Fresno State opens spring practice Monday, the first of 15 sesssions spread out over five weeks. There will be seven practices before the Bulldogs take a week off for spring break and eight after they return.
While first-year coach Jeff Tedford, and a new staff that includes offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer and defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer, have plenty to evaluate and install the focus really is on getting one thing right.
Much of the attention will be on fortifying a foundation that has steadily deteriorated since 2013 when the Bulldogs won the second of back-to-back Mountain West Conference championships led by Derek Carr, Davante Adams, Isaiah Burse, Derron Smith, Tyeler Davison, Austin Wentworth and Marcel Jensen.
A year ago, the Bulldogs fell all the way to 1-11, and they need no reminders.
Fresno State last season averaged 33.8 passing attempts per game, most in the Mountain West. Despite putting the ball in the air more than any team in the conference, it was 10th of 12 in conpletion percentage (51.9) and TD passes (13) and last in yards per attempt (6.3) and passing efficiency rating (109.06).
DeBoer, who helped engineer a turnaround last season at Eastern Michigan, discussed his game plan and goals for the spring in a Q&A with The Bee.
The Bee: Obviously, you can only tell so much from a workout. But what are your impressions of the personnel you have returning – athletically, physically:
DeBoer: I think every team is going to have their strengths and weaknesses, the spots where they’re a little deeper than others and there are some positions that jump out at you. The one that probably would jump out at me is our receiver position. It has very good talent and it has got some depth. There are some guys that are going into their last year that are very good players, but there also are going to be some younger players and some guys that aren’t here yet that we’re excited about. That position jumps out at me as one that hopefully will be a strength for us.
I haven’t seen them catch a football or any of that stuff, so it’s hard to evaluate. I just think when you look at the attitude of the group, the mindset, it just seems like there’s some confidence within that position room and there are some guys that have some experience doing some things on the field.
How much do they have right now in terms of an offense – the terminology, the concepts?
They’re starting, really, from square one. We’ve never seen them hand a football off … just the angle the running back is going to take to get a handoff, that’s going to be a first-time thing seeing them do that. You start from square one and you install the basics. We’re going to spend time not just on offense, but as a whole team working on, ‘How are we holding onto the football and ball security’ and that starts with coach Tedford. It’s going to be an offensive and a defensive thing because you win and lose games based on how well you can strip it and how well you take care of it.
We can take it to the extreme. When you're talking about coach Tedford and where he has been, I mean the NFL, the highest level, you can get pretty complicated. But he also has done it where you pare that down and I have as well to where it's something where it's pretty simple. You try to make it simple so the guys can play fast.
Fresno State offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer
The fundamental part is where you start, so there is really not a lot of offense that the guys would know at this point. I think it will come quickly, though. We’ll throw it at them, see how quickly they can grasp it and then reinstall things and come back to the things that we need to work on, probably after spring break. But we want to give them some solid things that they can do well going into the summer, build on that, and then when we come into fall camp they should have our base stuff. They should know it really well, and then we add to it when we get into fall camp.
So as far as a game plan for the spring and an installation schedule …
They’re getting pieces here and there, but it’s nothing substantial. I’ve never had a spring practice schedule that has been split by spring break, but I think it will be really good and I’m looking forward to being able to reassess where we’re at after seven practices and then come back after those last eight when we have a better grasp of who we are and what our guys do well and maybe change it, tweak it in a different direction. We’ll figure that out as a staff and figure out what the game plan will be for those final eight practices, then in the summer we’re allowed to continue to meet with them for a couple hours a week and we can continue to work on those base concepts.
The quarterbacks, you’ll have four in the spring?
We’ll have four guys. Returning we have Chason (Virgil), who will be back, he’ll be a full go. Then you have Quentin (Davis). He’s a younger quarterback that redshirted last year. Then you have Christian (Rossi), who will be in his final year. And then the junior college transfer, Jorge (Reyna). Those four guys will be the ones that are taking the reps and we have to kind of narrow it down here throughout the spring and get it figured out so we can be set in a direction and have it somewhat figured out.
But we won’t make a decision until this fall on who our quarterback is going to be because a lot changes and guys are still just learning the base and some guys will pick it up quicker. We just have to figure out what fits us.
Bulldogs offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer comes to Fresno State from Eastern Michigan, which in his three seasons jumped from last in the Mid-American Conference in total offense to fourth. The Eagles went from 289.6 points per game to 380.0 to 455.2.
With the reps, then, do you break that up evenly into quarters?
I don’t know if it will quite be quarters. Maybe the first couple of practices it will be, just to give everyone a fair chance, and then if we see a direction that we can go and make some early decisions and narrow some things down, we’ll do it as quickly as we can.
