At Fresno State, there is a new coach and coaching staff and many of the same players who struggled through a rough football season a year ago, so just about everything comes with a caveat. It’s still early. We’re just getting started. It’d be cliché, if not so true; it’s hard to get away from 1-11.
Asked about the Bulldogs’ offensive line on Monday after the eighth practice of the spring and first coming back from a week off for spring break, coach Jeff Tedford offered this: “I think they’re improving. They’re communicating really well, which is important … but we still have a long way to go.”
The Bulldogs do, no doubt. But they also have improved, that assessment coming from someone who has one of the best vantage points on the football field.
Fresno State last season ranked last in the Mountain West Conference in rushing offense. It averaged only 2.6 yards on third-and-short rushing plays (1 to 3 yards), which also was the lowest in the league and 114th in the nation.
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“I think it just comes with those guys playing with each other a lot more, just having that bond with each other,” said quarterback Chason Virgil, who took the brunt of the 31 sacks allowed last season. “That offensive line group has to be some of the closest people and for a lot of them last year it was their first time playing” together.
“I think they got that year under their belt. They jell a lot better. The communication is there – you can see them pointing things out. It’s definitely way better than what it was last year and I’m just happy to see those guys keep growing.”
Line coach Ryan Grubb, the third position coach in three years for many of the Bulldogs offensive lineman, has helped the unit show flashes of improvement:
The backs have popped some nice runs.
The pass protection looks cleaner.
Neither was the case a year ago. Fresno State was ranked last of 12 in the Mountain West Conference in rushing yards per play (3.2) and per game (116.2), and 11th in tackles for loss allowed per game (7.2) and sacks allowed per game (2.6).
It doesn’t matter what they can bench, squat, move, do anything, if they can’t do it together it really doesn’t matter at all.
Fresno State offensive line coach Ryan Grubb
The Bulldogs also were last in the league in scoring offense at just 17.7 points per game.
But through all of that, the Bulldogs did make up ground with a group that lacked experience. Going into the season, Aaron Mitchell had started 12 games at left guard and Micah St. Andrew had started five games at right guard. But Mitchell was moved to center in the fifth game of the season, tackles Christian Cronk and David Patterson were first-year starters and the Bulldogs started three players at left guard in Mitchell, Jacob Vazquez, Logan Hughes and then going back to Vazquez. Cronk and Hughes also were JC transfers, in their first seasons playing at the FBS level.
“We definitely grew as teammates,” St. Andrew said. “It takes some time to adjust to college play. So much of it is learning offenses and now that we know how to learn offenses from last year’s coaching staff, (coach Mark Weber) really helped us to understand how to learn offense, coming into this season we were able to pick up the offense a lot faster. We know how to study it. We know how to adjust to it.
“The communication is a lot better. We just play a lot better for each other. Aaron is making great calls out there. The o-line is working together.”
That is the goal for Grubb this spring and into the summer and fall camp.
“Watching them on film it seemed like there were a lot of moving parts and I don’t know if it was through injury or some guys getting benched, but there were quite a few guys playing different spots and that can be tough to get the best five out there when you’re constantly moving guys around,” Grubb said.
When everything gets taken care of up front, it just makes my job a lot easier.
Fresno State quarterback Chason Virgil
“The cohesiveness is No. 1. I know it’s cliché. But those guys being on the same page – it doesn’t matter what they can bench, squat, move, do anything, if they can’t do it together it really doesn’t matter at all. I think it’s the cohesiveness part and then playing with confidence, too.”
Grubb, who worked with a group at Eastern Michigan that went from last in the Mid-American Conference in total offense in 2014 to fourth last season, said he saw some confidence in spurts when watching the Bulldogs’ film from a year ago.
There also were times when it wasn’t there.
“I think a lot of times defenses can see that on film and they smell blood in the water,” Grubb said. “They’re going to go after that when they see confusion and people not working together up front, the pressure is going to come and now all of a sudden you have your quarterback getting knocked in the mouth.”
A year ago that was Virgil, a rough way to go for a redshirt freshman. It’s early yet, but just past the midway point of the spring there is evidence that may be turning.
“When everything gets taken care of up front, it just makes my job a lot easier,” Virgil said. “We can just focus on getting these guys the ball and just going through our reads – we don’t have to worry about the rush as much because they’re able to pick it up. It just makes the offense go a lot smoother.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada