Hope springs eternal for Penguins

YSU excited about upcoming season

Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon Youngstown State University football coach Bo Pelini talks to the team during a break Saturday at the Penguins’ final scrimmage of spring practice. Pelini believes YSU will bounce back from a 4-7 season and contend for a national title.

YOUNGSTOWN — As the Youngstown State University football team finished spring practices on Saturday, coach Bo Pelini made sure hope sprung eternal before he stepped away from his team for a few months.

Coming of a dismal 4-7 campaign in which YSU looked uninspired at times throughout the season, Pelini said the Penguins are reinvigorated and ready to bounce back.

“There are two goals: Win the conference first, and then go win the national championship,” he said. “That’s what the coaches’ mindset is, that’s what the fans’ mindset is, hopefully, and that’s what our goals are. Anything short of that, and we failed. That’s where our mindset is at. That’s how we’ve approached this whole offseason, and I think we’re well on our way.”

If the final scrimmage of spring practices was any indication, the renewed sense of urgency seems to be trickling down to the team.

The Penguins displayed non-stop enthusiasm — something that was severing lacking in 2018 — and also executed quite well on each side of the ball. Still, there are major question marks lingering, and one of the biggest is at quarterback.

Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon Youngstown State quarterback Joe Craycraft (5) looks to the sideline for a call on Saturday. Craycraft is one of at least three players battling to be the Penguins’ starting quarterback.

There appears to be two — possibly three — candidates for the starting job following the loss of incumbent starter Montgomery VanGorder. Redshirt sophomore Joe Craycraft played with the No. 1 offense on Saturday, and the 6-foot-3, 215-pound quarterback out of Marion Pleasant High School looked sharp. He led a pair of touchdown drives, including tossing a perfectly placed pass to wide receiver Natavious Payne on the first series.

Craycraft has essentially no collegiate experience aside from playing a handful of snaps last year in a blowout victory over Valparaiso, but his mobility and powerful arm make him a viable candidate for the job.

“Joe is a guy who is extremely athletic,” Pelini said. “He can run, (and) he’s throwing the football with a lot of confidence right now. He’s understanding the offense even better, and he had a heck of a spring.”

Maybe the favorite to earn the nod because of experience is senior Nathan Mays.

The 6-3, 220-pound dual-threat QB started five games as a sophomore and shared time with VanGorder at the end of last season before injuries caught up to him. He was held out of Saturday’s scrimmage because there was full contact on the quarterbacks, and with Mays’ injury history (he’s still not 100 percent following a leg injury), Pelini said, “we don’t want to have a setback.”

That could lead to Craycraft entering fall camp as the favorite following a strong spring.

“I think so,” responded Craycraft when asked if he thought he did enough to show he could be the starter. “I just tried to show the coaches what I got, and ultimately, I’m just doing what I can for this team to be successful. I felt good about today.”

Mays being out left the door open for the highly touted true freshman out of Girard, Mark Waid, who graduated early so he could participate in the spring. He made the most of his opportunities.

After a slow start working with the second-team offense, he tossed a long TD of about 65 yards to fellow Trumbull County product Jacob Coates of John F. Kennedy.

Another dual threat QB with a strong arm, Waid may have an uphill battle to earn the starting nod because of his youth, but Pelini was impressed.

“Mark Waid showed me this spring that he’s going to be a pretty special player,” he said. “For a young kid, he handled himself extremely well. He’s seeing a lot more defense than he’s ever seen and a little different offense, but he’s confident. I like our quarterback position. … We have a good problem. There’s a lot of talent at that position right now.”

It’s not the only problem, as the Penguins have some holes to fill on defense, mainly in the secondary, but Saturday was a step in the right direction for a team looking for a major turnaround.

Players on both sides of the ball were relentless and energetic on every play. Even those on the sidelines were engaged and focused from start to finish.

Pelini, whose new contract to remain as YSU’s head coach is still a mystery, said he intends to “add some pieces” over the next few months through transfers to shore up any deficiencies. He believes by the time fall camp opens, YSU will have a team ready to compete for a title in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.

“I have high expectations for this football team this year,” he said. “We have the chance to be a damn good football team.”

The season starts sooner than years past as YSU takes part in the 2019 FCS Kickoff, opening the FCS season with an Aug. 24 matchup with Samford that takes place on a neutral field in Montgomery, Alabama.

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