You watched the tape of Chason from last season …
I’ve watched film on Chason, but I’ve watched film on all the guys in different ways whether it be with scout team, whether it be highlight film from high school. We’ve done that with all of our players. That was really the first thing we did as a staff – try to find as much video, whether it be video that was taken here, even for the guys that weren’t on the football field on Saturdays, or if it was just highlight film from high school if they’re in the first or second year here. We wanted to get an understanding of who we have here in the program.
A lot changes from year to year and I think a lot of it is the mindset that you have going in. There is talent. All of these guys were the key guy on their teams. They were the star. So now it’s just a matter of the attitude, the effort they have going in mixed with the ability they have. I think the big thing for us is going to be who can throw the football with accuracy, on time. It starts with that. Anything you can add with the feet, the ability to create, anything on top of that is going to be an added bonus for us.
Then the last part is picking up the offense and the leadership you bring. How are they affecting others when they’re out there? How are they as a leader. I think we have a couple of guys that really get that. Actually, quite a few of them get that. They understand what it takes to affect others and have an impact on others and get that attitude to be contagious to where every day you know the bar continues to be raised. I’m excited about the group. They all bring different strengths and they all complement each other well with their personalities.
When it’s all put together, how complicated is it, how simple is it, how much is on the plate? One of the big things here last year was taking the protections away from the quarterback and having the center make those calls, just to simplify.
I think in Year One you try to figure out what they can handle. There are always things that they have to do to get you out of the bad plays – to make a protection check, to get you out of something that’s going to cause you a lot of problems or just slide a protection the other way. It may be that simple. There will be some simplistic things that they will have to be able to do, but above and beyond that it’s a matter of what they can handle and who we are offensively.
The offensive line is a group that just needs the greatest unity and once that happens the sky is the limit. I think (offensive line coach Ryan Grubb) is able to bridge that gap between potential and what we actually end up with on the football field.
Fresno State coach Kalen DeBoer
We can take it to the extreme. When you’re talking about coach Tedford and where he has been, I mean the NFL, the highest level, you can get pretty complicated. But he also has done it where you pare that down and I have as well to where it’s something where it’s pretty simple. You try to make it simple so the guys can play fast and there’s not as much thinking going on. It’s all about just reacting to what’s happening in front of you. I think that’s what we’ll try to focus on this spring, getting really good at simple concepts, base concepts, so they can be confident in those concepts and then build it from there. We want it to be simple, but we don’t want to look simplistic to who we’re facing.
A lot of that, the concepts, and I think this is true with any offense, the concepts are really almost always the same, it’s the window dressing, it’s how you make it look that changes. Being able to disguise that with ease with your skill guys, that’s what’s important.
The mechanics of your position with coach Tedford as far as the game-planning, play-calling, has that all been worked out?
As far as putting the offense together, he’s involved with it, but he has been great about letting me start with what I’ve always done. We’ve worked together as a staff – I feel strong about it being a staff thing; I want everyone to be vested and have ownership in it. That’s the way I’ve always operated and so I kind of show him the template and what I feel we should look like and should do, but there are always different directions and different concepts that we do to have everyone have their say.
When it comes to coach Tedford, you’re talking about a guy that has so much knowledge and what he does a really good job of is just raising the questions: ‘OK, well what about this? What about that?’ He knows all of the scenarios and he’s really good about being able to look at things in a critical manner and say, ‘OK, I like that. Or what do you think about this? Here are some other options for you if you run into this situation.’
I’ve been doing it long enough to where I understand those situations, too, but having another perspective on it, another guy that has been it at many different places and at the highest level possible is awesome.
The thing that is so impressive is just his knowledge of the technical ends of the quarterback position. He has been so busy with meetings of his own, but there have been times where he has sat in meetings with our quarterbacks and you can see the knowledge he shares with them. It’s pretty impressive, just telling a little something here and there. When we’re on the football field and we’re really into football every single day, when we’re in a meeting with the quarterbacks, what he’ll share with them, it’s pretty exciting.
In the fall then …
I’m going to call plays and he’ll throw his suggestions out there, just like it has been with every other coach I’ve worked with, I don’t see if being anything different than that. That was the understanding. I’m doing all of the scripting of practices.
Fresno State last season rushed for 1,394 yards and its 3.17 yards per rushing play ranked last in the Mountain West and 125th of 128 in the nation. The Bulldogs were ahead of only Georgia State (3.13), UCLA (2.93) and Texas State (2.32).
