Fresno State had some issues in its first full scrimmage in fall camp, and for quarterbacks Chason Virgil and James Quentin Davis it came to what appeared to be to a painful end.
But the team did get some good news on running back Dontel James before the first of the 107 plays it ran inside Bulldog Stadium, and on running back Saevion Johnson once the scrimmage had started.
James had knee surgery Friday and it turned out to be a minor cleanup. He is expected back at practice in the coming week, though not likely in any contact drills.
Johnson took a hit to his knee midway through the scrimmage and appeared to be the sixth Bulldogs back to be headed to the sidelines because of injury since spring practices. But coach Tim DeRuyter said afterward the initial examination was encouraging – team doctors said they thought everything is stable.
So, the Bulldogs weren’t without pluses.
“I’m just glad it wasn’t something crazy,” James said.
DeRuyter and offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau had different adjectives to describe the scrimmage.
There were issues with the No. 1 offensive line in the run game and in pass protection.
We just have to clean it up, keep working at it, watch the film and evaluate these guys and see where we’re at.
offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau on quarterback play in scrimmage
The Bulldogs did not take care of the football and there were some poor penalties.
Running backs in pass protection was interesting to watch.
On one play, Dejonte O’Neal threw every inch of his 5-foot-6 frame and every ounce of his 169 pounds in front of 324-pound nose guard Malik Forrester as Forrester was pursuing. The result was predictable but also perfect.
O’Neal got the worst of that matchup and ended up sprawled on the ground at Virgil’s feet, but the quarterback was able to hit inside receiver Jamire Jordan with a 22-yard touchdown pass on a third-down play when working a red-zone series.
Oh, and O’Neal not only popped back up but two series later came back and scored on a 25-yard touchdown run with the No. 2 offense, breaking a tackle along the way.
The quarterback play, though, was not without incident.
The Bulldogs’ defense was a contributing factor. Playing without inside linebackers Nela Otukolo, Trent Soechting and Jeff Camilli, who are out with injuries, there were a lot of plays made. In series involving the No. 1s and No. 2s, the defense dominated the first half of the scrimmage.
Defensive end Nate Madsen was in on two sacks, and Forrester, inside (Will) linebacker Robert Stanley and defensive end Austin Vaimili also had sacks. The defense racked up 14 tackles for loss.
Strong safety DeShawn Potts intercepted a pass by Virgil and cornerback Mike Bell got Davis, taking that pick 39 yards to the end zone for a touchdown.
It’s fun to see guys play with emotion, and to see guys step in front of balls and make plays.
coach Tim DeRuyter on the Bulldogs’ defense
But at three areas of emphasis it was an uneven scrimmage, as it was for an offense that rallied in the second half of the scrimmage.
There will be pain – Fresno State has had 36 passes intercepted over the past two seasons, ranking 11th of 12 teams in the Mountain West Conference with 20 in 2014 and 11th with 16 last season. Given that, it has been a camp priority to have the quarterbacks make the right decisions and take care of the football.
With Virgil, it wasn’t just the throw.
“In the first 11 practices, I think he had one pick,” Kiesau said. “The discouraging thing about the pick today is it was the wrong read. He was on the wrong side of the field. So you have two errors: a bad read and obviously a poor throw. We just have to clean it up, keep working at it, watch the film and evaluate these guys and see where we’re at.”
On the practice field, when a quarterback throws an interception, he is pulled on the spot with his reps given to the next in line. But after the scrimmage, and for the rest of camp apparently, the QBs will get a more pointed reminder to take care of the football.
After the scrimmage, Virgil and Davis rolled on their sides the length of the field.
“Anybody that turns the ball over – tight ends, running backs, quarterbacks – we’re going to crush them after practice because they’re not getting the message,” Kiesau said. “We’re going to make it hurt because when we have turnovers it hurts the team, it hurts the fans, it hurts the Valley and it puts us behind the sticks and we can’t do that. You can’t turn the ball over and win football games.”
Behind enemy lines – The No. 1 offense was on the field for roughly 40 percent of the plays and had some issues in pass protection; there were four would-be sacks and five times the quarterbacks were forced out of the pocket.
But for a first scrimmage, some mistakes were expected. The Bulldogs’ O-line is relatively inexperienced; Fresno State has 24 career starts returning on its offensive line, seventh fewest in the FBS.
It was more or less a look and see for offensive line coach Mark Weber – a starting point.
“Well, we know where we’re at right now,” he said. “We have a bunch of guys who haven’t played and guys who I’m sure have never made a call or identified a defense or anything. It’s a little different deal when you get into game mode and we’re not standing behind them yelling everything to them. We know exactly where we’re at and what we need to work on.”
Communication was an issue as was identifying fronts and missed calls – all correctable mistakes.
It’s a little different deal when you get into game mode and (coaches) are not standing behind them yelling everything to them. We know exactly where we’re at and what we need to work on.
offensive line coach Mark Weber on play of No. 1 group
“Our defense moves a lot, our defense is doing a great job, and that’s part of the thing,” Weber said. “That’s what we do for a living – we (identify) things. They’re doing what they do for a reason, trying to cause confusion and that kind of thing, so we get more reps and we get more in the groove and we get more game reps where we have drives and series, that’s how the group grows.”
Simple works – Paring down the defensive playbook appears to have had the desired effect on defense. The group played faster and with much more certainty and tackled well.
Freshman inside linebackers Jeffrey Allison and Josh Hokit also made an impression with three of the top four inside linebackers on the sidelines. Otukolo is out with a knee injury and Camilli and Soecthing with hamstring injuries.
The plays were made against an offense that was struggling, particularly early in the scrimmage. But after allowing 38.1 points per game a year ago to rank last in the conference and 119th of 128 in the nation, the fervor that has been missing is starting to show again.
“It’s fun to see guys play with emotion, and to see guys step in front of balls and make plays,” DeRuyter said. “Those (interceptions) weren’t just punts thrown to them, they had to step in front and do some things. Physically, I think they controlled the line of scrimmage and tackled well today; I don’t remember a whole lot of missed tackles. I thought our linebackers in particular made some very physical tackles.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
Fresno State football key dates
Aug. 20: Scrimmage No. 2
Aug. 26: Scrimmage No. 3
Sept. 3: Season opener at Nebraska, 5 p.m.
Home games in CAPS
Sept. 3: at Nebraska, 5 p.m., (Big Ten Network)
Sept. 10: SACRAMENTO STATE, 7 p.m.
Sept. 17: at Toledo, noon (ESPN3)
Sept. 24: TULSA, 1:30 p.m. (MWN)
Oct. 1: at UNLV, 7:30 p.m. (CBSSN)
Oct. 8: at Nevada, TBA (ESPN network TBD)
Oct. 14: SAN DIEGO STATE, 7 p.m. (CBSSN)
Oct. 22: at Utah State, 7:30 p.m. (CBSSN)
Oct. 28: AIR FORCE, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
Nov. 5: at Colorado State, 12:30 p.m. (ROOT SPORTS/MWN)
Nov. 12: BYE
Nov. 19: HAWAII, 4 p.m.
Nov. 26: SAN JOSE STATE, 12:30 p.m. (CBSSN)
Dec. 3: Mountain West Championship, TBA