Fresno State practices in full pads on Tuesdays and Wednesdays when on its normal game-prep schedule and on the second of those days this week running back Dejonte O’Neal might very well have juked himself into more reps when the Bulldogs take on Toledo at the Glass Bowl.
O’Neal had scored a touchdown in the victory over Sacramento State, making a deft cut to avoid a defender. But he went about 10 times better on this live run drill.
Breaking off the right side, O’Neal encountered a cornerback who closed in and squared up, then went low because one has to if they are to get to a 5-foot-6 ball carrier. But in the blink of an eye and with some fast footwork, O’Neal was by him, racing down the right sideline.
He has been explosive. He’s a different type of back than Dontel (James). He’s a guy that if we can isolate him in space can make guys miss.
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter on running back Dejonte O’Neal
The play didn’t escape notice, and it could be an answer Saturday with the Bulldogs looking to add pop to a running game that didn’t get much done in the opener at Nebraska and got off to a painfully slow start against Sacramento State.
“I think he has earned more time,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “He has been explosive. He’s a different type of back than Dontel (James). He’s a guy that if we can isolate him in space can make guys miss.
“By how you play, you earn your reps or you lose reps and I think he’s starting to earn more reps.”
O’Neal could not comment, with Fresno State making its players on offense available to the media Tuesday and its defensive players Wednesday.
But since the spring he has worked to carve out more reps with his ability to evade tacklers. That is the key for the Bulldogs and offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau.
Pass protection is a challenge, though O’Neal has not been shy about throwing his body in front of pass rushers who might have 100 pounds on him. He is not a short-yardage thumper, an area the Bulldogs have struggled some over the past few seasons.
But in space it is very difficult to get a paw on O’Neal, who carried the football four times at Nebraska for no yards and four times against Sacramento State for 28 including the 8-yard scoring run.
Fresno State is last in the Mountain West Conference in rushing yards per play at 3.4 and per game at 115.5, and by fairly large margins. Nevada is 11th in both at 4.3 and 136.5.
He was moved to a slot receiver from running back in the spring to take advantage of that short-area quickness and burst out of cuts, but was moved back when that position group started to take injury hits with Bryson Oglesby and then Wesley Hill going down.
“There are different things we can do to get him in space and Coach Kiesau realizes that,” DeRuyter said. “His role as the offensive coordinator is to find out who our guys are and I think we have a decent feel for who our guys are after two games.
“We’re hoping for that nucleus to grow, but now that he has got an idea of who our playmakers are it’s all about finding ways to isolate them and get those guys in space.”
D-line rotation – Fresno State could have a full rotation on its defensive front when it plays the Rockets, with nose guard Malik Forrester practicing through the week after missing time with a knee injury and end Kyle Hendrickson closer to a return from his knee injury suffered against Colorado State in the final game of 2015.
“When you have a rotation, guys are fresh on third down and you have a lot better chance to be able to pressure a quarterback,” DeRuyter said. “When guys are in the eighth, ninth, 10th play of a series, especially when you’re going against a tempo offense, it’s hard to have a great pass rush.
“(Kyle) has been a guy for us. I know he’s coming off that injury, but we need him to play at a fast level. He has been practicing hard.”
Backfield in motion – Oglesby has been cleared to return to practice and is expected to take some contact next week. The Bulldogs are eyeing the Mountain West Conference opener Oct. 1 at UNLV as a potential return.
“That was good news and it really helps our running back depth situation,” DeRuyter said. “They want to ease him in since he hasn’t played football in six months, and you don’t want to go from zero to 100 mph overnight. But we’ll ease him in next week and we’ll see how he tolerates that.”
Since the start of spring practices six Fresno State running backs have missed time to injury – Bryson Oglesby (knee), Wesley Hill (knee), Justin Rice (foot), Deonte Perry (knee), Dontel James (knee) and Saevion Johnson (hamstring).
Oglesby, a redshirt freshman, was having a good spring when he was hurt and at 5-11 and 190 pounds would add some size to a group that includes the 224-pound James, but also O’Neal at 169 and redshirt freshman Treyvon Green at 5-8 and 165.
If Oglesby can make it back by the start of conference play, the Bulldogs likely would have freshman Saevion Johnson take a redshirt season. Johnson suffered a hamstring injury in fall camp, and though he is back in practice has not yet played in a game.
Freshman running back Justin Rice, from Central Catholic-Modesto, also is making progress from a foot injury suffered in fall camp.
Rice, who is ticketed to redshirt because of the injury, did some light running and cutting during Thursday’s practice.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE AT TOLEDO
- Saturday: Noon at the Glass Bowl (26,038)
- Records: Bulldogs 1-1, Rockets 2-0
- TV/radio: KSEE (Ch. 24.1), ESPN3 online/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Series: Fresno State leads 2-0, including a 55-54 double-overtime road win in 2008.