Fresno State Football

Spring football: How good can Fresno State be once QB McMaryion gets the hang of things?

How has Marcus McMaryion grown as Fresno State’s QB? His offensive coordinator explains

Fresno State offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer discusses the growth shown by quarterback Marcus McMaryion -- skills-wise and as a team leader -- during the 2017 season, since his arrival as a graduate transfer from Oregon State.
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Fresno State offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer discusses the growth shown by quarterback Marcus McMaryion -- skills-wise and as a team leader -- during the 2017 season, since his arrival as a graduate transfer from Oregon State.

Fresno State's football team begins spring practices Monday with 17 returning starters from a squad that went 10-4 and won the Mountain West Conference's West Division and the Hawaii Bowl.

The Bulldogs have a chance to win 10 or more games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1988-89. The 15 spring practices will be invested on building toward that.

There are questions — there always are. Examples:

  • The defensive line.

  • The loss of defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer.

  • The use of the tight ends in the passing game, which got a jolt in the Hawaii Bowl victory over Houston when Jared Rice caught six passes for 84 yards.

  • A replacement for kicker Jimmy Camacho, who had a conference-high 25 field goals.

But the biggest question is this: How good will the offense be when quarterback Marcus McMaryion learns the Bulldogs' offense?

Fresno State offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer will have a wealth of talent to work with in 2018 with starting quarterback Marcus McMaryion back along with three of the Bulldogs’ top four receivers, their top five running backs, top three tight ends and three starting offensive linemen. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA

McMaryion last season was 9-2 as a starter and completed 62.1 percent of his passes with an efficiency rating of 137.65. He averaged 7.8 yards per pass attempt, the best by far by a Fresno State quarterback since Derek Carr was a junior in 2012 and completed eight yards per pass.

The young man from Dinuba threw 14 touchdown passes with only five interceptions, and rushed for four more scores.

He did that despite joining the program well into fall camp as a graduate transfer from Oregon State, with no reps in the offense, and no rapport with his receivers gained through spring practices and summer workouts. The season was on-the-job training, digesting the game plan each week without a base in the Bulldogs' offense to support it.

"It's a huge tribute to Marcus that he came in and did what he did so fast," offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer said. "Every week we were throwing at least a few things at him that he hadn't run, hadn't even heard of.

"Sometimes, Tuesday practices looked a little rough. Wednesday was a little better, but even Wednesday there were new concepts when we talked about the situations we were practicing. Then, Thursday, because of Marcus just diving into it and taking a lot of time to study and think through what we were trying to do, it'd look a little better."

Fresno State wideout KeeSean Johnson, center, caught 77 passes for 1,013 yards and eight touchdowns last season. With Johnson, Jamire Jordan and Derrion Grim, the Bulldogs have three of their top four receivers returning in 2018, add Oklahoma transfer Michiah Quick and have Delvon Hardaway back for a sixth season. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA

As good as McMaryion was in 2017, that inexperience and lack of reps was apparent at critical points, such as when the field was compressed in the red zone, and on third downs.

Fresno State last season had a 54.7 touchdown percentage inside the 20-yard line, eighth in the conference, and McMaryion completed only 47.2 percent of his throws in the red zone.

It converted 35.6 percent of its third down plays into first downs, eighth in the Mountain West, and McMaryion hit 41.4 percent of his third-down passes.

On mixed downs — between third-and-4 to third-and-6, when the Bulldogs could run or pass — he hit on 50 percent of his throws. On third-and-long, obvious passing downs, he was just 37.8 percent.

In his second season as a Bulldog, those numbers could skyrocket, and spring will be a proving ground for McMaryion to learn how to optimize the offense.

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Fresno State running back Ronnie Rivers (20) rushed for 480 yards and five touchdowns last season as a true freshman. Eugene Tanner ASSOCIATED PRESS

He can do that by manipulating defenses with his eyes, holding a safety on one side of the field to create a larger window on the other side. It's also better timing with receivers, better anticipation with a throw that leads to more space and more yards after a catch. It's a better read on defenses and the tips and clues they give on blitzes or coverage against a certain play. It's running the offense at a higher tempo to catch opposing defenses off balance.

What could that look like in the fall?

