There will be a lot of changes, which will be clearly evident. The Fresno State football team this spring will be installing a more multiple offense, which coach Tim DeRuyter is hoping will greatly enhance an offense that struggled in large part through operator error a year ago, ranking 10th of 12 in the Mountain West in scoring offense at 22.3 points per game and last in total offense at 315.2 yards per game.
The Bulldogs still will line up in the three- and four-wide out formations, but more personnel groups will be in play, the quarterback will line up under center at times as well as in the shotgun.
Up front, new offensive line coach Mark Weber will be getting the Bulldogs prepared for everything new while bringing back some of the old.
Mark Weber has been in 16 bowl games as a coach and spent the past three seasons as Utah State’s offensive line and associate head coach. He coached 10 linemen who earned All-Mountain West honors in his three seasons with the Aggies.
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Fresno State’s line coach in 2004 and ’05, Weber will use some of the tools in play then while rebuilding a unit that must replace three starters in center Bo Bonnheim, left tackle Alex Fifita and right tackle Justin Northern, who started 33, 36 and 39 career games.
But what worked for a Logan Mankins or a Ryan Wendell will work again with a position group that has been a rough go under DeRuyter, former line coach Cameron Norcross having to cobble together productive units from a position group that was down numbers and lacking much balance between classes.
The Bulldogs were able to bolster the group with the addition of three midyear junior college signees in tackle Christian Cronk, tackle Ryan Popolizio and guard Shane Gama.
Aaron Mitchell, Micah St. Andrew and Jacob Vazquez return, as well as a solid class of redshirt freshmen in Isaiah Trevino, Zack Kinninger, Donnie Greene and Ben Northup.
To this point, Weber has seen them only on film and in the early morning Red Dawn workouts this week. The group has made an impression, but there is a long way to go.
Question: Let’s start with Christian Cronk. You had him all lined up when you were at Utah State, then he decides to sign with Fresno State and here you both are again. Crazier things have happened, obviously, but there has to be a story in there.
Answer: At Utah State, he was our top guy. He was my top guy. He was (then-offensive coordinator) Josh Heupel’s top guy. And he was committed and he loved it and in the end he said, ‘Coach, I want to come to Utah State,’ and this is before anything was happening, but he said, ‘Coach, if you were gone, I’m not sure how happy I’d be.’ In the end, he said, ‘I could be happy at Fresno State.’ He just wasn’t accustomed to the snow and the small town and all that stuff. I said, ‘Look, whatever is best for you. …’ I love the kid. I recruited him out of high school. He wanted to come. Then after that year at JC, he wanted to come. We had a great relationship. I was close to his dad. I just said, ‘You do what you have to do because I want the best for you. Ultimately, I want you to be happy.’
Then, this happened. That was a fun phone call to his dad and to him, and I’m glad I get to coach him. That’s kind of how that went down. He’s a great kid and he’s very talented athletically. The family is great. It just worked out well.
There wasn’t a lot of time in there, was there?
This was the funny thing. He said, ‘Coach, what if you leave?’ Coaching changes, we talked about all that and you know, there are no guarantees anywhere and then the coach here left. I know he liked coach (Cameron Norcross). It was December, the first weekend in December, that he visited us and he went straight from the Utah State visit to the Fresno State visit and then I officially started here Jan. 15.
It was probably a month there. There were some rumors that got out, so he knew a little bit, but I didn’t talk to him until after I officially took the job. In the process, I didn’t (talk to him) because it was over. After he committed, I just had one final phone call before he signed and I just said, ‘Look, I want you to do what you have to do’ and I really did, I wanted him to do the best thing for him because I love the kid and his family and all that. … He did the best thing, and it worked out well.
So he de-commits from Utah State, signs at Fresno State – the coach he signed with left to go someplace else and he ends up playing for the coach he had originally committed to. He had to be pretty happy with the way that worked out.
I hope so. He’s stuck with me now.
Obviously, you’re familiar with Christian. But the junior college linemen that were signed midyear and the players returning, you’re getting a chance to see them now in the Red Dawn workouts and in the weight room and all that. Initial impressions?
