If there is one group of people who know just how good the Youngstown State football defensive unit is this year it's the Penguins' offensive unit.
Every day during preseason workouts these two units butt heads with one another and both have learned respect for each other.
However the defense has been the winner in most of the conflicts to date.
P.J. Mays, YSU's senior tailback and the 2001 Gateway Conference Offensive Players of the year, said that he'd rather run against anybody then the YSU defense.
Coming into the 2002 season YSU coach Jon Heacock new that he had a pretty good group coming back on the defense.
The only position that could have been considered weak was the defensive secondary where only one starter, senior Tony Barone, was returning.
But even Heacock, who this year is spending a lot more time working with the defensive backs, knew that there was plenty of potential help back there waiting to step in and play.
While Barone, a Cardinal Mooney graduate, was the lone starter coming back, there were junior Waymann Peters and sophomores Mike Bracken and Jake Godec, who all saw considerable action, while junior transfer Scott Thiessen appears to be a perfect fit with his new team.
Lots of talent returning
The rest of the defense is loaded with returning veterans, both at linebacker and the defensive front.
Starting with the linebacker there are holdover stars Jon Tekac and Russell Stuvaints, both seniors, while junior Brandon Byers and senior Justin Dellarose have both played as regulars a year ago.
Backing those four up are four youngsters led by sophomore Yancey Marcum, redshirt freshmen Joe Juby and Jacob Koch and true freshman Brandon Brown, a Ursuline product.
The front line is no different with three-year starter and senior Matt Mechling back at tackle, senior tackle Guy Mazard and senior end Martin Stachowicz were also starters a year ago.
Behind them are three more standouts, two of which saw much playing time in senior Wendell Parish and sophomore Nate Baston along with senior transfer Tim Frost, another Youngstown native.
Frost came to the Penguins in the spring after spending three years at West Virginia.
And who is the toughest player that these guys have to go against all year?
They'll quickly tell you that it is no other than Mays.
"Sometimes it's fun trying to tackle P.J.," said Mechling. "Sometimes you get him, but more often you don't. He's the best we'll see all year."
One thing about this season is that the defense won't have to wait long to be tested.
Season opener Thursday
The Penguins meet Division II Clarion University in the season opener Thursday night at 7:30 in Stambaugh Stadium, but the second game on Sept. 7 will be against McNeese State, a team that made the playoffs a year ago and was ranked No. 11 in the preseason I-AA rankings.
The Penguins were ranked No. 8 in that same poll, so that contest, which is also set for Stambaugh Stadium, will probably be one of the highlight games in all of I-AA football this year.
The YSU offense isn't planning on taking a backseat to the defense this season, because they know that they probably aren't going to face a much tougher defense than they have all preseason long.
"Our defense is so quick and they get to the football so fast that it is frustrating to try and run against them at times," said Mays.
The former East High standout has done all right though, as he gained nearly 90 yards on just eight carries against them in the last scrimmage.
XPete Mollica covers YSU football for The Vindicator. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.