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Legends of the Valley: YSU Football's Top 5 Penguins

Updated: Jun 24

Youngstown State
© Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

Through their record-setting performances and championship contributions, Youngstown State's top football players have not only defined an era of success but also solidified their place as enduring legends in the storied history of Penguin football

YSU has a long history of football grit and greatness. The Penguins played their inaugural season in 1938, and since then, Stambaugh Stadium, locally be known as "The Icehouse," has seen many outstanding players take the field.

The program reached its pinnacle in the early 1990s, winning four NCAA 1-AA championships and finishing as runners up twice, claiming titles in 1991, 1993, 1994 and 1997, while also securing runner up spots in 1992 and 1999. All under coach Jim Tressel.

Beyond victories, YSU is credited with pioneering the penalty flag, replacing the referee's horn with a visual signal, thanks to the innovation of the Penguins' first football coach, Dwight "Dike" Beede. With a storied tradition of success and innovation, YSU continues to honor its football heritage through the contributions of its standout players. Here are YSU's top five football players of all time.

No. 5: Tom Zetts, Class of 2007

Zetts had an outstanding career at YSU, excelling both as a passer and as a playmaker outside the pocket. Starting 47 games for the Penguins, Zetts finished his last two seasons with a record of 26-10. As a junior, Zetts led the Penguins back to the playoffs after a five-year postseason drought.

Zetts set several records during his career at YSU. He ranks first in passing attempts (1,094), second in pass completions (654), second in passing yards (7,728) and first in QB starts (47). Zetts' remarkable consistency and leadership helped solidify his place among the top players in YSU history.

No. 4: Tamron Smith, Class of 1995

Smith, a standout running back for the Penguins, played a crucial role in Youngstown State's football legacy. Smith was instrumental in leading the Penguins to Division I-AA National Championships in 1991 and 1993, and a runner-up finish in 1992. Known for his playoff performances, Smith amassed 1,361 yards on 301 carries, scoring 15 rushing TDs in the playoffs for the Penguins.

One of Smith's most memorable moments came during the 1991 title game, where he scored a rushing touchdown in the final minutes to secure a Penguins victory. He finished the game with an astounding 246 yards rushing on 46 carries. A team captain, Smith was awarded the John Delserone MVP Award for his outstanding contributions.

Smith's sophomore year stands out as his best season, rushing for 1,545 yards on 301 carries, averaging 5.1 yards per carry, and scoring 10 TDs. He holds several school records, including all-time rushing yards (4,866) and most 100-yard rushing games (22). He is second in rushing TDs (52), having graduated as the record holder in this category. Smith's legacy as a Penguin is cemented by his remarkable achievements and leadership on the field.

No. 3: Leon Jones, Class of 1995

Jones was a two-time All-American linebacker for the Penguins. In his junior season, he was awarded the Football Gazette Defensive Player of the Year, becoming the first Penguin football player to win a national player of the year award. Jones anchored two national championship defenses in 1991 and 1993.

Jones's most outstanding season came in 1994 when he amassed 170 tackles, including 103 solo tackles. He also recorded 13 pass breakups and 5 interceptions that year. His most memorable moment came in the first round of the 1994 playoffs against Alcorn State, where he picked off Steve McNair. Jones still holds school records for tackles in a career (506). He is also fifth in interceptions (13) and fourth in solo tackles for a single season (103). Jones's legacy as a defensive powerhouse continues to inspire future generations of Penguin players.

No. 2: Mark Brungard, Class of 1995

Brungard was the starting QB for YSU's back-to-back national championship teams in 1993 and 1994. In 1993, Brungard led the Penguins to their second-ever national championship, setting a school record at the time with 21 TD passes. In 1994, he guided the Penguins to an impressive 14-0-1 record. After tying their first game of the season against Stephen F. Austin, the Penguins rattled off 13 straight wins on their way to the championship.

Brungard's accomplishments are scattered throughout YSU's record books. He is third in passing yards in a season (2,453) and total offensive plays (436). He is fourth in rushing touchdowns for a QB (16) and career pass completions (496) and fifth in career passing yards (6,116). Brungard's leadership and skill at the QB position have left a lasting impact on YSU's football program, making him one of the all-time greats.

No. 1: Kurt Hess, Class of 2013

Hess is the most prolific passer in YSU history. He ended his career at YSU holding multiple records, including career completions (706), passing attempts (1,135), TD passes (75) and career passing yards (9,459). Hess was selected to the All-Conference team three times and passed for at least 2,000 yards in all three of his seasons as a starter. His football legacy shattered records and will undoubtedly be remembered for years to come, cementing his place as the greatest quarterback in YSU history.

Honorable Mention: Ron Jaworski, Class of 1972

Jaworski is arguably one of the most legendary players in Penguin history. After his stellar career with the Penguins, Jaworski went on to have a successful NFL career, most notably leading the 1980 Philadelphia Eagles to a Super Bowl appearance.

When Jaworski graduated from YSU in 1972, he ranked first in passing yards in a season (2,123), career passing yards (4,612), single-game touchdown passes (4), passing TDs in a season (18) and career passing TDs (32). His remarkable achievements laid a strong foundation for YSU’s football program and set high standards for future quarterbacks.

Jan 25, 1981; New Orleans, LA, USA; FILE PHOTO; Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski (7) looks to throw against the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XV at the Superdome. The Raiders defeated the Eagles 27-10.
© Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

YSU Football Legacy

The legacy of YSU's top football players—marked by record-breaking achievements and championship glory—continues to inspire both current players and fans alike.

As the Penguins prepare for the upcoming season, they aim to build on this rich tradition of excellence, knowing they stand on the shoulders of giants who have left an indelible mark on Stambaugh Stadium. With the spirit of past champions guiding them, YSU looks ahead with optimism and determination, ready to add new chapters to its storied football history.


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