Fresno State running back Dontel James has the ability to avoid tacklers and at a solid 225 pounds run right through them when so inclined. But he hasn’t been able to avoid an injury bug that has bit again, a bad break for the Bulldogs and a position group beset by injuries.
After tweaking a knee Wednesday and sitting out the second half of practice, James, who missed much of the season as a freshman in 2013 with a foot injury, is headed for surgery Friday.
More will be known regarding a timeline for a return after the procedure, but it is expected that he will be out from two to six weeks.
The Bulldogs also took a hit with freshman running back Deonte Perry, who banged up a knee in a pass-protection drill and had a MRI on Thursday.
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The positive for coach Tim DeRuyter and running backs coach Dave Ungerer is that they still have sophomore Dejonte O’Neal, freshman Saevion Johnson and walk-ons Treyvon Green and Austin Harper and all have flashed at times in fall camp.
“Hopefully, Dontel will be on the shorter end of that scale, but we will line up with somebody there,” DeRuyter said. “It just gives extra reps for the new guys. They have to grow up in a hurry.”
Fresno State has five running backs out with injuries: Dontel James, Deonte Perry, Justin Rice, Bryson Oglesby and Wesley Hill.
Injuries at running back date to spring ball. In all, five are hurt and not in practice.
Redshirt freshman Bryson Oglesby, who injured a knee in the spring, is expected to be cleared to return sometime in October.
Wesley Hill, another redshirt freshman, is out for the season with a knee injury suffered in the spring. Freshman Justin Rice will miss six to eight weeks after fracturing a bone in his foot in fall camp.
Johnson, the biggest of the healthy backs at 5-11 and 187 pounds, is likely to hit the accelerator going through his learning curve in the offense.
As a senior at Dawson High in Pearland (Texas), 2016 Bulldogs recruit Saevion Johnson averaged 7.9 yards per play while rushing for 1,690 yards and 22 touchdowns.
“Saevion has flashed at times,” DeRuyter said. “He’s still learning, but he has had some physical runs. He needs to get every rep he can to learn the offense a little bit better, but I think physically he’s an almost 200-pound kid that runs hard. He’s probably being force fed a little bit ahead of his time for what we would ideally like to have, but when you have five guys down that’s what happens.”
Some good news – The Bulldogs in the first of Thursday’s double-day sessions got a reminder of how dangerous the sport can be, even in the least physical of practice periods.
Redshirt freshman tight end Stephen Babagian, from El Diamante High, suffered a neck injury in a 7-on-7 drill and was removed by ambulance. In 7-on, the Bulldogs simply tag off at the end of a play, with no tackling.
Babagian was conscious and had feeling and movement, but as a precaution was treated at Community Regional Medical Center. By the afternoon, he was feeling much better.
“It was a relatively innocuous play,” DeRuyter said. “We were in a 7-on-7 situation. He got bumped as he was running his route and as we looked at the video, he was contacted by the linebacker being bumped and you could see his head snapped back a little bit.
“He came off of that jam and caught the ball and the next player came and wrapped him up and just held him up, so it didn’t look like much. But I’m guessing the initial contact that made his neck jerk back they said he strained a muscle in his neck. He lost a little bit of sensation for a while, which obviously scared him. But our training staff was there and they were great with him. They wanted to take every precaution and be very certain that things were OK, so we called the EMTs.”
DeRuyter before the afternoon practice received a text from Babagian, who said he felt 100 percent better and hoped to be back as soon as possible.
One hit too many – Josh Hokit, the walk-on linebacker from Clovis High, had made a few hard tackles in nonlive periods the past two days and when he did it again on Thursday morning, it was not well received.
I think Chason, every day he’s getting more and more poise. I think our offense senses that and they have confidence in him and the system.
Coach Tim DeRuyter on quarterback Chason Virgil
Hokit drilled a receiver when the Bulldogs were playing to thud – contacting the ball carrier solidly and with good form without taking him to the ground. One play later, there was a full-scale skirmish between the offense and defense.
Even after that flare-up was stopped and practice resumed, scuffles continued.
“He’s a very physical kid, but he has to learn how to practice,” DeRuyter said of Hokit, a freshman. “When we have thud periods we don’t want guys on the ground.
“The good news for him, right now he only knows one speed. We have to teach him how to have a regulator when we go thud. I’d much rather have a player that you have to say ‘Whoa’ and ‘Giddy up’ to and he’s one of those kids that you don’t have crank it up, but we do have to get him to play smart.”
Atkins back to defense – With some depth issues on the offensive line, the Bulldogs this week moved freshman defensive end Kevin Atkins and redshirt freshman nose guard Jaleel Carter to that side of the football.
Atkins is headed back to defense where he has a much better chance to see the field this season. Having never played on the offensive line, he was unfamiliar with terminology and technique and it would have taken much longer to impact the depth there.
The Bulldogs are expected to move a walk-on defensive lineman over to offense to play on the scout team following their scrimmage Saturday, their first in fall camp.
Et cetera – The afternoon practice ended with a sterling play by quarterback Chason Virgil and inside receiver Jamire Jordan. Working in the red zone, Virgil was chased out of the pocket and on the move fired a pass toward the left corner of the end zone. Jordan, covered closely by strong safety DeShawn Potts, had a long way to run but got there and made a diving catch for the score.
“It was good for the offense,” DeRuyter said. “When you’re going against each other it’s always good for one side and not so good for the other. But it’s good to see our offense execute and guys make plays. I think Chason, every day he’s getting more and more poise. I think our offense senses that and they have confidence in him and the system and we have some guys that can make plays.”
▪ Inside linebacker Robert Stanley, who went down with what appeared to be a leg injury toward the end of practice Wednesday, was back on the field.
▪ Freshman cornerback Juju Hughes had his run of days with an interception end Wednesday, but he potentially started another Thursday.
In the afternoon, Hughes picked off a pass from graduate transfer Zach Kline, a poor decision throwing into coverage that was worse because it came in a red-zone period.
DeRuyter said that could just be a camp deal, trying too hard to make a play.
“I think so,” he said. “I think what he has to do is learn from these things. I think guys take chances in camp because they know it’s camp. You’re going to lean toward maybe making a little risker decision now, but as we get into scrimmages then it’s really going to become critical.”
▪ Freshman outside linebacker Lukas McKenzie, who is coming back from a knee injury suffered during summer conditioning workouts, continues to make quick progress toward a return. He is not in contact yet, but is participating in individual drills and team periods.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada