By Dan Hiner
Over the years the YSU Football Program has developed into a safe haven for student-athletes transferring from other universities. The Jambar tells a story detailing head coach Bo Pelini’s philosophy on student-athlete transfers, and highlights three transfers from this past offseason who are making an immediate impact in their first season and their journey to YSU.
The Youngstown State University football team has always had a reputation for being a place where players and coaches can find second chances — highlighted by the addition of YSU head coach Bo Pelini in January.
Since Pelini has arrived at YSU, the football team has seen several players from other universities find new homes in Youngstown. Players from powerhouse programs such as Michigan State University, the University of Nebraska and the University of Iowa have made their way to YSU to join the roster and continue their dreams of playing college football.
Some of these players transferred because of on-the-field concerns, such as playing time or how they fit in a coach’s schemes, others due to maturity and disciplinary issues at their previous universities.
From the public’s perspective, some might say this is an example of YSU selling out its morals to win football games, but how many dig deeper and look at the players after they have arrived on YSU’s campus?
The way YSU coaches grant second chances for player transfers was formed years ago, before Pelini stepped foot in the football offices. Jim Tressel, YSU president and former head coach of the YSU football team, is widely considered the original “father-figure” for many of YSU’s football players in the late ‘80s and during the Penguins’ national championship runs in the ‘90s.
Monquantae Gibson, a transfer from the University of Kentucky, was a workhorse for the Penguins at running back from 2004-2006. His 744 yards of total offense helped the Penguins make their last postseason run during the 2006 season under former YSU head coach Jon Heacock.
That philosophy was later adopted by former head coach Eric Wolford, who took in a number of current players such as Jody Webb, Tre’ Moore and Kenneth Durden. Some of his transfers are still making an impact on this year’s roster.
Pelini said the addition of transfers to the roster is taken on a case-by-case basis, and the program doesn’t know the number of transfers the university will accept in the coming seasons.
“At this level you’re going to have guys that transfer out. That’s just the day and age we live in,” Pelini said. “You look at each one individually and look to see at their character and can they help your football team. You have to look at each one individually. You might go one year and not take any. You might take two or three. You never know how it’s going to be.”
Most of this season’s transfers have one thing in common — a connection to Pelini. Two of the players featured in the second part of this story, LeRoy Alexander and Avery Moss, played for Pelini while they were at Nebraska and said the hiring of Pelini was a major reason for their decision to join the Penguins’ roster.
The additions of Alexander and Moss have allowed for a smoother transition for the Penguins to Pelini’s new defense scheme. Pelini said the defensive scheme isn’t exactly the same defense he implemented in previous seasons, but the same concepts are being implemented.
“I think they [Alexander and Moss] understood what we come from and what we do,” Pelini said. “It takes 11 guys, and we’re a little bit different from what we do here than what we did there. They kinda have a good understanding of what we’re doing. I think it was easier for them. Having them in the room, they’re able to help some of the other guys.”
One of those additions was redshirt sophomore linebacker Lee Wright, who was a member of the Appalachian State University football team in 2013 but didn’t play due to a redshirt season. Wright transferred to YSU after the 2014 season after he violated team rules.
“I left Appalachian State after I got in a little trouble. I wasn’t forced to leave, but I decided it would be better if I transferred to [YSU], and perused my career,” Wright said.
Wright is a native of York, South Carolina, and was an all-state honoree during his senior year of high school in 2012. He was named the Charlotte Touchdown Club’s 2012 Donnie Shell Defensive Player of the Year as the top defensive player in the Charlotte metro area.
Wright could be found all over the field while in high school. He originally began his career at running back, but he transitioned to the defensive side of the ball before the beginning of his senior season.
“I don’t know what he played before, I think he played safety in the past,” Pelini said. “We moved him to linebacker. He made good progress. He’s still got a lot of learning to do because this is all new to him. I think he’s getting better and he’s going need to continue to get better.
“He’s athletic, he could do a lot of different things — he’s versatile. He’s just green, and he still has a lot of learning to do.”
Wright has started all six games for the Penguins, and his 28 tackles are tied for third on the team. His seven tackles for loss and four sacks are both second on the team, behind only Derek Rivers, a Preseason All-American defensive end.
“I like to blitz. When they call the blitz for me, usually, it ends up with me getting a sack,” Wright said. “My biggest strength is probably my speed. I’m a quick, fast linebacker, so that helps me with the blitz as well.”
After Wright left Appalachian State, he reached out to a former high school teammate on the YSU roster. Wright was told about the YSU football program and the coaching staff. The conversation piqued his interest, and he asked if there were any openings on the Penguins’ roster as linebacker. After the discussion with his teammate, he transferred the following spring.
Wright said the defenses he played for in the past were more oriented toward reading the offense and reacting during the play. He said the success he’s had to this point in the season is due to the defense that Pelini has implemented.
“Last year was more of a ‘see ball, get ball,’ and now it’s more of a gap defense. Everybody has a gap, everybody has a responsibility and if you do your job the defense will be successful,” Wright said.
It’s rare to see players transfer and play well during their first season at a university. Normally there is an adjustment period where players have to learn the scheme, playbook and the tendencies of their teammates, but Wright has played well despite the limited game experience heading into this season.
