As the season opener creeps closer, alarms are beeping all around the Fresno State football program.
Just not at Tim DeRuyter’s house.
“I got up at 5:30 this morning,” the fifth-year coach said at the beginning of Wednesday’s kickoff news conference at the Josephine Theater. “Didn’t even have to wait for the alarm to go off.”
Regardless of DeRuyter’s enthusiasm about starting anew, there is a sense of uneasy anxiousness, even slight trepidation, as Fresno State begins three weeks of fall camp in preparation for Sept. 3 at Nebraska and the 11 games that follow.
Although the Bulldogs have done much to turn the page from last season’s 3-9 trash novel, starting with a thorough flush of the coaching staff, the checklist of questions and concerns that led to that “unacceptable” result (DeRuyter’s adjective choice) haven’t vanished into our steamy, smoky air.
We got knocked down a peg last year. It’s time to fight back.
Fresno State football coach Tim DeRuyter on rebounding in 2016
Who’s the starting quarterback on this team? Who’s running the ball, and how will he fare behind a revamped offensive line? Will all those 300-pound bodies make a difference on a defensive front that got plowed under more than a potato farm? Who’s going to get sacks and produce takeaways?
And that’s the heavily abridged version. Fresno State, more than any year in recent memory, enters preseason with a paucity of certainties. Even cornerback, which looked to be a strength during spring practice, took a hit with Daquawn Brown (academics) and Tank Kelly (knee) both done for the season.
Hours after DeRuyter met with local media, the Bulldogs assembled in the same room for their first team meeting. Given what took place last fall, not to mention the low outside expectations for this one, I asked what his message would be.
“This year is going to be about fighting back,” DeRuyter said. “We got knocked down a peg last year. It’s time to fight back. And when you’re young and inexperienced and had the adversity we had last year, sometimes you don’t handle it well. And as a head coach I didn’t do a particularly good job of handling it, either. We’re changing that.”
DeRuyter, who prefers to be a delegator when it comes to his assistants, pledged to be “a little more involved” with the defense.
DeRuyter prefers to be a delegator when it comes to his assistants. Hire the guy and let him do his job. At one point Wednesday, the former defensive coordinator at Texas A&M, Air Force and Nevada said he’d done too much delegating the last couple of years and pledged to be “a little more involved” on that side of the ball.
Does that mean DeRuyter will be calling blitz packages on game day? I highly doubt it. More likely, he’ll assist first-year coordinator Lorenzo Ward with game planning and do more one-on-one coaching at practice.
“We need to get back to that goal of 30-plus takeaways,” DeRuyter said.
The Bulldogs have accomplished that once during DeRuyter’s four seasons – in 2012, when they produced 35. They’ve been stuck on 20 two years running.
20 Fresno State’s total takeaways in each of the past two seasons, well below DeRuyter’s goal of 30
On offense, the Bulldogs will be more diverse under new coordinator Eric Kiesau. But perhaps more importantly, they should be more unified.
DeRuyter gave some pretty strong hints that wasn’t necessarily the case last season.
“The kids know when mom and dad are fighting – it can be the same way if the staff is not jelling together,” DeRuyter said.
DeRuyter went out of his way to praise Kiesau’s ability to form personal connections with both players and fellow coaches, as well as his expertise with the X’s and O’s.
“I think immediately when our players came here they sensed that, ‘Hey, this group, they have it together,’ ” he said. “They’re guys that care about each other, they care about the players, and when you can start from that sense it’s easy for players to get all in.”
Three times DeRuyter alluded to 2012, his first year at Fresno State after replacing longtime head coach Pat Hill, and how this preseason “feels a lot like” that one.
This season feels a lot like four years ago, like 2012.
DeRuyter comparing the start of the 2016 campaign to the last time the Bulldogs were coming off a nine-loss season
It’s a convenient (and rather optimistic) analogy for DeRuyter to make considering the Bulldogs went 4-9 during Hill’s final season before reversing course to finish 9-4 with a share of the Mountain West Conference title.
“Coming off a disappointing, nine-loss season like four years ago, nobody gave us much of a chance,” DeRuyter said. “Young team. New coaches. New schemes. But our guys believed in what we did and fought for a championship.”
Of course, that team had Derek Carr, who everyone knew was a stud quarterback. That team had Robbie Rouse, Phillip Thomas, Tyeler Davison and a redshirt freshman receiver named Davante Adams.
This team has … well, no one who should be mentioned in the same breath.
That isn’t to say the Bulldogs don’t have talent. It’s just that a lot of the best players are young and still mostly unproven (Chason Virgil, James Bailey, Nela Otukolo, name any running back) or older and still mostly unproven (Aaron Peck).
Not exactly a recipe for certainty.
The next four weeks should give us a better grasp, but the final answers won’t come until kickoff at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb.
Then it’ll really be time for alarm.