Cardinal Mooney looks to keep building in 2023
YOUNGSTOWN — During his first three years as the head football coach at Cardinal Mooney, Carl Pelini has been building.
He’s been getting his players in the weight room, developing younger guys coming up through the ranks, and getting them valuable playing experience on the field. Now, Pelini is seeing it all come to fruition.
While starting five freshmen at crucial positions last season, the Cardinals went 4-6 during the regular season. Then, they knocked off both Edison, who was 10-0 coming into the contest, and Norwayne in the first two rounds of the playoffs. But, their season ended at the hands of eventual Division V State Champion South Range.
“It was kinda holding on to the seat of your pants all season,” Pelini said about playing five freshmen with a laugh. “But they competed and had a lot of success. All those young kids had success so now I think there’s a certain level of confidence on their part that they’ve been there and done that before. Now they are just looking forward and just trying to hone their craft.”
Freshmen defensive tackle Dewey Heard, defensive end/tight end John Brenner, wide receiver Tyon Flowers, and then defensive backs Dennis Clark and Kingston Powell all played big roles and are ready to play even bigger ones this season.
“They came in last year raw and this year they’ve had another year in the weight room and have just been around it,” Pelini said. “They all had success in other sports in the offseason, so I think there’s a certain level of confidence now.”
Pelini and the Cardinals will need to replace a crucial senior class though. It was the first class that had come all the way through the program with Pelini at the helm. He said they brought a certain level of energy during their time in the program and that it is something the Cardinals are currently lacking early on.
“They were extremely hard workers, they were vocal and they loved the sport, they were very enthusiastic kids. It transcended the team,” Pelini said. “Now, here we are with our first official practice back, and I don’t feel the enthusiasm. So, someone needs to step into that role.”
The Cardinals are heading in the right direction though. Pelini said that they hired Braylen Heard as their new strength and conditioning coach and they invested heavily in “The Armory,” their weight training facility.
“Since Nov. 1, they were there four days a week at 6 a.m., and in the summer they’ve been in there 8 to 10 every day,” Pelini said. “So we’re bigger, we’re faster and we’re stronger than we’ve been.”
Among those important returners is senior quarterback Ashton O’Brien. The signal-caller has been instrumental in leading the Cardinals to where they are, and that will be no different this season.
O’Brien completed 68 percent of his passes for 2,431 yards and 20 touchdowns a season ago while rushing for another 317 yards. At times, he extended plays with his feet and athleticism and was able to will the Cardinals to a first down or come up in key situations. Pelini said that O’Brien has grown even more in the offseason and will be instrumental to their offensive success this season.
“I think he’s really invested this offseason into understanding our offense and just taking it to another level,” Pelini said. “I think his understanding of coverages and stuff is going to make him better. He’s always been really athletic, and he makes a lot of plays on the run, but there are times when he was on the run where he didn’t need to be. I think now he’s showing a different level of patience, a better drop and waiting on the route that he wants to wait on. I just think that maturity is starting to show.”
That maturity will also allow him to carry more on his shoulders. He’ll be entering his third season as the starting quarterback which means he has a better understanding of the offense and Pelini thinks that will allow him to control more at the line of scrimmage.
“Whether we’re checking plays at the line or even if we’re giving him two options and letting him decide at the line what we’re going to do,” Pelini said. “We’re going to start putting more and more on his shoulders as camp goes along.”
Adyn and Cam Paige both return in the backfield after garnering carries last season. They’ll be accompanied by Noah Thomas, who transferred in from Fitch last year and hurt his ankle in the first game of the season.
Deandre Riley, a big 200-pound running back can work into the mix as well and will provide the Cardinals with a power runner.
At wide receiver, Matt Kay and Carlos Gomez will both see time on the outside along with Flowers and Brenner. The latter had a solid freshman season and will look to play an even bigger role this season.
“He’s a tight end but he’s a good enough athlete where he can create matchup problems,” Pelini said. “Linebackers are going to have a tough time covering him and when he goes to the outside, he’s a big body against corners.”
Seniors such as Alec Delsignore, Ty Reali and Nolan Radinsky saw a lot of time on the outside last season. But with the way Cardinal Mooney offensive coordinator Rick Shepas runs the offense, they were always working new guys in and plenty of the underclassmen got valuable reps.
“We lost some good guys on offense, but we also have a lot of good kids who played a lot of snaps and really showed that they can catch the ball and showed courage over the middle and have great speed,” Pelini said. “So hopefully we aren’t going to miss too much.”
The Cardinals did something similar with their offensive line as starting last season they started platooning their big guys up front. The guys who started on defense were backups on offense and vice versa.
Up front on offense, Pelini said Chris Flora, George Gabriel, Mike Carfolo, Jonah Woods and PJ Scott will all play roles. They are still working to find one final lineman to fill up the front rotation.
Alongside Heard, Elijah Williams and Noah Chizmar will fill spots along the defensive line. Brenner will also return at defensive end. Rocco Gentile, who is the little brother of Vinny Gentile who played at YSU, is another guy who came on late last season.
“I played him quite a bit in the playoff games, and that was really his first varsity experience and he did quite well,” Pelini said. “He just kept getting better and better so I had confidence in him by the end of the year.”
Will Desmond, who saw time as a defensive end last year, will move back to “Mike” linebacker to control the defense after what Pelini described as an “outstanding summer.”
“He’s the real deal,” Pelini said.
“He’s tall, he’s long, he’s fast, smart. He’s going to be a good one.”
Playing time-wise, Desmond is one of the most experienced players in the linebacking corps as Pelini has a few holes to fill after losing Delsignore, Rob Hardy and Logan Boyd.
Pelini says there will be plenty of competition for spots though.
Thomas and Desmond will be two guys who figure into that along with Aidan Stamp and Geno Bova.
After big freshmen seasons, Clark and Powell are both back at cornerback while Flowers and Tony “Blue” Jackson will back them up after having a good summer. At safety, there are four guys working into the mix.
Cam Paige, Gomez, Brady Desmond, who is Will’s little brother, and Keith Rhodes all have a shot to see time. Brayden Mahone, a transfer from Chaney, may also work into the mix early on.
“It will be interesting to see how it plays out in doubles and who’s earned their starting spots,” Pelini said.
Just like they have had the past few years the Cardinals will have a threat at kicker as Nick Pregibon returns for his senior season. He hit a few big field goals last season and is starting to come on as a punter as well.
Pelini said Pregibon attended Youngstown State’s kicking camp this offseason and won MVP for punting.
“Just knowing that he can flip a field like that and he will,” Pelini said about the importance of having a threat at kicker.
“Then knowing that if we can get the ball to the 30 we can put points on the board and he hit some big kicks for us last year.”