Fresno State has had an interesting offseason, with a number of players leaving the program at different points and for different reasons. Some were dismissed, some decided to try to transfer.
Quarterback Brian Burrell, who started 13 of 14 games last season, simply decided to forgo his senior season and get on with his life after he graduates in May.
Coach Tim DeRuyter also made changes within his coaching staff, moving running backs coach Joe Wade to work with the outside receivers and outside receivers coach Ron Antoine to coach the running backs. Defensive backs coach Jordan Peterson is now with the front seven, where he will coach outside linebackers; Marcus Woodson continues to work with the cornerbacks and safeties in his second season.
While all of that was going on, a young but talented group has been working since January on the field, in the weight room and in meeting rooms, which sets up a fascinating spring. The Bulldogs on Monday start with practice No. 1 of 15 and will go Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday for the next three weeks, then Tuesday and Thursday leading into the March 28 spring game.
There are a lot of questions on the field, including who will emerge as the leader to start at quarterback — Zack Greenlee, Kilton Anderson or Chason Virgil?
And off the field, too, such as how does the attrition impact the program this season?
DeRuyter, who has led the Bulldogs to two Mountain West Conference championships and one West Division title in his three seasons, provided some answers in a question-and-answer session with The Bee.
The Bee: This spring is a bit different with the experience level at so many positions. Quarterback, obviously, is at the top of that list. Five days in, you’re going to have them scrimmaging. Any other changes to the way you’re approaching it this year?
DeRuyter: We’re changing some things up a little bit just trying to keep it fresh and trying to tweak things a little. I’m going through the schedules right now, and in our core stuff … we believe in what we do. But we’re just making it where coaches are looking at things maybe a little differently and tweaking things slightly. We’re still going to do physical drills, but we may change how we do the drill. We’ll probably do more hitting this year because we have a younger team to see which pups will bite and which pups won’t bite. There’s no way to know and one of the advantages of going early is if you do get someone dinged up, you have some extra time to get them healthy.
We see our guys running around right now and we’re excited about the talent. We have really good speed, but guys have not played very much. It’s time for the young guys from last year to grow up and the new guys that we redshirted to get ready to step up.
Five days in with a scrimmage. Is that faster than you’ve ever put that in?
It’s usually around six to eight that you have your first scrimmage, but you get 15 practices and you get three scrimmages so you try to get what you can in and let’s go play football and see who can actually play.
What are the must-gets out of this spring for you?
I think the big thing since we’ve been back is getting our guys to understand how to compete. Compete in every drill. Compete at your position. Compete for a spot in the roster. Again when you have young guys that haven’t been there, just going through the motions and just learning isn’t good enough. You have to go out and compete every rep to prove that you can play. That’s going to be key. Then establishing the guys that are in the two-deep. Coming out of spring, I would think 80% to 90% is going to be pretty locked in, as far as the two-deep, not the starters and then these guys are definitely the seconds. You’ll have a week and a half or so, two weeks into fall camp, it may change as far as new guys coming in fighting for a spot. But typically the guys that are here from January and go through spring ball are the guys you have to count on in the fall. It’s establishing that two-deep is going to be critical for us and obviously the quarterback position is going to be key.
How do you see that?
It’s pretty wide open right now. Obviously, Zack has a leg up having some experience. We really like what Kilton did last fall and what he has done since January. And Chason coming in, he’s come in and he is behind the other guys physically and in his knowledge of the offense, but he has come in and he has competed in the weight room, he has competed in our Red Dawn morning workouts and I just like the way he carries himself. He doesn’t carry himself like a true freshman who is just trying to figure it out. He wants to go and compete, so it’s fun to watch that.
In this offense, how user-friendly can it be for a true freshman?
It kind of depends on your background. He came from a spread system. Kilton, he played in a wing-T and then one year in a spread system. But it’s how well you pick up concepts and how accurate you are with the football. Probably the biggest thing is understanding defenses and then getting the protections set right. Obviously, those are critical things for quarterbacks to do in our offense He has done some of that in high school, but not nearly to the extent that we’re going to ask guys to. We’re going to dial things back a little bit this spring as far as our overall install and really rep the heck out of our stuff so that our guys feel confident in what they do.
