Football players get hit during training camp. They get shoved. They get knocked around, plowed into and driven into the turf.
There comes a moment during every Fresno State practice when coach Tim DeRuyter blows his whistle and hollers something along the lines of, “This is a live period, men!” and everyone knows some real football (i.e., with actual hitting) is about to take place.
Well, almost. Linemen hit linemen. Linebackers hit running backs. Defensive backs hit receivers. But nobody hits the quarterback.
When a pass rusher bursts into the backfield with a free shot at the quarterback, he may get the satisfaction of tagging him with both hands. Most of the time he doesn’t even bother. Whistles blow, and the play is dead.
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You’ve got to get them comfortable when there’s chaos all around them without exposing them to injury. It’s a balance.
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter
Fresno State isn’t doing anything different here. The practice of hitting quarterbacks during practice is practically obsolete these days, and for good reason: Quarterbacks are the most important position; you don’t want them getting hurt.
Still, I wonder if the Bulldogs’ quarterback quandary – four guys with little to no college experience – couldn’t be helped with a little old-school thinking.
Fifteen years ago, a Fresno State coach named Pat Hill exposed a quarterback named David Carr to live hitting during practice. “People said I was crazy for doing that,” Hill told me during a recent practice, neglecting to mention it didn’t prevent Carr from being the NFL’s No. 1 overall pick.
The Bulldogs’ current coach doesn’t share Hill’s philosophy, but he’s familiar with the concept.
When DeRuyter was co-defensive coordinator at Nevada in 2005-06 under Chris Ault, his guys were allowed to drill the quarterback – within reason.
“I thought Coach Ault was kind of a Cro-Magnon,” DeRuyter laughed. “I was like, ‘Really? Live?’ But we took care of our quarterbacks really well. If there was ever a blindside shot on someone, you’d never take it.”
Fresno State has yet to name a starting quarterback for the Sept. 3 opener against Abilene Christian, though it’s pretty apparent sophomore Zack Greenlee is a step ahead of the competition following Thursday’s scrimmage.
Greenlee didn’t do anything flashy – his passing numbers were actually pretty pedestrian – but he knew where to deliver the football and when to scramble out of trouble.
In scramble situations we run full speed and treat it just like we would during a game. Even though in the back of your mind you know you aren’t getting hit.
Fresno State quarterback Zack Greenlee
The biggest knock against each of the Bulldogs’ quarterbacks is their lack of experience. Transfer Ford Childress has the most – he started two games at West Virginia in 2013. Greenlee played one half against Wyoming, which did not go well, and appeared in mop-up duty. Chason Virgil and Kilton Anderson are freshmen.
Wouldn’t they all benefit from a taste of what football is really like, in advance of opening night?
“If you could guarantee me the quarterbacks wouldn’t get hurt, I’d love to have them live,” DeRuyter said. “Because that’s the only true test of what they’re going to be able to do once the lights come on.”
During Thursday’s scrimmage, Greenlee darted through the defense for what looked to be a long touchdown run. Or maybe not, had the defense been allowed free rein.
Tough for anyone, Greenlee included, to tell.
“You’ve just got to understand what’s going on and not get a false sense of security,” he said. “Have it in your mind that you’re not live and understand that if you set a protection wrong or something you would’ve gotten hit.”
Since Bulldogs quarterbacks don’t get hit during practice, it’s impossible to know how they’ll react until it actually happens.
Which makes training camp and the two remaining scrimmages little more than a dress rehearsal. No matter who gets named starter it won’t matter until that guy proves he can withstand getting knocked around.
No matter who gets named the starter it won’t matter until that guy proves he can withstand getting knocked around.
Even though Greenlee has separated himself a little – he and Childress split the first-team reps during Saturday morning’s practice – the difference between the quarterbacks isn’t vast. Greenlee knows the offense better than Childress, and at this point his accuracy under duress is superior to Virgil’s. Right now it seems like Anderson, who had trouble with exchanges during the scrimmage, is No. 4.
“We’re going to play the guy who gives us the best chance to win games, and that’s it,” offensive coordinator Dave Schramm said. “The bottom line is we have to win games.”
It’s not as if quarterbacks at Fresno State practices get treated like princesses. They throw. They sweat. They’re required to face pressure and deliver the ball.
Sometimes, there’s even contact. Just nothing like a real live Saturday night.
“You stand behind them when they’re doing that stuff, they feel the heat,” DeRuyter said. “They get hit a little. They’re just not getting waylaid.”
No, they aren’t. We’ll have to wait for Abilene Christian, or more likely Mississippi, for that to happen. And until one of them actually does get hit, the true identity of Fresno State’s starting quarterback in 2015 will not be revealed.