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Penguins use time to bond

YOUNGSTOWN — Doug Phillips’ first year as head coach of the Youngstown State football team is already different than any other.

Penguin fans are hoping the rest of his career resembles that of one of his mentors.

The former Salem and Springfield high school head coach and assistant under legendary YSU coach — and now school president — Jim Tressel embarks on his inaugural year as a head coach under unprecedented circumstances. However, the pandemic and uncertainty of a season hasn’t changed the focus Phillips has for the team, which begins preseason camp Aug. 7.

“Team building,” said Phillips when asked what the team has worked on the most since they were allowed to start walkthrough practices on July 24. “The one thing we stress is that talent’s not enough. When I walk on the field, I think we have enough talent on this football team to be very successful, but talent’s not enough. It’s us coming together as a team. It’s us developing a brotherhood, whether it’s by unit, whether it’s the d-line to linebackers and that defensive unit or crossing paths over to the offense.

“Right now, when we have team meetings, we go over a player’s manual, and we’re talking about a team — what it takes to become a great team.”

Phillips isn’t worried as much about the playbook as he is the team’s camaraderie.

Players have been kept away from one another for months, so Phillips is making sure they get reacquainted with one another as best he can. While they can’t all practice together because of NCAA guidelines stemming from the pandemic, Phillips added an interesting twist to meetings.

Each player stands up in front of the group and gives his name, position, high school, hometown and what he brings to the team. Phillips will later quiz the players about their teammates.

“That’s the definite truth,” laughed junior linebacker Ray Anderson, a Cardinal Mooney graduate. “I remember I used to play for a guy while I was at Mooney, his name was Mike Latessa, and he said when he played under coach Tressel, he had them go through a similar thing. … That was his way of bonding the team, and it worked out tremendously for him, so when coach Doug first brought it up, that’s what it instantly took my mind back to.

“It’s a great way to learn about each other. He definitely does pop (a quiz) on you. So, every time someone is speaking, you want to give them all your attention, write down some notes, and if you miss something, maybe text ’em or hit them up on social media and ask them, ‘Hey, what was that?’ “

The familiarity should help a Penguin team with plenty of uncertainty.

YSU has question marks across its roster and is operating without a true depth chart at this point, as it welcomes a new staff that is giving players a fresh start. Phillips said players are on a “Red Team” and a “White Team,” but neither indicates the starter or the backup. That won’t be determined until camp begins.

Phillips understands that such a tactic could put his team in a more difficult spot than it already is in, with a first-year coach implementing new schemes and terminology after not having the luxury of spring practices. He still believes it’s the only approach to take as he and his coaching staff evaluate personnel.

“You’ve got to line people up, so regardless, you’ve got have a depth chart that’s ever changing,” Phillips said. “It’s a depth chart that may have older guys, guys that played a lot last year, and it might be just because right now, it’s a need. So, that’s ever changing, but when we take the field, we don’t even call it 1s, 2s or 3s. We call it red, we call it white, so they know they’re competing each and every day.”

Such a plan is going to require the Penguins to be ready to play without hesitation when camp begins.

While that won’t be easy as the coaching staff installs a new system, the process will be expedited because of how the team and staff worked together during the quarantine. Coaches were able to break down the verbiage and schematics during virtual meetings with players in which they could show plays and formations and answer questions.

The Penguins can already see the work paying off.

“That definitely gave us a boost,” said Anderson of the Zoom, FaceTime and Microsoft Team meetings over the last few months. “The way our coaches set it up, they did a great job. Leading up to now, we kind of had an install and an understanding of, ‘Hey, when fall camp hits, this is what we’re going to install, so let’s go over it.’ Now it’s more of a skim as far as seeing it on the board, seeing film and just going over a picture of how it’s supposed to look. Then we graduated into our coach actually drawing it on the board for us and answering questions and going more in depth into the defense and all the different schemes.

“When we got to this week, it was like, ‘All right, we already went over all this,’ so now you get to see it on a deeper level, and we can do more with it, maybe draw up some routes and see some motions with it. It’s kind of advancing us, closer to what a game-like situation would be.”

Whether or not games will be played is still up in the air.

The Missouri Valley Football Conference made an announcement on July 27, which simply said “patience is warranted regarding any decision to modify the 2020 fall season” and that the league will wait as long as needed to make the right decision.

Phillips and the Penguins are operating as if the season will begin Sept. 5 with an opening matchup on the road against Akron.

“It’s just like I tell freshmen: You come in here wanting to play,” Phillips said. “You don’t come in here thinking you’re redshirting. That’s the wrong mentality. You’re coming in here to play football, and if the redshirt happens, it happens after you’ve gone through full preparations to play this upcoming season. It’s the same thing here. I take it day by day.

“If you start putting in your mindset things that you can’t control, you lose focus on what you can.”

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