Same players. New coach. New staff.
Coming off a 1-11 season, that is an intriguing mix and it showed during spring football workouts for Fresno State. There were good gains, starting with quarterback Chason Virgil.
As the record a year ago and the 3-9 before that suggests, this is a program needing a lot of help to get back to competitiveness in the Mountain West Conference.
Spring numbers are a dubious gauge, given the quarterbacks are not absorbing contact, but they may be instructive with Virgil.
The redshirt sophomore completed almost 80 percent of his passes in the second scrimmage and would have been at 65 percent in the third if not for four drops. In the final scrimmage last spring and under similar circumstances, Virgil hit 59 percent.
I think any time you get a new coaching staff everyone gets a fresh start, so whether you were at the top you’re right back down with everybody else or whether you were at the bottom you’re in there competing with everyone else.
Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford
Virgil should be stronger and more sturdy by fall camp (he has not been able to do upper body lifting following offseason shoulder surgery) and also will be pushed through the summer by more legitimate competition from JC transfer Jorge Reyna and senior Christian Rossi – a missing piece in his development.
And then there is the supporting cast, on both sides of the ball.
Here are five other players that caught the eye this spring and should be on fans’ radar heading into fall camp and the start of the 2017 season.
The setup – Enrolled for the spring semester as a walk-on from American River College. He has two years to play two seasons of football for the Bulldogs.
Why he could matter – The Bulldogs have one of the best sets of wideouts in the Mountain West with 125 returning receptions in a group that includes KeeSean Johnson (66), Jamire Jordan (45) and Delvon Hardaway (10) and wild card Da’Mari Scott (who caught 24 passes in 2015 before redshirting last season after an academic snafu). But the 6-foot-4 Parker adds length outside that the team was lacking a year ago and that can be very useful, particularly in the red zone. He made a nice touchdown grab in the second scrimmage and could continue to move up in a deep and talented group.
Tedford – “We’re fortunate that he’s here. He walked on and he’s really going to help us. He brings something different, being real tall. He has really good range and can run and catches the ball well.”
Stephen Van Hook
The setup – Has been in the program for a while as an outside linebacker, but with limited playing time. Entering his redshirt senior season he has played in 11 career games and has one tackle.
I feel like this is getting back to my old roots, getting back to my old ways. That’s what it feel like. I feel a lot faster out there.
Fresno State defensive end Stephen Van Hook
Why he could matter – Given the switch to a 4-3, defensive end could be very thin or OK. Van Hook, as well as Justin Green, will have a lot to do with whether it is the former or the latter. Both were outside linebackers in a 3-4 under former coach Tim DeRuyter. Van Hook played as a defensive end in high school, struggled with the transition to linebacker, and now has new life. An opposite switch paid off in recent program history. In 2012, Tristan Okpalaugo and Donavon Lewis were 4-3 defensive ends, switched to outside linebacker and made an immediate impact. Van Hook, 6-1 and 250 pounds, worked with the No. 1 defense through the spring. The opportunity is there and so, too, is the fit.
Van Hook – “I feel like this is getting back to my old roots, getting back to my old ways. I feel a lot faster out there. It took a while for me to get used to (outside linebacker) and then I feel like I had some sparks and then, I don’t even know what happened, but now, this is a new beginning for me so I’m just ready to get out there and get after it.”
The setup – Fourth-year junior cornerback played in nine games as a redshirt freshman and nine last season, including his first start in a loss to Utah State. He was in on eight tackles and credited with two pass breakups.
Why he could matter – Kelly had a rough season a year ago, particularly against receivers who could get downfield. This spring, with some adjustments as much mental as physical, he was a different guy. More mature. More competitive. Much more of a factor in 7 on 7s and team periods while competing much better against a good set of outside receivers. He ended the spring taking reps with the No. 1 defense. In a position group that lacks experience, he could develop into a key piece for a defense with one career start among the top four cornerbacks – and Kelly has it.
Kelly – “The team has made me a better person. It’s not me, just myself, everyone is getting better. The coaching staff that has come in here, they have upped everything. Every aspect, every small detail, it counts and we all know that.”
The setup – Fifth-year senior has been set back in his Fresno State career by injuries, including a knee surgery in the spring ahead of his sophomore season.
Why he could matter – Flashed as a redshirt freshman in 2014, starting seven games. He made some big catches, including a touchdown against No. 21 Nebraska and a deft 32-yarder late in the second quarter against Southern Utah that led to a TD. The past two seasons have been a battle to get and stay healthy, but it was all good exiting spring and in a receiver group that has some tough covers for Mountain West defenses could be headed for a big senior season. Receivers coach Kirby Moore was getting more diligence out of his group and that coupled with better pass protection could add up to a much more productive 2017.
When we take a quiz in our receivers room, he gets it every time and he’s taking pride in learning what everyone is doing.
Fresno State receivers coach Kirby Moore on Delvon Hardaway
Moore – “The one thing about Delvon, he works his butt off. On the field, in the weight room. I hear great reports from (strength and conditioning coach Andy Ward). He’s a very knowledgeable football player. When we take a quiz in our receivers room, he gets it every time and he’s taking pride in learning what everyone is doing. He’s learning what this receiver has got, what this receiver has got, which is going to be invaluable in the fall because he’s going to know every position.”
The setup – Suffered an Achilles tendon injury during summer workouts last season and took a redshirt year. Minus that, it is likely he would have made it to the field as a true freshman.
Why he could matter – For starters, he is big, very athletic and young – turning 18 not long ago. So the ceiling is high. Playing on the No. 1 line at left guard from the start of the spring, he is one of their better players up front in a group that had a solid spring. A year ago, the run game in the spring was a numbing series of plus-1, plus-2, no gain, minus-2, plus-1, just a precursor to a season in which Fresno State ranked last in the Mountain West in rushing yards per play and per game. But this spring, the Bulldogs rushed the ball with success in all three scrimmages; in the second, 78 percent of the rushing plays behind the No. 1 line went 4 or more yards. The numbers in the position group are down – nothing new there, going back to the final year under coach Pat Hill – so Muti also is a building block in a critical year for offensive line recruiting.
Offensive line coach Ryan Grubb – “He stands out pretty quick. He is the strongest guy in the unit in every lift, one of the most explosive athletes we have on the team. One of his best strengths is his humility. He doesn’t talk about how strong he is or when he pass-sets guys and dominates them, he’d be the last person to say anything. He still doesn’t understand how he’s a starter. That’s how he is and it’s genuine, too. Fantastic kid, really coachable. As his confidence grows and his knowledge base grows, the sky is the limit.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
- Saturday, Sept. 2: Home/season opener vs. Incarnate Word, kickoff TBD
- Saturday, Sept. 9: Game at Alabama, kickoff TBD
- Saturday, Sept. 30: Mountain West opener vs. Nevada, kickoff TBD