Fresno State tight end Chad Olsen is starting to become a matchup advantage for the Bulldogs.
More importantly, quarterback Brian Burrell is starting to regularly find the 6-foot-5 true freshman downfield.
And that chemistry between the first-year starting quarterback and the rookie tight end is proving to be key in developing both as offensive weapons. It figures to factor whether Bulldogs can close the regular season with two more wins to secure bowl eligibility and an appearance in the Mountain West championship game.
“Really pleased with where he’s come,” Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter said of Olsen. “We thought he was a special talent when we recruited him. During training camp, he was making great progress. And each week he’s getting better. He’s getting more involved as we go.
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“You get a good relationship with the tight end, the guy makes plays with you. Having a tight end in the offense, it obviously affects the running game. There’s more multiple things we can do in the running game with him. And then the play-action game opens things up.”
The Burrell-to-Olsen connection played an integral role last week in Fresno State’s 38-24 win against San Jose State.
Burrell was at his most accurate this season, completing 20 of 26 passes (76.9%) for 207 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. Olsen reeled in four passes for a season-high 62 yards and a touchdown.
The fact that the two hooked up three times for 33 yards and touchdown before halftime helped open up the Bulldogs’ offense in the second half, as Burrell began to find his outside receivers in single coverage.
“There were some play calls we had Chad wide open — credit that to (offensive coordinator Dave) Schramm,” Burrell said. “When we got into 10 personnel (four receivers, one running back formations), the defense is likely to sub and put another nickel guy in. With Chad out there, they have to stay big and keep a linebacker in there because we’re liable to run the ball or pass the ball. It helps us with the balance.
“But he’s really fast. He can be a deep threat. He’s going to be a really, really good player. He’s already effective out there right now.”
Olsen, who is from Pleasant Valley High-Chico, made an immediate impact — once the Bulldogs started reincorporating the tight end in their game plan in late September. A 4-yard TD marked his first career college catch, coming in a 56-16 win against Southern Utah. Three games later, Olsen made four receptions for 55 yards and two touchdowns during a 30-27 loss at UNLV.
Olsen went without a catch vs. Boise State and Wyoming — mostly because he wasn’t targeted — but responded with his biggest impact of the year against San Jose State.
Burrell found his tight end for catches of 15, 18, 2 and 29 yards. Olsen’s touchdown was the 2-yarder, on fourth-and-goal.
“Throughout the season, we’ve really grown a lot closer,” Olsen said of Burrell. “We’re a lot more comfortable with each other. He’s been able to feel where I’ll be on certain routes. I’ve been able to feel where he’s looking on certain routes. That’s been the biggest thing.
“I was definitely able to find some open space that Brian could get the ball to me.”
Of course, there still are areas both players must work on, most notably avoiding turnovers.
Burrell, now a junior after transferring from Bakersfield College ahead of last season, has thrown for 1,769 yards and 16 touchdowns but with 10 interceptions in 2014.
Olsen’s first catch against San Jose State resulted in a fumble at the Spartans 6. And he paid for that with a series of up-down drills at the conclusion of Monday’s practice. Olsen also wants to beef up once the offseason comes. He arrived at Fresno State at 217 pounds and has gained 20 since.
He said his ideal playing weight is 245 pounds — muscle that could help him further in blocking and being utilized more in the run game.
“As a freshman, the physicality of it, sometimes you’re not going to be as big as what you’re going to be in a couple of years,” DeRuyter said. “But the thing I love about him is he’s got the want-to. He doesn’t worry he’s only (237) pounds, he’s going to throw it up in there.
“Not having as much lead in his pencil, he doesn’t have as much force as he’ll have next year or the year after. That desire is getting him through right now.”
On bye, it’s hello recruiting
Fresno State is using this week’s bye to make up for some lost time on the recruiting trail.
The Bulldogs will limit practice to one hour Thursday, with a 6:30 a.m. start, so the coaching staff can hit the road shortly after and visit recruits this weekend.
Fresno State has been hampered a bit with in-person evaluations and visits after a run of four straight Friday night games.
Root back at running back
With starting running back Marter Waller nursing a shoulder injury and backups Dontel James and Malique Micenheimer already out, the Bulldogs are thin at the position.
That prompted the coaching staff to move junior Dillon Root from slot receiver to running back for the bye week practices and potentially for the remainder of the season.
The 6-foot, 194-pound Root, originally recruited as a running back out of Redwood High under then-coach Pat Hill, has continued to move positions every season.
He spent a season redshirting as a running back in 2011, switched to slot receiver once DeRuyter took over, then moved to cornerback midway through the 2013 season before returning to receiver this season.
“It’s been a few years, but it should be fun,” Root said. “I think I’ve always had a place in my heart for running back since that’s where I was in high school.”
For the season, Root has 10 catches for 85 yards and four carries for 27 yards and is averaging 19.5 yards on 23 kick returns.
In Waller’s absence, senior Josh Quezada is back with the first team and sophomore T.J. Thomas was elevated to the second. Thomas played running back last season but began this year at inside linebacker before moving back midseason.
Bulldogs get new GA
DeRuyter announced on Veterans Day that Air Force veteran Overton Spence Jr., will join the coaching staff as a graduate assistant, helping with the inside linebackers.
Spence is an Air Force Academy graduate, where he played inside and outside linebacker from 2001-06. He spent the past eight years as a procurement officer.
He played in several defensive schemes throughout his career, including the 3-4 that Fresno State runs. In 2005, he recorded 52 tackles, including seven for a loss, two sacks and a fumble recovery.
Spence expects to earn a master’s in sports management from the American Military University in February and is working toward a master’s in curriculum and instruction at Fresno State.