Fresno State appears to have replenished, if not boosted, the talent level of its linebacker corps with the latest recruiting class.
Inside linebackers Michael Lazarus and Xavier Ulutu, who were both sought after by Pac-12 teams but elected to join the two-time reigning Mountain West Conference champion Bulldogs, would appear to headline Fresno State's class of 22 recruits who signed Wednesday during National Signing Day.
Coach Tim DeRuyter expressed optimism that this year's class -- assembled around high school recruits except one junior college transfer -- could serve as the nucleus for future conference championship runs after the Bulldogs a year ago went with more immediate needs and had seven 7 of 24 signees coming from the JC ranks.
The Bulldogs strived for an overall balance with DeRutyer's third recruiting class, nabbing 11 offensive players, 10 defensive recruits and one athlete whose position has yet to be determined.
Linebackers Lazarus (Berkeley High) and Ulutu (Cathedral Catholic-San Diego) and offensive lineman Corey Ferguson (Fullerton Junior College) rate as the Bulldogs' top signees, all three-star recruits (out of a five-star scale) according to Scout.com.
"We're looking to three-peat next year and with this year's recruiting class, we think we have a great shot of putting another team together that's going to make a championship run," DeRuyter said. "I really like the direction that our program is going. With this class, I think it's going to be the backbone of our program going forward. This class addresses a lot of needs that we had."
Fresno State addressed needs on the offensive line (signed five), at linebacker (signed four) and in the secondary (signed four). The Bulldogs also brought in another quarterback in Kilton Anderson of Skyline High in Washington, keeping Fresno State with four quarterbacks following the departure of senior Derek Carr.
Tight end Kyle Riddering of Clovis North represented the Bulldogs' lone local recruit. Instead of Central Section players, DeRuyter -- the former Texas A&M defensive coordinator -- and his staff ventured back into Texas for a couple of recruits, plucked another from New Orleans and worked heavily in Southern California.
"We always start right here," DeRuyter said. "We start with the city of Fresno and we work out from the Valley. The majority of our young men are going to come from California. But I do think it's good to have a national look at things. With the Internet now, you don't have to necessarily get on a plane to identify prospects.
"The network of people that our coaches know throughout the country helps us get some eyes in places that we don't necessarily have to go to until we've identified the prospective player that fits with what we're looking for."
Rivals.com ranked the Bulldogs' recruiting class tied for fourth in the 12-team Mountain West. Scout.com rated Fresno State with the sixth-best class in the conference. Looking back at Fresno State's recruiting class conference rankings and compared to the Bulldogs' conference record five seasons later -- when most recruits would be seniors after redshirting their first year in the program -- those ratings appear fairly accurate.
In 2006, Fresno State's recruiting class ranked fifth in the Western Athletic Conference by Scout.com. By 2010, the Bulldogs finished fourth in the WAC. Then, in 2008, Fresno State's recruiting class was projected as the best in the WAC by both Scout.com and Rivals.com, and the Bulldogs went on to finish tied for first after joining the Mountain West.
Even Fresno State's outright conference championship this past season was anchored by a 2009 recruiting class (which included Carr) that rated second in the WAC by Rivals.com and third by Scout.com
"The class as a whole took a step back from a year ago," said Erik McKinney, the West Region and Pac-12 recruiting analyst for ESPN.com. "Part of it is the Pac-12 has done so well in recruiting this offseason, you're seeing fewer and fewer guys slip through the cracks.
"Don't get me wrong: I don't think the Fresno State coaches will be disappointed. It's a solid group for Fresno State. I'm just not sure three-four years later if there will be many players that people will be asking, 'How did the Pac-12 miss out on this guy?' "
Boise State and San Diego State assembled the Mountain West's top two classes, according to Scout.com and Rivals.com, with both programs winning a handful of head-to-head recruiting battles against Pac-12 teams.
McKinney said Fresno State wasn't as successful in such recruiting matchups, though Lazarus was offered by Arizona State, Cal and Oregon, and Ulutu had a chance to play at Washington State
"Sometimes as a mid-major, you have success and win your conference, aim high and go after some really high-profiled guys," McKinney said. "But when those mid-major programs strikeout getting the blue chip guys, they have to fall back to a few secondary-type recruits who may have decided to gone elsewhere. It's the risk you take. Sometimes it works. Sometime it doesn't."
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