Fresno State and offensive line coach Cameron Norcross have not had it easy the past three seasons, but have pieced together and built up a position group that has helped win a lot of football games and set single-game and season records.
With a lack of depth and balance between classes at the start of the current staff's arrival, the Bulldogs had to plug some holes with junior college recruits, play some freshmen and elevate others and some walk-ons on the depth chart.
Norcross, however, said they are close to stability, even as they prepare to lose two starters after the Dec. 24 Hawaii Bowl against Rice.
Left guard Sean Rubalcava and right guard Cody Wichmann, who was a second-team all-Mountain West Conference selection, are both seniors.
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"We’ve mixed JCs and things like that, and this past year is the first real class where we took all high school guys," said Norcross, who returned to town early Friday morning from an out-of-state recruiting trip. "We brought in Jacob Vazquez (who has four years to play three seasons), but we did take five freshmen and hopefully we’ll be able to do that this next year and kind of get out of the JC business other than maybe one here or one there every couple of years or so where we're not so dependent on it."
Aaron Mitchell has been a backup at left guard all season, but the other freshmen — Bobby Johnson, Ben Simonds, Jacob Hicks and Art Gomez as well as non-scholarship walk-on Micah St. Andrew — are getting a chance this first week of bowl prep to get some work in the Bulldogs' schemes after running on the scout team all season. But Norcross has liked the competitiveness of the group, all along.
"There isn't anybody in that group that doesn't want to be a really good football player," Norcross said. "They all do what you ask them and they're all competitive. They want to be coached. They want to be better. They all have a burning desire to be better.
"Fundamentally there are some that are OK, but just schematically they're a little behind because they don't sit in meetings when we talk about certain things. The last time they really did it against this stuff was fall camp, so it's like a brand new day. They struggle with it a little bit, but some of them are doing a real good job picking it up and a guy like Bobby, who missed most of fall camp, some of this stuff is all new to him and I'm jumping his tail, but he doesn't really know what's going on right now.
"But from a strength standpoint, most of them are where we want them to be at this point. We have to get a little weight on a couple of them, take a little weight off some of them and after that we'll be all right. We have a good group of freshman guys, walk-ons and scholarship guys."
Bowl week prep plans shuffled
The Bulldogs will leave for Hawaii on Friday and when they arrive they will be on a different work schedule than they have had for their past two bowls — losses to Southern Methodist in the 2012 Hawaii and to USC last season in the Las Vegas.
"We’re going to get into more of a true game week, differently than what we did in the past," coach Tim DeRuyter said. "The focus is going to be different every single day and our practice schedule is going to be different. (The last two years) once we got on site we kind of dialed it down a little bit. We had a veteran group. We thought they could handle it and obviously we didn't perform as well as we should have so we're going to change it. We're going to make it more gamelike and get them into a routine that they're used to being in."
The Bulldogs will have a short walk-through before they take off — a usual Monday practice during game week. Then they will go as they would during the season, with two days of practices in pads, one in shells, and a final alk-through leading into the game.
"I think for this group, anything where we keep then in a routine helps," DeRuyter said. "The second bye week, we did the exact same thing, because the first bye week we didn't. We did it where we had a Tuesday practice on a Monday and a Monday practice on a Tuesday and we had a couple of Thursday practices and obviously that didn't work too well."
Coming out of that first bye, the Bulldogs lost big to Wyoming.
"I just think for this group, you're always trying to tweak and make it to where these guys perform at an optimal level," DeRuyter said. "We did that the second bye week and hopefully that same type of scenario will work out."
• Rice will be playing in a bowl game for the third year in a row, the longest streak in school history and the longest active streak in Conference USA. The Owls' 24-15 record over the past three seasons also is the best over a three-year span in school history.
• DeRuyter has taken the Bulldogs to bowl games in Hawaii and Las Vegas and now is headed back to the islands. Both sites are high-distraction destinations. There will be a curfew in place once they land in Hawaii, and it will get earlier and earlier as the game approaches. In 2012, the Bulldogs didn't have a curfew, but they did have team meetings at 6:30 a.m. "That pretty much took care of that," DeRuyter joked.
• The past two teams to start a season 0-3, like the Bulldogs, and reach a bowl game ended up winning — San Diego State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl last season and Florida International in the Little Caesars in 2010. Before that, 6 of 8 dating to 2001 lost.