Ready for a repeat?

Pelini believes YSU can reload following march to title game

Tribune Chronicle file photo Youngstown State University football coach Bo Pelini, shown here in a playoff game last year at Stambaugh Stadium, is entering his third season as coach — with the Penguins coming off their most successful season in 18 years. YSU opens preseason camp Aug. 3.

YOUNGSTOWN — There wasn’t much of a break for Youngstown State University football coach Bo Pelini, but that’s the way he prefers it.

The Penguins’ long playoff run ended in mid-January (with an ugly loss in the FCS Championship), and YSU started things back up quickly thereafter, with spring practices beginning in late February and going until April. Three months later, the Penguins are about to kick things off again.

Now, Pelini isn’t exactly clamoring for his mini vacation to end, but he knows the time has come.

“I try to block it out of my head,” joked Pelini at a recent football camp when asked how long it is until training camp begins. “Nah, we’ll be ready.

“It’s that time of year.”

It is, indeed.

Pelini’s Penguins could look quite different when camp breaks Aug. 3, with most of the offense returning and several key defensive players gone, but that doesn’t change much for Pelini, now in his third year leading YSU.

His system won’t change. His philosophies won’t change. His beliefs in how to win will not change. And while he’s not ready to predict another championship run, he likes the team that’s returning.

“It’s hard to tell,” said Pelini of whether the Penguins have a similar make-up as last year. “It (depends) how everything comes together. I think we have potential. Some kids have to step in at some spots. We have kids returning offensively, so I think we’ll be in pretty good shape there. In key areas, we need a couple of guys to step up. That’s just part of the deal. You lose kids here and there.

“I always believe it’s how does the make-up of the team comes together. Does the leadership take over? We have 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.”

While offense seems to be the strength, Pelini said YSU’s chances could depend on a defense that must fill numerous holes, including the losses of NFL Draft picks Derek Rivers and Avery Moss. The pair of defensive ends wreaked havoc on opposing offenses all season, spearheading a defense that led the FCS in sacks.

Their back-ups, Fazson Chapman and Johnson Louigene, played sparingly last year, and while Pelini spoke highly about them, he didn’t take any chances. YSU brought in Florid Gator transfer Justus Reed, who has similar measurables to Moss at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds. The junior played in nine games as a freshman at Florida and could have an immediate impact for the Penguins.

“He’s a nice-sized guy. He’s talented. He’s a hard worker,” Pelini said. “I think he’s a good addition to the team. I hope he comes in and not only wants to be part of the team, but I hope he wants to be a leader, too.”

Pelini faces an equally tough task in the secondary. YSU lost three senior corners — all of whom started at times — and two starting safeties, but Pelini isn’t overly concerned. A defensive guru, Pelini came into his position after several dismal defensive seasons. He quickly turned the ‘D’ into one of the better units in the nation, and he doesn’t expect that to change this year.

“We kind of do what we do,” he said of the defensive scheme. “When I came in, I think they were like 100th and something in pass defense. What’d we go to (in 2015), like fifth? And it was the same guys. The system helps. The way we coach it works. We’re going to need a couple corners to step up. I feel good at the safety position, and you’ve got to play well around those guys.

“It’s just a matter of working hard and staying with the process, and I think we’ll be fine. I like the potential of this team.”

Part of his confidence stems from a loaded group of linebackers. While it’s led by junior all-conference selection Armand Dellovade and senior Lee Wright, who led YSU in tackles in 2015, there are a number of other players who could contribute. Up-and-coming sophomore Malachi Newell, another linebacker, said the Penguins understand what it takes to return to the FCS Championship, and the LBs are a big part of the plan.

“I think they’ll expect us to lead the defense because, as a position group, we have the most coming back,” Newell said. “Coach expects us to lead the defense and make big plays — be leaders.

“We want to keep that winning program and tradition going. In order to do that, we have to work harder than they did (last year).”