A year ago the Youngstown State football team had a hard time getting in 15 spring practices because of the weather. In fact, the Penguins even practiced the day after the Red-White game to fill out their 15-practice quota.
This year the Penguins begin drills on Friday afternoon, one week after a weekend with sun and temperatures in the 60s.
"Last year everybody said that we started practice too early," said YSU head coach Jon Heacock. "This year they'll probably say we started too late."
This is the third spring session for Heacock as head coach. He's taken the Penguins to 8-3 and 7-4 records the first two seasons, but neither team has made it to the NCAA I-AA playoffs.
Defense hit hardest
Heacock feels the pressure is on this season for the team to get back into the playoffs. The pressure mounts even more when you figure that YSU lost seven starters on the defensive side of the football, which by the way was their best side. And sophomore defensive back Jake Godec, who started most of last season, will be lost for the year with illness.
The Penguins only lose three starters from an offense that wasn't very good.
Heacock's cupboard is not bare on defense. He played 18 to 20 players every game in a steady rotation so there are a host of players with experience.
He got a break when senior linebacker Justin Dellarose, who sat out his freshman season because he was a non-academic qualifier, made up his work to graduate with his class and received a fifth year of eligibility.
But players like Yancey Marcum, Brandon Brown, Waymann Peters, Nate Baston, Matt Briggs, Scott Thiessen, Mike Bracken, Sherod Holmes and Mike Andrews all played a lot last season.
Eight starters return on offense, but the key to the success here lies in the offensive line and at quarterback.
Aaron Marshall started the last eight games for the Penguins and although he did not play spectacularly he did manage to lead the team to six of its seven victories.
However the two games he did lose were the big Gateway matchups with Northern Iowa and Western Illinois.
Marshall needs a good spring. He didn't have one last year even though he got most of the snaps with Colby Street missing most of the workouts.
He really didn't impress anyone when summer practice started, either, according to Heacock.
"Nobody really stepped up to take that job," Heacock said. "And when it came time to open the season I went with the senior and the most experience."
Street started the first two games, then after a week off for an open date, senior Justin Green got the call, then finally Marshall got his chance in the fourth game at Southwest Missouri State.
Marshall, who will be a sophomore, is No. 1 going into the spring, but Heacock said that senior Luis Gonzalez has been impressive in winter workouts and then there is also freshman recruit Tom Zetts of Boardman who will join the team in the summer.
"It's Marshall's job going into the spring and it will be up to him to keep it," said Heacock.
Offense without Mays
Offensively, the Penguins lost just tackle Andy DeNiro, tight ends John Schumacher and Dennis Dlugosz and All-American P.J. Mays at tailback.
Heacock said he's not as worried about the starting offensive line as he is with their backups.
"We've got a lot of young, inexperienced kids backing them up," he said.
Regardless of who's back and who's not, Heacock knows that the quickest way back to the playoffs is by winning the Gateway Conference.
"Those are the games that count," he said.
XPete Mollica covers YSU athletics for The Vindicator. Write to him at & lt;a href=mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org & gt;email@example.com & lt;/a & gt;.