You wanted change. You’re getting it. The coaching staff guiding Fresno State’s football fortunes in 2016 will bear little resemblance to the one that steered the Bulldogs into last season’s 3-9 ditch.
There will be a new offensive coordinator (Eric Kiesau), a new defensive coordinator (Lorenzo Ward – I’m told there’s a handshake agreement that will be finalized next week) and several new position coaches. Among them, according to sources, are offensive line coach Mark Weber (who coached at Fresno State in 2004-05) and tight ends coach Joe Bernardi (the Bulldogs’ starting center from from 2007-10).
The program has not undergone such a housecleaning since 2011, with one obvious difference: The name atop the masthead, Tim DeRuyter, stays the same.
I have a lot of faith in Tim, but this will be a big year.
Fresno State athletic director Jim Bartko, on football coach Tim DeRuyter
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So while it’s encouraging the university is in position to offer multiyear contracts to assistant coaches, without which they’d have never been in a position to attract coordinators of Kiesau and Ward’s caliber, one nagging question remains:
Will Fresno State be assembling another new football staff a year from now, after athletic director Jim Bartko appoints DeRuyter’s successor?
If the Bulldogs don’t turn things around quickly – and by that I mean at least 6-6 with a bowl berth – they’ll be in the strange position of having two coordinators with as much job security as the head coach.
When we spoke this week, Bartko told me he did not consider replacing DeRuyter after last season. Had he felt differently, the guaranteed $4.6 million remaining on DeRuyter’s contract made that unaffordable. Not with so many extra bills to pay ($1.2 million for cost-of-attendance stipends, $500,000 for a training table), plus the $800,000 budget deficit as a result of poor football ticket sales.
Next year that guaranteed number shrinks to $3.2 million. If Fresno State finishes with a third straight losing record, Bartko will have no choice but to swallow that money.
$3.2M Guaranteed salary still owed to Tim DeRuyter at conclusion of 2016 season
From the sound of it, he realizes that, too.
“I have a lot faith in Tim, but this will be a big year,” Bartko said after listening to that scenario. “We’re going to have a really good coaching staff. Eric is going to do a good job, and we’ll have a new defensive coordinator and new staff coming in.
“My expectations for all of us – and me included – is we’re going to compete for championships in this league. Anything else, my job’s on the line, and Tim’s job is on the line.”
Anyone who watched Fresno State lose eight times last season by two or more touchdowns, including five times to Mountain West Conference rivals, knows there’s a wide chasm to make up. What’s more, the Bulldogs aren’t exactly oozing with returning talent.
Anyone who watched Fresno State lose eight times last season by two or more touchdowns, including five times to Mountain West Conference rivals, knows there’s a wide disparity to make up.
Good thing, then, that coaching is more important in football than any other sport. Compared to the staff that served under DeRuyter from 2012-15 and won Mountain West championships those first two years, this one boasts more experience and a better track record.
The Bulldogs have seen more than their share of offensive coordinators move on to bigger jobs. It happened to Pat Hill as a matter of course.
This is the first time I can recall Fresno State luring someone who has game-planning and play-calling experience at three Power Five conference programs: Colorado (2009-10), Washington (2012-13) and Kansas (2014 following a midseason promotion from receivers coach).
Kiesau’s time this fall as an analyst at Alabama, where he helped install a spread offense, further enhances that résumé.
“Eric is very highly regarded,” Bartko said. “He was looked at by schools in the Pac-12 to be a coordinator, and he chose to go to Fresno. We’re lucky to have him.”
He was looked at by schools in the Pac-12 to be a coordinator, and he chose to go to Fresno.
Jim Bartko on Eric Kiesau
Kiesau also served two stints at Cal under Jeff Tedford, the former Bulldogs quarterback and offensive coordinator, where he was primarily in charge of the receivers. And if there’s one nitpick about Kiesau, who played quarterback at Portland State, it’s that he has had more success developing receivers (DeSean Jackson, Keenan Allen) and running backs (Bishop Sankey) than quarterbacks.
That’s just as well. The Bulldogs don’t have much experience at any of those positions.
Ward, the former South Carolina defensive coordinator whose hiring is expected to become official next week, before the recruiting window opens, is an odder fit.
Save for one season with the Raiders under Art Shell, the man known as “Whammy” throughout SEC football circles has spent his entire career in the South. Prior to joining Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks in 2009, Ward spent one season at Arkansas and seven at Virginia Tech under Frank Beamer.
Ward came up as a defensive backs coach and enjoyed tremendous early success as coordinator on teams featuring first-round NFL Draft picks Jadeveon Clowney and Stephon Gilmore. However, the past two seasons have not been nearly as kind, and Ward (who this past season was demoted to co-coordinator and lost his play-calling responsibilities) absorbed some of the blame. He was not retained by new coach Will Muschamp.
If an SEC coach can’t bring toughness and fundamentals to Bulldog Lane, who else can?
Blemishes aside, Ward is very good hire for a defense that since 2012 has been anything but tough or fundamentally sound. If an SEC coach can’t bring those qualities to Bulldog Lane, who else can?
Credit Fresno State for taking the necessary steps to improve the program. The question now is whether these changes will be enough to keep the Bulldogs from repeating this exercise again next winter.
“It has to. It has to,” said Bartko, repeating himself for emphasis. “Tim’s career and my career are on the line in this one.”