The Fresno State Bulldogs are in fix-it mode this week, with a bye before returning to Mountain West Conference play on Nov. 1 against Wyoming. They did a lot of work on fundamentals in practice on Tuesday, while also searching for answers to some perplexing questions.
One is the production at the running back position behind Marteze Waller, who has gained 100 or more yards in four of the past five games and is ranked fourth in the Mountain West Conference in rushing yards per game at 103.1. And back in that mix, it appears, is Dontel James, the redshirt freshman who has been out since the season-opener at USC because of a lower leg injury.
James took part in individual drills and took some reps in a team run period, and the Bulldogs will proceed cautiously as they approach a key game against the Cowboys.
"In inside period he looked pretty good," coach Tim DeRuyter said. "The thing right now with Dontel is we have to be confident that health-wise he's going to be fine before we even given him a chance out there. Going from not doing anything for a couple of months to live reps is a big change, obviously.
"Having the bye week for him this week is something that hopefully can play into him earning a spot in the rotation. We know he has all the tools. But having been out of it, it's hard to get right back into it."
If James can make progress toward the field, he would change the dynamic in a backfield that has been hurt by injury. James has missed the past seven games, Malique Micenheimer is out for the season following shoulder surgery and freshman Kurt Scoby is out and taking a redshirt year after suffering a severe concussion in the first scrimmage in fall camp back in August.
"We're cautiously optimistic," running backs coach Joe Wade said.
Waller was noticeably absent in the fourth quarter of the Bulldogs' loss last week at Boise State, despite carrying the football 17 times for 162 yards and two touchdowns through the first three quarters.
But the 209-pound junior has carried the ball on 65.3% of the Bulldogs' rushing plays by a running back (124 of 190) and 72.5% against football bowl subdivision opponents (108 of 149), which is the second highest percentage in the conference behind Boise State back Jay Ajayi.
And, for any number of reasons, Juice Quezada has not yet been as productive as he was a year ago. Quezada is averaging just 2.3 yards on 35 carries against FBS competition and has gained just 18 yards on 12 carries over the past three games against San Diego State, at UNLV and at Boise State.
Quezada last season led the team with 807 rushing yards, averaging 5.2 per play.
T.J. Thomas and Darryl Cash also have played at running back, but all of their rushes came in a blowout victory over Southern Utah, a championship subdivision opponent.
"If Dontel is healthy, then now you start looking at is Juice the guy? But we have to play two backs, to have two backs ready to go and that's what we're down to," DeRuyter said. "I think Juice has been a serviceable back. He hasn't been as explosive this year and we have to figure out why he hasn't been as productive as he has been in the past. He still is doing a good job in protection and catching the ball, but he has to make more productive plays especially in the run game.
"A lot of times he's hitting the hole too fast and not waiting for it to develop or sometimes he's being too patient and not decisive enough. It's not one thing where you can say, 'Hey, you have to do this ...' and at times we're not blocking it as well for him as we have for Marteze. It's a combination of things."
The competition James could provide would serve the entire position group well.
"That's the key, getting him in the mix so that he continues to push Josh and Marteze and becomes the player that we all think he can be," DeRuyter said.
'Dogs 'can still be a factor' in MW
DeRuyter on the practice plan this week: "When you're at a point in the season where you're 3-5 you have to look at everything, how you're doing things and how to improve, and we're not going to be content with where we're at," he said. "We realize we're 2-2 (in the Mountain West) right now. We still have a mathematical chance -- we obviously have to get some help with somebody beating San Diego State. But if we can control our destiny we can still be a factor in this race and so we have to figure out a way to get better. One is fundamentals and two is we're going to look at personnel and who we can move around and who can compete better."
SDSU on bye also
The Aztecs, who are 3-1 in conference play, also have a bye this week. They return on Nov. 1 with a game at Nevada, have to play at Boise State on Nov. 15 and finish the regular season with games at home against the Air Force and San Jose State.
Fresno State beat San Diego State in the third of a three-game winning streak in late September and early October and would have a tie-breaker advantage should they end up in a tie.