Fresno State quarterback Zack Greenlee put a lot of distance Thursday night between himself and that unfortunate start that he made last season.
Set up for success with an extra week to prepare coming off a bye, playing at home and against a staid defense compared to some he could have faced, Greenlee went a little wide-eyed in a Nov. 1 loss to Wyoming, got a little flustered. He hit 7 of 16 passes for 55 yards and put up just 10 points against a team that gave up more than three times that in finishing 10th in the Mountain West Conference in scoring defense.
At halftime, he was benched.
Greenlee, now a redshirt sophomore with another spring and another summer under him, did not lock up the starting job Thursday but handled well the pressures that his own defense threw at him in the first fall scrimmage of 2015.
Never miss a local story.
7 of 13 Greenelee’s passing numbers, good for 21 yards and a TD
He identified blitzes, knew where his outs were. He didn’t get flustered, didn’t lose his composure. He worked the pocket, kept his eyes downfield and made plays with his feet after dodging blitzes.
On his first series, with the No. 1 offense working against the No. 1 defense, Greenlee scrambled for a first down on third-and-9. Two plays later, he again escaped a deteriorating pocket and scrambled 50 yards for a touchdown, getting a key block downfield by redshirt freshman receiver KeeSean Johnson.
On his next series, he threw a 1-yard TD pass to tight end Chad Olsen. And on his third series, he got more points: a 35-yard field goal by Kody Kroening after the offense fizzled at the 17.
“He has worked hard at understanding defense, understanding protections, knowing where his outs are,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “When you don’t know that, it feels like it’s coming from all sides. When you understand where the protection is set, where the hole is, he is able to step up into the pocket where he needs to, buy himself some time and that’s where big plays happen.”
He has worked hard at understanding defense, understanding protections, knowing where his outs are.
coach Tim DeRuyter on the year-over-year progression of redshirt sophomore QB Zack Greenlee
Greenlee’s development was a bright spot for the Bulldogs, who saw quite a few more in the scrimmage on both sides of the ball – including a stellar interception by safety Dalen Jones.
On that play, he triggered hard to defend a bullet pass and engaged Johnson, driving the wideout (who was blocking the play) back into the intended receiver. Freshman quarterback Chason Virgil fired and Jones caught the ball with his left hand while holding onto Johnson with his right.
“Crazy … I don’t know how it happened, either,” Jones said.
The defense also came up with turnovers on fumble recoveries by outside linebacker Kyrian Obidiegwu and inside linebacker Michael Lazarus, and at one point through the middle of the scrimmage scuttled 10 consecutive third-down plays by the offense. Obidiegwu and defensive end Todd Hunt had sacks.
With senior running back Marteze Waller sitting out to remove all risk of injury in the 98-play scrimmage, the Bulldogs still got some solid downhill runs from senior Malique Micenheimer, a sizzling run on a 26-yard gain on a screen pass to Dustin Garrison that set up a touchdown and some nice plays from walk-on backs Dejonte O’Neal and Wesley Hill.
Junior transfer quarterback Ford Childress completed a 22-yard touchdown pass to Da’Mari Scott in a red-zone sequence.
Virgil had some trouble with the blitz, but got the No. 1 offense into the end zone during red zone, setting up the score with a nice play scrambling away from pressure to hit Olsen for a 16-yard gain.
Redshirt freshman Kilton Anderson completed 10 of 15 passes for 121 yards, including a 66-yard pass to freshman tight end Jared Rice at the end of the scrimmage, but had trouble with his handoff exchanges and on a third-and-goal from the 1 on his first series had the ball slip out of his hand when setting up to throw. The Bulldogs ended up kicking a short field goal.
All of the quarterbacks have work to do at this early stage of camp, including Greenlee. They will have two more scrimmage opportunities to showcase improvement, on Aug. 20 and Aug. 24, which will be closed to the public. But the ability of Greenlee to better handle pressure stood out, more so because of where he stood at the end of the 2014 season.
Aug. 20, Aug. 24 Bulldogs’ remaining fall-camp scrimmages, key milestones in picking a starter at QB
“I think the biggest thing was getting up in that film room and understanding, if the defense is coming from here what they can do defensively,” Greenlee said. “I think I’ve definitely gained a lot of knowledge since then, this offseason and in spring ball.
“I’ve worked on a lot of things. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better keeping my eyes downfield and working the pocket. It’s one of the main things I’ve worked on since spring ball and I want to just keep progressing. This is just the first scrimmage and we have another one coming up soon so I just want to get better, watch this film, learn from it and do the best I can in the next one.”
Said offensive coordinator Dave Schramm: “He’s growing up. From the deer in the headlights look to where he is now. He’s growing up and he’s doing a nice job.
“He understands the offense. We have to get him going a little faster, but that’s progress. It doesn’t just happen, especially when you’re playing a defense like ours. We can’t do anything better for the growth of our quarterbacks – what we see in practice is the hardest thing we’ll see all year. He did some good things and so we keep going.”
Freshman’s struggles come with territory
Virgil did not get off to a great start, the true freshman throwing the bullet pass that was intercepted by Jones and finishing his first series throwing five consecutive incomplete passes. He struggled some during the week with the defenses coming at him, and saw more of it in the scrimmage.
“Young guys, when it’s (7 on 7) you can see a lot of talent there, but the true measure of a quarterback is when all the bullets are flying, can you hang in there and be able to perform?” DeRuyter said. “I think all the installs weigh on him a little.”
The positive there is that with every rep, he pushes himself forward.
“The thing about him is he doesn’t get real wide-eyed and most of the time he’s going to the right place with the ball,” Schramm said. “He’s just inaccurate because his mechanics have to get better. He has a tendency to drop his elbow, his feet don’t work with his arm, but he goes to the right place with the football.
“He just has to get settled in on how the protections work and when we go fast and when we don’t and get put in that stressful environment. Guys have to overcome the ‘I have to make a play, I have to make a play.’ No, you don’t. You get the ball to the guys who have to make a play. That’s your job. Now, everybody thinks you made a play, but all you’re doing is flipping the ball out there and away he goes, right? But he’s learning. He’s a sharp, sharp, guy for a true freshman. He’s a pretty bright football guy. I’m excited about him and his future.”
That spells B-o-o-m, almost
In trying to bump up the competitiveness of the secondary, defensive backs coach Marcus Woodson has had the cornerbacks and safeties focused on earning the nickname “Boom Squad.”
After the first week of camp, they had gained some ground there.
“Right now we have the B and the two O’s. We’re still missing the M and the spelling of squad as well,” Woodson said.
The play by Jones might have brought them another letter. But the junior safety said there still was a lot of work to be done before anyone lays claim to it.
“We’re still working on it,” he said. “We still have a lot of work to do. We have a lot more practices left before our opener, so we have to keep it moving.
“We’re trying to be more physical. That what we’re focusing on – physicality. We lost Derron (Smith to the NFL) and Derron, he brought everybody together as a team and as a unit, so we’re all trying to move forward together. That’s our plan. We’re trying to be physical and give ourselves that identity and let everybody know that we’re getting after it this year.”
Avoiding the big ones
The 50-yard touchdown run by Greenlee came against the No. 1 defense, but the other big play, the TD from Anderson to Rice, came with a combination of threes and fours on the field.
Big plays obviously were a huge detriment to the Bulldogs last season, Fresno State ranking 10th of 12 in the Mountain West in explosive plays allowed (20 or more yards) and 121st of 128 in the nation.
Houston, Stanford and Syracuse were tied for the national lead, allowing only 37 plays of 20 or more yards.
“I like the way out defense is competing,” DeRuyter said. “Our defense has a bunch of guys back that played not necessarily well at times last year, but just that experience when you come back you have to have a different swagger about you. Other than two plays, I don’t remember a lot of big plays being given up, which has been out Achilles’ heel in the past, so that is encouraging.”
▪ Greenlee, while completing 7 of 13 passes for 21 yards, also converted three of four opportunities on third down – Micenheimer picked up 2 on a third-and-2, Greenlee had the two scrambles, and on the fourth, a third-and-10, he missed high in trying to get the football to redshirt freshman Jamire Jordan, who was open crossing the middle of the field.
▪ Greenlee and Virgil split the reps with the No. 1 offense, and both also got reps with the twos. Anderson and Childress got reps with the twos and threes.
▪ Kroening and fellow kicker Jimmy Camacho nailed their two field-goal attempts apiece, Kroening from 31 and 35 yards and Camacho from 23 and 24. Kroening is hitting the ball much better and much more consistently than a year ago, when he was pressed onto the field as a true freshman.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada