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Penguins prepare for February(?) opener

YSU holds scrimmage in strange season

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes Youngstown State sophomore Mike Belcik, left, comes down with a pass despite the defense of freshman Tyjon Jones (23) on Saturday at Stambaugh Stadium.

YOUNGSTOWN — Pads are clashing and the Penguins are sliding around on a brand new turf, as work has begun in an effort to turn around the Youngstown State football program.

There may not have been a fall season, but first-year coach Doug Phillips and his team are using their time wisely in preparation for their conference-only schedule that kicks off on Feb. 21.

Adding to the weirdness of playing an eight-game slate that will end in late April, the Penguins’ season-opener at the Fargodome against North Dakota State is on a Sunday afternoon.

YSU scrimmaged Saturday after being allowed 15 practices during the fall semester. For Phillips, it’s about just being back on the field after installing plays via Zoom over the summer.

“To be able to come on the football field and put it all together, it starts with the fundamentals and the skill development,” he said. “To the Xs and Os, and then to be able to come out and play … I thought the effort and the attitude was there.

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes YSU QB Joe Craycraft surveys the field during Saturday's scrimmage with the first team. He's one of the Penguins seven quarterbacks.

“I saw great competitiveness from both sides of the football. We’re just focused on us right now, none of our opponents. We’re focused on getting better each and every day and, I thought from last Saturday to this Saturday, we made tremendous strides.”

Junior quarterback Joe Craycraft is one of three Penguins to take first-team snaps on Saturday. He connected with senior receiver Samuel St. Surin for a 15-yard score late in the scrimmage.

Craycraft played in 11 games last season, but feels that there’s a different culture surrounding the team with the new staff.

“We’re just trying to have more energy,” he said. “Another thing would be, we’re getting to know each other more. I think we’re really making that a point of our team — to get to know each other and everyone’s name and where they’re from.”

Sophomore Mitch Davidson and redshirt freshman Mark Waid also saw time with the first team. Waid scored early in the practice on a 6-yard run. A 40-yard strike from junior Connor Collins to sophomore Mike Belcik on the second team was the Penguins’ other score.

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes YSU DB Zaire Jones looks downfield during the Penguins' scrimmage on Saturday afternoon. The senior looks to build off of the team-high 3 interceptions he snagged last season.

YSU has seven quarterbacks on the roster, and Phillips has to try to manage reps for each one.

“It’s tough, especially when you get to play-it situations,” Phillips said. “They all get reps when they’re in individual and we do 7-on-7s . Those guys have got to understand that to get the top reps, they have to probably be in the top three or four quarterback spots.”

Craycraft appreciates the competition.

“You’re making the other guy better and the other guy is making you better, so everybody is going after it right now,” he said. “I think it brings the best out of people.”

YSU played four full 15-minute quarters with a running clock and scrimmage situations such as the red zone and two-minute drills.

Senior Zaire Jones looks to be a cornerstone of the Penguins’ defense after having a team-high three interceptions last season. On Saturday, he forced a fumble which was YSU’s only turnover.

“I think it was good,” Jones said. “We had good communication on both sides of the ball. Every team has a lot to work on, and I think it’s just focusing on those details, and we’re focusing on those details.”

The COVID-19 pandemic derailed fall football for many FCS programs, but Jones tries to keep a positive mindset with everything.

“I think one thing that you can do is just control what you can control, and that’s one thing that Coach Phillips harps on, too,” he said. “A great correlation would be in the game when a ref makes a call. There’s nothing you can do about it, but just go to the next play and control what you can control. It’s the same kind of mindset. You’ve got to do with COVID.”

Youngstown State has seven more practices and will conclude its camp on Oct. 17.

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