Initial impressions are that we have some really good kids that care, that work hard, and some talent. They’re young. Some of them have played a little bit and a lot of them haven’t played at all. I don’t know about the football part of it yet, not until we put the pads on. This stuff tells you a little bit, but when they get the pads on and the bullets start flying and all that and they have to make split-second decisions because we’re playing with pace, then that’s a little different story. But ability-wise and just looking at their measurables, I see some good things. Top to bottom, there are a good number of guys that look physically like they can play and then watching them run around, but you never know until you go out there. But I think they’re good kids and they care a lot.
They have a lot to learn. It’s a new offense basically for them. There’s going to be a lot of similarities, but there’s going to be a lot of newness in the terminology and then, you know, they need to learn me and I need to learn them and they’ll learn how I teach. But I think they want to be good and they want to be tough and physical, and those are all things that come from (Red Dawn) and what we’re going to do in spring ball and then over the summer. There’s a lot to be learned, but it’s a good time. For them, they have a new guy standing up in front so they have to be a little more on the edge of their seat and listen, and I have to work at learning them and their personalities and how they learn and what’s best for each one of them, how I can best teach them and go from there.
From a competitive standpoint or an athletic standpoint, you getting a feel there?
Very pleased. From that standpoint, they’re competing well out there, trying to do things right in that portion of it. I’m pleased so far with what I’ve seen, how they move around and how they’re competing, how they’re trying to get better. They got better from Day One to Day Two and I expect the same thing. If they stay on that path, they’re going to be good linemen.
In installing this new offense, how different will that be for them? I know as far as formations and responsibilities, there’s going to be more there for them to get hold of.
I think what we’re doing might be similar, but I think that all of the terminology is different, the mechanics are different. That’s a hard one to answer, because I don’t know everything they’ve done in the past. It’s new. It’s like a new offense going into them.
How does that change how you go in and ultimately come out of the spring?
Well, if I was coming in as a new offensive line coach and there were five returning starters and we were doing the exact same offense, then I would probably try to keep the terminology the same. It’s easier for me to learn than for them to learn – one guy as opposed to 13 guys. So that’s one of the things. It’s just a new offense, so we can do it, put in the terms and all the things that we want to do. I think, two, everybody has a fresh start. The way I’ve always done things, even when I was here before, we’re going to identify the top five guys that could help us win a championship and then we’re going to identify No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, No. 9. If three of them are tackles, one of them is going to play guard. If two of them are centers, someone will play guard. They’re not just competing against the guy that’s sitting in front of them, they’re competing against everyone in the room.
If we have 10 guys that can help us win a championship, then great – they’ll all play. If there’s seven or eight, great. It makes for that competition. It makes it greater and that will affect spring. I think it’ll be a little different spring out there from what it has been. When guys are already established and have the same coach, it’s a little different. This spring will hopefully be, and I think based on these kids and based on the situation, very competitive.
I think we’ve talked about the answer at left tackle, but that’s a very position-specific skill set. How does that work in finding your top five or six, seven or eight?
You have guys that fit by measurable and athletic ability – and we’re going to run the ball, so it’s not like we’re going to sit there and drop back and throw it every down. There are those measureables for that left tackle and you have to find those things. But it’s not always like that. When I was here 10 years ago we had Dartangon Shack. He was probably 6-2. But he had long arms, he played long, he was athletic and he was strong as anything playing tackle for us.
It’s not always those measurable that have to be there and a big part of things. It’s not only the left tackle. To me an almost equal value, and maybe more, is the center position. We have to solidify that and find the best guy there. Nowadays that guy is making all the calls. He’s like the quarterback of the O-line and you have to have a certain set of skills, but you also have to have leadership skills, communication skills. One guy can make a call and it’s like a question and another guy can make a call and he’s telling all five guys what to do and that’s how it needs to be.
I’ve told centers it’s not necessarily the call that you make, it’s how you make it. You can make the right call wrong and we won’t have five guys on the same age, but you can make the wrong call right and at least all five guys will be on the same page and we still have a chance.
That’s the other thing. It’s finding that center and finding that left tackle, of course. And then the biggest thing for me and I know for Coach (Eric) Kiesau, their mental mindset, their makeup, being physical and tough. … I know how it was when I was here before and there are some guys that have played offensive line here that are great and still are playing. They had the measurable, but they also were tough, hard-nosed aggressive fundamental football players. That’s what we’re going to get back to in the offensive line.
Not that the group is lacking there, but how do you go about getting there?
