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Penguins, new coach ready for some football

YOUNGSTOWN — Coach Doug Phillips did his best to treat training camp for the upcoming Youngstown State University football season like most others he has been in as a coach.

But if Phillips has learned anything in the last year, his first as a college head coach, it’s that nothing is alike these days.

The Penguins are one week away from a rather unique season opener against the reigning FCS National Champion, North Dakota State University, on Feb. 21. Not only does the game occur during late February, but it’s on a Sunday.

Well, are you ready for some football?

“Just getting into the routine of practice and the intensity that it’s going to take to get ready for Game 1,” said Phillips of how he treated the first few weeks of camp. “There is no template for this. I can’t open a file and say, ‘OK, how do you go through preseason camp while you’re limited to 20 hours a week of working with them because they’re in school?’ There’s a fine line of, how do you get them ready to play an eight-game season — have them physically ready, mentally ready and prepared to play because it’s never been done before?”

It’s about to be.

The Penguins are in the midst of preparing to travel to Fargo, North Dakota, for a 3:30 p.m. matchup with the most dominant team in the FCS. Most of the teams in the former Division I-AA moved their seasons to the spring, and while that was an odd change, the extra time did give Phillips and his coaching staff the chance to install more of their offensive and defensive systems.

While the systems may be in order, the depth chart fluctuates daily. Phillips said quarterbacks Joe Craycraft, a junior, and redshirt freshman and Girard High School graduate Mark Waid are battling for the starting job. He added that he expects both to play in the opener.

“Both of them are going to play football in Game 1,” Phillips said. “It’s one thing to evaluate quarterbacks in practice, it’s another thing to evaluate them when it’s live and in a game situation. I’ve been around football long enough, and you’ve got to put them in those situations to see which ones can get you first downs and which one can score you points and get you to the goal line. … You want the pressure on them because they both offer great things for our offense.”

The two have varying styles and strengths.

Craycraft possesses more experience, starting four games last year and completing 66-of-127 passes for 893 yards, eight touchdowns and three interceptions. Waid saw some action as a true freshman, completing 7-of-15 passes for 72 yards, zero TDs and one interception.

Both are mobile, but Waid brings more scrambling ability — rushing for 157 yards and three TDs on 27 attempts last year.

“Competition is awesome,” Waid said. “It brings out the best in everybody. That’s what coach Phillips harped on: competition in every single thing we do at YSU. Everything we do, day in day out, is competition. That’s how we thrive. That’s what makes this team better, that’s how we make each position group better is by competing.

“I go out every day and work as hard as I can. I control what I can control and just put my best foot forward. It’s out of my control after that.”

There are several positions still being decided for the Penguins, who had a little more time to adjust to the coaching staff’s schemes when the season was postponed.

Phillips was hired one year ago this month, but spring practices were halted almost immediately because of the pandemic. The summer workouts were sparse and limited, and YSU was going to start the fall season with just a few weeks of on-field practices under its belt before the MVFC decided to go to a spring season.

That gave the Penguins more time to not only learn the offensive and defensive systems on paper but also go through them on the field in live situations.

“I definitely think the opportunity we had to be around our players with whatever limits were placed on us, it gave us a chance to build something,” Phillips said. “Not only build the relationships between player to player, but player to coach and even coach to coaches. It was huge for us. … Because of what we were allowed to do in the fall and what we were allowed to do in the ramp-up, our kids picked it up. (When) they stepped on the field, they understood the expectations, understood the schemes that we’re trying to get across, so that’s the one positive thing.”

Somewhat lost in the storm of COVID-19 is that this will be Phillips’ first game as a college head coach.

The matchup also marks the first time the Penguins will play a meaningful football game since a 21-3 victory over Illinois State on Nov. 23, 2019. The excitement has been building.

“I’m excited,” Phillips said. “And I think our kids would tell you, I’m excited to see our kids play. We put in all this time, all this effort, and game day, we’re going to work you hard, we’re going to coach you hard, and now I want to see how you play on that Sunday.”

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