“I didn’t expect to have a big impact. This is, really, my first year in a well-organized defense,” Wright said. “I was a little nervous going into it, but I’m hard working and it paid off once I really got into it.”
YSU starting free safety LeRoy Alexander’s story follows a similar story line as Pelini’s. Alexander attended the University of Nebraska during the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
Alexander saw significant time as safety at Nebraska under Pelini. Alexander played in all 13 games in 2013 but was suspended by Pelini for the entire 2014 season. The reason for the suspension was undisclosed, and Alexander declined to discuss the details around his suspension while talking to the media at Nebraska and upon his arrival at Youngstown.
Alexander participated in the Cornhuskers’ spring game under current Nebraska head coach Mike Riley, but he announced in June that he was leaving the program and transferred to YSU shortly after.
Even though he is not from the Youngstown area, Alexander still considers this a return home. Alexander attended Whitmer High School in Toledo, along with YSU backup running back Jody Webb. The thought of returning to the Buckeye state was one of the major reasons for his enrollment at YSU.
“Being back in Ohio, being a couple hours away from home, having a lot of support and knowing Bo [Pelini] has my back through everything was definitely a big decision for me,” Alexander said.
Wanting to follow Pelini wasn’t much of a surprise. Players frequently transfer to another university when their former head coach is fired, and some usually follow in their coach’s footsteps.
“I’m a big believer — Bo [Pelini] has been my guide. He stuck by my side through everything I’ve gone through,” Alexander said. “I started my career with him and I will end it with him.”
Alexander leads the Penguins with 38 tackles and is first on the team in fumble recovers, recovery yards and interceptions. He recovered a fumble against the University of South Dakota and returned the ball 50 yards to help set up a scoring drive during the Penguins’ 31-3 win over the Coyotes.
“He’s a good football player that can add something to our defense, and he could do a lot of different things to help us,” Pelini said.
Alexander couldn’t have started off his YSU career any better. He intercepted two passes from Pitt quarterback Chad Voytik, including an interception returned for a touchdown that allowed YSU to claw back into the game at the end of the first half.
“I’m just trying to help the team any way I can,” Alexander said. “So far it been by getting INTs [interceptions] and doing anything I can on special teams, or even if it’s just coaching anybody at my position and just helping them be a leader. Coaches put us in good positions to make plays and that’s just what I’m doing.”
YSU defense end Avery Moss was one of the most highly talked about transfers to come to YSU and also one of the most highly scrutinized.
Moss exposed himself to a campus convenience store worker in 2012, was subsequently suspended for the 2014 season and received a campus ban after a conviction for public indecency in January 2014. He tried to appeal the suspension, but was denied and later pled no contest to the charges.
Following the hiring of Pelini in January, Moss transferred to YSU later that month. Moss said his decision to transfer to YSU was “a lot easier when I knew coach Bo was coming here.”
But Moss’ decision had a deeper meaning than staying with his original coach. Moss said the impact Pelini has on his players through his day-to-day interactions played a role.
“He’s definitely a player’s coach and since he sat across from my parents, he told them that he was going to take care of his son,” Moss said. “He treats me like his son, and he treats all his players like they were kids of his own.
“He cares about more than just football. You can tell with some coaches — once you get in the locker room you do what you’re supposed to do. But with coach Bo [Pelini] there’s more than that — he’s teaching us a life lesson. It’s a ‘father-son’ connection towards him, and that’s why I think everybody likes him so much.”
While at Nebraska, Moss earned All-Big Ten honors as a redshirt freshman from the Big Ten Network and was named to the all-freshman team by ESPN. Upon arriving at YSU, Moss was considered an impact player before spring practices started.
Although Moss hasn’t replicated the statistics he put up at Nebraska, Pelini said the junior defensive end has significantly improved during his first season with the Penguins.
Moss has become a disruptive force for the Penguins. He has 12 tackles this season and one tackle for a loss, but he is tied for second on the team with two quarterback hurries. Long story short, he isn’t getting sacks, but his ability to make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket is just as effective.
Moss is currently in a rotation with incumbent starters Derek Rivers and Terrell Williams, and all three defensive ends are on the field in passing situations. Moss said having two talented veteran defensive ends on the roster gives him people he can model his game after.
“It’s great knowing I have those two dudes. Those are my best friends, and they’re also someone I could look up to,” Moss said. “The way that Terrell plays and his violence and his hand motion — how he gets his hands on opponents and controls them and dominates the blocking. Everybody knows Derek Rivers is a real good player. Playing alongside them and playing with them … I’ve learned a lot more and it’s just great having them.”
Moss isn’t listed as a starter on YSU’s depth chart, but he has received significant playing time. Pelini considers him a starter based on the amount of time he sees on the field in certain packages.
“He’s a starter as far as we’re concerned,” Pelini said. “Sometimes we play three ends together and sometimes we play two, but as far as we’re concerned, he’s a starter.”
Although some members of the public and the media didn’t condone the decision to accept Moss into the program, Moss has been a model student-athlete to this point in his YSU career. Moss said the suspension was a learning experience that allowed him to focus on his development off the field.
“I think all throughout the year was a growing and maturing thing for me. I expanded my faith a lot,” Moss said. “For the most part, I do think I matured. I don’t want to say I’m a completely different person now, but I know right from wrong better. It’s stuff that comes with age I guess.”
Additional Reporting by Jeff Brown.