The first- and second-team All-Mountain West quarterbacks last season were Nick Stevens (Colorado State) and Brett Rypien (Boise State).

This is their progression with throws on third-and-7 to third-and-9 from their first season to their third seasons as full-time starting quarterbacks:

  • Stevens: 47.4 percent in 2015 to 64.7 in '16 to 67.6 in '17

  • Rypien: 57.7 percent in 2015 to 66.7 in '16 to 73.9 in '17

If McMaryion has a similar jump, the Bulldogs' offense should, too. With McMaryion and the Bulldogs' offense, there is room to be more efficient and more explosive. Of the 26 FBS teams that won 10 or more games last season, Fresno State ranked 23rd in yards per play and tied for 25th in yards per point.

Fresno State linebacker Jeff Allison (9), a first-team all-conference selection last season when racking up 126 total tackles, was selected to the preseason all-conference team released on Tuesday Aug. 24, 2018 on the first day of the Mountain West Media Summit. Fresno State was picked to win the West Division, receiving 16 of 22 first-place votes. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

Fresno State returns three of their top four wideouts in KeeSean Johnson, Jamire Jordan and Derrion Grim and have Oklahoma transfer Michiah Quick joining the group.

The Bulldogs have their three top tight ends back in Jared Rice, Kyle Riddering and David Tangipa.

Their top four running backs also return in Jordan Mims, Josh Hokit, Ronnie Rivers and Dejonte O'Neal.

And there's McMaryion, with a chance to take a big forward step this spring.

"This is really good to have a spring, a summer and then a fall camp," DeBoer said. "I think you're really going to see him grow and play with even more confidence.

"He's very motivated. He's a driven kid who knows what he wants and he'll do the work to get there. Taking it to the next level and really having a greater impact on our team quicker in the year is going to be something you see from him."

Three other big questions as spring practices begin:

Can the Bulldogs add explosion to the run game?

Fresno State had just six rushing plays of 20 or more yards last season, tied for 128th in the nation and ahead of only one team, Western Kentucky.

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Fresno State cornerback Jaron Bryant (14) had two interceptions in the Bulldogs’ victory over Nevada last season. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA

It wasn't for a lack of trying — in 14 games Fresno State rushed 515 times.

One of those explosive rushing plays came against Incarnate Word, a FCS program, and three came against a New Mexico team that went 3-9. The longest and two of those six runs weren't produced by a running back but the quarterback, McMaryion.

Here are the six:

  • 57 yards: Marcus McMaryion vs. New Mexico

  • 30 yards: Ronnie Rivers vs. Incarnate Word

  • 28 yards: Rivers vs. New Mexico

  • 26 yards: Josh Hokit at San Diego State

  • 24 yards: Jordan Mims vs. New Mexico

  • 22 yards: McMaryion at Boise State

Are the pieces in place to replace five seniors on the defensive line?

Fresno State returns its top seven tacklers from last season, but No. 8, No. 9 and No. 10 were big pieces to the puzzle and will be difficult to replace: tackle Malik Forrester and ends Tobenna Okeke and Robert Stanley.

The Bulldogs also lost tackle Nate Madsen and end Stephen Van Hook.

Those five had played a lot of football going into 2017, and were versatile pieces. Stanley, Okeke and Van Hook were converted linebackers and Madsen had played inside and outside when the Bulldogs deployed a 3-4 front.

Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford and his staff have been working on that position group since they started, but given the suspect shape it was in at this time a year ago, the loss of five seniors from the rotation could be a tackle-size problem.

With no O, how will the defense change?

Defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer returned to the Canadian Football League after helping engineer one of the biggest turnarounds in college football history.

The Bulldogs finishing second in the Mountain West in scoring defense and total defense, first against the run and fifth against the pass.

They also were first in third-down defense, tied for first in sacks and explosive plays allowed, second in tackles for loss, fourth in turnovers gained.

That's a good year.

Steinauer called the plays for that defense on game days, but the planning and teaching was a collaborative effort with defensive line coach Jamar Cain, linebackers coach Bert Watts and defensive backs coach J.D. Williams.

Watts takes over as coordinator, leading to a natural question: Will the dynamic change with Steinauer back in Canada?