Three years ago, when coach Tim DeRuyter got to Fresno State, the Bulldogs' offensive line was not in very good shape -- the numbers were down, there was little balance between classes.
They were able to add some depth with junior college recruits in that first abbreviated recruiting class, though both high school recruits that signed didn't last long in the program. Last year, Fresno State signed a mix of high school and junior college linemen, again trying to fill some pressing holes in the depth chart while building back the depth balance in the position group.
But in signing five high school offensive linemen on Wednesday, the Bulldogs took a definitive step toward stabilizing and building their line. They wanted to sign as many as seven, so the total in the program still is short of their optimal 17 players.
But they are happy with the five they've added -- Art Gomez (6-foot-5, 280 pounds) from Downey High in Southern California, Jacob Hicks from Analy High- Sebastopol, Bobby Johnson (6-5, 300) from Carson High, Aaron Mitchell (6-2, 285) from Cathedral Catholic High-San Diego and Ben Simonds (6-4, 260) from La Quinta High.
"I think they all have a chance to be really good. They're all different, but one thing we got more than in the past is more length," offensive line coach Cameron Norcross said.
"You look at Bobby Johnson and Art Gomez, they're tall, long, slender kids right now, 265 to 280 pounds. Jacob Hicks is more of a big body, more in the mold of Cody Wichmann. He's a big thick kid. Ben Simonds is 6-4, extremely strong. The only one without length is Aaron Mitchell, but he just plays with a chip on his shoulder, is nasty, he's a heck of an athlete. I'm excited about all these guys."
The "nasty" is a common thread through the group.
"That's one thing we were really looking for -- length and/or nasty attitude," Norcross said. "A couple of guys have both. Ben, he'll probably be a center, but he'll be a versatile guy, be able to play guard. Even though he's 6-4, that's the type of athlete he is. Jacob and Aaron Mitchell both are real nasty kids and Art Gomez, for as slender as he is right now, plays real nasty."
But getting the classes in line is just as important for the Bulldogs, going forward. Fresno State has nine returning offensive linemen, led by Wichmann, right tackle Justin Northern and center/guard Bo Bonnheim. There are three seniors, four juniors and two redshirt freshmen.
"I think we're finally getting to the point where we're going to have some good quality depth and have some really good competition," DeRuyter said.
"I think getting a big group of guys was important," Norcross said. "We've been really hitting the JCs hard, where we sign two high school guys and three junior college guys. That's distorting some of our balance, so being able to sign five high school guys and still having the ability with scholarships left over to go find maybe a late JC qualifier or someone to add to it late, whether we do that or not, we have the ability to do it right now to help even more.
"But it balances us out for the future. We're still feeling it from two years ago where the numbers in the O-line were so low and you have to take JC guys and then they're gone now after two years. You might want to recruit one JC guy and four high school guys -- to me, that's the ultimate, to be able to balance things out. But to be able to sign five quality guys is a real good step."
Fresno State still has a major question on the offensive line at left tackle, where Austin Wentworth had started and earned all-conference honors the past two seasons.
The Bulldogs' plan going into the spring?
"Nothing is concrete yet, but Alex Fifita, he has the most game reps," Norcross said. "Not necessarily at left tackle, but he's played a lot at right tackle, played left guard. He's kind of played everywhere. He has a lot of game reps so he'll have the first crack at it."
David Patterson, one of the redshirt freshmen, will start the spring at the right tackle behind Northern.
Wider net reels in new QB prospect
The Bulldogs haven't had to go too far to find quarterbacks -- Bakersfield, home of David and Derek Carr, has always been a good place to start. But on Wednesday they signed Kilton Anderson (6-3, 205), who grew up in Florida, moved to the Seattle area when his father transferred jobs and played his senior season at Skyline High in Sammamish, Wash.
Anderson ran a split-back veer as a junior in Florida before developing as a passer at Skyline.
"He's a young man that is extremely talented, very athletic," offensive coordinator Dave Schramm said. "In Florida he was a running quarterback, ran the option. Then his dad got relocated and went to Skyline High School and coach Mat Taylor does a great job up there -- they've put out quarterback after quarterback.
