YOUNGSTOWN - The current group of seniors on the Youngstown State football team is the smallest class the Penguins have had in five years.
That doesn't change the output coach Jon Heacock expects from those 15 players. The eight-year coach said the only way YSU will rebound from last year's 4-8 record is if this collection of players becomes the leaders the Penguins need them to be.
The plan starts with quarterback Brandon Summers. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound senior had a breakout season for the Penguins in 2008, throwing for 18 touchdowns compared to seven interceptions despite starting just eight of YSU's 12 games due to injury. He displayed his dual-threat capabilities throughout the season, rushing for 324 yards and three touchdowns.
It's not his athletic ability that Heacock is solely focused on, however. His work ethic and leadership skills are just as critical.
''For me, the key is going to be how he trains through the spring and summer,'' Heacock said. ''Because he has to be as healthy and as physically and mentally strong as he's ever been. And that's true for all our seniors. Our seniors need to be the best players on the team. They have to have the best season they've ever played.''
The Penguins are trying to restore the winning tradition that began in the 1990s and recently resurfaced during the 2005-2006 seasons when YSU won back to back conference titles and made a trip to the national semifinals. The last two years haven't gone as planned. The Penguins finished 7-4 in 2007 and 4-8 last season. That has left a bad taste in the mouths of Penguin fans and players.
Summers is well aware of the task in front of him and said he's ready for the challenge after a year of learning.
''I'm more comfortable with the play calling and the schemes, so I guess that year of playing really helped me out,'' Summers said. ''Now I'm looking forward to the season, having more confidence and I guarantee more wins.''
While Summers is the offensive leader, he'll have help on the defensive end from seniors Mychal Savage, an All-American in 2007, and Jarvis Richards, a returning starter at corner. Both are coming off of season-ending injuries but received medical redshirts for a fifth year of eligibility. Richards tore ligaments in his knee while Savage tore his rotator cuff. Neither will practice during spring workouts but both are making sure to attend as many practices as possible.
''Four-and-eight is not good enough,'' Richards said. ''We're trying to get this thing turned around, and this is a good way to get the team together as far as creating camaraderie. We're around each other so much. We see each other in the morning, at night, in the afternoon, so it helps build that camaraderie.''
The spring practices, which are now in the morning instead of the afternoon, go until the April 24 Spring Game. But the process of building team chemistry doesn't end there. Heacock reminded his players how important the rest of the offseason is
''They must have the best spring practice, the best summer conditioning, the best senior season,'' he said. ''If they don't, you just won't have the success that you want. If your seniors aren't at their maximum, then it's hard to ask the other guys to be. If they are, then you've got a shot. That's what those guys have to understand.''
A NEW LOOK: Heacock and the Penguins showed a new wrinkle in the offense when they lined up with two tailbacks in the backfield. YSU has used a fullback as a lead blocker in the past, but Heacock said the change will make the running backs more versatile.
''They're going to have to be blockers, receivers and runners,'' he said. ''Some people may say that's not a good idea, but I think it's a positive. You got three seniors standing in the backfield at any given time. They're seniors, it's time to do the things it takes to win. If it means you're going to have to block a little more on one play or a series, then that's what you've got to do.''
The offense had its ups and downs last year, especially the running game. Several players went down, including starter Kevin Smith and Jabari Scott, who split time with Smith in 2007. Scott played sparingly and Smith never returned from a preseason hamstring injury. Fellow senior Dana Brown will join the tandem along with redshirt sophomore Kamryn Keys, who had a breakout season in 2008, leading the Penguins with 804 yards and five touchdowns.
Heacock, who's always liked to use multiple running backs, said the fact that all four have different running styles is another reason he wanted to utilize the scheme.
''This gives you some different options,'' he said. ''Those guys can all catch, they all can run and they're all strong enough to block. This spring, for them, will be an emphasis on blocking, more so than they have. But if it means getting on the field, I think they'll do it.''