Fearful first day
YSU?rookies must pay attention to details
YOUNGSTOWN — Day one of practice in a college football player’s career is often a tough day on a number of levels, but some instances strike more fear into a player than others.
At Youngstown State University, that fear comes in different forms.
First, there are bigger, stronger, faster players to go up against. Then there’s a new, larger coaching staff to get used to, one that is going is going to be evaluating their every move on film after practice.
But maybe the biggest intimidating factor when joining the Penguins is … Bo Pelini. It’s not necessarily his temper-filled rage that is hard to deal with (although that can be a bit frightening), it’s all the Xs and Os he insists you comprehend that can make players’ heads spin.
“There’s a lot to learn,” said Pelini after YSU broke camp Thursday at Stambaugh Stadium. “There’s a lot of detail if you’re playing the game the right way. We require detail. You have to be pretty disciplined. It’s a little bit of a rude awakening if you’re a guy coming out of high school to be able to play at the level and do the things that we’re asking them to do consistently.”
Not many true freshmen have been able to deal with it all during Pelini’s two years with the Penguins.
The only non-special teams players to make an impact as a true freshmen under Pelini were linebacker Armand Dellovade, who is now a junior and one of the top defenders in the conference, and offensive lineman Gavin Wiggins, who was forced into action two years ago because of injuries but is now a starter.
The schemes and attention to detail needed to play right away aren’t easy to comprehend, not even for the most gifted players.
“It takes some instincts, some football knowledge,” Pelini said. “All guys come in at a different level, and some guys can handle that, and some guys can’t.”
The Penguins might be looking for a few quick-learners this year.
They lost six starters to one of the nation’s best defenses, including all four in the secondary. Also gone are NFL-bound defensive ends Avery Moss and Derek Rivers and two all-league running backs.
There are holes to fill for a team that has expectations of not just returning to the FCS Championship game but winning it, and while Pelini admits it’s hard to do, he’s not going to hold anyone back.
“We’re going to play the best guys,” he said. “The guys that earn it. The guys that give us the best chance to win. I don’t care if that’s a freshman, a senior — I don’t really care who that is.”
One player who knows that all too well is returning starting quarterback Hunter Wells.
The senior was able to start as a true freshman (albeit under a different coach) at the most important position on the field, only to see himself drop to fourth string last year as a junior. He almost left the team before injuries and poor performances gave him one last chance — one he didn’t let slip away.
Wells is now one of the leaders for YSU, and he, too, wants the best players on the field — regardless of class — and is doing his best to develop the incoming freshmen.
“It’s more mental at this level,” Wells said. “You need to be able to translate it from the film room to the field. It’s not as much as what your 40 time is, how fast you are, how big you are; it’s more mental, so if these guys can come in and get a grasp on it, we know coach Bo has no problem playing the best player. I support that.”
That could be good news for running backs like former Farrell High School star Braxton Chapman and Cincinnati La Salle product Christian Turner, or defensive ends Antoine Cook and James Jackson, or even former Brookfield star Xavier Bailey, a wide receiver.
They all have a steep hill to climb, but the opportunities are there — and Pelini sees the potential.
“We have a few guys in this class here that have the ability to do it,” he said of true freshmen playing right away. “Now, are they going to be able to translate it to them being able to earn our trust? I don’t know. It’ll be interesting to see.”