SIZZLE TO FIZZLE


By Brian Dzenis | bdzenis@vindy.com

Despite having a mostly intact roster from last year’s Football Championship Subdivision national championship run, Youngstown State’s 2017 football season was a dud. A four-game losing streak consisting of three hard-fought losses and a 35-0 beatdown by Illinois State at home killed the Penguins’ season. A 6-5 record marks two winning seasons in three years for head coach Bo Pelini, but this year’s team definitely left fans wanting.

OFFENSE (Grade: C-)

Offensive linemen don’t touch the ball, but if they don’t get going, a lot can go wrong. The Penguins’ offensive line struggled to keep its quarterbacks upright and healthy, conceding 36 sacks. YSU did produce the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s leading rusher, but the ground game couldn’t carry YSU. Nathan Mays and Ricky Davis were capable backups to the injured Hunter Wells, but it’s a lot to ask for two straight years of going to the national championship with a QB who wasn’t the coaching staff’s first choice at the beginning of the season. There were times when this team had chances to win close games — the final two minutes of the South Dakota game and the overtime drive against North Dakota State come to mind — and the offense faltered. As a whole, the offense was good enough to get Pelini’s second winning season in three years, but not much else.

QUARTERBACKS

Who’s gone: Hunter Wells, Ricky Davis.

Who’s back: Nathan Mays, Joe Craycraft, Conor Collins, Sean Bowen.

Grade: C-

It was another year of seeing multiple guys going under center with Wells separating his shoulder in the second week of the season. Mays wasn’t Wells, but that’s not necessarily bad. The sophomore used his legs to make up for the pure pocket passer skill-set of Wells. Mays did a great job taking care of the ball with one interception in the eight games he played in. He could do a better job taking care of himself. Some of the 25 sacks he took this year came with him waiting a bit too long to throw. And when running, he was reluctant to slide. The QB spot isn’t as experienced going into next year as it has been in the previous two. Craycraft and Collins didn’t see the field this year, while Bowen is a walk-on. It wouldn’t be a shock to see team bring in a transfer to help in that respect.

RUNNING BACKS

Who’s gone: Nobody.

Who’s back: Braxton Champman, Christian Turner, London Pearson, Devon McNutt, Joe Alessi, Tevin McCaster, Jaylen Hewlett, Kameron Davis.

Grade: A-

As deep as YSU’s class of running backs is, McCaster and Turner kept their roles for the whole season. McCaster finished the year as the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s leader in carries (221), rushing yards (1,066) and rushing touchdowns (13), testament to his durability and consistency. He had no turnovers. Turner had an exciting debut against Pitt with 124 receiving yards and two touchdowns, but had only one more score for the rest of the season. The true freshman is tied for third on the team in receiving yards and averaged 5.3 yards a carry, showing signs that he’s growing into a special piece for the Penguins offense. This unit suffered from inconsistency on the offensive line.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

Who’s gone: WR: Damoun Patterson, Alvin Bailey, Lasander Washington, Steffan Derrick; TE: Kevin Rader, Anthony Parente, Shane Kuhn,

Who’s back: WR: Isiah Scott, Darious Shackleford, Robert Byrd, Jeremiah Braswell, Donovan McWilson, Jake Coates, Jake Cummings, Zach Torbert, Thomas Joffray, Ryan Emans, Samuel St. Surin, Colby Cooper, Tre’von Williams, Noah Bayus, Dalton Miller; TE: Chris Durkin, Miles Joiner, Josh Burgett.

Grade: D+

The two groups are combined here because the production was sparse. It took six games for a Penguin wide receiver to catch a touchdown pass and seven for to reach 100 yards in a game. Some of that could be chalked up to playing with different quarterbacks behind a struggling line throughout the season, but the bottom line is the team’s returning leading receiver is running back Turner. The top returning wideout is St. Surin, who caught four passes in 2017. Rader remained a dependable guy on third downs and was the only tight end with more than one catch.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Who’s gone: Cole Newsome, Cameron Fraser, Justin Spencer.

Who’s back: Cole McKenry, Gavin Wiggins, Jamie Herr, Norman Fox, Logan Creek, Zachary Hauschild, Connor Sharp, Vitas Hrynkiewicz, James Wilson, Jacob Zinni, Dan Becker, Jeff Rotheram.

Grade: D-

This unit returned three of its five starters from last year, including All-American left tackle Spencer. Despite the experience coming in, only 10 other teams in all of FCS football gave up more sacks than YSU’s 36. It wasn’t as if the line lacked talent or suffered injuries. Spencer, Hrynkiewicz, Fraser and Wiggins started every game for the Penguins, but the right guard spot was fluid. In fall camp, Sharp, a West Branch graduate and Air Force transfer, held a lot of the first team reps, yet it was fellow Warriors’ alum Zinni who got the nod in the season opener. Zinni started the first five games before losing his role to Newsome, who got the next two starts. Sharp started the final four games. They conceded 27 sacks during that fatal four-game losing streak and it’s difficult to find an excuse for this group.

