Penguins set to take leadership roles

YOUNGSTOWN — There was something that needed to be done during the first week of offseason workouts for the Youngstown State football team.

It had nothing to do with lifting weights, running sprints or moving on from a gut-wrenching loss in the FCS Championship.

The coaches had little control over this defining moment. The players were responsible, and they knew it.

“It was very important to capture (that leadership) early on,” said junior running back Tevin McCaster about filling the voids left by former players. “As seniors and juniors on the team, and guys who have been around since the first day of summer workouts — not the coaches, the players, the older guys who have been around — we’ve done that. We’ve taken control and took the places of the leaders that are gone, and we did that so we can continue the culture of Youngstown State football.”

It’s a culture that took about two years for YSU coach Bo Pelini and his coaching staff to instill, and it’s one that led the Penguins to four straight playoff victories and an appearance in the title game last season.

The losses of defensive ends and NFL Draft selections Avery Moss and Derek Rivers create a major hole on defense. The departures of five defensive backs — all of whom started at times last year — make that hole even wider. The bigger loss, however, in Pelini’s eyes, was their leadership.

“I always believe it’s how does the make-up of the team come together. Does the leadership take over?,” said Pelini of the potential of this year’s Penguins, who open camp Aug. 3. “We’ve got some good leaders we have to replace, but we have the potential in that area. It’s going to be, ‘Are we able to mix and match and kind of find our stride the right way?’ We have a chance.”

McCaster, a junior running back, is one of the new players stepping into a more prominent role, both on and off the field. With former running backs Jody Webb and Martin Ruiz gone, McCaster is the likely starter, but that’s only part of his job as an upperclassmen on a team with championship aspirations.

“I’m going to enjoy this role this year,” said McCaster, a New Castle (Pa.) High School graduate. “This is a leadership (role) that I have to step into and take control of — things that I didn’t have control of when Martin and Jody were there. I’ll guide and help the younger guys under me to help my team.”

Running back is one of the only offensive positions with youth, as the majority of the starters return to what should be a balanced attack.

Along with incumbent starting quarterback Hunter Wells, receivers Alvin Bailey, Damoun Patterson and Isiah Scott return. The line brings back center Vitas Hrynkiwicz, guard Gavin Wiggins and tackle Justin Spencer, along with tight ends Shane Kuhn and Kevin Rader.

The Penguins enter training camp with lofty goals, especially on offense, and McCaster expects to meet and exceed them.

“It’s going to be better than the one from last year,” he said of the offense. “We’ve all got better, we all grew more. We all came together. We all played with each other last year, and we know what it takes to get to where we need to go. We’ve matured even more, and we know what it takes now.”

Pelini sure hopes that’s the case.

The third-year YSU coach talked about building a culture for much of his first two seasons, and he said last year the Penguins were buying into his philosophies. Now that some of the guys who played integral roles in implementing those practices are gone, others must step in if YSU is going to have another successful season.

“I think we have potential,” Pelini said. “Some kids have to step in at some spots. We have kids returning offensively, so I think we’ll be in pretty good shape. In key areas, we need a couple of guys to step up. That’s just part of the deal.”

The Penguins are confident they can keep the ball rolling. The main reason they’re sure the winning culture will continue is because it never left.

“We started that since Day 1 (of the offseason),” McCaster said of continuing leadership, “and that’s going to lead us into fall camp, and that’s going to take us through the season.”

They hope it’s another long one.