Published April 5, 2014
I've attended six of YSU's seven spring practices so far. Here's what sticks out:
1. It was only one scrimmage, but I was encouraged by what I saw of YSU's quarterbacks on Saturday, particularly junior Dante Nania and redshirt freshman Ricky Davis.
Kurt Hess usually missed the first two hours of weekday practices last spring, leaving Nania, Tanner Garry and Nick Wargo to split the practice reps. I was pretty critical of what I saw last year, but all three quarterbacks have looked better this spring — and they should.
Nania actually bulked up last spring to play safety (he's a good athlete, but that experiment mercifully ended after a week or so) and he looks like a guy who's spent the last year focusing on quarterback.
Last year, he didn't do a good job reading defenses (simple things like identifying the safety in two-deep coverage) and too often looked to run when his primary read was covered. But he's looked confident this spring, taking what the defense is giving him. He also looks leaner, which is good. (YSU coach Eric Wolford said it's part because Nania wasn't able to lift after separating his shoulder against North Dakota State and part because he wasn't worried about trying to play safety anymore.)
And since quarterbacks are wearing the black no-contact jerseys, Nania hasn't even been able to show off his biggest strength, which is his legs. I'm not sure he'll develop into an all-conference quarterback or anything, but he looks much more capable of being a starter than he did before.
2. Davis, meanwhile, reminds me of a more mobile Patrick Angle, who was Hess' backup in 2012.
I watched Saturday's scrimmage from the loge level and, like Angle, he showed a lot of zip on his throws with a quick release. Hess had an average arm and relied on good fundamentals to drive the ball, and you can tell that Nania and Davis will be able to make some more throws on the run. Davis has a high ceiling. He's got some talent.
3. Garry, a former walk-on from Bowling Green who transferred to YSU last spring, briefly shifted to safety at the end of last spring and didn't show me much until he was forced into the lineup in the second half of the North Dakota State game. He threw a beautiful lob touchdown to Nate Adams in that game and didn't seem overwhelmed by the moment. (It didn't matter of course. YSU's chances of pulling the upset ended when Hess hurt his ankle the week before.)
The problem with Garry is he's got an odd, shot put-like release. He also doesn't have the talent or the upside of Davis, but he can probably be a solid backup.
4. I don't know what to make of Wargo. He had a good spring game last year but he's pretty buried on the depth chart. Earlier this spring, offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery said Wargo had the best grasp of the offense of anyone, which tells me there's not a lot he can do to move up in the depth chart. He's just not as physically gifted as the other guys, particularly in his arm strength. He throws a pretty nice ball, though.
5. YSU blitzed a little bit more during the scrimmage -- new defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant brought LB Travis Williams off the edge a few times, which seems like a great idea considering his athleticism -- and I would expect to see a more creative approach this fall.
I know YSU lost its best player on the defensive line (Kyle Sirl), at linebacker (Teven Williams) and defensive back (Dale Peterman) but let's face it: there's nowhere for this defense to go but up.
I think the defensive line will be better just by virtue of having played so many young and inexperienced players last year. Those guys look stronger and better this spring. And YSU coach Eric Wolford complimented MLB Jaylin Kelly, who will replace Teven Williams inside.
"Jaylin Kelly's been a pleasant surprise," Wolford said. "He's starting to be the guy we expected him to be."
As for the secondary, we'll see. Last year's starter, Julius Childs, got moved to nickel and it was hard figuring out who was playing at times on Saturday because a lot of them wear different jersey numbers in practice.
6. I think some guys started to tune out last year's defensive coordinator, Joe Tresey, who screamed during every minute of practice. That coaching style doesn't seem to work anymore. And it doesn't help that he ran a bland 4-3 defense that rarely looked to bring pressure or attack opponents.
One thing you can say about Wolford: When a coach underachieves, he's not afraid to make a change.
I asked Travis Williams if he thought YSU should have brought more pressure last season and he gave a VERY diplomatic answer.
"We got to go with the coaches' flow," he said. "We can't question what the coaches do. Whatever they do is in our best interest."
7. And how about this answer from Wolford, when asked if the defense should be ahead of the offense at this time of year:
"I think we have a lot of experience over there on that side of the ball," he said. "I've always felt we had talent on defense. We've just got to get it out of them. I think you're seeing those guys do some good things, seeing some emotion. I think that's a compliment to our coaching staff. We got a new guy in the secondary [safeties coach Mike Zordich] and a new coordinator and those guys are responding to them."
Translation: They weren't responding enough last year.
8. Wolford tends to recruit athletes over football players, believing he can coach them and develop them into football players. That doesn't always work -- and it hasn't worked with his defenses, in part because he's misfired on his two coordinators -- but there's something to the theory.
The key is finding guys who look like Tarzan and play like Tarzan. He's had too many guys that play like Jane.
9. One other interesting quote from Wolford:
"We're into the second half of spring ball now and ... we're gonna do some different things the next few weeks that we have never done before on both sides of the ball."
When asked what those things are, Wolford said, "I can't really say to the media. I don't want to give those boys at Illinois any kind of tip as to what we're doing. We've got to always have wrinkles. That's part of the game."
My guess is, one of those things will be running more with the quarterback. The top two guys on the depth chart and inexperienced and athletic. Sounds like a recipe for running.
10. I've written this a few times, but senior wideout Jelani Berassa has looked much better this spring. He's a very underrated piece of the puzzle. YSU had its best offense of the Wolford era in 2011 and a big reason was Berassa, who was a big target and a nice deep threat. If he can stay healthy -- no guarantee with his history of knee problems -- he'll be a big weapon. You can already tell the young quarterbacks look for him first.