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Go hard or go home

YSU ’backer aims to take next step

Submitted photo / Youngstown Athletics Youngstown State linebacker Ray Anderson, a Cardinal Mooney High School graduate, was one of the leaders of YSU’s defense last year. He hopes he and the Penguins can take another step forward in 2020.

YOUNGSTOWN — Youngstown State linebacker Ray Anderson remembers his first meeting with new football coach Doug Phillips quite well.

Anderson was already a bit skeptical of Phillips. The junior was more than just recruited by former YSU coach Bo Pelini. He was friends with him.

Anderson, a Cardinal Mooney graduate, went to school and was friends with Patrick Pelini, Bo’s son. That led to a strong bond between the coach and player, so when Bo left to become defensive coordinator at LSU in January, it was a big blow to Anderson.

When Phillips got the job, he held individual meetings with players, and he eventually got to an admittedly miffed Anderson. Phillips was a bit critical of the middle linebacker, one of the leaders of the Penguins’ defense last year, saying Anderson appeared to take some plays off, especially when things weren’t going YSU’s way.

“That was a task or kind of a goal he set out for me, that when things weren’t going right, he could tell that my morale wasn’t where it needed to be,” Anderson said.

“And if other guys around me weren’t doing the right thing or their moral was down, I wasn’t picking them up. That was one thing that he thought could help me out a lot, and I appreciated him being able to come to me and be honest.

“Some guys come in and want to make friends with everybody. You want to be a likable coach, but I respected him a lot more that he was able to tell me, ‘Hey, I like the way you play. You’re good.’ But that’s a real point that’s going to make me a better teammate and a better player.”

The encounter was a big step for a coach and a player who have the same vision for the Penguins.

Anderson stepped up in a big way as a sophomore in 2019. Aside from his 58 tackles (third best on the team), five tackles for loss and two sacks, he was the director of the defense at middle linebacker. A large portion of a complex defensive scheme fell on his shoulders, and the first-year starter also was responsible for making sure the rest of the front seven knew what they were doing.

“There’s a lot that comes with being a middle backer, a lot more than some people realize — a lot more than I realized,” Anderson said. “The way that I prepared for the game and went into a game, I learned as the weeks went on that I always had to do more, whether it was me with the coaches to watch extra film, or me with Bo alone, just to really pound the game plan into my head and get me to realize what I was doing.

“As time went on, obviously I learned it, and during the ups and downs of the season, you just learn how to pick guys up, how to continue to fight even though things weren’t going great. So, I feel like that is going to help me this year, knowing that now that I’ve got those tools and I have the right way to prepare, now I can just go back to playing ball.”

Philips is learning as well.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, his first interaction with Anderson was one of their only interactions. Sure, he has watched film of him and has virtual meetings with Anderson, as well as the other players, but Phillips is anxious to see them on the field and get to know them better as people.

One thing he knows about Anderson is that he has a desire to improve.

“He’s always asking how he can reach his full potential as a football player,” Phillips said. “He saw some success last year, and I don’t think he was satisfied. … From that viewpoint, I like someone who’s always looking to get better, prove himself. I think he got a taste of it, and he wants more.”

Anderson agrees, and he’s ready for what’s next.

Improving physically and mentally are important, but the key for him is to make the players around him better. That means no plays off for the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Anderson. He’s starting to understand a philosophy Phillips is trying to instill about everyone “going hard” on every play.

Phillips clarified that taking a play off when adversity hit wasn’t a problem for Anderson. It was a problem for YSU. He explained three types of performers: lazy players, go-hard players and play-hard players. Lazy players probably aren’t on the roster, he said, but go-hard players make up about 80 to 85 percent of it. The play-hard players are what Phillips is looking for.

“A go hard-player picks and chooses when he wants to go hard. That’s not innate,” he said. “A play-hard (player) is innate. He goes for 4 to 6 seconds from point A to point B as hard as he can do it every single play. That’s an innate, intrinsic, motivated player. … So, I really want our players assessing are you a go-hard player, or are you one of those play-hard guys? It’s those play-hard guys we’re going to celebrate.

“And if Ray begins to turn into a play-hard player, he’ll be off the charts.”

Anderson is ready for the challenge.

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