It’s a hard thing. I know if I was in his shoes, it’s really hard to turn it over completely to someone. I would want to be involved if I was in shoes, and I expect him to be involved in the game planning. It’s a team. We want what’s best for our football team and to figure out how we can win.
He has been awesome as far as letting me have control of what’s going on. But that’s not necessarily what I always care about. I want us to win. I want us to be what’s best. I don’t have to feed my ego in a way to where it’s like, my way is the only way. He’s the same way. He’s really open to letting people to coach.
He hired people to coach, whether it’s my position, the offensive line position, the linebackers position, special teams … he is letting people coach. When people are invested and there’s ownership within the group, that’s when you reach your full potential as a staff and as a team. He’s going about it in a great way.
OK, I say this jokingly, but I just wanted to make sure those Bulldogs fans know who to scream at when it’s third-and-4 and your quarterback doesn’t make the right check and you end up running the ball or something …
The head coach, the offensive coordinator and the quarterback, right? That’s the way it goes. One of those three. That’s the way it is, but I love it.
The run game, the relationship between the coordinator and the line coach, is very important. You’ve obviously known Ryan (Grubb) for a long time, worked with him for a long time. How important is it that you were able to get him here?
Ryan brings a mentality to the offensive line, one that is hard-nosed, one where there are high expectations that he has with his group. But I think his strength is an ability to be able to work with them and show them, just like we should all be able to do as coaches, that we’re a part of it. The offensive line is a group that just needs the greatest unity and once that happens the sky is the limit. I think he’s able to bridge that gap between potential and what we actually end up with on the football field. That level the offensive line gets to, it always seems like it’s a high level by the time we hit the season in the fall.
The Bulldogs were 1-11 a year ago, but also a very young team. Fresno State in 2017 will have players returning that accounted for 90.4 percent of its rushing yards and 68.7 percent of its receiving yards.
The most productive offensive line that I’ve covered had a 280-pound center, an undersized guard, a tackle that was in his first year playing … only one guy ever got close to the NFL. They just played well together.
You need five and then very few times you end up playing less than seven through a season with injuries, and I always figure if you have seven to eight guys that you can really count on to get you through games and get you through a season, I think that’s pretty important. A lot of times if one guy goes down it’s not just a replacement at left tackle, it might be the left guard moving to left tackle and someone else moving in. When that’s the case, now the lines of communication and the chemistry and all that, that where the high level of chemistry within that group is so important.
That’s what Coach Grubb does such a good job with. He just knows how to interact with them all, knows how to challenge them individually, how to challenge them as a group, and I know they’ll rise to the occasion and get the job done.
That relationship, talking about coach Tedford and bringing together his staff here, I was expecting a lot more familiarity within the staff. I mean, he knew (defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer) because he coached against him in Canada. Other than yourself and Ryan, there isn’t a lot of that, but he must have seen something putting all of you guys together knowing it was going to work …
He did, because when it all comes together and we’re in a meeting room … I think about the passing game and talking with Coach (Kirby) Moore, it’s so easy and we think so much alike. The spacing and the splits and the concepts, all that it just happens really fast. There must have been things that he saw within each group – where they had been, their personalities. There’s a knack to bringing a group together and building a championship atmosphere and that’s obviously his strength because on offense and defense and as a whole staff that is the case right now.
The momentum that we have right now it doesn’t feel like we just started in January. It feels like we’ve been together for a long time. There still are things that we have to work out, where we’re practicing, what part of the field, all of those type of things, what our situations are, but it’s really easy to communicate and it’s almost like we speak the same language already. He must have seen that when he was talking to everyone in the interviews that we had. That’s a talent. That’s a skill. That’s something that just doesn’t happen naturally. A lot of it is because he knows what he’s looking for and then he envisions how it can all come together. I think that’s the best way to put it.
You guys made some position changes … the guy I’m thinking about is Josh Hokit. Any back and forth with the defensive staff trying to get him back on that side of the ball?
No, I think he ended up on offense at the end of the year from what I understand, so when I came here I’ve never seen him on a defensive list. I didn’t have to do much with that to get Josh on our side of the ball. That’s where we’ll start with him in spring ball. I’m excited about that. I think he brings a great mentality. I know he’s a multisport guy and all of that and a competitor and that’s what we need at that position. There’s a lot to running the football, but then there’s also a lot when it comes ot the pass protections and the blocking part as a running back that is really important.
The tight ends and defensive ends, there were some changes.
A lot of that was in place by the time I got here, but what we need is a guy like Kyle (Hendrickson) that is just hard-nosed that can give us a hand-down guy that can block and be physical at the point of attack. If we’re going to have that style as an offense we need to have guys that can do that. I think that’s a really good move and I’m excited to see how he does.
