By Joe Scalzo
Here is the complete list of current Youngstown State players who were recruited by Jon Heacock.
1. Jelani Berassa.
“I’m the last of a dying breed,” he said, grinning.
Five years, two ACL tears and one successful petition to the NCAA later, the Miami native enters his final season as the most experienced Penguin on the roster.
But not the oldest. That honor belongs to 23-year-old senior linebacker Travis Williams, who started his career with the Miami Hurricanes. Berassa doesn’t turn 23 until April 29.
In college football terms, they’re not seniors. They’re senior citizens.
When asked if he has a rocking chair, Williams laughed and said, “I got it right in my locker.”
Between them, the two have played in 64 games with 38 starts, which is valuable experience for a team that lost team leaders like quarterback Kurt Hess, center Chris Elkins and linebacker Dom Rich.
Berassa, who was a team captain last fall, missed the 2010 and 2012 seasons after tearing his ACL and struggled to regain his form last fall, catching just six passes for 74 yards and a TD.
“Last fall was pretty long,” said Berassa, who has already earned his criminal justice degree. “It was an exciting season, and I was happy we were winning because I’m a team player first, but my role was cut down a little bit because I was still getting healthy.
“I’m trying to get back to where I was [in the summer of 2012] and I’m still going through the process, but I’m feeling better.”
Berassa (6-4, 210) had his best season in 2011, catching 37 passes for 552 yards with a team-best eight touchdowns.
He looked dominant in training camp in 2012 before tearing his ACL and is just now starting to resemble that player, catching several deep passes during Saturday’s opening spring practice.
“Last year, it took him so long to get back to where he once was, it was almost really a partial year,” YSU coach Eric Wolford said. “I’m encouraged by him. He’s got a lot of clout with the football team and a lot of leadership ability.
“He’s moving so much better [now]. With these knee injuries, the doctors say nine months, but I’ve never seen guys come back after nine months and look like they are. The thought process needs to be that it takes nine months to return, but you need to expect it to be a year process as far as getting back physically where they were.”
Williams (6-3, 225), meanwhile, started all 11 games at Sam linebacker as a freshman but hasn’t developed like the coaches wanted. He lost his starting position over the last three games last season to Ali Cheaib and too often disappears in games, which is particularly maddening since he’s as physically gifted as anyone on the roster.
“The thing is, we’re looking for consistency,” Wolford said. “Anytime you have a linebacker who’s been in the system two or three years, you need some consistent play. If we’re not getting it, we’re going to go in a different direction. Everyone has to compete and fight for a job, and if you’re not consistent, we’re going to make a change.
“He knows that.”
Three years ago, Williams joined fellow freshmen Teven Williams and Davion Rogers in the starting lineup to form a potentially dominating linebacker group.
It hasn’t worked out — Rogers left the team after his first season and Teven was kicked off this offseason — but Travis Williams said he’s been spending more time in the film room this offseason, hoping to maximize his considerable potential under new defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant.
“I’m in the film room a lot, actually,” he said. “I’m getting a lot of play formations down pat and making sure I know what I’ve got to do so I can play hard and fast.”
Is this the year Wiliams puts it together? Will Berassa’s knees hold up? Can they help YSU take that next step?
Those answers won’t come in March.
November is a different story.
“Hopefully,” Berassa said, “we can finish a little better this year.”