By Joe Scalzo
Whenever anyone asked Kurt Hess about his NFL prospects last fall, the Youngstown State quarterback gave the same answer: I’m focused on this season, not the next one.
“During the season I didn’t want to think about it,” Hess said. “I felt the best way to help my stock was to win and win.”
After a once-promising season ended painfully — mentally and physically — Hess spent December resting his injured ankle and his psyche, which both needed time to heal after November losses to UNI, North Dakota State and South Dakota State knocked YSU out of the playoff race.
The time off made one thing clear: He’s not done with football.
“After the season, it’s so hard to think about,” Hess said. “Especially the way this season ended. It kind of stunk. But when I got my mind off it, I think it made it even more clear that I want to keep playing. I’m motivated again and I want to go at it again.”
Hess is one of several Penguins hoping to get a shot from an NFL team this spring. Two of them, offensive linemen Kyle Bryant and Chris Elkins, will play in next week’s East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Fla.Another, punter Nick Liste, has been working with former NFL kicker Jeff Wilkins in hopes of opening some eyes at YSU’s Pro Day, which is tentatively scheduled for early March.
Even Carson Sharbaugh, a block-first tight end who spent much of the year playing fullback, plans to give it a shot.
“Carson called me one day during the break and said, ‘I know I don’t have much of a shot, but I want to tell my kids I tried. I want somebody to tell me no,’” Hess said. “That’s the kind of guy he is.”
Bryant (6-7, 320), a transfer from Bowling Green who started 18 of his last 20 games at left tackle for YSU, accepted his East-West invitation in early December. Elkins received his invitation in late December. Unlike Bryant, he had no idea it was coming.
“It’s pretty awesome to play in an all-star game,” said Elkins, a second team All-America selection at center and a two-time first team all-conference pick. “I’ll definitely be a lot more comfortable with Kyle there. It’ll be nice to have someone to talk to, especially since he’s an offensive lineman. He’ll help me calm myself down.”
Elkins (6-4, 300), who has played center and guard at YSU, took the same approach as Hess when it came to his NFL prospects, preferring to focus on the season, not the offseason.
“I wasn’t really sure how realistic it [the NFL] was coming out of high school because I wasn’t really recruited that much,” said Elkins, who hails from Beaver Falls, Pa. “I wasn’t sure I was good enough or big enough but after the season, once everything started happening and I started talking to agents, it kind of hit me.
“I’m still trying not to think about it too much. I’m just working out and letting things play out.”
Neither Hess, who graduated with most of YSU’s career passing records, nor Liste expect to play in any all-star games, so their focus is on Pro Day.
Five Penguins worked out at last year’s Pro Day, with three (OL Lamar Mady, RB Jamaine Cook and TE Will Shaw) signing NFL contracts as undrafted free agents. Mady finished last season on the Raiders’ active roster while Cook was on the Browns’ practice squad and recently signed a reserve/futures contract with Cleveland.
“The only thing I’m doing right now is training and working out, although it’s a little hard to kick outside right now because of the weather,” said Liste, a Niles native who earned first team all-conference honors this fall. “There’s only 32 spots for kickers and punters in the NFL so it’s hard to get a spot, but all I can do is worry about what I can control and work to the best of my ability.”
Wilkins, a former YSU kicker who played with the Eagles, 49ers and Rams from 1994-2007, gave Liste some advice and some workouts, “so basically right now it’s all on me,” Liste said.
All four — Hess, Liste, Elkins and Bryant — plan to stay enrolled during the spring semester and will work with YSU trainer Mike Cochran to get ready for the scouts.
“It’s kind of a team thing,” Liste said. “We’ve all been together four or five years now and it’s great to see us have an opportunity to play at the next level. We’re all in it together, which is kind of cool. That definitely helps a lot.”