This is long ago, four years back now, sometime in the middle of the 2012 football season when Alex Fifita was just a freshman.
The Fresno State Bulldogs’ left tackle had been pushed onto the field well ahead of schedule for an offensive lineman just a few months out of high school, particularly for an offensive lineman who had been available and recruited well after national letter of intent signing day, and more so for an offensive lineman that had played in a Wing-T in high school and was learning what is a different game in an un-tempo spread.
But he had worked hard on the techniques and the fundamentals of his position, the incongruous precision required to make it all work, and to find the nasty required to play college football.
Fifita didn’t join the program until the Bulldogs were in their second week of fall camp, but practiced his way onto the field. His first career game was in Week 3 in a blowout victory over Colorado. His first career start came in Week 9 in a victory at New Mexico.
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But it was never easy.
Running through a drill one day on the practice field, offensive line coach Cameron Norcross growled at high volume, as he had countless times, “Alex Fifita …” The young tackle braced himself. His shoulders slumped a little. His head dropped. And Norcross followed that up with, “Nice job.”
The shoulders straightened. He looked up. Behind that face mask, there might have been a smile.
“You do that sometimes,” Norcross chuckled. “You get their attention and let them know, ‘I saw it. That was a great job.’ You’re expecting a butt chewing and all of a sudden they get the praise.
“I’m going to yell at them when they’re right and I’m going to yell at them when they’re wrong. More often than not, it’s when they’re wrong, but when they’re right I’m going to celebrate it.”
Fifita was nearing a takeoff point then, it was clear. He was big, athletic. He was intrigued by and worked at the craft of mashing. And now, in 2015, he enters a senior season an important cog in the drive train of the Bulldogs’ offense along with seniors Bo Bonnheim at center and Justin Northern at right guard.
That is a lot of ground covered, going from a big and athletic but raw kid to a player that has generated expectations, has the attention of NFL scouts that visit Bulldogs’ practices.
The growth, the development that he has had between the weight room and what Coach Norcross has given him, I think it’s going to give him a chance to make some money a year from now.
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter on left tackle Alex Fifita
“He has grown his football knowledge tremendously,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “He has been blessed with a big, athletic body, and he is able to use that to move his feet and still be powerful, which gives him a chance to be a really good left tackle. At the next level, I think he’s probably an inside guy. But for us, I think he is as good a left tackle as there is in the league.
“The growth, the development that he has had between the weight room and what Coach Norcross has given him, I think it’s going to give him a chance to make some money a year from now.”
Fifita didn’t see any of that coming, and there were times it was tougher than others.
“My first couple of practices, I was just going in there not expecting anything, not knowing anything, just to do my best,” he said. “I had a taste of it, because of high school. But at a different level, at a higher level, that made it different. Everything was different. You have to be more physical and have your fundamentals right, your technique has to be spot on.”
After starting the final five games of that freshman season at right tackle, Fifita was moved to left guard with Northern moving in at tackle. He started the first six games there in 2013, but lost that spot to Bonnheim.
The following spring, he was moved to left tackle where he would be charged with replacing Austin Wentworth, a two-time first-team all-conference selection.
At the time, it was a quizzical move. Fifita had been moved off of right tackle, he had played sparingly down the stretch of the previous season. And he was going to protect the blind side of the Bulldogs’ quarterbacks in a season they would open at USC, play at Utah and against Nebraska.
But he ended the season starting every single game and gained honorable mention on the all-conference team. He enters this season as a preseason all-conference selection.
“I remember his first time on the sled,” said Richard Helepiko, who was a senior on that offensive line when Fifita was a freshman and is now a graduate assistant coach at Fresno State.
“His very first time was not very good and they just kept going and going and going. He came back the next day and he was like, ‘I’m going to do good this time’ and he just came off the sled and it looked like it wasn’t his first day all of a sudden. The thing about him is he picks up everything really fast.”
And he has grown to be very good at it.
“A defense like ours, when they’re blitzing from everywhere, he just has a feel and he takes a guy and lifts him up and puts him in a gap that he doesn’t want to be in because he knows where the ball is, he knows our full scheme …” Norcross said.
This season is the fourth in a series for Fifita. He has made big moves, but there is more ahead for the 6-foot-4, 306-pound senior from Hayward. He hasn’t lost sight of that, since that first day of fall camp.
“I remember my first day here, because it was like 113 degrees outside,” Fifita said. “I just told myself that I was going to work to get better, just like any athlete would say. I never expected myself to be at the level that I am now, but it was a goal that I definitely wanted to achieve.”
There are 12 games to get there, perhaps a spot in a fourth consecutive Mountain West Conference championship game and a bowl game to end it.
“There are probably two things that he has to do,” Norcross said. “He has to refine his technique, continue to do that to where he doesn’t accept being beat by anyone. All-Conference, All-American, it doesn’t matter. He has the ability; he shouldn’t be beaten by anyone. And the second is just playing with a nasty demeanor and a physicality knowing that he is better than everyone and he is going to maul guys. I used to talk to Austin Wentworth about that. Doing your assignment against a guy isn’t necessarily good enough. It’s that domination.
“But I think he has the ability to be the best tackle in our league. I thought that when he was a freshman when he missed half of fall camp. The first day he was here, you could see the raw athleticism.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada