A year later, YSU football faces change

It’s been one year and one day since one of the biggest moments in the last 20 years for Youngstown State University football.

If you’re a sports a fan, you’ve seen the highlight — probably a couple of different times. YSU tight end Kevin Rader caught a ball on the back of a defender as time expired in the FCS national semifinal. Rader pinned the football against a linebacker, who had great coverage in the end zone, and his touchdown catch gave the Penguins a 40-38 victory over Eastern Washington, vaulting YSU into the national title game.

Not a whole lot went well from that point on for the Penguins.

Aside from losing in the title game, YSU fell short of returning to the postseason, finishing the 2017 season 6-5 and a game out of the playoff picture. Rader and quarterback Hunter Wells, the man who threw the TD pass, won’t be back next year — and they’re just two of several key pieces out of eligibility for YSU.

It’s been a few weeks since the season ended with a home win over Missouri State, and now that the dust has settled and the rest of the FCS looks to an intriguing championship game between James Madison and North Dakota State, let’s see what’s next for the Penguins.

Soon-to-be junior quarterback Nathan Mays is almost certain to be the heir apparent to Wells, and he has big shoes to fill. While Wells dealt with injuries as a senior, his poise, arm strength and football IQ will be hard to replace.

Mays is a different type of quarterback, with more dual-threat capabilities. He played quite a bit over the last two years, including leading YSU to its signature victory in 2017 — a 19-7 win over eventual FCS national semifinalist South Dakota State. He also played well in an overtime loss to North Dakota State.

That experience is huge, and his talent is undeniable. The lone knock on Mays is accuracy, and that improved the more he played. How he handles the pressure of being the starter may be more critical. His success in big games is a good sign, but being relied on from the start of the season is a different kind of pressure. Still, YSU appears to be in good hands.

The offensive line loses a great player in left tackle Justin Spencer and another solid player in fellow tackle Cameron Fraser, but a group that endured a rare rough season should be in decent shape. Vitas Hrynkiwicz is one of the conference’s best centers, and guard Gavin Wiggins is another above-average player. Finding two new tackles won’t be easy, but offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo has been around for a long time and knows how to piece together powerful fronts.

Receiver is going to be a big question mark after losing three starters. Hubbard High School product Isaiah Scott, who will be a senior, has yet to live up to high expectations, and there’s no better time than now. Samuel St. Surin, a freshman last year, came on late in the season and could be a playmaker as well.

The Penguins are in good shape at running back, with all-league starter Tevin McCaster returning along with backups Christian Turner, who enjoyed a great true freshman season, and junior Joe Alessi. They will again be the focal point of the offense.

The defense also has some big holes to fill, but there are several starters returning. The biggest losses are linebacker Lee Wright and safety Jalyn Powell. Wright was probably the most athletic player on the defense, and Powell, a Warren native, led the team in tackles. Defensive end Faszon Chapman also is hard to replace. He had a nice senior year with team-highs in sacks (5), tackles for loss (7.5) and QB hurries (10).

The positives are that all-conference linebacker Armand Dellovade returns to man the inside, and there are up-and-coming stars in defensive backs Billy Nicoe-Hurst and Bryce Gibson. Linemen Justus Reed, Savon Smith and Wesley Thompson will be heavily relied upon after being part-time players, and they all have plus potential.

There is a decent amount of depth as well, both in the secondary and up front, but finding linebackers to join Dellovade is going to be vital to the defense’s success. Special teams brings back almost everyone from a solid group, although there could be some changes in the kicking game.

Overall, this is another talented YSU team, which has been the case for at least the past seven to eight years. How talented? That’s tough to answer.

How fast Mays develops a connection with a new crop of receivers is important, but the offensive line is the key cog. YSU, a team that leans heavily on the run game and plays in the cold, goes as the o-line goes. They must improve from a down year. If they do, the Penguins, too, will rebound from a season that many hoped would again end with a title shot.