Pelini, YSU prepare to return to playoffs

It took the Youngstown State football team six years after Jim Tressel left in 2000 to reach the postseason, and things only became more difficult from there.

After former YSU coach Jim Heacock advanced to the Division I-AA national semifinal in 2006, there was a 10-year gap before the Penguins returned to the playoffs. Oh, but what a return it was — with YSU making a miraculous run to the national championship game last season.

Now, fans are hoping well-known head coach Bo Pelini can keep the success going and end the long playoff droughts that have occurred in the past. The Penguins start preparing to make that happen in about one month, and while YSU suffered some major losses, a playoff berth — and maybe more — is possible.

The Penguins return most of their offense, led by “incumbent” starting quarterback Hunter Wells. The 6-foot-5 senior nearly left the team last year when he inexplicably fell to fourth-string, but when he got his chance mid-season, following a bevy of injuries, he made the most of it. He was spectacular during the postseason — looking like the player who appeared destined for greatness after a great true freshman year.

He’ll have plenty of weapons on the outside, with nearly every wide receiver returning. The only exception is former Youngstown Christian standout Darien Townsend, who was suspended for the final two games of last season and will not return for his senior year. There is still plenty of talent to fill his shoes, and they’ve already created a rapport with Wells.

Running back is a different story, with YSU losing two great backs, but there was depth at the position. That was evident when third-stringer Tevin McCaster, a New Castle (Pa.) product, ran for 154 yards and three touchdowns in the Penguins’ national semifinal victory over Eastern Washington. Another local player, South Range’s Joe Alessi, also is a candidate to see time in the backfield. He opened eyes by rushing for 190 yards and two TDs on just seven carries in YSU’s final regular season game. Considering the Penguins’ smash-mouth style is likely to continue, they’re going to need several players to produce.

For that to happen, a powerful offensive line that was among the nation’s best last season must continue that trend. YSU lost a few big bodies up front, but a core of impressive players return: center Vitas Hrynkiewicz, tackle Justin Spencer and guard Gavin Wiggins. The Penguins have a tradition of dominating up front, and that shouldn’t change.

The defense is enduring some major changes after losing two defensive ends to the NFL Draft — third-round pick Derek Rivers and fifth-round selection Avery Moss. YSU could fill those roles with senior Fazson Chapman and junior Johnson Louigene, who backed up Rivers and Moss last season, or they could turn to a recent transfer. Former Florida Gator Justus Reed has two years of eligibility remaining after leaving the Sunshine State for a colder climate. The 6-3, 240-pound junior won’t be handed the job. That’s not the Pelini way. He’ll have to overtake it from Louigene and Chapman.

The linebackers should be fun to watch as the strength of the defense. Senior Lee Wright and junior Armand Dellovade are two of the best linebackers in the conference, and sophomore Malachi Newell, a Farrell (Pa.) product, has the talent for a breakout season. While the Penguins often used just two LBs last year, that may be tweaked because of a young and mostly inexperienced secondary.

Safeties Jalyn Powell, a Warren G. Harding graduate, and Billy Nicoe Hurst, played the final two games of the season due to suspensions. Sophomore Kyle Hegedus could vie for one the starting spots after what was an impressive freshman year, until a knee injury ended his season in Week 6. The corner positions will be major question marks with both starters (and one backup) graduated.

Pelini has put together an impressive coaching staff and created the type of winning culture he sought when he arrived. Now he must keep it going.