Well, wait before I forget, see that shelf right there? My wife put that shelf up 10 years ago. And it’s still there. It hasn’t moved. She made it, put it up. See the hard hat? Those hard hats we started when I was here, too, and when a guy became a starter we put the hard hat up with his number on it, so there’d be six hard hats and this one belong to Who’s Next, that’s the next guy that rotates in. (New tight ends coach and former Bulldogs lineman) Joe Bernardi has his hard hat in his office.
(Weber also pulled up a picture of a heavy bag, which had been in storage the past four years. He explained it and its significance.)
We started this, too, when I was here before. My wife painted this on it – Bulldog O-Line KO Champ. So when a guy is the KO champ for a game he signs it and the guy who has the most KO’s for a year gets his name on one of these plaques (on the front of the heavy bag). It went from 2004, Logan Mankins, to Bryce Harris in ’11. So, I used it and (former offensive line coach Derek Frazier) used it and then it hadn’t been used.
(Offensive graduate assistant Richard Helepiko), who played here and they used it when he was here, I asked him, ‘Have you seen that heavy bag?’ and it was sitting up here in one of these rooms all these years. Since it wasn’t being used, the kid who is playing for the Rams, Cody Wichmann, grabbed it and was going to give it to Logan Mankins, because he’s the first name on there, which is pretty cool that somebody would want it, a guy like him. But, anyway, we caught him before he gave it to him and said we want to use it again. So that’s back in action, the KO bag.
But you were going to ask how we do that – that’s some of the things how we do it. You build pride in the position. They want one of those hats and in the end when they’re seniors they want that hat and they want to get their name on that bag. There are some names on that bag. Of these names, of all these years, there is like six of them that are in the NFL and still playing. Mankins, Kenny Wiggins, Bryce Harris, Andrew Jackson. … That’s one of the ways, the things you do with the linemen.
Then, it’s the drills you do and the way you train them to finish. That’s within the drill work, to make them tough mentally. To me, that’s as important as learning the X’s and O’s. I mean, I have to get them in the right place, I have to get them to play with the right fundamentals, but it’s equally important how you play the game, and so that’s one of the things we’re going to emphasize.
From watching the film from a year ago, what you’ve seen so far and not having had them on the field for a padded practice yet, do you have an inkling what this group might be good at?
Most of my time has been spent with individuals, not really scrutinizing the offense because that doesn’t matter – we’re going to put in our base offense and we also will identify what we do well. But the one thing that I do know is they were really good at running the counter read play the last couple of years. I would study it when I was at Utah State, their offense, and they did a good job with that. That’s something that, if it fits, needs to eventually be in the plan.
But there are different guys. You look and you see who pulls well. Are your guards more athletic? Do they pull better? Do the tackles pull better? That’s something that’s going to come through spring.
How much of that impression, what you’ve gleaned from film, do you take into the spring? Or do you just let them tell you what they are and who they are over those 15 practices?
Right now, I have a good impression from two days. No pads. Two days. But obviously, it has to get better. If you’re at the same spot on Day Two and Day 15, we’re in trouble. It’s a constant thing and that’s probably one thing that I’ve learned over the years: There’s a certain threshold. If you see a guy who is there talent-wise but he can’t learn or not enough talent but he learns really well and he plays hard, every time we start this again it’s a fresh chance. So, they have a fresh chance and that evaluation will be ongoing.
Really, a lot of it is how fast a guy learns. I’ve had guys who were really good in the meeting room and could answer every question, but they can’t see it happen on the field. I’ve had guys who can’t answer a question in the meeting room hardly, they get all locked up, but on the field they could see it. Some guys who make every call on the field, but can’t do it. Some guys who can’t make any calls, but could do it. Obviously, if I could choose, I’d like to have the guys that have good football IQ and feel it and make, in football terms, make football plays over the guy who can answer all the questions sitting there when everything is calm but can’t get it done.
But it will be an ongoing process and guys will jockey for position and they’ll continue to compete. There has to be somebody up there when we start fall camp in the starting five, but it could change every day. I also believe in kind of cross-training guys. I could see Jacob Vazquez playing center and guard. I could see Aaron Mitchell playing guard and center. I could see flipping tackles right and left. I’m going to give them a chance to feel comfortable and compete, but we also have to evaluate who can play where and what the best combination is.
With the centers, then, there will be more on them than probably there has been in the past. The best fit there?
