Published August 13, 2011
Quick snapshot from one of YSU's first training camp practices.
The second- and third-teamers were practicing plays and the first-teamers were getting some water. Just before going back on the field, senior LB John Sasson grabbed his helmet, looked over at starting QB Kurt Hess and said, "You better bring it, Kurt!"
Hess looked around for a second, then spotted Sasson and smiled.
"Oh, I will."
It was the kind of light moment that I don't remember seeing much last summer. For one thing, Hess was a freshman and Sasson was just a guy trying to establish himself in the starting lineup for the first time, so neither really were established enough to talk trash.
But I also don't remember anyone on the defense being confident enough to say something like that. Most of the time, the coaches were just happy when the defense sort of held its own in practice.
Not anymore. The biggest thing I've noticed after the Penguins' first week of practice is just how much better they are defensively. After watching today's scrimmage -- the first of the summer -- I looked up the stats and saw that Hess completed 14 of 23 passes for 199 yards and two TDs and it just felt ... incorrect.
Hess had two nice plays -- a 30-yard TD pass in the back of the end zone to Pat White, who was his normal enigmatic self, and a 54-yard pass to Jelani Berassa that came on a first down at his own 1 -- but other than that, he looked pretty average. And that's a good thing. He looked like Tom Brady at times last year.
Before training camp started, I voted YSU fifth in the Missouri Valley Football Conference preseason poll.
(They ended up eighth. More on that poll in a bit.)
After watching the first week of practice and the first scrimmage, I think fifth is low. This looks like a third- or fourth-place team.
Here are five thoughts after the first week:
1. The defense is a lot faster and more athletic.
YSU finished second-to-last in both total defense and defensive scoring in the conference last year and one of the big problems was the lack of athleticism. Nobody on the team had more than two sacks -- an incredible stat for a team with a blitz-heavy scheme -- and the Penguins gave up A LOT of big plays, particularly late in the games when the lack of depth became really obvious.
One of the coaches told me he thought there was only one player, cornerback Brandian Ross, who would have started on UNI's defense last year. (In fairness, safety Andre Elliott, who suffered a season-ending injury in Week 3, was also good enough. And DT Torrance Nicholson definitely would have been in the rotation.) Still, that was an amazing admission considering how close YSU came to beating UNI last year.
2. The most impressive addition so far has been redshirt freshman Devont'a Davis, who transferred from Miami (Fla.) and has looked like a player who has no business being at the FCS level.
After today's scrimmage, I asked defensive coordinator Rick Kravitz and junior defensive end Nick DeKraker (who transferred in the spring and played very well in the scrimmage) to list some impressive newcomers. Both named Davis. ("He's a good little kid," said the 6-foot-3 DeKraker, who is only two inches taller than Davis.) Kravitz also praised the other Hurricane transfer, freshman LB Travis Williams, and two other freshmen linebackers, Teven Williams and Michigan transfer Davion Rogers. (He even knew all their names, which is a good sign since Kravitz doesn't remember anyone's name.)
Of the returnees, Kravitz praised DeKraker and senior DT Andrew Johnson.
3. Linebacker and running back are the two deepest positions on the team.
Rogers is 6-6, 215 and looks more like Randy Moss than Ray Lewis but he has very good closing speed and looks comfortable in coverage, which is something YSU's linebackers struggled with last year.
Sasson gives YSU a solid veteran inside and has solidified himself as a starter. I'm not sure who will end up starting at the other two spots.
As for running back, Jamaine Cook is the obvious starter and Adaris Bellamy appears to be entrenched at the No. 2 spot, but I think the coaches want to make sure they get Jordan Thompson on the field somehow and true freshman Demond Hymes has drawn raves so far in camp.
"That little running back, No. 5, [Hymes] looks really good," DeKraker said.
4. The coaches feel a lot better about their receiver situation than they did in the spring.
True freshmen Christian Bryan got a lot of work in the slot with the first team and true freshmen Andre Stubbs (who I expect to emerge as one of the primary kick/punt returners) and Kintrell Disher have also got work with the starters. But the most promising sign was sophomore Jelani Berassa's performance in the scrimmage. He caught seven passes for 113 yards and a TD.
He was still recovering from an ACL injury in the spring and the coaches were hoping he could emerge as a possible No. 1 receiver this summer.
The other receivers have had their moments -- none moreso than Pat White, who can look like a NFL receiver on one play and a junior varsity receiver the next. He's a little like Braylon Edwards -- a big, talented receiver who could be a huge difference-maker but drops way too many passes.
After the scrimmage, Wolford said, "We have a couple guys who had some drops. If you drop the ball, you're not going to play. It's pretty simple around here."
5. Kicker David Brown only had one PAT attempt on Saturday but it didn't look good.
It was a flat line drive and his kickoffs went near the end zone but were also a little flat. Brown struggled in the spring but had a nice spring game. It'll be interesting to see how he performs over the next few weeks.
OK, a few words about the Missouri Valley Football Conference preseason poll.
First, I'd like to point out that Northern Iowa got one first place vote in last year's preseason poll. And I'd like to point out that I was the one that voted for them. I'd like to point out that they finished first.
(I'm not quite as enthuasiastic about admitting that I voted Western Illinois last and North Dakota State seventh. WIU finished second in the league and NDSU went farther in the playoffs than any team in the conference. I also voted YSU third. But hey, how about that UNI vote, huh?)
Anyway, this was my ballot this year: 1. UNI, 2. North Dakota State, 3. Southern Illinois, 4. South Dakota State, 5. YSU, 6. Illinois State, 7. Indiana State, 8. Western Illinois, 9. Missouri State.
The actual preseason poll came out this way: 1. UNI, 2. North Dakota State, 3. Southern Illinois, 4. South Dakota State, 5. Illinois State, 6. Indiana State, 7. Western Illinois, 8. YSU, 9. Missouri State.
So, other than voting YSU fifth, I had pretty much the same poll as the consensus. (College football guru Phil Steele has YSU 37th in the nation in his preseason poll.)
I also voted on the preseason all-conference team, which might as well be called "A combination of the returnees from last year's all-conferenc elist combined with names from the all-newcomer team" since that was 95 percent of my ballot.
In case anyone is wondering, I voted five Penguins on my preseason all-conference ballot: RB Jamaine Cook, OL Andrew Radakovich, DL Andrew Johnson, LB John Sasson and P Nick Liste.
Cook, Radakovich and Liste ended up making the list.
Would have been nice to at least watch a few practices before I voted but, well, that wasn't an option.
In case anyone's wondering, I didn't actually pose for a photo inside the Pete the Penguin costume. The above photo was Photoshopped by one of our Web guys, Dan Wegendt.
I agree it makes me look ridiculous but I'll admit it's funny. And funny always wins.