Eastern Michigan, the experience there, there has to be a lot that translates. You guys got that program into a bowl game – 1-11 to a bowl game. They had won seven games in four years combined, combined, and then you win seven last year.
I think what it does for me personally is give me confidence that you can pretty much do anything. You can overcome anything. When you’re in the heat of the battle and trying to build it from square one you look back on it and you realize what was important and how you go there. That’s really what I’m trying to bring to this right now: what’s important? What are the priorities to getting us there?
There are a lot of things that go into building a great program, but what were the main things that will get us going in the right direction the quickest? Most of the time, it’s not schematics. Most of the time it’s the attitude and the mindset, the championship preparation. That’s really what it is. It’s the atmosphere that you’re creating as a staff and how that trickles down to your players.
To me, that’s more important. It’s building your culture and culture will beat strategy. Culture will beat scheme. Like I’ve said many times, most of the people run similar concepts and schemes, it’s the other stuff. It’s getting the guys to believe. It’s getting all those things to happen and having a unit that truly is a unit. That’s what I learned a lot about there, because I had seen in previous places what the picture looks like when it’s big and grand and everything is clicking on all cylinders and you are the heavyweight champion and everyone is trying to reach for you.
Somewhere in between is where you have to get to as quick as you possibly can and once the culture starts changing, it’s a snowball effect and I wish nothing but the best for those guys there and they’re going to do great things because the culture is changing. It’s who is in the building. It’s who the players are that execute everything from day to day. That’s what we’re going to do here. Coach Tedford, he gets all that. He sees the whole vision for what it takes to be great. All those little details are what we’re working on now - in the classroom and just community service. He’s involved with all ends of it. It’s fun. It’s fun when that guy has the vision that coach has.
OK, but how do you even begin to turn that around. A team that didn’t have a lot of success, it can be scattered, the investment might not be there …
It really comes down to worrying about today. It’s worrying about today and only today and doing everything you can today to cover as much ground as you can. It’s worrying about today only. Not getting caught up in, we’re going to go win a championship talking about it. You don’t win a championship by talking about it. You do the things on the ground level to make those steps and improve and improve everyday to where in the end, it’s like, man, how did we get to this point? Every day is the only thing you worry about. You do everything you can, that day. Recruiting, covering ground on putting our offense together. It’s every area of the program. The chemistry part of it. The academic part of it. You do everything you can and you stay consistent. You keep the faith on it.
Where do you think this group was in that regard when you got here?
I think there are a lot of similarities. I think the biggest thing is confidence. The guys just need to develop some confidence. I mean, there’s talent. When you’re talking about the different FBS schools or whatever level you’re at, there are guys in a program because there’s some ability there, there’s some talent there.
Bringing it all together and having some confidence individually, as a team, as a program. That’s what we need to instill and we have to give them some ways to where we can build some confidence. It’s not always just by running a play really well, it’s by getting to know each other and trusting that the other guy is going to do his job as well as he possibly can. That’s really all we can ask.
But there’s talent, it’s a matter of we have to develop some confidence and once the confidence grows then you really start taking off, leaders emerge, and all of a sudden they put more into it, there’s more passion because they see the success and now you’re on your way.
Coming out of the spring, the end of April, is that the most important thing? Where do you need to be?
I don’t know that there’s a mark that you set, but, yeah, there has to be a level of confidence, there has a to be a base offense that our guys can go execute because they’ll get to do their practices all summer long and they need to operate those at a high level and develop the timing, develop the execution, and then the confidence part that motivates them to go on and work harder in the weight room, that they know, ‘Hey, if I get a little better at this, I can execute this block better, I can execute this … and everything comes together.
It’s all those guys looking at each other and knowing that they’re doing their job as well as they can and as we go through the spring I think that’s what you’ll see. The coaching staff, the way we’re unified, I think its going to show the guys that, ‘Hey, were all in this together and great things are going to happen.’ No doubt about it.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
- Monday, March 27: Spring practice No. 1: 8:10-10:20 a.m.
- Saturday, April 1: Spring practice No. 4: 10:35 a.m.-12:50 p.m., open to Quarterback Club members
- Saturday, April 22: Spring practice No. 11: 10:35 a.m.-12:50 p.m., open to the public
- Saturday, April 29: Spring Preview, 10:30 a.m.
- Saturday, Sept. 2: Home/season opener vs. Incarnate Word, kickoff tbd
- Saturday, Sept. 9: Game at Alabama, kickoff tbd
- Saturday, Sept. 30: Mountain West opener vs. Nevada, kickoff tbd