Couple of other critical positions, places you lose some pretty good football players. At nose guard, no Tyeler Davison and then Maurice (Poyadue) decides not to come back. I know you have moved Nate Madsen inside, but the depth there …
Nate will be a nose this spring. We’ll see how he does there. We’re always looking to get our best three and then our best six out there. Coming out of last fall, Nate was a redshirt freshman, did some good things, but now is where we hope that he can really step up and we need him to. He has the raw ability. He’s a big-bodied guy – he’s about 290 right now. He has done a nice job in the weight room, but that’s all just a precursor to, ‘Hey, can you get it done when the ball is snapped?’ We’re hoping that he’s ready to make that transition and become a guy and be a guy that seizes that position.
Ryan Steele is starting to make some progress, which has been encouraging for us to see from him. So those two guys will compete there. Todd Hunt should be the starter at one of the defensive end spots — he has had a nice offseason so far. And Claudell Louis, he has all the potential and he started to come on at the end of the year. We have to see him continue to make strides there and earn that position and keep it, and keep the young guys off of it.
I saw Nate the other day in the conditioning workouts and at first didn’t think it was him because he was so big, but he’s a legit 290.
Yeah, he is. He’s not a fat guy, he’s just thick. He’s not quite where Tyeler was, but his body, his length, is better than Maurice coming in and Maurice developed and played well for us and we’re hoping for the same thing from Nate.
His athleticism should play well inside.
You would think so. We’re always looking for those longer bodied guys and if they aren’t quite athletic enough we’ll move them inside. We also have ways within our package to set them inside even though they’re an outside guy. But I think he’s starting to develop into the guy that we thought he could be. He has a ton of potential still, but he has to realize it. He has to go out there and play like the guy.
Another position is the outside receiver spots. A lot to prove there. And you’ve changed that up – Joe Wade is coaching the outside receivers now and not running backs. Ron Antoine is coaching running backs and not the outside receivers. What went into that switch?
Both of those guys have coached receiver and running back. As we were looking at our cutups in the offseason, there were a lot of good things we did, but there were some things that we thought, ‘Hey, maybe looking at things from a fresh perspective might help,’ at both positions. But from a professional development standpoint, I want guys to keep working at their craft and be well rounded. Both of those guys I think can be coordinators. I know Ron has been a co-coordinator before and I believe Joe has as well. So, again, just getting a different look at things will bring different ideas to the position, whether it’s drill work or different ways to do things.
Just keeping things fresh like that is hopefully going to inject our offense a little bit. I wanted after the season to look at everything. Defensively, we moved Jordan to outside linebackers. It’s not a slight on any of these coaches, I want to keep things fresh. I think Marcus does a great job in the secondary. (Defensive coordinator Nick Toth) is going to spend some time there. He will spend some time at linebacker. We have (Overton Spence) now full time. He has coached the back end and the linebacker position. We’re close to hiring another defensive graduate assistant, so whichever way that will go, OT will go the opposite. So we have some continuity, but we have some fresh ideas, too, which I think you always want to have.
Did the lack of consistency in the offense play into that as well?
It was more of a, ‘Hey, how to we add a spark to this thing and play better than we did a year ago?’ When you compare it to what Derek and Davante did, it’s hard to say with a first-time starting quarterback … we knew we weren’t going to match those numbers. But we did think that there were some things that we could do better, so we wanted to kind of jump-start things and have guys maybe stretch a little bit from a coaching standpoint and relook at things.
Different voice and things?
Yeah, just everything. When you’re here three years, I think human nature you get into a comfort zone and I don’t want our guys to be comfortable. And I didn’t want Cam Norcross coaching the receivers because I didn’t want them hitting a sled all day. But I did want some things changed up a little bit and those were natural positions where guys had coached … Ron has coached running backs before and Joe has coached receivers before. Let’s get a different point of view there.
And with the defensive guys …
Same thing. I think Jordan is a guy that potentially can be a coordinator, so I think if you’re just on the back end you need to learn the front end, so moving him up to outside linebackers is going to help him develop, give Marcus a little more of a voice in the secondary. As quickly as we can get OT coached up on linebackers, Nick might be able to roam around a little more. …
With your roster blueprint, you go with four scholarship quarterbacks and one walk-on. Where do you stand with that right now?
We’re going to continue to look, whether it’s a potential JC guy coming in … we’d like to get an older guy. Just like last year, we’re already getting contacted by guys that are getting ready to graduate and have an additional year. Someone like that is someone we may potentially look at. We like the three that we have right now, so it’s likely we’ll sign one but not definite.
That would leave you in kind of a precarious position.
It would be, and that’s why we’re likely to look at adding. We’ll bring in a high school walk-on guy. We can’t talk about them now (because of NCAA rules), but there are a couple of guys that we were close to offering (a scholarship) so we feel good about those guys, but still, we want to bring in a guy that probably has more experience to come in and compete.
There are some other spots, because of the attrition since the end of the year, so with the scholarship numbers, it’s down a little.
Well, at our receiver position. We’re going to move Chris Moliga over to running back. Receiver-wise, we’re likely to sign a guy or two before the fall and potentially a running back. We’ll see.
What does that do for your scholarship number?
Because we’ve had guys move on, the number you worry about is the initials, because you only get 25 of those a year and we pushed some guys forward. We should be fine on the 85. We had four that we pushed (into the Class of 2015).
In talking with the APR specialist on campus, there isn’t expected to be any issues with the attrition, losing a few guys after the season. But you’re well under the scholarship limit. I know you’re looking to add some guys by the fall, but how do you address that?
We will, and we’re going to put on some guys that walked on with us and have demonstrated that they’re deserving of scholarships. We’ll add a couple more players, we’ll add a couple of guys that are currently on our roster and we’ll be close.
The way last year worked, where you were trying to find sports for guys and pushing scholarships backward or forward, did that play into that? I know last year and again this year there has been a lot of interest from players looking to come to Fresno State.
Right. Every year it seems more and more kids, you’re getting contact by them when they’re graduating and maybe have a year left. We wanted to be in a position where if they fit what we’re looking for we’d have a scholarship for them. That has been part of our plan as we went into this year.
Jim Bartko, in his plan going forward, has plans to add staff, there has been some talk out there about adding a football recruiting position. That obviously would, again, put the program more in line with others in the conference .
We’ve talked about it. We’ve haven’t got into the detail, but he realizes how critical that position is and he wants to compete at the highest part of this conference and it’s kind of the standard in our conference. I shouldn’t say kind of, I think everyone has one.
There are a lot of restrictions on what that position can and can’t do, so how would you make use of it?
That position, when he comes to the office every day, he’s worried about recruiting and so, with everything online right now, he’s the guy that is setting the strategic plan for all of our recruiting, the areas that we recruit, doing studies, we’re doing this currently on where did everybody in our league sign, where did they come from? Not just California, but the county, what part? And even parts of the Pac-12 that we go head to head with, where are those guys coming from?
When we’re getting ready for spring ball, that person would not be involved with football, they’re doing those types of studies, where he can say, ‘In this year’s recruiting class there is more Division I potential guys in this area of the country in this coming year than maybe last year, so we need to move our resources around. Those types of things are critical to be the most efficient that you can be. With social media now, being able to contact those guys early, to get early evaluations and be able to let those kids know, ‘Hey, we’re interested in you …’ We like going through the process of finding out about a kid’s character and having multiple sources talk to us about the young man before we offer, but some guys, it’s pretty set, and we’ve already offered some guys here in the Valley.
Recruiting is just happening so much faster and the country is so much smaller now. Everybody knows who is getting offered. Everybody knows who is getting recruited. If you’re not in there competing every day and have somebody devoted to do it, you’re falling behind.
Ron has done a great job getting the program up to speed with the social media aspect of recruiting, the marketing of the program and how it is presented to recruits. But when you’re the only school, or one of the only ones in the conference without an on-campus recruiter, then that plate of his gets very large.
No doubt. But that’s part of his job. He also has to coach on the other end, and that went into our thought process with the receivers. Typically we have one running back in the game and two or three receivers, so it was a work distribution thing that I thought made sense.
That recruiting position is going to take a lot of the load off of Ron. Now, Ron is still going to be our recruiting coordinator, but a lot of that day-to-day administrative, strategic stuff will be taken care of by whoever we hire as our in-house player personnel director. I’m not sure exactly what the title is going to be, but it will basically be in-house recruiting. They won’t have a role on the field at all.
So, again, slowly catching up to the conference …
Again, if you want to compete in the conference recruiting is one of the key factors. I’ve found that I’m a lot better coach when I have better players and most coaches are. You have to have the resources to get to those areas where the players are. You have to make sure that they know that you’re interested in them. You have to do a thorough evaluation. You have to do a great evaluation of, what is their potential?
A lot of times that’s the key, having a great evaluator as opposed to, ‘Well, everyone else is recruiting this kid let’s jump on in, too.’ Well, he may or may not fit your program for a number of reasons, not just measurables. He might be a great quarterback, but he’s not the typical quarterback that we’re looking for here as opposed to a different system. There are a lot of factors that go into it and again, that person is going to wake up every day and that’s going to be their sole focus.
With your evaluation process, how has that evolved in your time here?
I guess there are two things. The way we do our recruiting here, each position coach, I talk to them about, ‘Hey, you’re your general manager.’ When we go through the recruiting process, the area coach will say, ‘I’ve got a guy, Jason Clay, I want you to evaluate him as a receiver,’ and if you’re the receivers coach you look at him and think, ‘I don’t like him.’ He’s too slow. He’s too whatever. He got rejected. But then you bring him somebody else, ‘Hey, these are the guys that I think can play right now.’ A lot of times, the guys that are the no-doubters, well everybody is recruiting those guys. But somehow through the process you find the guys that you like.
If you’re recruiting and you only have two slots, but here’s this 6-foot-5, 210-pound guy and he’s not quite fast enough and I don’t know if he’s going to be a tight end or a receiver if he can get faster, I don’t know if he’s going to be an outside linebacker, what we do is each coach has their (scholarship) number for their position, but we’ll also save a couple for wild card guys that might not have a position, but we’ll figure them out as football players.
A guy like Kyle Riddering, I don’t know what he’s going to be, but we know he’s a football player. Right now he’s going to be a tight end, but he might be 270 pounds by this time next year and maybe he’s a left tackle or a defensive end. You get those guys, they’re good hard-nosed football players and you let them grow from there.
DeShawn Potts is another guy that is similar. He was a quarterback in high school and we said, ‘You know what, he can run, he’s athletic. Is he a safety? Is he a receiver?’ And he is doing a nice job in our offseason program. I think he’s going to have a chance to compete for a job this fall based on what we’ve seen from him so far.
One of the questions going into last season was how well the program was positioned to be able to take a next step. Same question this year, but I think there’s a better answer.
I think we’re going to be young again this year. Obviously, at the quarterback position, we’re going to play a guy that hasn’t played a lot whether it’s Zack, whether it’s Kilton, whether it’s Chason or whether it’s someone that comes in this fall. But I think we have a lot of talent. I think we’re going to be much-improved on defense even though we’re losing a couple of key guys in Tyeler (Davison) and Derron (Smith), of course, and (Donavon Lewis) did some good things for us, among other guys. But I think we’re starting to develop the athleticism that we’re looking for at a lot of different positions. I’m encouraged there and with our young skill, I like where we’re at and on our offensive line, if we can find a couple of guards to replace (Cody Wichmann and Sean Rubalcava) and we have a couple of young guys that we’re excited about, I think are going to be just as good if not better up front.
From an infrastructure standpoint you’re in much better shape than a year or two years ago with the addition of the training table and things, but …
The direction is clearly heading North. From a recruiting standpoint, from a development standpoint, I think we’re poised to continue to keep competing at the top half of the league and we absolutely have to be able to do that. You have to have the resources to do that. I’m excited about the energy on campus now with (Bartko) coming in. With the people I see, it seems like he has met half the town already because everywhere I go people say, ‘Hey, I saw Jim here, there everywhere … .’ They’re excited. It’s creating a buzz in town again about Fresno State athletics.
