Fresno State has taken another shot to its running backs group coming off its most consistent rushing game of the season and just as the Bulldogs are starting conference play.
Sophomore Dejonte O’Neal, the 5-foot-6 back from Bullard High School who has been Fresno State’s No. 2 back behind Dontel James and a key member of the kickoff return team, will require surgery for a knee injury suffered in Saturday’s overtime loss to Tulsa and has been ruled out for the season.
“It’s a tough deal in football,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “He’s a guy who came here and earned a scholarship.
“The players love him because of his work ethic and just who he is, and to see him lose the rest of the season is tough, but you have to have a ‘next man up’ mentality. We’re going to do that. We certainly wish Dejonte a speedy recovery, but we have to have the next man up.”
7 Fresno State running backs who have missed time due to injury dating to spring practices
In the Mountain West Conference opener Saturday night at UNLV, Fresno State will go with James in the starting lineup for the fifth game in a row, and redshirt freshmen Treyvon Green and Bryson Oglesby and freshman Saevion Johnson are competing this week in practice to be the Nos. 2, 3 and 4.
James, a 225-pound junior, has been the Bulldogs’ leading rusher through a spotty start in the run game. He has rushed for 246 yards and two touchdowns on 73 carries, and Fresno State is ranked last in the conference in rushing offense. It is averaging 114.8 yards per game while rushing the ball less than any MW team. It is, though, also last in yards per rushing play at 3.3.
Green has carried six times for 37 yards, 6.2 per play. Oglesby was cleared to practice two weeks ago coming back from a knee injury and surgery in the spring. Johnson strained a hamstring in fall camp but also has been cleared to practice and take contact.
Fresno State also is missing running backs Wesley Hill (knee), Deonte Perry (knee) and Justin Rice (foot). Hill and Perry are out for the season. Rice has started some rehabilitation work on the practice field, but he is expected to sit out as a redshirt this season.
He’s a guy who came here and earned a scholarship. The players love him because of his work ethic and just who he is, and to see him lose the rest of the season is tough.
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter, on running back Dejonte O’Neal
Green, who was moved to running back from wide out in the spring when the injury bug first hit, said he is ready to take on a bigger work load.
“I put in a lot of work over the summer, just like all the guys,” Green said. “It’s an opportunity. I’m just going to keep working, keep grinding.”
The Bulldogs are seeking more consistency in the running game through James, Green, Oglesby or Johnson. O’Neal had rushed 16 times for 57 yards and one touchdown and averaged 30.1 yards on eight kickoff returns with a long of 59 yards.
Opportunity seemingly is there at the start of MW play.
The Bulldogs rushed for 177 yards on 4.0 yards per play against Tulsa, but still are ranked last in the Mountain West in rushing offense. In four games, the Bulldogs have averaged 3.3 yards per rush and 114.8 yards per game.
UNLV (1-3) is seventh in the conference in rushing defense despite having faced a FCS team in Jackson State and FBS teams ranked 101st (Central Michigan), 103rd (Idaho) and 114th (UCLA) in national rushing offense. Nevada is 10th in the MW against the run, playing an option team in FCS Cal Poly and FBS teams ranked 62nd (Buffalo), 68th (Purdue) and 83rd (Notre Dame) in rushing offense.
The lineup behind James does have some credible options, with Green getting the first shot in practice.
“He’s similar to Dejonte – he’s an explosive runner,” DeRuyter said. “He has good hands, but he’s a smaller guy like Dejonte. He gives you a different dynamic vs. Dontel and our other backs, who are bigger backs, but he has some explosive ability.
“We’ll see how it goes this week. Right now he’s going to be the back you bring in as a change-up guy and the guy to spell Dontel, but it’s going to be an open competition. We’re finally getting Bryson and Saevion both to the point where they’re near 100 percent physically, so you have to reevaluate things.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
Mountain West opener
FRESNO STATE AT UNLV
- Saturday: 7:30 p.m. at Sam Boyd Stadium (35,500)
- Records: Bulldogs 1-3, Rebels 1-3
- TV/radio: CBS Sports Network/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Series: Fresno State leads 13-5, and won 31-28 last season at Bulldog Stadium