By BRIAN RICHESSON
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
ST. LOUIS -- Jeff Ryan admits that he's not the perfect quarterback.
"I don't have the perfect size or arm strength or speed," said Ryan, a senior signal caller for the Youngstown State football team.
But those who have seen the Boardman native play know one thing -- he doesn't back down from anyone.
"His will to win is amazing," Western Illinois safety Damon Williams said.
Southern Illinois linebacker Bart Scott said, "He's a tremendous leader. He elevates the play of his teammates."
Ryan explained his style Thursday at the Gateway Conference football preseason gathering.
Scrappy: "You've got to play with your heart, and you've got to go out there and be scrappy," he said. "That's what I've learned throughout my whole life."
One of the Penguins' integral pieces, Ryan has battled injuries the past two seasons. The question is whether the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Ryan can withstand the rigors of the 2001 season.
"I think he's as good as new. I think he's ready to go," YSU coach Jon Heacock said. "Obviously, you have a concern when one of your players is injured, but I think he's improved himself."
Ryan's problems began during the 1999 playoffs when he separated his right shoulder. He underwent surgery to correct it, but last season he injured his right wrist in the fourth week against Southwest Missouri State.
"I found out it was broken the whole time," said the right-handed Ryan of his wrist. "I was supposed to have surgery on that, but I wouldn't have been able to play this year, so I held off."
Instead, Ryan wore a cast hoping the wrist would heal. He even missed spring practice.
"It really didn't heal too much," he said. "We're just going to see how everything goes. It feels good now, so hopefully it stays the same."
Ryan said he feels pain when he throws the ball, "but it's something you have to deal with."
Ryan's health is a subplot to the 2001 season, which marks the debut of Heacock as head coach. Heacock replaces Jim Tressel, who is preparing for his first season as head coach at Ohio State.
"I like the numbers that we have [21 seniors]," said Heacock, the Penguins' defensive coordinator last season. "I don't think there are any surprises when you have experience.
"These guys know what it's like to go play in these stadiums against these teams."
Ryan will be the centerpiece of an offense that returns 12 players who have received starting time.
Helping to protect Ryan will be Pat Crummey, a senior offensive lineman who was selected to the Gateway's preseason team.
Defense in tact: The defense lost linebacker Tim Johnson, now with the Baltimore Ravens, but the entire secondary, led by senior safety and preseason All-Gateway selection Bruce Hightower, returns.
Senior cornerback LeVar Greene was named honorable mention of the Gateway preseason team.
"We have more experience than last year, and we're more consistent," Hightower said.
Included in the seven returning defensive starters is junior tackle Matt Mechling, another member of the Gateway's preseason team.
The Penguins, who begin practice Aug. 5, open their season with two straight home games -- Aug. 30 against Lock Haven and Sept. 8 against Clarion.
"As long as I've been here, we've always opened with local opponents," Heacock said. "Anybody who understands the conference those guys play in knows they play good football."
Nearly midway through his first year as coach, Heacock is learning more about his role.
"You have your hands in everything, yet you have to do what you do best," Heacock said. "You can't try to do something that some guys on your staff can do better."
The first goal for Heacock and the Penguins is to capture the Gateway Football Conference title, something that has eluded the program.
"If we win the Gateway championship, we know we have a chance to win the national championship," Hightower said.
Heacock said, "At Youngstown State, you're expected to play in the national championship game every year."