Fresno State never could settle on a quarterback last season while finishing last in total offense in the 12-team Mountain West Conference. Heading into 2016, questions persist behind center as well as at running back and along the line.
Key player – Chason Virgil. The redshirt freshman had a larger lead on his competition at the end of fall camp than he did at the beginning, which is a good sign. As the only quarterback that went through spring ball in the offense, he had a significant advantage going in.
This season – Quarterback play will be better because it can’t be much worse after a season in which injuries and operator error played large in a 3-9 season. The Bulldogs completed 50.1% of their passes, had an efficiency rating of 103.17 and averaged 5.3 yards per play, tied for 123rd of 128 in the nation. Virgil is not the jittery type, which puts the Bulldogs well ahead of 2015, and it would be interesting to see where he would be in his development had his freshman year not been limited to parts of three games because of a shoulder injury. He took good care of the football during camp, and also had a significant lead when it came to explosive plays executed by the quarterbacks. There will be some growing pains – Virgil, remember, has attempted 56 career passes – but the Bulldogs are better equipped to deal with that on both sides of the ball than they were a year ago. Zach Kline held off a late move by Christian Rossi toward the end of camp and is the No. 2 heading into the opener at Nebraska.
Key player – Bryson Oglesby. The Bulldogs need a healthy Dontel James, who had a minor knee procedure on Aug. 12. But they also need a solid No. 2 and Oglesby, a redshirt freshman, could be a key piece if he returns from a knee injury in October as expected and plays at a good level.
This season – Injuries have scrambled this group, but if James can get and stay healthy the Bulldogs have a solid and complete lead back who can carry the ball, catch it out of the backfield and also win big when called on to pass protect. It is doubtful the Bulldogs will hand James a Robbie Rouse-type workload early in the season while coming off the knee surgery; in 2012 Rouse carried on 78.8 percent of the Bulldogs’ rushing plays by running backs and was 10th in the nation in carries. But there is help on the way. Oglesby is on track for a return and freshman Saevion Johnson is expected back in a few weeks after a hamstring injury in camp. Until then the diminutive Dejonte O’Neal will get reps. O’Neal has proven during fall camp that he is capable in the run game and difficult to get a good shot at, but at 5-6 and 169 pounds, pass protection figures to be an issue. He isn’t shy at all about taking on blitzing linebackers or defensive backs, but in those matchups he clearly is at a physical disadvantage.
Key player – Jamire Jordan. The sophomore proved last season he is a tough matchup for defenses in the Mountain West and with greater consistency and better QB play the potential is there for a big season. The Bulldogs had 29 explosive pass plays last season, six to Jordan including ones of 82 and 64 yards.
This season – This is a fascinating group and it will be up to Virgil to light the fuse on what could be an explosive set of playmakers. That didn’t happen enough a year ago with the poor quarterback play and, really, Jordan and KeeSean Johnson, while the top two receivers with 46 and 37 receptions, as redshirt freshmen weren’t quite ready to carry that weight. There were some drops, and the consistency wasn’t there – not only catching the football but in their routes and with their blocking. They are closer now, and the group has grown up around them. Seniors Aaron Peck and Da’Mari Scott bring a needed toughness as well as playmaking ability. Bottom line in an offense that looks to create and exploit mismatches, there could be quite a few with inside receivers Jordan and Scott and outside with Johnson, Peck, a healthy Delvon Hardaway and Darrell Fuery. It’s difficult to imagine the Bulldogs don’t improve a conference-worst average of 5.3 yards per pass play.
Key player – Chad Olsen. The true junior is a perfect fit in the new offense and should be utilized more in the passing game this season. He can get up the field and is a tough matchup, but in 11 of his 25 career games in a spread system he did not have even one reception.
This season – New offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau has a history of utilizing the tight end. In 2012, the first of two years he called plays at Washington, then-sophomore Austin Seferian-Jenkins caught 69 passes for 852 yards with seven touchdowns – with the 12.3 yards per catch the highest on the team. Those numbers would be difficult to duplicate, but there doesn’t seem to be much question the Bulldogs will make much more use of the position than they have over the past four seasons. They will utilize two types – an “H” and a “Y,” the first more of a receiver and the second more of an in-line blocker – and for a program that a few years ago included only two scholarship tight ends the Bulldogs have a solid group that can make plays for position coach Joe Bernardi. Olsen will be much more of a factor and Kyle Riddering and David Tangipa are solid. Redshirt freshman Jared Rice got off to a slow start in camp, but also could be a difficult matchup for defenses with his length.
Key player – David Patterson. There is not a lot of depth at the tackle positions and the No. 1’s need to perform. Patterson is in his fourth year in the program and has maintained a spot with the first offense since the spring – it’s time to develop and be more than a special-teams player.
This season – The line is a concern, starting with the fact that it has only 24 returning starts among the group, which according to Fresno State is seventh fewest in the nation. San Diego State, tabbed to win the Western Division in the Mountain West, has 28 returning starts from one player, left guard Nico Siragusa. The Bulldogs have had a difficult time rebuilding this position group both in numbers and balance between classes, which will lead to uncertainty about its overall health. But the No. 1 group – from left tackle across, Christian Cronk, Aaron Mitchell, Jacob Vazquez, Micah St. Andrew and Patterson – started to climb midway into fall camp and with a more favorable early-season schedule than a year ago it will have a chance to develop before the start of conference play. Improvement is imperative. Fresno State last season averaged 3.8 yards per rush in conference games, even while playing four teams that allowed 5.0 or worse.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada