting along. Of course, we get tired and frustrated a little bit, but we’re still having a good time, having fun and everything.

“I think (moving the lockers) was a great idea because we’re always with our positions. A lot of the times we don’t talk and hang out with other positions.”

Two groups that need that type of continuity as much as anyone are the running backs and offensive linemen. Pace said understanding the blocking schemes and staying patient as the play develops is an important part of playing running back, just like knowing the strengths of their running backs can help the offensive line.

With No. 1 running back Demond Hymes, a Warren G. Harding graduate, likely sidelined for the season opener with an ankle injury, Pace or fellow senior Adaris Bellamy will get the start. The 5-foot-11, 230-pound Pace, who is by far the most physically imposing looking running back on the Penguins roster, can’t wait for the opportunity.

“I’m ready to get the season going,” said Pace as he cracked a big smile. “We’ve been rotating a lot, and (running backs coach Eric) Gallon has been great at putting us in situations that we thrive in. Short-down situations would be me, just in between the tackles. Bellamy is the same way, but he’s got a little bit more wiggle than I do. … Demond Hymes, when he gets healthy, he’s gotten a lot better going between the tackles, and of course he can burn anybody. So we have great diversity within the running backs.”

As Pace said, the Penguins will only go “as far as the offensive line takes us.”

YSU has a nice mixture of returning starters (two) and newcomers (three). Center Chris Elkins, a first-team All-Missouri Valley Conference selection in 2012, will be the leader up front, and one of the fresh faces he’ll bring along is senior Fred Herdman. Herdman initially came to YSU as a defensive tackle but found his calling on the other side of the ball.

“He went through a lot of injuries with his back and stuck it out,” Wolford said. “He probably could have hung it up. Backs are absolutely miserable (when they’re injured). In meetings, he would not sit down because his back hurt so bad. So, here’s a guy that stood up in every meeting for a long time. He’s earned the right to start.”

After waiting his turn behind some talented linemen, Herdman is on edge as he prepares for his first career start.

“Absolutely,” said Herdman of whether he anticipates being nervous for the opener. “Coming out in front of this home crowd for the first time being a starter, it’s something I’ve dreamed of since I first got here. I’m excited.”