By Joe Scalzo
In some ways, a football team is like a science experiment.
Just like adding baking soda to vinegar (or Mentos to Diet Coke) can make a mess of things, the wrong mix of players can be bad news.
Nowhere was this a bigger issue than on Youngstown State’s defensive line, which lost four starters from last season and brought in three junior college transfers (junior DT Octavius Brown, junior DE Vince Coleman and junior DE Nate Cox, who left the team in the offseason) and an early-enrollee freshman (DE Derek Rivers) in January.
For the experiment to work, the Penguins needed the holdovers to embrace the new guys instead of viewing them as the football equivalent of line-skippers.
So far, they have.
“The kids have taken to each other and been really welcoming to the newcomers and that’s a good thing,” defensive line coach Tom Sims said. “We have good chemistry and they all want the same thing.”
Senior Kyle Sirl is the lone returning starter on the defensive line — he played nine games and made six starts at end while battling an injured shoulder — and is one of two Heacock-era recruits in line to start up front. (Senior DT D.J. Moss, a Fitch High graduate, is the other.)
While sophomore DE Terrell Williams and sophomore DT Emmanuel Kromah are penciled in as the other two starters, Sims is more interested in the fourth quarter than the first.
“To be honest, I’m looking for finishers,” he said. “When there’s two minutes to go and they got the ball and need to score to win, I want to get to the point where there’s seven or eight guys I can trust to be out there.
“If there are 10, great. But I’ve got to have four.”
After two nondescript seasons, Sirl developed into one of those guys last season. He had as many sacks (three) and tackles for loss (6.5) as the other two defensive ends combined. Sirl was even named defensive player of the week after getting two sacks in a closer-than-it-should-have-been win over Albany.
“I got an opportunity to play last year and I made the most of it,” said Sirl (6-3, 260), a Westfield native. “I wasn’t a fully developed athlete with any of my skills early in my career here and I appreciate Coach Sims being the demanding coach he is, trying to get the best out of me.”
Williams (6-3, 255) played in nine games as a true freshman last season and, like Sirl, has impressed Sims with his competitiveness and his attitude.
“They both bring a great desire to win, to do whatever it takes,” Sims said. “They want to do whatever’s best for the team.”
That attitude isn’t limited to those two. YSU coach Eric Wolford praised Moss and sophomore DT Steve Zaborsky for helping the new recruits feel comfortable, calling it “a tribute to those guys.”
Williams said that chemistry is developed as much off the field as it is on it.
“We all hang out together,” said Williams, a McKeesport, Pa., native. “If one person goes shopping, we all go shopping. If one player is sitting at a table all by himself, we all come over and say, ‘Hey, sit with me.’”
Of course, all this chemistry won’t mean much if the Penguins don’t produce, no small concern for a team looking to replace tackles Aronde Stanton (7.5 tackles for loss) and Nick DeKraker (five sacks).
“I’m always looking to get more from every unit,” Sims said. “We stepped our production up in the second half of last season and I want to continue to do that, continue to raise the bar.”