Fresno State got a critical piece to its offensive line back Tuesday when the Bulldogs returned from a week-long break in the middle of spring football practice.
Redshirt freshman Tyrone Sampson, coming back from a knee injury, went through a full practice for the first time, taking reps with the No. 2 offense and giving offensive coordinator/line coach Ryan Grubb and assistant line coach Roman Sapolu a chance to tinker and take a peek at some different lineup combinations.
That extends out to left tackle, a spot that in the fall is expected to belong unquestionably to Netane Muti, the Bulldogs’ best offensive lineman.
That could change, though.
“The questions are center and left tackle,” Grubb said. “I think that’s where you start. It all starts with Netane. If we decide to keep Muti out at tackle, then obviously Quireo Woodley would be an inside guy, which is where I’m leaning.”
The Bulldogs are short at tackle this spring with Muti being held out coming back from an Achilles injury suffered at Minnesota in the second game of the season and sophomore Dontae Bull out with a back injury.
Because of that lack of depth, starting right tackle Syrus Tuitele and Nick Aibuedefe have been taking reps with the No. 1 and No. 2 offenses, and the Bulldogs moved walk-on tight end Jared Torres to tackle.
Fresno State also during the break received a commitment from lineman Tim Anderson from Saddleback College, so in the fall the Bulldogs will not only be in better health but will also have more flexibility to make moves up front.
Muti, an athletic, 308-pound redshirt junior, is the linchpin. The pieces fall into place around him, whether he lines up at left tackle or inside at left guard, where as a redshirt freshman in 2017 he started all 14 games and gained honorable mention on the All-Mountain West Conference team.
The Bulldogs that season ranked third in the nation in both sacks allowed (10, 0.71 per game) and tackles for loss allowed (46, 3.29 per game).
Woodley on Tuesday took his reps with the No. 1 offense at center, but last season played as a tackle and a guard. If Muti is at tackle, Woodley moves into a competition at center with Sampson and Matt Smith. If Muti is inside, Woodley is in the mix at tackle.
The Bulldogs could switch it up during the season, as well. They open against Power Five conference opponents at USC and against Minnesota, which will be bigger and more physical inside than the teams Fresno State plays in conference. Also, Fresno State’s early opponents are likely to bring pressure against whichever first-year starter is at quarterback – Jorge Reyna, Ben Wooldridge or Steven Comstock.
Last season, the Bulldogs started Micah St. Andrew at center against early opponents that featured big, physical nose tackles before he swapped spots with right guard Markus Boyer. Before starting the first five games of 2018 at center, St. Andrew had started 29 games in a row at right guard.
“If we make (Muti) an inside guy, that makes our line a little less versatile, because we need tackles and obviously Muti proved last year he could be a really effective tackle,” Grubb said. ”I think that’s something that at the next level will show even more for him and people that I’ve talked to have echoed that. Netane showing that athleticism, talking to (former Fresno State lineman Kenny Wiggins, who is entering his seventh season in the NFL), if you can play outside they know you can play inside.
“But Muti is great. He’ll do whatever we need him to do, play whereever we need him. But that’s the way it probably will start out, with Muti at left tackle and a big three-way swing at center and then we go from there.”
Josh Hokit was back on the practice field for the first time since finishing fifth at the NCAA Wrestling championships, looking a bit more like a 197-pound wrestler than the 225-pound football player he was at the end of last season.
The priority, coach Jeff Tedford said, is to get Hokit back in football shape, but he is ahead of where he was last year at this time. Hokit last spring was dealing with a hamstring issue, which slowed his transition back to football.
“We’ll just break him in slowly,” Tedford said.
Hokit, who was not available to meet with the media after practice, is required to spend the first two days in just a helmet and shorts – the Bulldogs practiced on Tuesday in shells, helmets and shoulder pads.