For Justin Verrell, Fresno State was the plan. Garces High School. Bakersfield College. Fresno State. One would lead to the next, though rarely is anything as easy as one, two, three. That football would get him there and eventually pay for a nice chunk of his education never entered his mind – in high school he played wide receiver in a wing-T offense, didn’t see the field very often, and when he did, he wasn’t going to see much of the football.
He’d be blocking – get used to it, kid – and after four years that was about it.
But when he was a senior in high school, his mom, Stephanie, did a mom thing and used connections to get him into the Arena Bowl, the arena-style all-star football game in Bakersfield. It was there at a practice one day that he found an in: long snapping.
Or, it found him. He had never done it, never even thought about doing it. “Basically,” Verrell said, “they saw a frame and wanted to teach me how to do it.”
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I want them to go out the right way. It’s a special week for them and obviously a special game. I’ve kind of preached to the team the last couple of weeks but more this week to really finish strong and send these seniors out with a win.
Fresno State interim coach Eric Kiesau
So he went to Bakersfield College, got a crash course in long snapping, and after two seasons was offered a spot as a walk-on at Fresno State, which comes with no guarantees other than a lot of time and hard work involved between practices, meetings, conditioning workouts and weightlifting sessions. It takes more than a little something, knowing it is a long shot to ever play in a game. Verrell took a redshirt season, worked toward his degree in industrial technology, took out student loans and got a part-time job to help pay the bills while working on his craft on the football field with Dylan Detwiler, a three-year starter.
“He loves the game,” kicker Kody Kroening said. “He backed up Dylan his first two years, but he still loved being out here and just worked his butt off.”
It all paid off this season when he was put on full scholarship.
“The first thing I did when I found out, I got in my car and I called my dad,” said Verrell, who has started every game snapping for Kroening and punter Blake Cusick. “I told him, ‘I don’t have to borrow any more money. We don’t have to take out any more loans – I got college paid for.’ I shed a little tear, and I think he did, too.
“It has been a rough ride sometimes. I think it really made me appreciate it when I got that call and when I was told, ‘Hey, you’re going to be put on full scholarship.’ I was ecstatic. It was one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had.”
On Saturday, that is just part of perspective.
Fresno State plays San Jose State at Bulldog Stadium, a Mountain West matchup between one-win and three-win teams that were hoping for much more this season.
Of the Bulldogs’ seniors, cornerback Jamal Ellis has made the most career starts with 31. Linebacker Jeff Camilli has made 21, cornerback Tyquwan Glass 18, offensive lineman Jacob Vazquez 13, safety Dalen Jones 12 and defensive lineman Nick Kristofors, safety Stratton Brown and long snapper Justin Verrell 11 each.
The Spartans are eighth in the conference in scoring offense, the Bulldogs 12th and last. Fresno State is eighth in scoring defense, San Jose State 11th.
Both have struggled to rush the football. Both have struggled to stop the run.
They are in the bottom third of the conference in total offense, sacks allowed, explosive pass plays of 20 or more yards and tackles for loss allowed.
The game won’t generate much national interest. Oh, and there is a 90 percent chance of rain.
But for 14 Fresno State seniors, it is big.
The Bulldogs have four fifth-year seniors in Aaron Peck, Dalen Jones, Jamal Ellis and Brandon Hughes who were part of the first recruiting class signed by former coach Tim DeRuyter and will leave with two Mountain West championship rings.
Jeff Camilli is a true senior, playing as a freshman. He, too, has a ring. Zach Kline joined the program last summer as a graduate transfer from Cal.
Stratton Brown, Tyquwan Glass, Alan Wright, Jacob Vazquez, Michael Martens, Nick Kristofors and Wyatt McBee, like Verrell, transferred in from community colleges.
It is a last shot, and there is more than one win and a lot of losses there.
It has been a tough year, but it’s going to be how we react to it this last game and how we react to it next season. It will really make the difference.
Fresno State long snapper Justin Verrell
“Justin, he has had a very good year,” special-teams coordinator Dave Ungerer said. “With a first-year starter, you never know how it’s going to go, but he has been really solid with his location, his snap times. I’ve been really pleased.”
Eric Kiesau, elevated to interim coach when DeRuyter was fired Oct. 23, has said before and after each of the three games he has coached it is about those 14 seniors.
“I want them to go out the right way,” he said. “It’s a special week for them and obviously a special game. I’ve kind of preached to the team the last couple of weeks but more this week to really finish strong and send these seniors out with a win.”
Whether or not they get it, they’re leaving with something.
“It’s crazy it has gone by so fast,” said Brown, the Bulldogs’ leading tackler. “I love this place. I love my teammates. It’s just sad to see it all come to an end.”
Did they win enough football games? Rarely is it as simple as that.
“I have zero complaints,” said Verrell, who wants to be a high school teacher, like his father, Brad. “I’ve made some of my best friends playing here at Fresno State. I can’t really express how much these guys mean to me when it comes to friendships and everything. Yeah, the season hasn’t been what we want it to. With coach DeRuyter leaving, I can’t thank that guy enough, either. He was the one who awarded me a scholarship and gave me a chance to call my parents up and tell them that I have college all paid for. I don’t think I would trade what we have done for anything.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE VS. SAN JOSE STATE
- Saturday: 12:30 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium (41,031)
- Records: Bulldogs 1-10, 0-7 Mountain West; Spartans 3-8, 2-5
- TV/Radio: CBS Sports Network/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)