Fresno State had remarkable football success the past two seasons with a major rebuild.
Coach Jeff Tedford inherited a team that was 1-11, went 10-4 with a Hawaii Bowl victory in year one and 12-2 with a Mountain West Conference title and a Las Vegas Bowl victory in year two; the Bulldogs are the first FBS team in history to go from double-digit losses in one season to double-digit wins in the next two.
But now comes the trouble spot, especially for a program that has had a difficult time capturing, building and holding the attention of its fan base.
Many of the veteran players Tedford inherited, who bought in and built something, have moved on and left a void in the locker room and on the field.
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The outside expectations are more modest with only three returning starters on offense, six on defense and three on special teams.
The standards set the past two years can be a fluid thing, and were even for a senior-led team a year ago, which needed and got an internal push over the summer to get back on track when the work in off-season conditioning started to slip.
So where are the Bulldogs now with that intangible ingredient, starting spring practices?
“I think they have an understanding of it,” Tedford said on Monday, after the first of 15 practices leading up to an open event April 13. “Now, for us to execute it, it’s too early to tell right now. I’ll tell you at the end of spring ball where I think we ended up.
“But the work ethic, the effort, it doesn’t look any different than it did last year. It all looked the same to me. I think they’re close. I think they’re a good group. I think some of the guys are anxious to step up into new roles, take over some starting spots.”
Who fills leadership roles, like many things this spring, is to be determined. But there are a lot of openings with the Bulldogs having lost quarterback Marcus McMaryion, linebackers Jeff Allison, George Helmuth and James Bailey, wideout KeeSean Johnson, offensive linemen Micah St. Andrew, Markus Boyer, Christian Cronk and Logan Hughes and tight end Kyle Riddering, among others.
“Everyone plays a role in that, to motivate each other,” Tedford said. “Leadership is a big word, but if we can continue to motivate each other every single day, no matter who it is, I don’t care if it’s your first guy or your last guy, everybody plays a role in that as a part of a team.”
On the field in shorts and helmets for the first spring practice, there was no discernible dropoff. Fresno State went through 24 periods – the usual, individual, install, 7 on 7s, 1 on 1s, special teams.
The four quarterbacks vying to replace McMaryion each got reps. Mykal Walker was at the Mike linebacker with the No. 1 defense, with Justin Rice and Arron Mosby at the outside linebacker spots played last season by Helmuth and Bailey. Senior Derrion Grim, who has 20 of the Bulldogs’ 24 returning career receptions, led the wideouts group through drills and practice periods.
The energy on the field and the pace of practice was good, Tedford said.
It will take some doing to build on 10-4 and 12-2, but in the West Division of the Mountain West Conference the Bulldogs always should have that chance.
“Obviously, when you graduate 28 people it becomes someone else’s turn to fill those roles,” Tedford said. “But our guys have been around it so they know what it takes. It’s just a matter of going through the process.
“It doesn’t happen on Day One. You have to build it. You have the make sure you pay attention to it. We have to do a good job as coaches trying to create the environment again, but it’s nothing new to these guys. It’s not like that first year when they had no idea whether to stand up, sit down, be loud, be quiet. They had no idea. These guys at least know what the expectations are. Now, we get the opportunity to build it.”
Hokit still on the mat
Running back Josh Hokit finished fourth Sunday at the Big 12 wrestling championships and qualified for the NCAAs.
“I wish him all the best,” Tedford said, adding that his staff plans to slowly get Hokit into football shape when he’s able to join spring practice.
The NCAA wrestling championships are March 21-23 in Pittsburgh, so Hokit won’t get a lot of spring football. Fresno State has a week off March 26-30 in the middle of spring practices and seven practices after the wrestling season ends.
Hokit is a senior in football but a junior in wrestling. He does have a redshirt football season available, if necessary.
He’s one of five Bulldogs wrestlers qualified for the NCAAs. The others are redshirt freshmen Jackson Hemauer, Gary Joint and Jacob Wright, sophomore AJ Nevills and junior Khristian Olivas.
▪ Left tackle Netane Muti, who suffered a season-ending Achilles’ injury last September at Minnesota, did some rehab work on the side Monday. On the offensive line Muti, center Tyrone Sampson, guard/tackle Marc-David Bien-Amie and tackle Dontae Bull all are out for the spring due to injuries.
▪ On the defensive line, Jasad Haynes is out for the spring with an injury.
▪ Defensive line interior depth is much less an issue than it was a year or two ago. Redshirt freshmen Leonard Payne and Alex Dumais put on good pounds during the offseason, Payne gaining 27 to get to 287 and Dumais adding 21 to get to 280.
▪ Offensive coordinator/line coach Ryan Grubb on his first day in a new role: “There’s a lot going on. Honestly, I know I have to do job one and help Roman (Sapolu) with the offensive line. I think the difference is for me communicating with more than just (former coordinator Kalen DeBoer), communicating with all the assistant coaches on position groups, making sure all the position groups are effectively moving and doing all the things right. I think that’s the biggest thing – communication on the field, which is fun. I love it.”
▪ The last spring practice, April 13, is the only spring event open to the public. It begins at 10:30 a.m. at Bulldog Stadium.