The past two seasons, Fresno State had a veteran to anchor its offensive line. First, Aaron Mitchell. Then, Micah St. Andrew and Markus Boyer. A senior started at center in 2017 and two fifth-year seniors started at center last season, St. Andrew taking the first five games before moving to right guard with Boyer moving into the lineup.
They made the line calls, made the checks. They were critical pieces in the development of an offense that went from averaging 329.3 yards and 17.7 points per game in 2016 to 392.9 yards and 27.1 points in ‘17 and to 421.5 yards and 24.6 points in ‘18.
The Bulldogs the past two seasons also led the Mountain West Conference in tackles for loss allowed, the first team to lead in back-to-back seasons since TCU in 2010 and ‘11.
But this spring Fresno State not only is lacking a veteran center, it is starting almost from zero at the position, moving players inside who have little experience even snapping a football.
“That’s one of the sneaky spots on this football team,” said Ryan Grubb, the Bulldogs’ offensive coordinator and line coach. “The center, it’s going to be a big deal. Aaron, Micah, Markus, those guys were all proven players and it paid off.”
Redshirt freshman Tyrone Sampson, who was a four-star recruit as a center coming out of high school and a leading candidate to win a starting job, will not participate in spring football due to a knee injury from last season.
So third-year sophomore Quireo Woodley, who took some reps at center in fall camp a year ago but worked during the season at guard and tackle, will get reps at center. Redshirt freshman Jace Fuamatu and sophomore Zelan Tupuola will get work at center, along with junior Matt Smith. The Bulldogs also have moved Matt Kjeldgaard to the offensive line from defensive tackle, and he will fit inside at center or guard.
Come Labor Day weekend, one of them will be on the field for the first snap of the season – at USC.
The inexperience there could play against the Bulldogs, who also have holes to fill up the middle at quarterback and on defense at the Mike linebacker.
Grubb has almost every lineman snapping the football. It might be only a few minutes before practice and it might not lead to reps at the position, but at least there is a starting point.
“You start with the physical part and you just let them start snapping,” Grubb said. “It’s shooting free throws. It’s repetition. Now, you have to make sure you’re putting a body in front of them. They can’t do it on air, so they know what it feels like to snap a football and snap a hand. Obviously, the snap hand is the tough one. You have 320 pounds breathing down your neck, you snap the football and the only thing you have to defend yourself with is that arm you just snapped the football with.
“You have to get it right back there. That takes time. That’s where I always begin, with any of those interior guys.”
There also is the occasional pop quiz on the right line call in the offensive line meeting room.
The Bulldogs have a lot of boxes to check between spring practices and the Aug. 31 opener at USC, and the inexperience at center cannot be discounted.
Consistent snaps. Correct calls and checks. Also, the requisite physicality.
“I think one of the difference-makers for a really good center is a guy that has the mental discipline that he just doesn’t give in to fatigue at all,” Grubb said. “He is tougher than anyone out there, because the second you give in to fatigue the first thing to get messed up is the call. That guy just has to know that he’s Superman out there.
“A guy like Aaron and Markus, they were both experienced centers. They had been put in those situations and game-tested. They had been there and done that. Whoever does that at USC in August will not have done that, so we have some work to do.”