YSU football embarking on pivotal year

YOUNGSTOWN — There isn’t any hiding it for the Youngstown State football team. Last season was disappointing, on a number of levels.

Coming off its first national championship appearance in nearly 20 years, the Penguins, who brought back numerous starters, had a chance to make back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since the 1999-2000 seasons.

Instead, they struggled with injuries and narrow losses during a four-game skid midseason and finished 6-5.

Now in his fourth season leading YSU, this will be Bo Pelini’s first year with the majority of the team being his recruits. That places slightly more pressure on a coach many expected to immediately return the Penguins to national prominence — partly because his clout could lure recruits. Granted, a title appearance was a huge step in the right direction, but it was sandwiched between two subpar seasons.

Year four is big one for Pelini and the Penguins, who open camp in two weeks (Aug. 2).

There is some turnover — mainly at quarterback — that creates some uncertainty. Longtime QB Hunter Wells graduated, and while junior Nate Mays stepped in admirably when Wells was injured last year, he too suffered injuries of his own and still has much to prove.

To push Mays — and possibly replace him — the Penguins welcomed University of Notre Dame transfer Montgomery VanGorder to the team in January. VanGorder was a backup for the Irish during his three seasons with the team and has just one year of eligibility remaining. It’ll be interesting to see if he remains a backup during that time.

It’s hard know who has the upper hand to win the job because both are learning a new offense. Mays actually has more experience, despite being a junior to VanGorder being a senior, but VanGorder obviously has a great deal of talent considering he was a Notre Dame recruit. Fall camp will prove who’s the man for the job.

Maybe the biggest challenge for the Penguins is up front. The offensive line had easily been the strongest and most consistent position over the last 10 years. YSU is known for a monstrous, punishing o-line that could both block in the run and the pass game. The men up front endured a miserable 2017 season, however.

They allowed a league-worst 36 sacks, and while the running game had its moments, there were inconsistencies there as well. The line graduated an all-conference player in Justin Spencer along with fellow senior tackle Cameron Fraser. They still have an anchor in center Vitas Hrynkiwicz, and there appears to plenty of potential, but how quickly they mesh is critical. YSU can’t endure another bad year up front.

The offense as a whole has plenty of intriguing pieces. The main one is returning running back Tevin McCaster, who ran for 1,066 yards and 13 touchdowns as a junior last year.

Running the ball has been the staple of YSU’s offense, and while first-year offensive coordinator Brian Crist could change that, it’s unlikely. Considering Pelini has generally preferred that style, and with the weather becoming windy and reaching freezing temperatures, running the football fits the mold of YSU.

That style also helps a defense that has been one of the nation’s best since Pelini’s return. They have a few spots to fill at linebacker and safety, but the majority of a ‘D’ that finished 20th in the nation in total defense (first in passing yards allowed) is back. They’ll again be the backbone of the team.

There aren’t many holes in the Penguins’ schedule either. Butler (Week 1) and Valparaiso (Week 3) aren’t exactly premier FCS teams, but they also have a matchup at West Virginia (Week 2), and Missouri Valley Football Conference play starts in Week 4, so things pick up quickly.

With the quarterback position still up for grabs, and a young, unproven wide receiver corps, it’s much too soon to predict if 2018 will be a bounce-back year for YSU, but it needs to be a team and a city that seems primed for a resurgence.