They were not in full pads, just helmets and shorts. There was no real pass rush to deal with. And the reads, they weren’t always correct.
But right or wrong, Zack Greenlee, Kilton Anderson and Chason Virgil, the young, younger and youngest quarterbacks vying to be Fresno State’s starter this fall, came out swinging on Monday in the first of their 15 spring football practices.
Anderson and Greenlee threw the ball well and Virgil, the true freshman who graduated early from West Mesquite High in Mesquite, Texas, to enroll in school and join this competition, showed absolutely no hesitation in attacking tight windows with some of his throws.
“I thought all three did some good things,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “We had some carry-over with Zack from before. Kilton is starting to jump on in it after not getting a whole lot of reps last year and then I thought Chason threw the ball well. He’s still learning a ton, so we have to work on some of those guys as far as decisions, but I thought all three showed some poise.”
They are not gun shy — that was clear. And for Greenlee, that was a big deal, because he certainly could have been given the end of last season. Eight games in, then a redshirt freshman, Greenlee was elevated to start against Wyoming in what appeared a picture-perfect scenario coming off a bye week with extra time to prepare, playing against an uncomplicated defense and a team that was 3-5 and coming into Bulldog Stadium on a four-game losing streak in which it had yielded an average of 41.5 points.
Play well, and the job was his for the rest of the season. But he didn’t make it through the game, completing 7 of 16 passes (43.8%) for 54 yards and a passing efficiency rating of 72.63.
Four months later, Greenlee said he feels far ahead of where he was at any point last season, the experience in the loss to Wyoming leaving no visible marks. And he knows exactly what he needs to work on this spring: his poise.
“Going into that game, I feel like everything was kind of loud and kind of scrambled around me,” Greenlee said. “I’m getting more of that sense of comfort. I need to work on being in the pocket more. That’s one of the biggest things I need to work: just being calm. Being at the quarterback position, the biggest thing you have to do is be poised, so I just need to work on that and being able to handle everything that’s going on.
“It comes with reps. You work it, and the more experience you have the better you’re going to get at it. When you’re young, like I was last year, I was letting the pocket collapse me and not handling it well and not working the pocket good. It’s something you need to work. I need to be more comfortable in the pocket.”
As the spring goes along, the defense will throw more and more at Greenlee, Anderson and Virgil. Disguise. Blitzes. How they handle it will go a long way in who will emerge with the inside track toward a start on Sept. 5 against Abilene Christian. They will need to make the right reads, good decisions with the football. Most important, take care of it. Last season the Bulldogs were minus-7 in turnover margin, tied for ninth in the Mountain West Conference, and 21 of those turnovers lost came on interceptions thrown by Brian Burrell (18) and Brandon Connette (three).
“There’s only one way to be comfortable,” Greenlee said. “So over these next 14 practices that’s the main thing I’m going to be focusing on, being able to lead and to work the pocket.”
• Answers will come once the Bulldogs put full pads on, but Nate Madsen did well on his first day playing to nose guard. Very active. “I like the aggressiveness he practiced with today,” DeRuyter said.
• When Burrell decided to forgo his senior season, Greenlee became the eldest and most experienced quarterback in the program, despite being a redshirt sophomore with all of 41 passes on his résumé. “It’s definitely different being the oldest this young,” he said, “but it’s time to step up and be the oldest guy, be the leader, be the veteran.”
• DeRuyter on Virgil: “I like the fact that he’s getting in there and aggressively competing. He’s not always making the right read, but he’s going to throw it in there. We’ll coach him up on making some good decisions, but I like the fact that he’s not shy. I like the way the ball comes off his hand. He threw some very catchable balls to guys and we have some good young receivers that have an opportunity to catch a bunch of balls so they need to learn how to do it this spring.”