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Phillips touts size, depth at MVFC Media Day

YOUNGSTOWN — It was an offseason of growth — both physically and otherwise — for the Youngstown State football team, according to head coach Doug Phillips.

Phillips addressed media members via Zoom on Monday during Missouri Valley Football Conference Media Days.

“Coming out of the spring, the one thing that jumped out at us was we got bigger and we got stronger just like every team in the country,” Phillips said. “But for us, we were trying to play catch-up, and we had young men starting for us last season who had never had spring football or a true offseason, so for us it was to play catch-up.”

He added that was especially true along the defensive and offensive lines.

“We really liked the play of our defensive ends last fall in Dylan Wudke and James Jackson, and to see those guys grow and develop in the offseason, see them this spring and have depth there I thought was big on the defensive side of the ball,” Phillips said.

Of the offensive side, he added, “I could count on one hand the 300-pound offensive linemen. Now, out of 20, I can count on three fingers who’s not 300 up to 325 pounds. So to know we got bigger, stronger and know our players know each other, we had competitions this summer.”

That, he noted, is courtesy of new strength and conditioning coach, Jimmy Rodenberg, who was hired in January.

Defensively, Phillips also was pleased with the depth YSU was able to add at safety and linebacker. The Penguins nabbed Western Illinois transfer Greg Benton Jr. at linebacker and Ohio State transfer Marcus Hooker in the secondary, among others.

He also highlighted Caleb Burr, a senior transfer from Lafayette, and Andrew Hardin, a junior transfer from Monroe, at the safety spot.

At linebacker, Benton was joined by Keon Freeman, a Division II transfer from the University of Charleston (WV).

“It changes the room, because guess what? You might not be 100 percent for that practice. You might be 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,” he added.

The defense also went through a bit of transition at the top this offseason, as 2021 defensive coordinator Joe Schaefer departed the program to join Texas A&M as a defensive analyst.

YSU hired Jahmal Brown to replace him, and also installed new position coaches at defensive line (Deonte Gibson), cornerbacks (Christian Dukes) and linebackers (John Haneline).

“I saw huge strides in our defense (this offseason),” Phillips said. “We have to be gap sound in this league. You’re going to be tested each and every week on your gap integrity, and I think these guys bring a simple but complex (approach). We don’t want our guys thinking too much. We want to play fast, but we can’t just sit there and show everything to the offenses.

“I think they put together a good plan, and we’ll see after these 25 camp practices at Game 1.”

On the offensive side, Phillips said the receiver room had a particularly strong offseason, and especially Bryce Oliver, who grabbed 24 receptions for 266 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns.

“I truly believe Bryce Oliver could be one of the best receivers in this league, and he’s got to go prove it,” Phillips said. “We certainly haven’t earned respect in our league, and how do you do that? You go and perform each and every week. But offensively, the wide receiver position and having the opportunity for quarterbacks to work with the receivers, and for Demeatric Crenshaw and Mitch Davidson to be able to throw (was important).

“We brought in Latrell Fordham from Eastern Michigan, another tall, lengthy, athletic player, and C.J. Charleston is 18 pounds heavier at our inside slot. Someone that really jumped out was Max Tomczak. We saw those guys develop in the spring.”

The concern, Phillips noted, is finding depth behind that group.

Overall, however, the third-year head coach feels the Penguins feature more options as fall camp gets rolling.

“What I like this year is I truly believe we have made great strides in the depth in each room,” he said. “If one player isn’t ready to go that day, we have someone that’s going to step in and keep this train rolling.”

YSU begins its fall camp Wednesday.

Other notes from MVFC Media Day:

— MVFC Commissioner Patty Viverito discussed conference realignment and the uncertain footing Division I football is on, but noted the Missouri Valley so far has been “sheltered” from it thanks in part to geography.

But, she added, “Conference realignment continues to be disruptive to the FCS overall.”

She also noted, “If our schools were located in the south, there’s no doubt in my mind that we wouldn’t look the way we look.”

The subdivision lost one of its most prominent members, James Madison (Harrisonburg, Va.), to the FBS during the offseason.

The MVFC, meanwhile, added Murray State to its ranks effective July 2023.

— Viverito also touched on how MVFC scheduling would work with the addition of the Racers.

“There was unanimity (among conference members) that it was really important that we play each other often, and so we have a scheduling principle set up where every school will see every other school four out of six years. There will be a rotation of all the conference members in a healthy way.”

She added that proposed conference schedules for 2023 and 2024 have been given to athletic directors, which will meet this month and potentially approve them.

“But really, in order to make this work, we need to have a six year plan, because that’s the rotation,” she added. “… We think we’ve had a close enough look around the league that what we’ve put together is going to be acceptable (for the two aforementioned seasons) and then it’s going to be hard work to come up with the last four years of that rotation.”

jwhetzel@tribtoday.com

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