By Joe Scalzo
In the days after Youngstown State’s football team upset top-ranked North Dakota State on Nov. 12, many fans wondered how long coach Eric Wolford would stick around before leaving for a job at the FBS level.
In the days after Wolford’s team blew a 17-point halftime lead to last-place Missouri State on Nov. 19, fans wondered how long YSU was going to stick with this bum. (And why not hire back Tressel already? Geez.)
The lesson? Well, as Rutgers coach Greg Schiano once said, “There are two things every man in America thinks he can do: work a grill and coach football.”
YSU’s 2011 season will be remembered for the Missouri State loss but it may also be remembered as the year when Wolford put the pieces in place for a run at the national championship.
But that’s in the future. First, here’s a look at the past. All analysis was based both on personal observation and conversations with those inside the program. All honors and grades were chosen by me.
Player of the year
Sophomore QB Kurt Hess: Set single-season records for touchdown passes (26) and 200-yard passing games (eight) and completion percentage (64.8) and was second in passing yards (2,460). He also led the conference in passing yards, touchdown passes and pass efficiency.
He was also the first sophomore to be named a team captain in YSU history and handled himself as well off the field as he did on it.
“It’s kind of hard to believe he’s only a sophomore,” Wolford said. “He’s another coach out there.”
Runner-up: Senior DT Andrew Johnson, who was a valuable performer on the field (he led the team with 6.5 sacks and tied for the lead in tackles for loss with 11) and served as the anchor of a very young defense.
“Very disruptive,” Wolford said. “We’re going to miss him.”
Newcomer of the year
Freshman WR Christian Bryan: Set YSU freshman records for catches (46) and yards (722) — both stats led the team — and drew raves from the coaching staff for his attitude, work ethic, intelligence and consistency.
“The model of what you want as a coach,” Wolford said.
Runner-up: Freshman LB Teven Williams, who moved into the starting lineup in Week 4 and led the team in tackles (67).
“When Teven Williams is not in the football game, our chances of winning go way down,” Wolford said.
The skinny: Led by creative offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery, YSU set single-season records for points (36.2) and yards per game (458.6) — easily leading the league in both categories. The Penguins must do a better job at closing out games on offense — Wolford said it would be one of his biggest offseason emphases — and they could use more home-run hitters, but this unit was the team’s strength. Even better, all but one starter returns.
Who’s leaving: Marc Kanetsky
Who’s returning: Hess, sophomore Patrick Angle
Redshirted: Freshman Dante Nania
The skinny: Hess will hold every meaningful YSU passing record by the time he graduates. Nania drew raves on the scout team and will challenge Angle for the backup spot in the spring.
Who’s leaving: None
Who’s returning: Junior Jamaine Cook, sophomores Adaris Bellamy, Jordan Thompson and Torrian Pace, junior FB Chuck Lengyel
Redshirted: Freshman Demond Hymes
The skinny: Cook’s 1,386 yards were second-best in the conference and he’s a valuable blocker and receiver but he was playing at less than 100 percent for much of the year. The coaches need to cut down on his carries or his body is going to look like mashed potatoes by the time he graduates. Bellamy and Thompson battled injuries but played well. YSU led the conference with 231.1 rushing yards per game — almost 50 more than runner-up Illinois State.
Who’s leaving: TE David Rogers, WR Andre Barboza, WR Pat White, WR Ely Ducatel and WR Juilian Harrell (transfer).
Who’s returning: Bryan, sophomore WRs Jelani Berassa and Kevin Watts, sophomore TE Carson Sharbaugh, redshirt freshman WR Adam Charles, freshmen WRs Brandon Thomas, Kintrell Disher and Andrew Williams, junior TE Will Shaw, redshirt freshman TE Nate Adams
Redshirted: Freshman Andre Stubbs (medical — broken collarbone), freshman TE Jordan Markota
The skinny: After missing 2010 with an ACL injury, Berassa played well all season. Watts emerged late in the year. The coaches are high on the three true freshmen, believing they have huge upsides. Rogers’ blocking will be missed but Shaw, who never played offense before this season, should be a potent weapon next fall. Sharbaugh blocked well at tight end and as a fullback. The one knock on this unit is it failed to get yards after contact. The coaches want to see them develop physically and break more tackles.
Who’s leaving: None
Who’s returning: Junior OTs Andrew Radakovich and D.J. Main, junior G Lamar Mady, junior C Mark Pratt, sophomore Gs Chris Elkins, Andrew Sinko, and Fred Herdman, redshirt freshman OTs Eric Franklin and J.P. May, redshirt freshmen Gs Brandon Green, Stephen Page and Santiago Mason, freshman C Zach Conlan
Redshirted: Sophomore C Zach Larson (medical-foot), freshman OT Brandon Ferguson
The skinny: Radakovich, Mady, Pratt and Elkins started every game and Main missed just one. Pratt, a junior college recruit, was the team’s best lineman but everyone on this unit played well, paving the way for the league’s best rushing offense while giving up just nine sacks. The coaches expect Franklin (who started one game) and Ferguson to challenge for playing time in the spring.
