By Joe Scalzo
Youngstown State’s defense spent 14 spring practices building up a big, bad reputation under new coordinator Jamie Bryant.
In the spring game, it was just bad.
There’s a reason for that, Penguins coach Eric Wolford said.
“A lot of people like to judge our spring by the spring game, but what a lot of people don’t know is, we handcuffed our defense in that game,” said Wolford, whose first-team defense gave up 468 yards and 48 points in the spring game. “The fact that we play teams that are a stone’s throw away, we know they’re going to have people sitting in the stands watching our game, wanting to know what Jamie Bryant is going to run,” Wolford said. “Duquesne and St. Francis are going to have someone in the stands finding out what these new wrinkles are on [defense] and we obviously didn’t show those.
“If you were at our other 14 practices in the spring, you saw the defense shellacking our offense,” Wolford said. “That [the spring game] was just a little show, I guess you could say. Something for our fans.”
While YSU’s offenses have ranked near the top of the Missouri Valley in Wolford’s four years, his defenses have mostly struggled as he’s shuffled through defensive coordinators Rick Kravitz (2010-11), Joe Tresey (2012-13) and now Bryant, who turned YSU’s struggling special teams into one of the league’s best units in his first season last fall.
The Penguins also added safeties coach Michael Zordich, a Chaney High graduate who played 12 seasons in the NFL and coached the Philadelphia Eagles’ safeties in 2011-12.
Fifth-year senior Donald D’Alesio, who has played 36 games at safety over the last four years, thinks this year’s defense has a chance to be better.
“I just think guys are excited to play for Coach Bryant,” said D’Alesio, a Cardinal Mooney High graduate. “You saw what he did for our special teams. He has a great staff around him, too.
“We just have to be responsible for doing 1/11th of our job. As long as we’re out there executing, I think we’ll have a good shot of being a lot better defense than we’ve been in the past.”
Bryant simplified last year’s scheme so his players spend more time reacting and less time thinking. That should help a young defense that lost two of its best players to graduation (DL Kyle Sirl and CB Dale Peterman) and another (LB Teven Williams, who led the team in tackles each of the previous three seasons) to a violation of team rules before spring camp.
YSU’s defense took another hit just before training camp when senior DE Vince Coleman, an expected starter, had to leave the team to take care of family issues. But Wolford said he believes the unit will be OK, thanks to a mix of returning veterans, incoming recruits and a trio of FBS transfers.
“We brought in a bunch of new players and we had some transfers, so we feel confident we’ll put a good group out there,” he said. “When a man goes down, everyone else has to pick up the slack.”
The Penguins were picked to finish fourth in the Missouri Valley’s preseason poll, a solid starting point for a team that lost a four-year starter at quarterback. Offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery has consistently built teams that rank near the top of the league, so the team’s postseason hopes will likely hinge (again) on whether YSU can put together a playoff-worthy defense.
“It’s definitely been frustrating, especially how close we’ve been the last three years when it’s come down to one game,” D’Alesio said. “But we expect to make the playoffs. We know what kind of team we have and we’re excited about this year.”