Ready to run

New Castle native McCaster must fill big shoes as starting RB

Tribune Chronicle file / R. Michael Semple Youngstown State running back Tevin McCaster, shown here in a game last season, must take over for the loss of two all-conference players this year. McCaster, a New Castle (Pa.) native, hopes to build off a solid 2016 campaign.

YOUNGSTOWN — The strength of the Youngstown State football team going into the 2017 season seems obvious — with the offense returning eight of 11 starters from last year.

On paper, one offensive hole was created by graduation: running back. The Penguins lost two all-conference players in Jody Webb and Martin Ruiz — two of the better backs in YSU history.

Yet the way YSU coach Bo Pelini sees it, both of them are returning in the form of Tevin McCaster.

“He’s a really good player — I always thought that,” Pelini said. “He’s different than Jody was. He’s kind of a cross between Jody and Martin.”

McCaster’s running style is one with plenty of variety. The junior has the speed to break long runs, the agility to make players miss and the size (5-foot-9, 195 pounds) that allows for power and makes him hard to bring down. He also can catch passes out of the backfield.

He enters preseason camp, which opens Aug. 3, as the odds-on starter, with Pelini labeling him No. 1 on the depth chart, but McCaster said he isn’t leaving anything to question.

“I’m a competitive guy,” said the New Castle (Pa.) High School product. “No matter what the situation or circumstances are, I’m going to always put the pressure on me that there’s always someone who wants your job, and that’s my mindset.”

It’s understandable that McCaster is the probable starter. He had an impressive season despite a limited amount of chances in 2016, running for 638 yards and 11 touchdowns on 129 carries. His shining moment came in the FCS national semifinal, when he ran for 154 yards and three TDs on 29 carries in a thrilling 40-38 victory over Eastern Washington.

This year, he’s the elder statesman of a young stable of running backs. He’s leading them in a number of ways. Some of those ways are his own, and some are ones he learned from others.

“I’ve always picked up different types of things from all the guys who played before me — from Jody, Martin, (cornerback) David Rivers, (defensive end) Avery Moss. I have my own things too,” McCaster said. “There’s a time and a place where you get in a guy’s face and there’s a time and a place to pull a guy to the side. I took a lot of things from the guys before me and I incorporate it into how I lead.”

Pelini is looking forward to seeing all of McCaster’s attributes on and off the field this season. He’ll have to pick up a lot of slack as a runner. Webb and Ruiz were one of the FCS’s top running back tandems — running for 2,568 yards and 18 touchdowns while adding 47 catches and 505 receiving yards.

Pelini is confident McCaster — and the rest of the running backs — can fill the void.

“He runs with an attitude,” Pelini said of McCaster. “Very seldom does the first guy bring him down. I just think he’s got nothing but better over the last few years.

“I like our backs. I really do. Not only the guys who went through the spring, but then we’ve got two really talented kids coming in. I like the pieces there.”

Along with McCaster is South Range High School graduate Joe Alessi, a sophomore who made the most of limited opportunities with 223 yards and two TDs on just 11 carries in 2016. Other young players are redshirt freshmen Devon McNutt (a Cardinal Mooney graduate) and London Pearson and incoming true freshmen Braxton Chapman (Farrel, Pa.) and Christian Turner (Cincinnati).

McCaster hasn’t seen the soon-to-be freshmen, but he has been impressed with the other players.

“They have tremendous ability,” he said. “They can do things that not a lot of athletes can do, so they will most definitely play a huge part in this year’s football team.”

McCaster should too.

The powerful back said he made “tremendous gains” in weight lifting during summer workouts and expects to be in better shape than last season. Maybe of more importance is the invaluable experience he picked up during a 16-game 2016 season. Playing in the biggest of games — and succeeding (he had seven TDs in the fourth quarter or overtime) — gave McCaster even more confidence, along with the poise to do it again.

“It helps me a lot, just by the experience, and there are some things you won’t be able to learn unless you’re on the field, by game speed and things such as (that),” he said. “There’s a lot of things from last year that will help me this year.

“We’ve all got better, we all grew more,” he added. “We all came together. We all played with each other last year, and we know what it take to get to where we need to go.”