There will be more on them, I think, from just talking with them and, ‘How does this compare?’ and that kind of thing. I think there will be more on them, but generally speaking there’s always a lot on that center. But it’s from walk-throughs, listening to them communicate and making sure they’re communicating the right way like we talked about and hopefully obviously the right thing and getting all five, or six if the tight end is involved, targeting right.
Ultimately, I’ve had situations where there was a guy that knew the center position better than any of the other guys. But, at one of the other places I was at, he just wasn’t communicating the right way. I had four returning starters and all I had to do was plug in a new center. This guy was the guy that everybody thought would be the guy, but we were five guys playing separately.
I moved another guy into the lineup, moved the left tackle to center and it all changed. All of a sudden, it all came together. This guy hadn’t even played center for three years and now he’s playing in the NFL. And it was all in the way it was being communicated. So, the ultimate test is how they play together. If it’s five playing as one, chances are that center is doing the right thing and making the right calls. If they’re playing separately, it’s because this side didn’t know what this side was doing and that’s because of this guy in the middle, most of the time.
Who was that guy?
Dallas Reynolds. This was at BYU. I think last year he was with the Giants. He was a good football player, but he hadn’t played center. There’s a lot that goes on that position.
So, the past few years, the position group has always been light, the balance between classes has not been there. When coach DeRuyter got here, I think there were nine scholarship linemen in the program, a couple of those guys never played. They got it up to 12 or 13, but it always has been short numbers, given FBS programs carry 15 to 17. You have 13 for spring, 11 on scholarship and you’ll be adding a freshman in the summer. It has been an uphill battle.
It’s hard to replace numbers and apparently there were some guys that didn’t fit, weren’t right, whatever happened, and it’s hard to recover from that. But we need to get those numbers up, no question.
How do you go about attacking that?
Well, first of all, you get the right guys character-wise. I don’t know what happened in the past, but you get the guys that are going to be workers, that are going to do great academically, socially, all those things, so they’re here. If you lose guys, it’s hard to replace them. You do your homework on who those guys are first of all. It also depends on what your needs are – if you need them to play in, say, two years or a year and a half, then you need to get the right guy build-wise. Maybe you don’t get the tall, lean guy that you put weight on and has a great upside.
But the biggest thing is you do your homework in the evaluation process, of their character, of their academics, and you do your homework as far as what type of ability they have. Then you’ll retain guys. We’re limited so much on how much time we spend with them, so it’s harder to get those evaluations and see them as many times as you’d like and learn as much about them as you can. But that is what you have to do. Just do a great job of recruiting and evaluating so that you have retention with guys that are good enough to help you win.
It’s really not who you lose, it’s who you take. It’s taking the right guys. It doesn’t matter who somebody else is getting. We have to make sure we’re taking the right dudes and get those numbers up. I think that’s where it has to go from here. We have to stay healthy and get a few more.
In terms of the balance between classes, the three mid-year junior college players with Cronk, Ryan Popolizio and Shane Gama at least gives you the chance to get back on track.
We can go back and get some high school kids, so that’s part of the plan. The one young man who is coming in, Quireo Woodley, is an outstanding kid and a good talent. That’s the right direction, we just need about five more just like him.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
Fresno State Spring Football schedule
- Monday, Feb. 29: Practice 1, 8-10 a.m.
- Wednesday, March 2: Practice 2, 8-10 a.m.
- Friday, March 4: Practice 3, 8-10 a.m.
- Saturday, March 5: Practice 4, 8-10 a.m.
- Monday, March 7: Practice 5, 8-10 a.m.
- Wednesday, March 9: Practice 6, 8-10 a.m.
- Friday, March 11: Practice 7, 8-10 a.m.
- Saturday, March 12: Scrimmage 1, 8-10 a.m. (open to the public)
- Monday, March 14: Practice 9, 8-10 a.m.
- Wednesday, March 16: Practice 10, 8-10 a.m.
- Friday, March 18: Scrimmage 2, 8-10 a.m. (open to the public)
- Tuesday, March 29: Practice 12, 8-10 a.m.
- Thursday, March 31: Practice 13, 8-10 a.m.
- Friday, April 1: Practice 14, 8-10 a.m.
- Saturday, April 2: Spring Showcase (free admission)
Times subject to change
Practices to be held in Bulldog Stadium.
All practices open to Quarterback Club members, scrimmages open to the general public. To join the Quarterback Club, contact club president Kenny Mueller at 559-288-0991 or the Bulldog Foundation at 559-278-7160.