YSU’s thrill seeker

Kennedy graduate Coates has affinity for returning punts

Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon Youngstown State kick returner Jake Coates, left, a 2017 John F. Kennedy graduate, is driven toward the sideline by a teammate during practice last week. Coates, a true freshman, was the starting punt returner for the Penguins in Week 1.

YOUNGSTOWN — It’s hard for Jake Coates to explain exactly why he loves such a dangerous situation so much.

He just does.

Returning punts for the Youngstown State Penguins as a true freshman was a goal since the day he signed on with YSU. Why exactly he enjoys Division I athletes running full speed at him with malicious intent on their mind is hard to explain.

New England Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola recently compared the position to “playing on the highway.” Amendola, who has been injured twice in the past two seasons while fielding punts, said it’s still one of his “favorite things to do in the world.”

Coates, a John F. Kennedy graduate, understands where the NFL standout is coming from.

“I honestly have a passion for returning (kicks and punts),” Coates said. “A lot of people are like, ‘Man, you’re crazy for doing that,’ but I just love being back there.”

Coates’ passion has been obvious to YSU coach Bo Pelini, who granted Coates his wish by making him the punt returner in last week’s game against Pitt at Heinz Field. Pelini didn’t simply hand him the job either. Coates earned it with his work ethic.

“He does it in practice,” said Pelini of why he chose Coates over more veteran players. “We put a lot of credence into what happens on the practice field, and he’s very confident back there, makes good decisions and has caught the ball very well. And obviously if you get the ball in his hands, he’s fast and can make some things happen.”

Coates was disappointed he couldn’t make anything happen against the Panthers.

High punts with good hang time, and with several defenders barreling toward him, forced Coates to call two fair catches (the only two punts of the game for Pitt). While he was eager to take a chance, Coates understands that knowing when to return a kick and when not to are vital parts of the position.

“The first time I knew (I had to make a fair catch),” he said, “but the second one I thought I made a good decision during the game, but looking at it on film, I probably had a second to make a move. I probably could have. It was honestly a close call. I just wanted to play it safe.”

The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Coates isn’t simply a return specialist, although that may be his role this year.

He was a dynamite all-around player for Eagles over his final three years of high school, including playing a key role in their state championship run last season. He was used as a runner on jet-sweeps, as a receiver, and even lined up in the backfield a few times.

At YSU, he’s having a tough time cracking the starting lineup as a wide-out. The Penguins had three starters — and several other experienced players — return at that position, and Coates understands he must be patient. He’s fine with that, in part because he’s still learning the nuances of the offense.

“The first couple weeks of camp, it was kind of stressful learning all the plays,” he said. “But once you run them over and over again, they kind of just stick. I’m catching on. … For the most part, it’s in my head. There are a couple plays here and there I’ll have to touch up on, but for the most part, I’ve been pretty good.”

Until his time at receiver comes, Coates will continue to “play on the highway,” with Ferraris and Mack trucks hopefully just zooming past him and not colliding into him.

The speedy, shifty Coates enjoys sidestepping them when given the chance, and he couldn’t have been happier with his first chances back deep — even if he was just standing still.

“It was a pretty awesome experience, just walking into the stadium and out on the field and looking up, knowing the Steelers play there,” Coates said. “When we walked out around game time, the stadium was pretty full, and it was really indescribable, the feeling. I was honored to back there (returning punts), and it was a good experience.”