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3 questions facing YSU as camp begins

Correspondent file photo / Robert Hayes. YSU quarterback Demeatric Crenshaw runs the ball during last season’s game against Western Illinois.

YOUNGSTOWN — One month from today, the Youngstown State football team will take the field at Stambaugh Stadium for its season opener against Duquesne.

Before that, though, the Penguins have fall camp to get through. That begins today.

There are a number of important questions facing this YSU team, which was picked ninth in the Missouri Valley preseason poll. If the Penguins are to surpass that prognostication, they’ll need to find the answers.

Here are a few of the biggest that YSU must solve:

Can the offense be more dynamic this year?

There’s no doubt YSU’s run game will be potent with the return of All-American tailback Jaleel McLaughlin and dual-threat sophomore quarterback Demeatric Crenshaw.

Indeed, YSU was third in the MVFC in rushing at 207.2 yards per game, and McLaughlin’s 113.9 rushing yards per game was fourth-best nationwide.

But if Youngstown State is to make a jump this season, it will need the passing game to take a step forward.

Consider this: YSU’s 133.9 passing yards per game were 10th of 11 teams in the MVFC, and Crenshaw’s 5.07 yards per pass attempt were third-lowest of FCS quarterbacks who saw significant time a season ago. His yards per completion — 8.15 — were tied for the lowest.

Fixing that, YSU coach Doug Phillips says, begins up front and with keeping Crenshaw upright and healthy.

“Everything starts with protection, whether it’s five-man, six-man or seven-man,” he said.

Phillips added, “I really feel like on the offensive line, we played with maybe six guys last year, and I’m challenging our offensive line coach (Austen Bujnoch) and our offensive coordinator (Troy Rothenbuhler) that we have to come out of camp with 12 young men that can play football. I think we do have 12 offensive linemen right now that can play.”

He also noted being able to tie in the run game will be pertinent, as it will open up the play-action game.

“I really loved how we were able to run the football last year,” he said. “Now, with our play-action passes and passing the downfield, it starts with players.”

Phillips highlighted receiver Bryce Oliver, who caught eight touchdowns a season ago, by far the team’s highest total. Four of those came in the season’s final two weeks against North Dakota State and Southern Illinois.

“I really think he got in a groove,” the coach said. “He’s physical. He’s 6-foot-1, 217 pounds with strong hands, and I’ve seen him grow tremendously.”

YSU also shuffled some of its offensive staff around. John Sinagoga is coaching the quarterbacks this year after serving as the receivers coach last year, and YSU hired Armon Binns during the offseason to coach the receivers.

“We had a great wide receiver coach last year, but he’s more of a quarterback coach,” Phillips said. “To be able to move him to the quarterback coach (position) and take some off the plate of our offensive coordinator — who does a lot in this program — and to bring in Armon, who was a big, physical receiver himself, and be able to see his teaching progression and see the receivers develop in the spring gets us excited that we’ll definitely be able to push the ball downfield.”

Can the defense take a step forward under new leadership?

The offense wasn’t the only side of the ball to shuffle some coaches around. Last season’s defensive coordinator, Joe Schaefer, left the program to pursue a position on Texas A&M’s staff, and YSU hired in his replacement and a few other new position coaches.

In addition to first-year coordinator Jahmal Brown, YSU also brought in Deonte Gibson to coach the line, John Haneline to coach the linebackers and Christian Dukes to coach the cornerbacks.

“I knew Jahmal as a safety for us at Bowling Green, and to see his development in the coaching world working at Bowling Green as a GA … and to see him prosper as a defensive coordinator, I’m really excited to get his family into town,” Phillips said.

So far, YSU’s head coach likes what he sees.

“I saw huge strides in our defense (during the spring),” he noted.

Their task is to revive a YSU defense that last season was 10th of 11 MVFC teams in scoring defense and last in total defense.

The Penguins lost a few key pieces from last season’s defense. Linebacker Grant Dixon graduated, defensive lineman Jelani Stafford transferred to UConn and defensive back Keyon Martin transferred to Louisiana.

However, YSU did nab a few key transfers. Defensive back Marcus Hooker arrived from Ohio State, and Greg Benton Jr. joined YSU from MVFC foe Western Illinois. Also at linebacker, Keon Freeman transferred in from Division II University of Charleston (WV), and at safety, Caleb Burr is in from FCS-level Lafayette, and Andrew Hardin comes in from Monroe, a junior college.

Those moves, Phillips said, were to generate depth and competition at those respective positions.

“We added competition there at the safety position. Now we have Tyjon Jones and Quincy Lenton (in addition to the transfers), so it’s going to be great to see those guys compete,” Phillips said. “At linebacker, we brought in Keon Freeman that played a lot of football at Charleston. We brought in Greg Benton, who played a lot of football at Western Illinois. When you bring in players like that, it changes the room. Now, all of a sudden, guess what? You might not be 100 percent for that practice, you might be at 90 percent, which is normal. And now you have to go out and compete, because there’s competition, and you want to keep your position.”

Can the Penguins finish games?

Youngstown State lost six games to FCS-level competition. Of those, three were close battles during the second half that YSU had opportunities to win — Indiana State, North Dakota and Western Illinois.

In fact, YSU led 35-7 against Western at one point in the first half and 35-14 at halftime, and was beating UND 14-10 entering the fourth quarter. The Penguins lost those games 38-35 and 24-21, respectively.

In the ISU game, YSU led 17-14 entering the fourth quarter before the Sycamores scored 14 unanswered to win. Crenshaw was injured during that game.

If Youngstown State is to take a jump forward this year and start climbing out of the MVFC cellar, it’s going to have to finish games off. That, of course, will depend greatly on the answers to the two aforementioned questions.

jwhetzel@tribtoday.com

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