By Joe Scalzo
After a strong performance in Youngstown State’s final summer scrimmage, junior Dante Nania wasn’t quite ready to say he should be the starter for the Aug. 30 opener against Illinois.
But he came close.
“I think I made a strong case for it,” he said. “I did everything I could this camp. This is the best camp I’ve had since I’ve been here.
“It’s in the coaches’ hands.”
Nania opened the scrimmage with the first-team offense for the second straight week and completed 4 of 4 passes for 46 yards. He also ran for two touchdowns, a 1-yarder around the right end and a 17-yarder through the middle of the Penguin defense.
YSU coach Eric Wolford said the coaches could decide on the starter as soon as today and all signs point to it being Nania.
“We have a good idea where we’re at,” Wolford said.
True freshman Hunter Wells worked as the primary backup in the scrimmage and completed 6 of 8 passes for 21 yards and an interception. After setting Stark County’s career passing yardage record at Fairless High School, the 6-foot-5 Wells appears to have moved past redshirt freshman Ricky Davis for the No. 2 spot on the depth charge, a surprising development considering Davis was expected to push Nania for the starting spot.
Wolford indicated the decision came down to more than just on-field performance.
“I had this discussion basically a week ago, [telling the quarterbacks], ‘A lot of you guys don’t realize, when you’re not in, I’m watching you,’” Wolford said. “‘Watching to see if you’re paying attention and getting a mental rep, or if you’re a guy over there goofing around. Those are the kind of things that weigh in on my decision.’
“If you’re a guy that’s on the sideline or back here behind the ball just having a conversation or talking about what you’re going to do on break or whatever, as opposed to being in the moment, that weighs heavily on our decision.”
That focus was one of the strengths of four-year starter Kurt Hess, who impressed the coaches with his work ethic, his leadership and his attention to detail. Nania, who was Hess’ primary backup last fall, said shadowing Hess for the past three years “was the best experience for me, on and off the field.”
“He’s a great leader and I learned a lot from him,” Nania said of Hess. “I’m not trying to be a Kurt Hess, but I’m trying to be the next best thing.”
Nania wasn’t perfect on Saturday — he overthrew tight end Nate Adams on a wide-open seam route, although the play didn’t count in the official statistics because it was situational — and he admitted he missed a few reads. But he’s built on his strong spring and looks like a much more polished and confident quarterback than he did at this time last year.
“[Offensive coordinator Shane] Montgomery said the game is going to slow down the more reps you get and it has,” Nania said. “I have a good grasp of what we’re doing and what the defense is doing.”
Wolford believes the team has plenty of offensive weapons and wants this year’s quarterback to be more of a game manager than a playmaker. Nania showed he can do both on the first drive, hitting wide receiver Jelani Berassa on a quick slant on fourth-and-3 at the 23. After Berassa powered his way down to the 1, Nania flashed his athleticism by outracing everyone to the end zone.
“The competition has brought out the best in me,” Nania said. “I love it. I love competing every day. Hunter and Ricky have been pushing me and they’re making me better.”