"He's a very talented kid, and it really doesn't matter that he's not from this state or what our normal recruiting area is. Our normal recruiting area is, we're going to go to wherever we have to go to get the guy that we like, so we're excited about him. Had he been at Skyline High School for three years, who knows where he would be now. He's got huge upside."
Skyline produced a national player of the year in 2012 in quarterback Max Browne, who is now at USC. Before that, there was Jake Heaps, who was regarded as the top quarterback prospect in the nation in 2010 and is now at Kansas after transferring from Brigham Young.
"I'm anxious to get him here and get him going," Schramm said. "He's a sharp kid. He's a highly academic guy, very smart, very competitive.
"When I called (Taylor) and talked to him, he spoke very highly, more so about how he handled the transition. That's hard to do when you're going into a place and you're going to be a senior, you're brand new and you end up winning the job and being successful, and in a completely different offense. He had never been in the gun before, never been in a spread. He was always under center running the split-back veer. He's got a very quick release, he's very athletic and he's very accurate."
Rough life on road
Defensive coordinator Nick Toth, who had a run-in with a wild hog on a recruiting road trip in Texas a few years back when on the staff at Texas A&M, had another eventful trip this season.
Toth and DeRuyter were on their way to make an in-home visit with a recruit one night when a tire blew out on them. Toth pulled the car over to the side of the road and when they got into the trunk of their rental car, there was no spare tire.
"We're like, 'You've got to be kidding me ... so he calls the car company and they say, 'well, we'll send a cab out to get you,' " DeRuyter said. "The good news was we were meeting (recruiting coordinator Phil Earley) at this kid's house so he drove out and found us, otherwise if it was just the two of us, we'd just be sitting there and it was pitch dark out on this two-lane highway."
Carving out that new ID
When the Bulldogs returned for the spring semester, DeRuyter had a team meeting and a message for all of them.
"Every year with a new group of seniors, you have to reinvent who the team is," he said. "I reminded these guys, I said, 'Look, this is the Fresno State Bulldogs of 2012-13, the Mountain West champions. We're not the Fighting Derek Carrs, we're not the Fighting Davante Adamses, we're the Bulldogs, so who is it going to be this year? Let's go out and define it.' I think our kids are going to have a little more of a chip this year with everyone saying, 'Oh, they only won because of Derek.' "
Fresno State will have four players at the NFL Scouting Combine from Feb. 22-25 in Indianapolis, led by record-setting Carr, who is projected as a first-round draft pick.
Adams and fellow receiver Isaiah Burse and tight end Marcel Jensen also will participate.
The tight ends, offensive linemen and special teams' players will be tested by NFL personnel on the first day of the combine followed by quarterbacks, running backs and receivers on the second day.
Fresno State had scholarships available for 25 players in its 2014 recruiting class and still might get there after inking 22 on national letter of intent signing day.
"We may look at a transfer -- sometimes guys graduate early and have some time," DeRuyter said. "Whether it's offensive or defensive line or maybe a skill position, we'll go out in spring recruiting and look at the JC ranks and have some scholarships available so if we do run into one of those guys we'll have some flexibility there."
One area the Bulldogs needed to find immediate impact players: inside linebacker. They believe they found two in Michael Lazarus (6-2, 225) from Berkeley High and Xavier Ulutu (6-1, 240) from Cathedral Catholic.
Lazarus was rated as a top-five middle linebacker prospect in the West by Scout.com, recording 65 tackles including 18 sacks in just 10 games as a senior. Ulutu helped lead Cathedral Catholic to the San Diego Section Division I championship, averaging just under 10 tackles per game.
Fresno State returns only three players at the two inside positions in its 3-4, senior Karl Mickelsen, junior Kyrie Wilson and sophomore Jeff Camilli.
"Up until this, we only had three scholarship linebackers in the program. Now, we like those guys and we're only going to lose one next year. But from a depth standpoint we've got to have classes spread out a little bit and these guys are guys that can compete," DeRuyter said.
"We tell all of our freshmen, 'Hey, every job is up for grabs and if you're better than the player ahead you that's been here or if you're equal to we're playing the younger guy.' Our older guys know that there's no inheritance, you have to earn it every day, It keeps that competition going and our younger guys know that, hey, if you want a job, go out and take it."
The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @rkuwada on Twitter. Read his daily Fresno State updates at fresnobee.com/bulldogs/.