Fresno State will hold its first scrimmage of fall camp on Saturday, running through about 100 plays that mostly cover situational football, third downs and red zones.
What coach Tim DeRuyter, offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau and defense coordinator Lorenzo Ward want or need to see is a fairly mundane exercise: Fly around. Make plays. Play penalty free football. Stay healthy. That last one, of course, is big considering the shape of some of the Bulldogs’ position groups.
But there will be players on that field who have a point to make, and the scrimmage is their first real chance to make a mark – the Bulldogs through the first 11 practices have run few live practice periods.
The running back position group has changed considerably since the first day of camp with Dontel James, Justin Rice and Deonte Perry all going down with injuries, making that five players there who have been lost to injury since spring practices. So, sophomore Dejonte O’Neal, who was expected to be used as a situational back, has a chance to prove at 5-foot-6 and 169 pounds he can be more, can hold up to the rigors of the position, can have an impact in pass protection.
“He’s going to get a bunch of reps,” DeRuyter said. “He has to prove to everybody and to himself that he can handle that kind of a load. He has always flashed, but now he’s going to get more opportunity.”
Defensive end Nick Kristofors played in all 12 games as a backup last season and has been running with the No. 1 defense since the start of fall camp. His play has been more dynamic on the practice field, but after signing with the Bulldogs fairly late in the summer a year ago and learning the defense as well as college football through the season, the senior has an opportunity to go from backup to starter.
You have to see it as, ‘I’m protecting my brother.’
Running back Dejonte O’Neal on his role in pass protection
“I think he’s playing more suddenly,” DeRuyter said. “Part of that is knowing what to do and having confidence, and part of it is the strength and conditioning. It all comes together – you’re a senior and you’re as mature as you’re going to be as a college football player. But there’s a difference between playing thud and saying, ‘Yes, I had him,’ and doing it live – and we have to see him do it live.”
The safeties, Stratton Brown and DeShawn Potts, have worked as a tandem since spring practices and in camp have been solid at positions that in past seasons have seen spectacular work with a Phillip Thomas or a Derron Smith. There is a gap there, between merely playing and making plays, and Brown and Potts have a chance to show it is closing.
“It will be really important for them from a confidence standpoint and with the coach’s confidence in them,” DeRuyter said. “I know they know what to do. I know that they’re playing as fast as they’ve ever played because they know what to do, but that next evolution is making plays.”
I know they know what to do, I know that they’re playing as fast as they’ve ever played because they know what to do, but that next evolution is making plays.
Coach Tim DeRuyter on safeties DeShawn Potts and Stratton Brown
O’Neal, Kristofors and Potts said they relish the opportunity, and offered a glimpse at their mindset going into the Bulldogs’ first scrimmage.
“I’m out here to play ball,” said O’Neal, who carried the ball 16 times in four games last season. “They had trust in me, they believed in me, so I have to give them all I’ve got and until my legs stop working I’m going to keep on playing as hard as I can and I’m going to go as much as I can whenever I can. Whatever they ask me to do, I’m going to try to execute it to the best of my ability.”
Pass protection has been drilled, and is a point of emphasis in position meetings. But thwarting blitzing linebackers and safeties who have a considerable physical advantage is a challenge not only for O’Neal, but all of the running backs. Freshman Saevion Johnson is 5-11 and 187 pounds but lacks experience. Treyvon Green is 5-8 and 165 and Austin Harper is 5-8 and 170.
“You can’t see it as, ‘Ah, man, I have to block that guy.’ You have to see it as, ‘I’m protecting my brother,’ ” O’Neal said. “(Quarterback Chason Virgil) is a big part of this team and if I have to cut that guy or ride him out or whatever I have to do, I don’t want him to touch Chason at all.”
The defense, D-line, we’re looking at this as a game. The coaches are evaluating us as they would in any other game during the regular season, so that’s the approach we have to it.
Defensive end Nick Kristofors
For Kristofors, with a year in the system, the challenge is much different. He is more physical than a year ago and has more of a grasp on the big picture of the defense and his place in it.
On Saturday, and this season, it comes down to making plays.
“We’re out here in full pads, but we’ll have at most two live periods,” he said. “The defense, D-line, we’re looking at this as a game. The coaches are evaluating us as they would in any other game during the regular season, so that’s the approach we have to it. You know, it’s sometimes hard to tell during thud periods if you actually would have made the tackle or if you would have had that sack. I’m hoping (Saturday) when those opportunities will come up we’ll be able to know for sure.”
It is, Potts said, time to let it all show.
“Scrimmage one is definitely an opportunity to see how far we’ve come this camp, not just for me and (Brown), but for the entire defensive backs group,” he sad. “Put all of the installs together, put all that we’ve learned in these first 10 or 11 practices together, and go out and perform.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada