It was a Tuesday, game week. Fresno State was preparing to play at San Diego State. This was two years ago, 2015, when Aaron Mitchell was a sophomore. He was a starter at left guard, and feeling pretty good about it.
But that one day still sticks out.
Senior Bo Bonnheim, who was starting at right guard, came up to Mitchell before a meeting and asked a simple question probably already knowing the answer.
Aaron does a great job of communicating. I have zero concerns about what Aaron is going to do for us in getting everyone on the same page up front. He's just awesome.
Fresno State offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer
“He said, ‘Have you been watching any film?’ I was like, ‘I watched a little bit,’ and he ripped me for 20 minutes about how San Diego State is the hardest team, how you have to know your blitzes, have to know your stuff …”
If that was not enough, that Saturday there was plenty of negative reinforcement.
The Aztecs and their 3-3-5 defense flummoxed Fresno State, which was held to 89 yards, 1.9 per play. A quarterback meltdown contributed, but still, Mitchell said, “I really took it to heart.”
Fast forward to the Bulldogs’ Mountain West Conference opener Saturday night against Nevada, which is playing a 3-3-5 under first-year coach Jay Norvell.
Mitchell, now starting at center, is in charge of making the line calls and there is no doubt at all that he will be prepared, which stems from a Tuesday two years ago and a leap on and off the field through a summer of hard work that ended with the senior voted by teammates as a team captain.
“He’s doing a great job,” offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer said. “Aaron does a great job of communicating. I have zero concerns about what Aaron is going to do for us in getting everyone on the same page up front. He has been just awesome.”
The Bulldogs (1-2) have had their moments, despite playing two Top 10 teams on the road in No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 Washington. Fresno State has allowed only 14 tackles for loss, the fewest in the conference. It has allowed only three sacks, second fewest in the conference.
He’s our anchor. Whatever he says, that’s the call.
Fresno State left tackle Christian Cronk on center Aaron Mitchell
Game plan has something to do with that, but so, too, does the play of the line with guard Netane Muti and tackle Christian Cronk to the left of Mitchell and guard Micah St. Andrew and tackle David Patterson to the right of the center.
“He’s our anchor,” Cronk said. “Whatever he says, that’s the call.”
That Mitchell would be in the middle of that wasn’t a sure thing at the end of the spring, when the Bulldogs were installing a new offense, the third in as many years for some of the players.
But any doubt didn’t last. Mitchell went to work, setting a personal record in all six physical tests Bulldogs’ strength and conditioning coach Andy Ward runs at the end of the summer. He got into the film room and became a leader in the locker room.
“The transformation from him in the spring to where he is now, that’s why he’s one of our captains, and he takes a lot of pride in it,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “He’s absolutely a vocal leader on offense. He works really hard with it.”
Mitchell put all of the pieces together for his final year of college football. He will be asked to do it in a different way facing the different looks from the Wolf Pack’s 3-3-5.
That defense has given the Bulldogs fits, not just in that 2015 game at San Diego State. The past four meetings with the Aztecs, Fresno State has averaged 76.3 rushing yards, 164.3 passing yards, 240.5 total yards and a sickly 3.9 yards per play and that includes a 2013 matchup in the middle of a record-setting season for quarterback Derek Carr.
The transformation from him in the spring to where he is now, that's why he's one of our captains, and he takes a lot of pride in it. He’s absolutely a vocal leader on offense. He works really hard with it.
Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford
Fresno State won that game 35-28 in overtime. The Bulldogs had 21 points from the offense at the end of regulation – and that Carr-led team scored 21 or more in a quarter six times that season.
Nevada has had difficulty defending the pass, but it has allowed only 2.9 yards per rushing play and is leading the Mountain West in tackles for loss with 35.0, 8.8 per game.
“If you look at their stats, they’ve been without sugar-coating it lacking in some areas on defense where they’ve given up some chunks of yardage,” offensive line coach Ryan Grubb said. “But you also look at they’re No. 4 in the country in tackles for loss, so they can make you look pretty stupid.”
Mitchell could be the key in taking apart that defense, along with his buddies up front.
“The 3-3-5 stack, it’s kind of a different monster,” Mitchell said. “But I always look forward to when a team brings a different kind of defense. You know, offensive line play, it’s very much like Groundhog Day. You do the same stuff all the time.
“Here, you get to open up your tool box. Defenses in the NFL run stuff like that. But I honestly believe it’s more fun. I mean, every week is fun, don’t get me wrong, but it’s definitely a different challenge.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
NEVADA AT FRESNO STATE
- Saturday: 7 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium
- Records: Bulldogs 1-2, Wolf Pack 0-4
- TV/radio: ROOT/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: Nevada lost at No. 16 Washington State 45-7 on Saturday and is ranked 10th in the Mountain West in scoring offense (19.8 ppg) and scoring defense (35.8 ppg). One of its losses is to Idaho State, a championship subdivision program.