When Ronnie Rivers was ripping up the football field at 8, 9, 10 years old, he would – without much hint of a ha-ha – tell his dad that one day he would go to Fresno State and break all of his school rushing records.
Ron Rivers would get a kick out of that – he was at that time the leading rusher in school history, racking up 3,473 yards in just three seasons at a stellar 6.6 yards per play, and that is a record that would stand for 19 years.
He would think, “OK, buddy, you have a long way to go. Let’s get through high school first.”
He runs exactly like his dad. I mean, their movements, everything, it’s exactly the same.
Fresno State running backs coach Jamie Christian on Ronnie and Ron Rivers
Then, they both would go back to work.
Coaching those youth league teams and through high school, Rivers gave his son the tools of his trade, lessons gleaned from a record-setting career at Fresno State and in six NFL seasons with Detroit and Atlanta. They would watch film, learn and understand formations. They would work on how to read a defense, work on how to set up defenders, to make them miss and how to finish runs. Those youth league teams, they would line up in the same formations Rivers did in college and in the NFL and they would run the ball up the middle, never to the outside.
They worked on proper pass routes and how to catch a football – by the point, the diamond. Pass protection was a big piece as they got closer to college. They worked on the technique of running with a football – it’s not just one foot in front of the other very fast.
It was all to ensure Rivers was a well-rounded back.
“My dad, he was a big help as far as developing me as a player, really focusing on getting me ready for college ball,” Ronnie Rivers says. “He was preparing me for this time all the time and that preparation, it just really paid off.
“Even back to youth football, he would always break down film with me. I’m 9, 10 years old. I don’t want to be there, I just want to go play some video games. But he’s like, ‘No, you’ve got to learn this stuff so it’s easier later on.’ ”
Now, Rivers is there, and it’s paying off. As a true freshman he has started four of the Bulldogs’ five games.
Ronnie Rivers is averaging just 11.8 rushing plays per game but is 11th in the Mountain West with 305 yards from scrimmage and tied for seventh with four rushing touchdowns.
He was not on the radar of the Bulldogs’ previous staff, but the 5-foot-8 running back was one of the first high school players to receive a scholarship offer from coach Jeff Tedford. Tedford had inherited a glut at the position and in his first spring had six scholarship running backs on the roster, but that didn’t stop him from going after Rivers and Jordan Mims, another freshman who is in the rotation at running back.
“We saw good things, but you never know until the mental part of the game gets put into it, the savvy for football and all that kind of stuff,” Tedford says.
“Can he catch? Can he protect? A lot of things that you don’t see in high school so much. But you knew he could run with the ball and he had great vision.”
What they saw then and see now is a mirror image of the dad, says running backs coach Jamie Christian, who was a fullback at Fresno State and a teammate of Ron Rivers from 1991 to ’93 and is now coaching Ronnie Rivers.
“He runs exactly like his dad. I mean, their movements, everything, it’s exactly the same,” Christian says. “I wouldn’t tell Ron this, but Ronnie might be faster than Ron was. But the way they make people miss, their low center of gravity, how they run, their forward lean, their finish, they’re very similar backs.
“When Ron was here, he was a great back. He was fun to watch play. I blocked for him a lot. They really are very much alike in how they run.”
Ron Rivers this season is seeing football from a different perspective. He’s been around the school recently (daughter Malia was a Bulldogs softball player 2015-17). But now he has bought season football tickets, got a taste of tailgating for the first time before the Bulldogs’ season-opener against Incarnate Word. “I didn’t have a clue what tailgating even was. It was fun.”
During the Bulldogs’ bye week, Ronnie Rivers spent some time back home.
“We turned the film on and we went over reads,” Ron Rivers says. “In the games leading up to the San Jose State game I felt he was just missing a little bit. I asked him, ‘Well, what has changed in the read? Well, nothing. He said, ‘The guys are faster,’ but that has nothing to do with the read. The speed of the game has nothing to do with the read, and I think once he realized that it made it slow down a little for him.”
Rivers rushed for 105 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries in that victory at San Jose State, the first 100-yard and first multi-touchdown games of his career.
“With his dad, he has been very well trained,” Tedford says. “His dad is coaching the same position that he played and he was a great one, so he had a good one to learn from for sure.”
My dad, he was a big help as far as developing me as a player, really focusing on getting me ready for college ball. He was preparing me for this time all the time.
Fresno State running back Ronnie Rivers
And with 305 yards and four rushing touchdowns, Ronnie Rivers is on pace to finish his freshman season ahead of some notable backs on the all-time Fresno State rushing list and where they were after their first seasons, including his father.
Robbie Rouse, who is at the top of that list with 4,647 yards, gained 479 yards in his first season playing as a backup to Ryan Mathews. Marteze Waller, who is fourth on the Bulldogs’ all-time rushing list, gained 174 yards and scored one touchdown in his freshman season.
Bryson Sumlin, ninth all-time, had 249 rushing yards and two TDs. Mathews rushed for 866 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2007, leading all freshman running backs in touchdowns and yards per carry (6.0).
“I tease him now, ‘You only have 100 yards one time. You have a long way to go, man,’ ” Ron Rivers says. “But he jokes around with me all the time, ‘Hey, Dad, I’m coming to get you. I’m coming to get you.’
“I just say, ‘Well, I’ll be there when you get there.’ ”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
NEW MEXICO AT FRESNO STATE
- Saturday: 7 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium (41,031)
- Records: Bulldogs 3-2, 2-0 Mountain West; Lobos 3-2, 1-1
- Webcast/radio: AT&T , ROOT (AT&T UVerse 757, 1757; DirecTV, 684)/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: New Mexico had a bye week following a 56-38 victory over Air Force, its second win in a row. The Lobos went into the weekend averaging 266.8 rushing yards per game, third in the Mountain West. Running back Richard McQuarley tied a school record with five rushing touchdowns in the victory over Air Force and is leading the Lobos’ attack, averaging 5.9 yards per play and 60.2 yards per game.