Is it all back together again? No. But the Fresno State Bulldogs’ run game is in much better shape than it was just a few weeks ago, with Dontel James now zipping around the practice field some 19 days after knee surgery, Saevion Johnson taking part in some team periods Tuesday for the first time in more than two weeks, coming back from a hamstring strain, and Bryson Oglesby on the field and in some individual drills as he makes his way back from a knee injury suffered in the spring.
James’ knee surgery? “I’m feeling like it never happened,” he said. “I’m feeling good.”
That obviously is a bonus for the Bulldogs, who will be heading to Nebraska for their opener with an inkling that their ability to rush the football is improved by utilizing more multiple sets in the offense installed by new coordinator Eric Kiesau, but no real proof yet.
The offensive line has put together some good periods in run drill over the past week, working against Nebraska-type fronts and springing backs with big blocks. That was in practice, though, and on Saturday they will be on the road and up against a defense that ranked second in the Big Ten in rushing defense and chewed up the Group of Five opponents it faced. Nebraska allowed 19 rushing yards on 24 plays in beating South Alabama, 11 yards on 23 plays in a victory over Southern Miss.
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It will, though, be an important piece in pushing tempo and stressing defense, which is one of many things that did not happen a year ago when the Bulldogs struggled to put points on the scoreboard.
First down is a first-strike opportunity, but the Bulldogs completed only 52.4 percent of their first-down passes a year ago and had a passing efficiency rating of 109.22, 11th of 12 in the Mountain West. They averaged only 3.6 yards on first-down rushing plays, last in the conference and tied for 119th of 128 in the nation.
Nebraska last season allowed 90 rushing yards or less in five of 13 games – 89 in a victory at Rutgers, 67 in a bowl victory over UCLA, 65 in a victory at Minnesota, 19 in a victory over South Alabama and 11 in a victory over Southern Miss.
The Bulldogs at least have James, who was the fifth of six running backs to be hit with an injury going back to spring practices. Oglesby went down and then Wesley Hill, who is out for the season with a knee injury. In fall camp, it was freshman Justin Rice with a fractured bone in his foot, then freshman Deonte Perry with a knee injury suffered in a pass drill.
“The true test is going to be competition, and we have a great opponent this week,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “But I love the fact that he has worked his tail off to get to this point.
“He’s 220 pounds, he looks great, he looks explosive even though he had the surgery there a couple of weeks ago and I know he’s anxious to get out there. We have to keep him healthy, get him a little bit of running room. If we do that, I like where we’re at in our run game.”
James said he was ready to take on whatever workload the Bulldogs need, but those game reps are to be determined. Sophomore Dejonte O’Neal also will play against the Cornhuskers and redshirt freshman walk-on Treyvon Green also could get some reps.
“He’s practicing well, doing well,” Kiesau said of James, who returned to Fresno State in the spring after spending last season at Riverside City College. “He stayed in the game plan when he was out. He’s getting reps and doing a good job. And he’s fresh, because he was resting for a week, so he’s good.
“I feel good about it, but I understand that we’re going against a great opponent. They have a great scheme and Nebraska is going to play very hard and very sound, and we have to be able to match that. We just have to go and do our deal and run the plays we’re going to diagram for them, see how they work on Saturday.”
Tour de Gama – Offensive lineman Shane Gama, who was hospitalized in July after suffering from heatstroke during a summer conditioning workout, has taken a step forward in his rehab.
He’s telling me he’s feeling great, so hopefully we’re well on the way (to getting him back).
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter on offensive lineman Shane Gama
He spent the first half of practice pedaling away on an exercise bike.
“That’s a great sign, the fact that he’s out here in the sunshine getting some cardio work done,” DeRuyter said. “He’s telling me he’s feeling great, so hopefully we’re well on the way (to getting him back) because we’d love to have him back and we need to have him back.”
Et cetera – Johnson, the freshman running back, could practice his way into a flight this weekend.
“He’s out practicing right now,” DeRuyter said. “He ran some drills today. We’ll see how he tolerates that. It looked like it was OK – I haven’t talked with the trainers. But we anticipate he’ll be able to go tomorrow and if so he’ll probably get on the plane to go to Nebraska with us.”
Left guard Aaron Mitchell has made 12 of the 24 returning starts on the Bulldogs’ offensive line. There are only six schools in the nation with fewer returning o-line starts, a list topped by Navy with eight.
▪ Nebraska has won 29 consecutive games against opponents from the Mountain West. The Cornhuskers in 2014 beat Fresno State 55-19 at Bulldog Stadium.
▪ Fresno State has locked in cornerback Tyquwan Glass as the No. 1 punt returner. Glass last season had four returns for 75 yards including returns of 31 and 30 yards against Colorado State.
▪ DeRuyter on the potential in the run game: “I think when you’re settled at quarterback, it gives both sides of the ball a little bit of comfort. I know that even though we have a young quarterback, we can get into plays to take the pressure off of him, and we have a lot of confidence in him. But because we have a running back like Dontel, we’ll be able to do things multiple personnel-wise to be able to help our run game and set up some play-action throws. I like where we’re at. We’re young, we’re going to be talented, and I’m anxious for Saturday to see where we measure up right now. I know in Week 7, Week 10, we’re going to be a much better team than we are today, but I want to know where we are today.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada