Fresno State had a 1,000-yard rusher last season in Marteze Waller, who accounted for 1,368 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground.
But the Bulldogs also had middling success overall running the football, averaging 182.4 yards per game and 4.5 yards per play, ranking sixth and seventh of 12 in the Mountain West Conference. On short-yardage plays and particularly in the red zone, the Bulldogs struggled.
So even with some of the more notable positives this spring, including quarterback play and the inside and outside receivers, it was the physicality in the run game that offensive coordinator Dave Schramm pointed to as perhaps the biggest development.
While running the ball and in plays on the outside — the bubble screens and bullet passes that the Bulldogs consider an extension of their ground game — they were much more competitive.
“I thought we got more physical,” Schramm said. “I’m really pleased with our offensive line. I think (offensive line coach Cameron Norcross) has done a great job with those guys. All the coaches, all the players, they did a great job. The physicality, that’s one of the things I thought we lacked last fall. We lost some physicality offensively, especially in our receiver group. We just have to continue to work and get better, but I think that aspect of it got a lot better.”
In a 50-play situational scrimmage Saturday at Bulldog Stadium, that was evident. The offense scored on a screen from freshman Chason Virgil to redshirt freshman Keyan Williams that was helped by a key block outside by Michael Martens. The Bulldogs scored on a 5-yard run, Dejonte O’Neal going in practically untouched.
Playing mostly with the No. 2 offensive line against the No. 1 defense as well as combinations of ones and twos and twos and threes, Fresno State ran the football effectively.
Waller and senior Malique Micenheimer did not gets any reps — they did not want to take any risks with Waller and Micenheimer is coming back from shoulder surgery. But O’Neal, the freshman walk-on from Bullard High, had a 30-yard run as well as the touchdown. Redshirt freshman Chris Moliga rushed for 17 yards on three plays, pushing the pile forward to finish his carries.
After the Hawaii Bowl loss to Rice, putting some nasty back in the run game became a priority.
“I made a decision to go back to what I believe in, not that I went ever went away from it, but there are times as a coach you make mistakes of thinking you have too-veteran a group and I just started from the ground up of who I am,” Norcross said. “I wrote myself a note a couple days after the bowl game, as I watched it and I was up at 12:30 and I couldn’t sleep, I got up and started writing notes and one of them was ‘be physical and be nasty’ and I think we accomplished that this spring of having a little bit of an edge to us and never backing down from anyone and I think that’s who we have to be right now.
“Whether we’re less skilled than they are or more skilled, we can’t back down from them. We have to go after them and be guys that attack all the time and be nasty. Play clean, but play nasty.”
The Bulldogs took to it.
“Definitely,” senior left tackle Alex Fifita said. “As offense linemen, we all have that killer instinct as far as being physical. What really changed, if you look at Derek Carr, he has one heck of an arm and can throw the ball 40 or 50 yards down the field with ease, but this year we have to focus more in the physicality and be able to run the ball when we need to run it.
“We practiced all spring as far as the physicality. Some of us may run the wrong play, but we’re going 110%. Everything just got turned up as far as running the ball, as far as goal-line situations when we need to run the ball, everything just got bumped up a notch.”
Rebuild on track
The offensive line has been a major construction project over the past three years, with the Bulldogs needing to get the numbers up in the position group and create some balance among the classes. So making it through the scrimmage almost exclusively with the No. 2s on the field was significant.
“If we had done that in the first three years, we probably wouldn’t have gotten a first down,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “And we’re not perfect by any stretch, but this group is going to be a real depth for us as opposed to holding onto your tail hoping that nobody gets hurt.”
The competition in the group is much better, from left tackle across to right. And with four more linemen signed in the Class of 2015, including 6-foot-6, 320-pound Isaiah Trevino from Kingsburg, the Bulldogs are closer to getting the depth where they want it.
“That’s what you want,” DeRuyter said. “We’ve got four guys coming in and a couple of preferred walk-ons that are going to be right there in the mix that are the size that we’re looking for. From a physical standpoint they’ll have a chance to compete and it’s just how quickly mentally they can figure it out.
“This group that are the twos now we feel good about, they can’t get comfortable because we’re bringing in another group right behind them and that’s what you want constantly.”
The Bulldogs were credited with four sacks in Saturday’s scrimmage by outside linebackers Brandon Hughes and Justin Green, nose guard Nate Madsen and defensive end Kyle Hendrickson, and might have had a few more had the quarterbacks been live during the scrimmage.
That also was a point of emphasis this spring; the Bulldogs’ sack total falling last season to 30 from 40 in 2013.
“Our lack of pressure last year and our increased pressure now, I’ll take now,” defensive coordinator Nick Toth said. “And the thing with them right now is you’re not seeing the impact they’re going to have in the fall because they’re having to play every down. You have a couple of guys that are on the sidelines injured, so I think that’s going to get even better. We’re going to be able to package and rush that thing, get after that quarterback more than we have.”
From high above
Schramm, who the past three seasons has called games from the sideline, was in the press box Saturday and the Bulldogs’ other two scrimmages this spring.
“I’ve been up in the box before. It’s just something we experimented with,” he said. “We’ll see. That’s not something we’ve made a decision on yet. But I’ve done it from up there, I’ve done it from on the field. It’s just how the whole chemistry works. We’ll see.
“The main reason why I like to be on the field is I like to see the look in our guys’ eyes and react to that. Get them going if we have to or make a change if we have to, at any position. But that’s way down the road, whether I’m up there or I’m on the field.”
Spring footnotes …