His plans for Bulldog Stadium certainly are interesting.
A couple weeks back we were walking around the facility, about two or three hours, with the architects and designers. I think he has got some great plans that they’re supposed to be getting back to us with. Again, I think it’s going to be something that’s going to energize not just our campus but the entire community to have something that is going to be a first-class facility.
So there is a foundation under the growth of the program …
Well, I think he realizes it’s a part of our program that we have to address. From a facilities standpoint, if you want to compete at the top and if you want to be considered if that Power Five group decides to expand, you have to make an investment and a commitment to your facilities. Jim understands that, and not just from that perspective, but I think he also looks at our customers. No. 1 are our student-athletes. But No. 2 are the people that help us provide the resources so that we can run all these programs, and that’s our fans and the biggest revenue generator is that stadium.
To take care of our customers better, having a facility that’s one of the tops in the conference would be a great goal. From the planners that we talked to and the designers, they clearly can get that done. And then again, that helps recruiting and it builds on everything.
One thing this spring, the mental makeup of the team last year, it never seemed like what was coming from within was at the level that it needed to be. How does that change, improve?
It’s hard to put a finger on it, but we noticed that. You try to push guys and make them fight and compete and challenge them. Some guys get it and other guys for whatever reason didn’t.
I think sometimes what happens, you know, we had a lot of guys on last year’s team, and they’re all good kids, but some guys hadn’t played a whole lot in the first two years. I know in other programs that I’ve been to, when you’ve had two good years in a row and now it’s a new year some guys feel like it’s our inheritance, that people are supposed to bow down to us. That’s not how it is. When it got hard and we got punched in the teeth a couple of times, we didn’t respond well.
That’s something, it started in January, our theme for this spring and this offseason is earn it and we want guys to compete in everything that we do. We’re refocusing on that. Everything we do, it’s a competition. If you’re not willing to mix it up and get your knuckles dirty, you’re going to get left behind. It’s a harsh reality, but it’s the only way you can operate if you want to compete at the top of the conference.
In fixing that, do you see that as a coaching thing or …
It starts here. Yeah, it’s a coaching thing. I have to figure out what buttons do we need to push in order to get guys to play at their maximum, to compete at their maximum. It starts there, that if we can’t push those right buttons we have to look to change some things.
Is it a recruiting thing, better identifying that innate something?
It’s a combination. It starts with the coaches. When you’re looking at guys, what is their level of commitment to the team? When you have guys do things that get themselves suspended obviously their level of commitment is not what you would hope it to be. Part of that is obviously we didn’t motivate them enough. Bottom line, it comes back to me because we recruit them, we train them and we have to do a better job on all of that. Again, it has been reemphasized and we have to go out and go back and earn it again and get these guys to buy in again.
I like the makeup of our guys coming back. I think we have some guys that are very competitive guys. I think we have some young guys that are highly competitive that want a chance at fighting for it. I think it’s going to be a real competitive spring that way.
At first we came in here and there was a good nucleus of guys and they were just better than the twos and they pushed. It was a new challenge for them and they responded well to it. The second year we got even better, with everybody going through it a second time. Last year we had to reload with some guys, some that had been through it like Derron and Tyeler, and others that hadn’t. We won a division championship, but that wasn’t good enough. Clearly, in a few games we didn’t play well at all. We have to figure out how we change that in order to continue to compete at the highest level because in a large way we lucked into that championship. We were good enough to beat the better teams in our division, but stubbed our toes on arguably a couple of games that we should have won.
So you see that mindset evolving, then?
To me, those games that we lost in our league, Boise beat us, and I don’t mean to disparage those other teams, but we didn’t play well enough in those other two games. We didn’t play to what we we’re capable of, and for whatever reason we had a team mentality that when we played a Boise or a San Diego State or Nevada our guys played up and when we played a couple of teams that we thought we should have beaten we didn’t play with that same edge. We have to get to where we are competing no matter who we play at the same level. That’s hard to do. It’s easier said than done. But that’s the standard and we’re not going to change the standard.