The season opener is Sept. 1 against Slippery Rock.
By JOE SCALZO
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
YOUNGSTOWN -- After Youngstown State was picked to finish sixth in the Gateway Conference at last week's media day, many of the Penguins took it personally.
"Nobody liked that," said senior guard Tony Limongi. "I think you'll see a difference in us because of that."
Added senior defensive end Brandon Brown: "That didn't sit too well with me."
Still, after finishing in a three-way tie for fifth in the eight-team conference last year, YSU must do more than talk about improving.
The Penguins need to win.
"These seniors know what to do," said assistant head coach Sam Eddy, who filled in for Jon Heacock at Tuesday's press conference. "They've been getting their noses punched the last couple years. If they want to stand and be victors, they'll have to step up and play well."
Brown, a preseason honorable mention all-conference pick, had 46 tackles and a team-leading four sacks last year. The Ursuline High graduate will help anchor a young YSU defense that has eight returning starters.
"We've got the people we need to get the job done," Brown said. "What's happened the past few years is in the past, but you keep it in the back of your mind. When you're tired in practice and you want to stop, you think about what happened and keep working."
Heacock is entering his fifth and final year of his contract and will likely need to show improvement to get a new deal. After going 8-3 in his first year, he's gone 7-4, 5-7 and 4-7 the past three years.
Back injury flares up again
Making things worse, Heacock recently re-aggravated a back injury and has not been able to coach.
"He literally can't stand, sit or lay on his back," Eddy said. "He lays face down."
Heacock hurt his back a year and a half ago in the off-season, but the pain subsided and he was able to return. No one is sure when he'll be back to work and the long-term outlook is cloudy.
"I'm not a doctor, but maybe surgery is the only answer," Eddy said.
The Penguins will have their first practice Saturday and open the schedule at home against Slippery Rock on Sept. 1. And while there are still a few question marks -- particularly at tight end, kicker and defensive back -- many feel this will be YSU's best team in years.
"It's going to be a neat season," Eddy said. "You'll see a fast defense out there and that's going to be the key to our success."
Eleven regulars return
The offense returns 11 players who started at least three games, including four that started every game: Limongi (Niles), quarterback Tom Zetts (Boardman), offensive tackle John Bartos (Ursuline) and wide receiver Kyle Smith.
That experience will only make the Penguins better, Limongi said.
"I think we're going to be a lot smarter on the offensive line," he said. "A lot of the guys who played last year hadn't started and they were learning things. I don't think we'll make as many mistakes this year."
Will that experience translate into more wins? Only time will tell. Eddy knows the most talented teams don't always win conference championships. The best teams do.
"It's like Jon [Heacock] said in the spring, 'The team with the most talent will not win the conference,' " Eddy said. "In 1999 and 1997, we didn't have the most talent, but we won."
And with winning comes respect.
"I think we have respect from the coaches in the conference, but I don't sense that same respect from the players," Eddy said. "Since we've been in the league, we haven't won it, so I think a lot of the players are saying, 'Prove to me that you're good.'
"That's what we're going to have to do."