DEFENSE (Grade: B+)

The Penguins lost two critical pieces in NFL draftees Derek Rivers and Avery Moss, but the defense stayed pretty stout. It was second-best in the MVFC in scoring defense, a figure produced by having the league’s best passing defense. The run defense was not as great, ranking eighth out of 10 teams. YSU is losing defensive coordinator Carl Pelini as he takes the same title at Bowling Green, but he isn’t leaving behind a bare cupboard as key pieces like Justus Reed, Armand Dellovade and Kyle Hegedus are still around.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Who’s gone: Donald Mesier, Fazson Chapman.

Who’s back: Justus Reed, Ma’lik Richmond, Jamal Smith, Johnson Louigene, Shereif Bynum, Savon Smith, Justin Metzel, Giacamo Cappabianca, Stephen Pappadakes, Jason Sims, Lamont Ragland, Wesley Thompson, Antoine Cook, Tommy McCraw, James Jackson, Arrington Gipson.

Grade: B-

It’s harsh to expect this group to replicate what Rivers and Moss did last year, but what does it say when one of the players tied for the team lead in sacks didn’t play all year? It says Reed, a transfer from Florida, is a good defensive end. He had five sacks — which has him tied with Fazson Chapman — and 5.5 tackles for a loss in seven games. A shoulder injury cut his season short. The numbers weren’t flashy, but the D-line should get credit for providing enough pressure on the quarterback to have the best passing defense in the MVFC.

LINEBACKERS

Who’s gone: Lee Wright.

Who’s back: Cash Mitchell, Malachi Newell, Terray Bryant, Ray Anderson, Brandon Williams, Tyler Sims, Christiaan Randall-Posey, Curtis Parks, Armand Dellovade, David McDowell, Johnathan Pollock, Taymer Graham.

Grade: C+

Like the defensive line, the linebackers saw their production dip without Rivers and Moss. Tackles for a loss and sacks for this unit went down in 2017. Dellovade accounts for all three of his unit’s sack total and while his individual numbers went down, that can be attributed a full season of Wright alongside him.

SECONDARY

Who’s gone: Jalyn Powell, Trent Hosick, Deshon Taylor, Solomon Warfield, Billy Nicoe Hurst.

Who’s back: Bryce Gibson, D.J. Thomas, Kyle Hegedus, Avery Larkin, Crispin Lee, Darius Hall, Will Latham, D.J. Smalls, Mike Nash, Melvin Jackson, Jalen Austin, Sam McGuigan, Daniel Kwarteng, Mike Assion, Nick Freiwald, Brandon Mosley, Kieran Winn.

Grade: A-

YSU saw the least amount of passing attempts among its conference peers and what did get in the air, did not go very far. Opponents averaged just 143.7 yards a game against a crew of defensive backs that included a few first-time starters. Powell, a senior from Senior Warren Harding, and sophomore Hegedus were two of the team’s top three tacklers.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Who’s gone: Nobody.

Who’s back: Steven Wethli, Bryce Randall, Zak Kennedy, Colin Burdette, Mark Schuler.

Grade: C+

Punter Schuler’s numbers were about the same as they were in his freshman season, averaging a quality 41.6 yards a kick and downing 14 kicks in the red zone. Kennedy was 8-13 on field goal attempts and failed make one longer than 36 yards, making him the MVFC’s second-worst kicker in terms of accuracy and range. The return units for both punts and kickoffs never found the end zone or a return longer than 32 yards, but neither did the Penguins opponents.

COACHING (Grade: B-)

YSU made national headlines for adding Ma’lik Richmond — who was found delinquent of sexual assault in a high-profile case in Steubenville — to the roster. As the university settled a lawsuit with the controversial defensive end during the season, head coach Bo Pelini emerged as one of the more sympathetic figures in the controversy.

Whether one agrees with the decision to have Richmond on the team or not, Pelini deserves credit for sticking to his choice in the face of pressure from the public — while his employer faltered. According to court documents, Pelini wasn’t part of the decision to send the lawsuit-sparking campus-wide email from the university declaring Richmond would be only a practice player, making it appear that the university had undermined his control over who plays on his team.

While Pelini left Nebraska with a reputation for butting heads with administrators, he stayed quiet. He always stood by Richmond, but steered clear of slamming athletic director Ron Strollo, president Jim Tressel or the people who comprise the 10,000-plus signatures on a petition to have him off the team — even though he has a legitimate grievance. If YSU’s top brass was a category in this piece, it would get an F.

On the field, that 35-0 defeat against Illinois State with the team’s playoff hopes on the line always will smell bad to fans and leave them wondering how the team could be so flat at such a pivotal moment.

Otherwise, Pelini and his staff navigated another year of multiple quarterbacks and managed to field a team each week that was in every game it played.

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