Repeat after me: 2017 is not 2016. 2017 is not 2016. 2017 is not 2016.
In other words, just because Fresno State endured an abysmal season last fall does not mean the Bulldogs are automatically doomed again.
“That’s a blessing about college football,” senior center Aaron Mitchell said. “Each year teams come out and shock the world. We can be one of them too if we keep getting better every day.”
With the Sept. 2 season opener just days away, let’s opt for optimism as first-year coach Jeff Tedford takes the reins at his alma mater.
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Looking for specific reasons to hope? Here’s a six-pack:
Players have bought into the new coaches
In football, there’s no substitute for belief. If the players believe strongly enough in what and how they’re being coached, even certain talent deficits can be overcome.
Enough for Fresno State to upset No. 1 Alabama in Week 2? Uh, no. But if the Bulldogs find themselves in a tight spot against a division opponent – as they did a year ago – maybe belief leads to a better outcome.
What are the encouraging signs? Linemen on both sides of the ball shedding weight through better training and eating habits. Players regularly staying after practice to work on specifics and details.
“Everybody is buying into what Coach Tedford is teaching us,” sophomore quarterback Chason Virgil said. “He’s guiding us in the right direction. We’re all just here to work and everyone has that desire to win. It should pay off big for us.”
Improved talent at every position group
Tedford and his staff had a large deficit to make up, but the difference in talent and depth up and down the roster between spring and today is startling.
Marcus McMaryion showing up a week into fall camp instantly elevated the competition in the quarterback room. Two freshman tailbacks (more on them in a bit) are climbing the depth chart. For the first time in recent memory, the offensive line has sufficient numbers.
On defense, graduate transfer Johnny Johnson gives the Bulldogs an experienced cornerback – something they previously lacked. Sophomore Jeffrey Allison has emerged as the starter at middle linebacker after being injured in the spring. And late arrival Kesomi Mafi looks like the rare JC transfer who can become an instant starter at either Sam linebacker or safety.
Certainly it will take a couple years for the new coaches to bring in the players they want. But at this rate, it won’t be any longer than that.
Rivers and Mims – remember those names
Two things happened this week that gave some clarity to the Bulldogs’ tailback picture.
First, freshman Ronnie Rivers lined up with the first-team offense during Saturday’s public scrimmage and got the first carry.
Second, last year’s leading rusher, Dontel James, took a medical retirement after slipping in the depth chart.
Rivers, along with classmate Jordan Mims, have been two of the biggest standouts during fall camp. Enough that both are slated to play as true freshmen instead of redshirt.
Right now, my guess is that Rivers, Mims and Josh Hokit enter the season as the primary ball-carriers with Dejonte O’Neal, who has also impressed the coaching staff after being injured in the spring, as a wild card.
The man, the myth, the Muti
He stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 310 pounds. He is the strongest player on the team, both functionally and in the weight room, and also remarkably agile. He can purportedly do a standing backflip. He supposedly ate a McDouble in one bite.
And, oh yeah, he’s being touted as the Bulldogs’ best offensive linemen, before playing a down of college football.
Who am I talking about? None other than starting left guard Netani Muti, who has become something of an urban myth for his strength and athletic ability. But, as a redshirt freshman, he’s not permitted by team rules to do interviews.
“How good is he?” said offensive line coach Ryan Grubb, repeating my question. “I wish we had five Mutis.”
A defense that’s anything but typical
Orlondo Steinauer didn’t take the typical path to become an FBS defensive coordinator. His defense won’t be typical, either.
If you go by the depth chart, Fresno State is playing a 4-3. But it’s not a 4-3 in the traditional sense as far as how Steinauer deploys his personnel. Without giving away specifics, the scheme is designed to confuse quarterbacks by not giving them a clear sense of alignment and coverages.
Fans should notice a quicker unit, one that’s better conditioned and thus in better position to make tackles and force turnovers.
Said Steinauer: “I think the way we run to the football right now is night and day from when Coach Tedford got the job.”