Fresno State football coach Tim DeRuyter and offensive coordinator Dave Schramm were hoping to see some separation in the Bulldogs’ quarterback competition – and after the practice leading into a scrimmage Thursday, third-year sophomore Zack Greenlee might have been the least likely to provide it among the three vying to start the season opener against Abilene Christian.
Freshman Chason Virgil had rebounded nicely from a rough patch in fall camp, stringing together a succession of strong practices. Junior transfer Ford Childress had steadily gained ground and earned more reps. Greenlee? He was coming off his worst practice of the fall, taking a step backward when stuck in slow motion against blitzes the defense threw at him.
But after that practice, Greenlee went straight to the film room to figure out what exactly had and had not happened, and on Thursday in the second scrimmage in fall camp, he delivered.
There was separation – though to determine to what degree, Schramm deferred to the tape in order to dissect the performances of all three quarterbacks.
“You can’t throw the ball to the other team. You have to handle pressure. That’s what it all comes down to and who handles that the best,” Schramm said. “That’s what we’re going to base our decision on. That’s what I want to see right now: Are you making the right call? Sometimes, somebody gets beat inside. The D-line is doing a good job, the linebackers make a nice move in pass rush. They get beat. That’s going to happen. But are you able to see where it’s coming from based on what our rules are and are you able to get yourself protected? We’ll watch the film and we’ll go from there.
“There were some positives and some negatives. We had some decent explosive plays, and we had some really horrible, horrible decisions.”
Greenlee was not perfect, but on that tape there will be some big plays against pressure. And, a different player than the one who was frozen on the practice field a day earlier.
In completing 9 of 11 passes for 166 yards and two scores, Greenlee made two plays that stood out.
On the first, he deftly sidestepped pressure, sliding out to his left while keeping his eyes downfield. He spotted an opening, gave Da’Mari Scott a wave to direct the wideout toward it and lofted a pass into it. Scott got there and so did the football, with cornerback Malcolm Washington closing. Scott went up and yanked down the football, the result a 42-yard touchdown.
On the second, Greenlee stepped up inside a pocket that was closing around him, buying the time to fire a blitz-beating pass to a wide-open KeeSean Johnson crossing the field for a 45-yard touchdown.
That was not happening on the practice field a day earlier.
“When you’re on the field and a few things go wrong, you have an understanding of what you’re going to see, but it’s always good to get up there and visually see it again on film,” Greenlee said. “So the next time you see the same thing, you kind of understand how it’s going to go.”
He navigated his way through the pressures and there was a lot of it – the defense racked up nine sacks in the 103-play scrimmage, two by outside linebacker Ejiro Ederaine.
Greenlee on the touchdown passes to Scott and Johnson: “Plays break down. That’s just football. Nothing is always going to go as planned. I think when things break down, you have to make the defense hurt. If they want to blitz, they’re going to be light in coverage. So you have to be able to make plays when they want to dial up some blitzes.”
The other two quarterbacks flashed against that pressure but were less consistent.
Childress completed 5 of 14 passes for 60 yards and was intercepted twice, though on the second it appeared that wideout Darrell Fuery stopped at the top of his route, allowing cornerback Tyquwan Glass to pick off the pass and blast his way up the sideline. He returned it for a touchdown.
Virgil hit 6 of 8 passes for 89 yards and a touchdown on a 3-yard pass to Fuery, who juggled the ball as he went to the ground battling against corner Jamal Ellis.
The Bulldogs will be back on the practice field Friday and Saturday, and have their third and final scrimmage in camp scheduled for Monday. Childress and Virgil can close, and Greenlee has to reinforce his improving performances in the first two scrimmages.
“I can’t answer how you go from – I don’t know if it was one extreme to another extreme – but clearly, he struggled (Wednesday) and the thing that was really encouraging is he didn’t worry about (Wednesday) and let it affect Thursday,” DeRuyter said. “Early on, I think he took a sack that he shouldn’t have – I have to watch the film. But the rest of the day, he acted poised, led our team right down the field.
“We have to get him to where he is consistent, to where all of our quarterbacks are consistent. But for him to come back today, I was impressed by him putting it behind him and going forward.”