With Dejonte O’Neal, the easy assumption is that he is a third-down back, best in space where he can utilize his quickness and a good burst of speed when matched against a linebacker.
But that never has been the case in his three seasons at Fresno State. And now with Ronnie Rivers working his way back from a foot injury suffered during spring practices, it definitely won’t be in O’Neal’s senior season.
“He’s an all-around guy,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “He can do it all. He’s a weapon, for sure. We don’t really hold him out. There are no plays that we go to and say, ‘He shouldn’t be in there.’ We have a lot of confidence and trust in anything he does.”
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The 5-foot-7, 175-pound O’Neal through fall camp has been the Bulldogs’ third back in a rotation with Jordan Mims and Josh Hokit, with Saevion Johnson and Romello Harris backing them up, and the Bullard High grad could get more run this season than he has to this point in his career.
A year ago the carries were distributed fairly evenly with Mims at 151, Hokit at 128 and Rivers at 101 playing in one fewer game due to an elbow injury; Fresno State was the only team in the Mountain West Conference with three backs with 100 or more rushing plays.
Mims could get a higher percentage of those plays this season. So, too, could Hokit. But O’Neal, who rushed for 106 yards on 25 carries last season, could, as well.
“Between Jordan, Josh and Dejonte, any of those guys can go with the 1s,” running backs coach Jamie Christian said.
“Going into a game, our mind is those three guys can all run with the 1s and we’re going to rotate them by what they do best. If one of them gets hot then they probably stay in there a little longer. It just depends on the flow of the game.”
O’Neal is prepared for a larger role, working through the summer and in camp to be more of an any-down option for the Bulldogs.
In his career, O’Neal has handled the ball more than five times more often on first down than he has on third down, rushing and receiving combined. He can run inside zone, outside zone. He can catch the football circling out of the backfield, good in the screen game. He can pick up a blitz.
|First||32 for 121||9 for 43|
|Second||18 for 70||6 for 63|
|Third||5 for 24||3 for 10|
|Total||57 for 219-*||18 for 116|
*includes two fourth-down plays
“I’ve been trying to wear myself out literally so I know I have that extra oomph in the game when it’s the third quarter, fourth quarter and I need to go,” he said.
A focus has been pass protection, a challenge when up against a 230-pound linebacker.
“I’m always going to be the same player,” he said. “I’ve been working on my pass blocking a lot, trying to dial in on that because I feel that could get me more playing time.”
But it would be a mistake to underestimate O’Neal in those matchups, or the impact that he could have this season in an offense that is expected to be far more efficient than a year ago when the Bulldogs and particularly quarterback Marcus McMaryion were in the first year in a system installed by Tedford and offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer.
“The kid is strong, muscle from his temple to his toes,” said linebacker George Helmuth, who has matched up against O’Neal in one-on-one pass rush drills.
“He’s tough. That combination of things – quick feet,strength, tough guy – that makes him good at a lot of things.”