I can’t tell you that Fresno State will be playing in a bowl this December, only express confidence the Bulldogs won’t get bowled over like they did a season ago.
And if they do, they’ll be better equipped to pick themselves back up.
I won’t predict Fresno State reclaims the Mountain West Conference’s West Division. Just that there will be less internal division.
Easy to scan the Bulldogs’ depth chart and identify weaknesses. (Coach Tim DeRuyter might want to bubble-wrap all healthy tailbacks till September.) Impossible to watch the players and coaches interact during fall camp and not see newfound strengths – the kind that can’t be bench-pressed.
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Through 12 preseason practices and Saturday’s first scrimmage at Bulldog Stadium, what’s most obvious about Fresno State isn’t necessarily elevated play as much as elevated spirits.
“It’s been so good compared to last year,” senior free safety Stratton Brown said. “Everybody’s really positive, everybody’s having fun and everybody’s relaxed. Nobody’s tense about messing up. That’s the biggest thing. If they mess up, they correct it. That’s it. We keep going to the next play.”
Nobody’s mad at the coordinators or anything. Everyone’s just out here playing football and having fun.
Fresno State senior safety Stratton Brown
Senior cornerback Jamal Ellis pointed to something else: unity.
“It’s the togetherness of the team,” Ellis said. “I feel like this season we’re super close. We have that super bond. We’re out here grinding every day for one another, for the guy next to you. … More like a brotherhood.”
After the Bulldogs sputtered to 3-9 last year, the coaching staff underwent its first major overhaul of DeRuyter’s five-year tenure. Both coordinators and four position coaches were swapped out, resulting in several new faces (Eric Kiesau, Lorenzo Ward, Dave Ungerer, Burl Toler III), a couple of returning faces (Joe Bernardi, Mark Weber) and a familiar face in a new role (Nick Toth).
What’s been the biggest result of that change? So far, in preseason, what stands out is the recharged, energetic feeling on the practice field.
What’s been the biggest result of all the coaching changes? So far, what stands out is the recharged, energetic feeling on the practice field.
Or “juice”, as junior tight end Chad Olsen and other players called it.
“I’ve never seen a first day in full (pads) like we had this year,” Olsen said. “It was just insane. Everybody just wants to hit everybody, and it’s not a negative thing at all. It’s, ‘Hey, let’s bang. Let’s have some fun. Let’s get some juice going.’ ”
The loquacious Olsen, who these days sports ’70s-style mutton chops, interrupted himself to let out a sigh. To be precise, it was more like an “Ahhh.”
“I get goosebumps just thinking about it because I’m so excited,” he added. “I really am.”
I think you’ve got to have some juice every day. And I believe if you coach with swagger, your kids are going to play like that.
Fresno State tight ends coach Joe Bernardi
The difference isn’t only apparent when the Bulldogs are running around hitting each other. Every practice contains two group teaching periods, sessions where the offense and defense gather separately to review, adjust and fine-tune.
Used to be you’d hear one or two dominant voices during these periods. Everyone else was largely silent. Now there’s a lot more chatter, more voices instructing, discussing, asking questions.
You don’t need an EEG to measure all the brain activity.
“It’s the coordinators,” Brown said. “You know how (Dave) Schramm was last year. He’s a great guy, but he’s just so intense kids got intimidated by it. And Toth is the same way. Coach Ward is more relaxed. He got on me today because I blew a coverage, but he’s not a guy who’s going to yell at you or come after you. You learn and move on. ...
“Coach Kiesau, too. He’s just so enthusiastic. It’s, ‘C’mon, you can make that play!’ It’s not, ‘Why didn’t you do this?’ You like being coached like that.”
The change in tone is especially apparent on offense, which has a new coordinator in Kiesau and all new position coaches in Weber (offensive line), Ungerer (running backs), Toler (receivers) and Bernardi (tight ends).
It’s an interesting blend. Weber and Ungerer are the veterans; between them they have more than six decades of college coaching experience. Bernardi and Toler are the rookies; both are in their first job as full-time assistants. Bernardi worked his way up as a graduate assistant at Oregon, Toler as a quality-control coach at Cal.
6 new assistant football coaches at Fresno State this season
“The energy of the younger coaches bleeds down into our players,” Kiesau said.
Bernardi, who made 32 career starts for the Bulldogs from 2006-10, coaches with a loud, enthusiastic intensity. If a player does something right, he hears all about it. If a player does something wrong, he hears about it, too. But in a way that’s more encouraging than derogatory.
“He just has the most positive attitude,” Olsen said. “He’s not a guy who’s going to yell at you and grind you down. He’s going to teach you what he has to teach you and build you up. Which is huge coming from our perspective as players.”
Toler is much the same way. During practice the former Cal receiver (he caught 48 passes from Aaron Rodgers in 2003) is always on the move, constantly instructing, critiquing and encouraging.
The energy of Bernardi and Toler never seems to fade, even while they’re both out there running wind sprints with the players after practice.
The energy of Bernardi and Toler never seems to fade, even while they’re both out there running wind sprints with the players after practice. (“Can’t lose to Coach Toler,” Brown said.)
“It’s for them to know I’m in there with them,” Bernardi said. “We’re all together. We’re all in this thing together. That’s it.”
“Football’s in me,” Toler said. “I just have it in me. I don’t think about it. It’s just my way of teaching, and I know the players feed off my energy.”
Let’s not get carried away and proclaim the Bulldogs will finish with a winning record.
But you can see the signs of a winning culture.