The first early signing period for college football starts Wednesday, a three-day window to lock in some pieces in the Class of 2018, and Fresno State will have a quarterback who will lead the Bulldogs to a bowl game in his first season, a running back who will start a game as a freshman and Power 5-level talent at wideout and running back.
That is not a crystal ball prognostication, but the fortunate reality for coach Jeff Tedford, who in his first season has led Fresno State to the Hawaii Bowl while also upgrading talent, filling holes and creating better balance between classes in the program.
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One likely doesn’t happen without the other, and Tedford and his staff worked the recruiting process to build the roster and give the Bulldogs a chance to win football games not only this season but into the future.
That quarterback is Marcus McMaryion.
That running back is Josh Hokit.
That Power 5 talent includes Michiah Quick and Romello Harris, transfers from Oklahoma in the Big 12 and Washington State in the Pac-12, who are sitting out this season.
Those four players already in the program will count among the 25 initial scholarship players in the Class of 2018, a majority signing on Wednesday rather than the traditional national letter of intent signing day in February.
Also expected to sign Wednesday are eight San Joaquin Valley products in wideouts Emoryie Edwards (Tulare Union), Ricardo Arias (Clovis West), defensive back Deshawn Ruffin (Sunnyside), linebacker Sherwin King (Sunnyside), defensive linemen Matt Kjeldgaard (Oakdale) and Isaiah Johnson (Downey-Modesto) and offensive linemen Clive Truschel (Clovis West) and Nick Abbs (Fresno City College). Another Valley player, Rodney Wright (Clovis West), is expected to sign in February.
Tedford and his staff are not allowed by NCAA rules to comment on prospective student-athletes until a letter of intent of grant-in-aid agreement has been signed and validated.
The process of renovating the roster started very early and was critical in one of the biggest turnarounds in college football history. The Bulldogs were coming off a 1-11 season and were 4-20 over the past two seasons. The number of scholarship players in the program was down, depth was lacking. The balance between classes in some position groups was lacking.
“There was a lot of work involved in it, both in evaluation and what our needs were and trying to evaluate who our guys really were,” Tedford says.
“We were trying to figure out who’s competitive, who’s athletic enough, who has the work ethic to do it. The evaluation process was an ongoing thing throughout the whole spring, really. We got through that and said, ‘OK, we need this or we need that, look for this in spring recruiting …’
Fresno State, which on Christmas Eve will play Houston in the Hawaii Bowl, signed five junior college players last December and 18 on national letter of intent signing day in February, though not all made it into school.
Seven of the true freshmen in that class played this season, including running backs Jordan Mims and Ronnie Rivers, who are first and third on the team in rushing.
McMaryion was added after camp started. Defensive tackle Keiti Iakopo, defensive end Kwami Jones and linebacker Kesomi Mafi all joined the program in camp and played this season.
Mafi, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in a loss at No. 1 Alabama in the second game of the season, has one more year of eligibility remaining.
But Iakopo and Jones both have two more years, which helps: Three of the Bulldogs’ starters along the defensive line and five of the top eight this season are seniors; they needed better balance in the position group.
The balance of a team as you bring them through and have them grow is really important. We’re still fighting that battle.
Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford
“We were depleted with numbers, No. 1, and then we were really top heavy in other places,” Tedford says. “The balance of a team as you bring them through and have them grow is really important. We’re still fighting that battle. There are going to be some really critical things that we’ll have to do next year to balance things out, like this year with all those senior defensive linemen. I assume that was from attrition, from people coming and leaving, that’s why the numbers were so low. Those probably went hand in hand.
“I don’t know who was here and who left. All I know is our numbers weren’t what they should have been and our depth was out of balance a little bit. That’s why down the stretch there to come up with guys after we went through spring football and to find guys and get transfers to come in here was important once we figured out what we had.”
Those evaluations and those needs led to McMaryion and Johnny Johnson, a graduate transfer cornerback from UCLA, who started the first five games.
The Bulldogs also put on scholarship long snapper Jacob Westberry and linebacker Mykal Walker. They brought in offensive linemen Cody Pound and Markus Boyer, cornerback Chris Gaston and wideout Brian Burt.
“It’s a never-ending process trying to build your roster the way you need it,” tight ends coach Scott Thompson said. “It’s a credit to all those guys up in the office that never stop. They’re relentless and can find these guys, and find them in strange places sometimes.”
A lot of it comes down to contacts.
Take Mafi, for instance, who came to Fresno State from Laney College. Bulldogs offensive line coach Ryan Grubb had recruited Mafi when Grubb was at Eastern Michigan.
“When we were looking, I was like, ‘Hey, there’s this guy I recruited at Eastern, I hear he’s at Laney and he’s crazy good. I don’t know if he’s still roaming around …’” Grubb says.
That group, coupled with the players who will sign on Wednesday and during the early signing period, will better balance the Bulldogs’ roster.
Fresno State has confirmed commitments from two quarterbacks – Steven Comstock (Northview-Covina) and Ben Wooldridge (Foothill-Pleasanton), which will give them five quarterbacks on scholarship in the program; the Bulldogs started fall camp with only two, Chason Virgil and junior college transfer Jorge Reyna.
There is help at the receiver spots in Arias and Edwards in a group that next season will include seven seniors led by KeeSean Johnson and Jamire Jordan. The Bulldogs are expected to sign one defensive back – Shamar Whetstone (Upland).
Marc-David Bien-Amie, the offensive lineman from Montreal who signed with the Bulldogs last season, is enrolling in school in January and counts in the 2018 class.
Kjeldgaard, Johnson, Matt Lawson (Colony-Ontario) and Leonard Payne (St. Pius X-Downey) also are key pieces in the defensive line.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE VS. HOUSTON
- Sunday: 5:30 p.m. at Aloha Stadium (50,000) in Honolulu
- Records: Bulldogs 9-4, 7-1 Mountain West; Cougars 7-4, 5-3 American Athletic
- TV/radio: ESPN/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600).
- Of note: The Bulldogs make a third trip to the Hawaii Bowl since 2012, having lost to Southern Methodist in 2012 and Rice in 2014. Houston is a bigger challenge. The Cougars opened with a road victory against a Power 5 team (Arizona). Houston has the Outland Trophy winner in defensive tackle Ed Oliver (14.5 tackles for loss; 5.5 sacks). A big-play offense is led by D’Eriq King, who in the past three games has completed 73 percent of his passes for 832 yards with four touchdowns and one interception, averaging 11.2 yards per pass attempt.