The skinny: With just two full-time starters back (Johnson and LB John Sasson, who lost his job to Teven Williams in Week 4), and as many as five freshmen starting at one time, this unit was predictably inconsistent. It improved from last year — particularly in the second half of the year — but was gashed in the season finale, reminding many of the 2010 defense. Defensive line will be a question mark next season but this unit has the potential to be one of the league’s best. Question is, will (or should) coordinator Rick Kravitz be back after two lackluster years? (When asked this week if he plans to make any coaching changes, Wolford said, “Not at this time, no.”)
Who’s leaving: Johnson, DEs Obinna Ekweremuba and Daniel Stewart
Who’s returning: Junior DT Aronde Stanton, junior DEs Nick DeKraker, Josh Fenderson and Luis Quinones, sophomore DTs D.J. Moss and Kyle Sirl, freshman DT Quentin Jones
Redshirted: Freshmen DEs Trevor Strickland, Steve Zaborsky and Blake Novotny, freshmen DTs Emmanuel Kromah and Eric Myers
The skinny: Stewart was a consistent pass-rushing threat and Ekweremuba emerged as a solid player capable of making one or two spectacular plays per game. Stanton also played well and should fill Johnson’s leadership role next year. DeKraker was OK but needs to elevate his play next year, as does Fenderson. Moss was solid against the run. Injuries ruined Quinones’ season. This will be the team’s biggest question mark next fall.
Who’s leaving: Sasson
Who’s returning: Sophomores Ali Cheaib, Dom Rich, Thomas Sprague, Thomas Kipp, Cy Edison and David Hampton, redshirt freshmen Travis Williams, Davion Rogers, Danny Fernback and Kevin Johnson, freshmen Teven Williams and Dubem Nwadiogbu
The skinny: Between Travis and Teven Williams and Rogers, freshmen combined to make 29 of a possible 33 starts. While that was obvious at times — the first half against Indiana State, when YSU gave up 34 points, was painful to watch — this unit grew up as the year went on. Rogers has NFL talent and is terrific in space, particularly covering slot receivers. All three need to pack on 20 pounds of muscle, at least. Injuries hurt YSU’s depth, which in turn weakened its special teams, particularly on kickoff coverage.
Who’s leaving: S Scott Sentner, CB Josh Lee
Who’s back: Junior safeties Jeremey Edwards and Sir Aaron Taylor, sophomore safeties Josh Garner, Gannon Hulea and Justin Austin, redshirt freshmen CB Devont’a Davis and Parnell Taylor, freshmen CB Jimmy May Jr., Tahir Blount and Mike Thomas
Redshirted: Senior CB Deionte Williams (medical-wrist), sophomore CBs Donald D’Alesio (medical-shoulder) and Jamarious Boatwright (medical - knee), redshirt freshman CB Brandon Neal, freshman CB Nick Buonavolonta
The skinny: Injuries ravaged this unit in the offseason, sidelining YSU’s top three cornerbacks and forcing Wolford to play too many newcomers for the second straight year. Sentner shook off an injury-plagued 2010 to become a solid contributor and Lee did everything the coaches asked in his first year in the position. Edwards, Garner, Davis and May had their moments and should play better next year but, overall, the DBs struggled in one-on-one matchups and tackling in space.
Who’s leaving: Kanetsky (holder), LS Nate Schkurko
Who’s returning: Sophomore P Nick Liste, junior K David Brown, freshman LS Nathan Gibbs
Redshirted: Freshman K Zach Smith
The skinny: Liste was terrific and while Brown doesn’t have a huge leg, he was solid on extra points (53 of 56) and made 3 of 4 field goals. Stubbs’ injury in Week 3 deprived the Penguins of their only home run threat in the return game. The coverage units, particularly on kickoffs, were atrocious.
The skinny: Wolford’s first full recruiting class was tremendous, with contributors everywhere. Montgomery, a former head coach at Miami (Ohio), proved again to be a hiring coup. Defensively, playing so many youngsters forced the coaches to focus on fundamentals and lighten the playbook but that unit appeared to be growing until the final game. The team wasn’t ready to play in the first half against Indiana State or the second half against Missouri State, but the Penguins played hard and were at their best on the road against the league’s top two teams, North Dakota State and Northern Iowa. That said, one of the criticisms of Jon Heacock was that he was too loyal to underachieving assistants and Wolford needs to think long and hard about shaking up his defensive staff. As for Wolford himself, he did the right thing in revamping the program and growth from last year to this year was clearly seen. Wolford needs to fill some minor holes — he plans to recruit 15 players — but he should lead the Penguins to the playoffs next year and, with a little luck, the conference championship.