Basic need turned Fresno State into a player in the market for midyear community college recruits and on Wednesday, the first day of the signing period, the Bulldogs patched some holes in a roster that at the end of the football season was in poor shape at a couple of position groups.
The Bulldogs signed six players who can make an immediate impact next season. Included are three offensive linemen, perhaps their most pressing need after losing three senior starters. Fresno State, in the past year, also had lost four of the five players in a 2014 recruiting class that was to be the primary building block in restoring numbers and balance between classes that had been lacking since coach Tim DeRuyter and staff inherited just nine scholarship linemen.
Fresno State also is bringing back running back Dontel James, who left after his redshirt freshman season in 2014 and spent last year at Riverside City.
You have to address that need, those holes, and I think we’ve certainly done it with the character and the ability of the guys we’re bringing in now.
Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State coach
“You have to address that need, those holes, and I think we’ve certainly done it with the character and the ability of the guys we’re bringing in now,” DeRuyter said.
“It’s critical to get guys in January, particularly on the offensive line, if they’re going to compete for you in the fall. There are some talented guys that are available in the summer and we’ve been fortunate with that a couple of times, but typically it’s halfway through the year that they start getting up to speed to where you’d like them to be at the beginning of the year.”
The Bulldogs had only eight scholarship linemen on the roster at the end of the season but were able to add guard Shane Gama (6-foot-5, 305 pounds) from Southwestern College in Chula Vista, tackle Ryan Popolizio (6-6, 315) from San Mateo and tackle Christian Cronk (6-5, 290) from Riverside City. They also have signed nose guard Malik Forrester (6-1, 315) from Los Angeles Pierce, defensive end Austin Vaimili (6-5, 265) from El Camino in Torrance and inside linebacker Trent Soechting (6-3, 207) from Blinn College in Brenham, Texas.
Gama, Popolizio and Cronk get the number of scholarship linemen in the program up to 11 and help restore the balance toward the top of the position group after Fresno State lost Art Gomez, Ben Simonds, Jacob Hicks and Bobby Johnson from the 2014 recruiting class. All four would have been a redshirt sophomore next season, and considering only one of the four had moved into the two-deep, the incoming community college recruits could be considered an upgrade.
Gama and Popolizio will come in as juniors with three years to play two seasons of football. Cronk will be a sophomore with four years to play three.
It is (important), especially for guys from out of state who are JCs. They’re in survival mode a lot of times.
DeRuyter on the benefits community college recruits can expect from the Bulldogs’ offseason nutrition and strength and conditioning programs
Redshirt freshman Kyle Riddering, who had surgery on his left shoulder at the end of the season and will miss spring practices, has been moved to the offensive line from tight end. The Bulldogs are expected to add high school prospects on national signing day in February to get the number closer to their roster blueprint. Football Bowl Subdivision programs typically carry 15 to 17 offensive linemen among 85 scholarship players.
Soechting, Vaimili and Forrester also fill pressing needs for the Bulldogs, who over the past few years have not mined the midyear community college market to this degree; they had signed five under DeRuyter before this year.
The inside linebacker position group lost two top recruits from the 2014 class in Xavier Ulutu and Michael Lazarus, both dismissed for violations of athletic department policy. With Forrester competing for playing time at nose guard with third-year sophomore Patrick Belony, redshirt freshman Jaleel Carter and fourth-year junior Ryan Steele, Fresno State has the ability to move junior Nate Madsen back to defensive end and, along with Vaimili, improve the overall depth at a position where the Bulldogs lost senior starters Todd Hunt and Claudell Louis.
All of the players signed Wednesday will enroll in the spring – Soechting has three years to play three seasons at Fresno State and Forrester and Vaimili are 3 for 2s. The Bulldogs will go through a five-week strength and conditioning program leading into spring practice March 1, a critical piece in getting them prepared for the 2016 season.
“It is, especially for guys from out of state who are JCs,” DeRuyter said. “They’re in survival mode a lot of times. They’re not necessarily eating the best. They obviously don’t have the training and nutritional program that we have, as well as the strength program.
“To be able to get guys on a full meal ticket as well as get a chance to train for nine months before fall, I think is only going to enhance what we already see on tape on where they’re at.”
4.97 yards per carry for sophomore Dontel James as one of three primary running backs for Riverside City College in 2015
James, who played in seven games at Riverside and gained 483 yards and five touchdowns on 97 plays, also could end up playing a lot next season. The running back group lost its top three players in seniors Marteze Waller, Malique Micenheimer and Dustin Garrison.
“I think it has been a really good year for him to examine where he was and where he is today and some of the decisions,” DeRuyter said. “He reached out to me and said, ‘Coach, I can be a great example to those young guys who are going through some hard times like I did and let them know that the grass isn’t greener.’ When he left he missed his teammates and coaches every day. It’s one of those lessons that are tough and I think he learned it. I think sometimes kids warrant a second chance and he certainly warranted it.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
A look at Fresno State’s midyear community college football recruits, including hometown, previous colleges and high school, with highlights as provided by the university:
▪ OT, Christian Cronk (6-5, 290, Oceanside, Riverside City College/Oceanside: Played left tackle as a freshman at Riverside City College, was Oceanside High School class of 2015 … the Riverside City offensive line helped generate 34.3 points per game behind 204.2 rushing yards per game during Cronk's freshman season … will have four years to complete his three remaining seasons of eligibility with the Bulldogs
▪ OG, Shane Gama (6-4, 300, Chino, Southwestern College/Orange Lutheran: Selected to All-Mountain League second-team by the Southern California Football Association … helped Jaguars score 23 points per game and average 164.3 rushing yards and 159.9 passing … will have three years to complete his two remaining seasons of eligibility at Fresno State.
▪ DL, Malik Forrester (6-1, 315, Anapolis, Md., L.A. Pierce College/Fairmont State/Glen Burnie-Maryland): First-team All-Pacific League selection as a defensive tackle by the Southern California Football Association as a sophomore … recorded 40 tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks and forced one fumble in 2015 … will have three years to complete his two remaining seasons of eligibility at Fresno State.
▪ OT, Ryan Popolizio (6-6, 310, Fremont, San Mateo/Saint Francis-Mountain View): Started every game at right tackle as a sophomore after working into the rotation as a freshman … San Mateo’s rushing attack averaged 245 yards per game in 2015, leading all 69 participating California Community College Athletic Association teams …San Mateo averaged 39.9 points per game, seventh-most in the Association and its 35 touchdowns accounted for on the ground were the second-most rushing TDs … will have three years to play his two remaining seasons of eligibility.
▪ LB, Trent Soechting (6-3, 207. Katy, Texas, Blinn/Cinco Ranch-Katy): Second-team All- Southwest Junior Football Conference selection … led his team in tackles with 60; 11 for loss also led team and tied for fourth most in the conference despite playing in two fewer games than any other in the top five … will have three years of eligibility remaining to complete with the Bulldogs.
▪ DE Austin Vaimili (6-5, 265, Torrance, El Camino/Junipero Serra): Garnered second-team All-Central League accolades by the Southern California Football Association … recorded 43 tackles as a sophomore in 2015 with 6.0 for a loss and 1.5 sacks … comes in with three years left to complete his two remaining seasons of eligibility at Fresno State.