More of the same: Penguins’ defense porous once again

YOUNGSTOWN – There have been plenty of times in the past when Youngstown State held a draft for the spring game, where each side had a captain and teams were picked like the old-school playground days.

The draft would split up the team’s best players, and if one side looked bad, the coach could just say that most of the better defenders or offensive threats were on the other team.

Unfortunately for YSU, that wasn’t the case on Friday at the annual Red-White Spring Game, which was won by the White Team (first-team offense), 48-13. The game pitted the first-team defense against the first-team offense, and a defense that has pretty much pushed around the offense for the past two months had more holes than Swiss cheese. The main problem was the inability to stop the run game. The fact that the White Team ran for 342 yards on the Red Team (first-team defense) was troubling, but what made matters worse was that running backs ran free at times, without a defender anywhere near them.

Stopping the run is the backbone of any great defense, so that’s an area that must improve, but the main issue is that the Penguins failed to execute the basics. The tackling, or lack thereof, was awful, and that’s nothing new. In YSU’s biggest game last year against South Dakota State University, where the winner (SDSU) went to the playoffs and the loser (YSU) sat and watched the postseason, the Penguins’ tackling was putrid. Sure, the Jackrabbits own one of the best running backs in the country in senior Zach Zenner, but on that day, my 4-year-old nephew could have scored a few times. Tackling is the whole reason defenders are on the field, and if they can’t perform that task, well, there’s a problem.

To try and fix some of their problems, the Penguins fired respected defensive coordinator Joe Tresey in favor of special teams coach Jamie Bryant, who was a ‘D’ coordinator at Vanderbilt and Houston. YSU coach Eric Wolford said he wanted to simplify the schemes so players could stop thinking so much and play faster. That’s an understandable reason, but the concept certainly didn’t appear to work in its first test.

Players are going to have to think on the fly and learn how to execute complex game plans in order to beat good teams (for those who aren’t aware, YSU plays in the toughest conference in the FCS). Dumbing down the defense could help at times, and maybe the more elaborate schemes will come later in the year, but if a player can’t think and play simultaneously, he shouldn’t be on the field.

Teams are going to show multiple formations with all kinds of motions and audibles, and opponents will alter formations before the snap based on the defense’s alignments. A great defense must be able to not only recognize changes, but also adjust to them at that very moment. If the Penguins can’t hang with an offense that was running fairly vanilla plays on its home field, that’s not a good sign.

Now, all that said, this could have just been a bad day. YSU’s offense is loaded with speed and athleticism. The running backs are some of the best in the conference, and the receivers are tall, fast and probably the best leapers on the team. In other words, even though YSU no longer has record-setting quarterback Kurt Hess, the offense is still very good and can make a lot of teams look bad. The multiple weapons also should help speed up the learning curve of whichever quarterback wins the job.

One area that did look much improved was the defensive line, which was undoubtedly the weakest area of the defense last season. That unit showed speed, explosiveness and depth, and the line was without senior Octavius Brown, who missed parts of last season because of injuries. Brown is one of a few players who could be on the verge of a big year (defensive ends Vince Coleman, Derek Rivers and Terrell Williams are others). They’re going to need to play well if the rest of the defense doesn’t catch up.

Luckily, it’s only April, and it was only a spring game.