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Pelini, YSU need to take next step

There was a lot of hype when Bo Pelini was hired at Youngstown State, and rightfully so.

Many in the media, locally and nationally, felt the Penguins, as the saying goes, might have outkicked their coverage with the hiring — meaning not many expected a coach of his caliber to come to YSU.

Now, after an up-and-down four seasons, there is a lot of heat on Pelini — and rightfully so.

When you’re a high-profile coach coming to your hometown, fans expect a lot, and with a Penguins fan base that is often, well, delusional in regard to success, even more is expected.

The first part of Pelini’s tenure had a little bit of everything, but what happens next will determine his “legacy” at YSU.

The Youngstown native led the Penguins to the FCS Championship in just his second year, but that came mostly with recruits of former coach Eric Wolford. That certainly doesn’t diminish the accomplishment, but it sheds a light on part of the problem. Furthermore, when Pelini followed his playoff run with seasons of 6-5 and 4-7, there was some unrest among followers of the Penguins, which is understandable.

One minute, they appear on a path back to being relevant in the FCS, and the next minute they’re losing to Butler and struggling to an embarrassing 4-7 finish. So, now that Pelini looks in line to receive an extension of some type, according to athletics director Ron Strollo, what’s next?

Despite the lackluster 2018, the program is trending in the right direction.

The truth is, and I bite my lip as I type this, I felt like maybe Pelini wasn’t necessarily all in at first. In no way am I questioning his work ethic as a coach or commitment to the team. His attention to detail at practices is meticulous, and his overall game plans and schemes have been impressive, from what I can tell, but the recruiting didn’t always seem to be the greatest.

There were talented players here and there, but there rarely seemed to be many “game-changing” players. Maybe there was a thought that a better scheme and a few FBS transfers would be enough to advance the Penguins to the playoffs, even if the recruiting classes weren’t elite. That won’t cut it. If you’re going to compete in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, you need top-tier talent, and Pelini has certainly picked up on that after four seasons.

While this year’s recruiting class isn’t set in stone just yet, it’s already been impressive considering Mark Waid is part of it. The former star quarterback at Girard has to be the prize jewel of the class. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Waid has all the tools to succeed and could be the missing piece for a YSU team that shuffled through QBs each of the last two seasons.

Waid, alone, won’t be enough though. The Penguins need this class as a whole to be great. They’ve had some good ones, but they need a couple great ones. If Pelini is, indeed, ready to re-sign with YSU, it’s likely for another two to three years. He has children at Cardinal Mooney High School (one of whom is a sophomore), and he has always put his family first, so staying in Youngstown until they graduate makes sense. Who knows what happens at that point?

For now, there seems to be a foundation to make some major progress in the next couple of seasons, but Pelini needs to find a way to bring it all together. His teams have been inconsistent, which has led to the mediocre overall record (he’s 27-22 in four years). If that’s going to change, it’s going to happen with a large contingent of Mahoning Valley players leading the way.

The recent addition of Hubbard graduate and former West Virginia University center Matt Jones, who is transferring to YSU, will pay immediate dividends, and the addition of Waid and fellow area stars Michael Belcik (Girard), Dra Rushton (Liberty) and Jake Coates (JFK) bodes well for the future. It’s not just the physical traits that make those players important — it’s their leadership.

All five were phenomenal leaders at their respective schools — on and off the field. I covered each one at some point or another, and their work ethic was always the first thing coaches pointed to, despite incredible natural ability. But to be leaders, they must be legitimate players as well. They can’t lead if they’re sitting on the bench, so they need to earn their way onto the field.

Their progress is essential to Pelini’s. The longtime coach certainly has other options when it comes to coaching, and he wouldn’t have returned if he wasn’t “all in” on Youngstown, so here’s his chance. Developing the local talent will bring more fans, and with any luck, more wins. That’s a good start.

If Pelini is serious about turning YSU back into a winner, it needs to show on National Signing Day and through the local players. That mixture of talent and leadership will allow the rest to fall into place.

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