By Joe Scalzo
Youngstown State football coach Eric Wolford held a 20-minute press conference on Monday. You could sum it up in six words: More talent, less experience, same expectations.
After narrowly missing the playoffs for the second straight season, the Penguins enter spring practice today with big questions up front (three starters are gone from each line), at running back (who will replace Jamaine Cook?) and, yes, at quarterback.
Senior Kurt Hess is on track to graduate with every significant passing record in school history, but his 2012 season looked a lot like YSU’s: stellar start, awful middle, decent finish.
“Last year, at the beginning of the year, without speaking for him, I think he felt the pressure,” said Wolford, who went 7-4 in 2012 but finished sixth in the Missouri Valley. “Really, it’s the first time he had any adversity. The biggest compliment you can see with Kurt is, he came back and played pretty strongly at the end of the year.
“We expect big things of Kurt. He’s a leader. He’ll play well. And we’ll go as he goes.”
Cook, the team’s workhorse the past three years, was the Penguins’ best player last fall but his departure will give opportunities to talented seniors Adaris Bellamy and Torrian Pace and sophomore Demond Hymes.
“I feel very comfortable with our running back position,” Wolford said.
Pace was the primary backup last year, but Bellamy may be the favorite to start in the fall. After rushing for 545 yards as a freshman to make the league’s all-newcomer team, the once-heralded recruit has been an afterthought the past two years as he battled knee injuries.
But the 5-foot-10 Bellamy is healthy again and has dropped to 207 pounds — 13 below his playing weight the past two years — to add speed and explosiveness.
“He’s lean, he’s cut up,” Wolford said of Bellamy. “I think we’re gonna see the guy we expected [when he was recruited]. Last year he was still hampered by the knee. He feels good. He looks good in winter conditioning. He’s explosive.”
Because there will be so many new starters at key positions — and because he has four new assistant coaches — Wolford has stretched his 15 spring practices over 31 days, compared to 23 last year.
It allows him to make practices longer — the Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday setup gives YSU at least one rest day between sessions — as well as do more film work.
Wolford believes he’s upgraded the team’s talent each year, but he also believes this spring is crucial to developing his inexperienced players.
And with the FCS playoffs expanding from 20 to 24 this fall, he’ll feel even more pressure to deliver YSU’s first playoff berth since 2006.
“We embrace the expectation of continuing to improve around here,” Wolford said. “The last two years we felt like we’ve been a game away from getting into the postseason. We’ve got to, at some point, say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to quit leaving this up to some committee or someone else’s decision.’
“As of today, we’re in control of our destiny.”