Fresno State could become the first program in Mountain West Conference history with a bowl win and 10 or more victories in three consecutive seasons, which no doubt appears a daunting task with no Marcus McMaryion, no KeeSean Johnson, no Jeff Allison, no Micah St. Andrew.
But the schedule is not exactly difficult past an opening game at USC. The Bulldogs this season play only five opponents that were in a bowl game last season and only two teams that were more than two games over .500 at the end of the year.
The combined record of their FBS opponents a year ago: 62-76.
Add in FCS Sacramento State, and it’s 64-84.
There may be enough in the program even after losing 28 seniors for the Bulldogs to get to the 10-win/bowl win plateau. There are stars, notably four who are on national award watch lists: Linebacker Mykal Walker and safety Juju Hughes front a defense that returns six starters; and running back Ronnie Rivers and tight end Jared Rice are proven producers on offense.
But it takes more than four to succeed in football. Here are five players who are most likely to take big forward steps in preseason camp, which begins Friday. They’re aiming to help the Bulldogs build on a winning run that includes 10-4 and 12-2 seasons, Hawaii and Las Vegas Bowl victories, and last season a Mountain West Conference championship.
Quireo Woodley, center
Fresno State went into and came out of its spring practices dealing with injuries along its offensive line and didn’t gain much clarity on who fit in a top five, top seven or top eight.
The Bulldogs did receive positive reports throughout on Netane Muti, who went down and out for the year with an Achilles injury at Minnesota in the second week of the season.
Plug in Muti, one of the best offensive linemen in the Mountain West, and Fresno State instantly is better. But Quireo Woodley may be just as critical a piece for the Bulldogs. A guard and tackle his first two seasons in the program, Woodley this season is expected to line up at center.
The redshirt sophomore did not get much work there in the spring due to the injuries – the Bulldogs were short tackles, Woodley has a tackle-bod and has played tackle, so he took most of his reps there.
He is working at center this summer and it obviously is a critical position along an offensive line that returns only one starter in right tackle Syrus Tuitele and Muti, who started all 14 games in 2017 at left guard and the first two games last season at left tackle.
A veteran presence at center has been a key piece to the Bulldogs’ success under coach Jeff Tedford, first with Aaron Mitchell and then with St. Andrew and Markus Boyer.
Mitchell started the last 38 games of his Fresno State career. St. Andrew had started 29 games at right guard before moving to center for the first five games last season and ended up starting 43 consecutive games for the Bulldogs. Boyer, a fifth-year senior transfer from UCLA, started the first five games last season at right guard before switching places with St. Andrew.
They consistently got the calls and adjustments right, and Fresno State seldom went backward.
It led the Mountain West in fewest tackles for loss allowed the past two seasons with 54.0 and 46.0, ranking seventh and tied for third in the nation.
The Bulldogs also stayed in third-and-manageable, running the second fewest third-and-long plays in the conference.
Woodley will have competition at the position from junior Matt Smith and redshirt freshman Tyrone Sampson – Sampson, like Muti, missed the spring due to injury.
But Woodley likely is there at the start of the season, making calls for a line that could see a lot of pressures from opposing defenses looking to test quarterback Jorge Reyna, a first-year starter.
Chris Gaston, cornerback
Fresno State last season had four returning starters in the secondary, and not coincidentally one of the best pass defenses in the nation. The Bulldogs dominated the Mountain West despite the fact they didn’t pressure as well as they had the previous season – the sack number dropped by 10
They allowed opponents to complete only 51.8% of their passes, the best mark in the MW since Phillip Thomas and Derron Smith were making plays in the Bulldogs’ secondary in 2012. They allowed just 5.9 yards per pass play, and no team has yielded less since that 2012 Fresno State team. They allowed an efficiency rating of 104.32, the lowest in the conference by almost 10 points and, again, lowest since that conference title-winning Bulldogs team in 2012.
In the FBS the Bulldogs ranked fourth, tied for 12th and fifth in the nation in those categories.
In the 14 games a year ago, opponents most often went at senior cornerback Tank Kelly and the senior responded – he was third in the nation with 22 passes defended, including four interceptions.
Redshirt sophomore Chris Gaston, who steps into Kelly’s spot, also figures to be a target playing opposite Jaron Bryant, who has started 27 games in a row.
Maybe, twice the target. Kelly went into 2018 with nine starts on his resume, experience that Gaston lacks at this point.
But, like Kelly, Gaston could have a big year.
He had a strong spring, pushed all the way by freshman Deshawn Ruffin, the Sunnyside High grad.
Gaston has a good base in the defense, having played in all 14 games last season. And he’s had spring practice, summer work and a fall camp as a No. 1.
Kelly excelled despite being relatively short (5-foot-9). Kelly is 6-1, allowing him to match up better with bigger receivers.
Isaiah Johnson, defensive end
Walker was a star last season at defensive end, but he’s projected as a linebacker at the next level, so he came back for his senior season to fill the middle linebacker position previously held by Allison.
That defensive end spot Walker has left open is big in the Bulldogs’ defense, generating a lot of plays and a lot of production.
Isaiah Johnson, a true sophomore from Modesto, will be asked to fill that void.
The Bulldogs had a chance to put Johnson into a redshirt year in 2018, but his production went up as the season went along (he had 2.5 sacks, all after Nov. 1) and he is expected to be bigger, stronger and a more physical player this season.
With more burst, more upper body strength to take on and control blockers, hold points or shed blocks to get to the football, Johnson can be the multi-use weapon favored by defensive coordinators Orlondo Steinauer in 2017 and by Bert Watts last season.
Robert Stanley was that guy in 2017: in on 35 tackles with a team-high 11.5 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks. Walker last season racked up 87 total tackles, a team-high 14.0 tackles for loss including 4.5 sacks, and his 6.2 tackles per game led defensive linemen in the Mountain West.
Cam Sutton, receiver
At 6-foot-6, Cam Sutton is difficult to miss on football field and the senior receiver is not much of a secret around Fresno State. The Bulldogs have been waiting for Sutton to make more of an impact – last season he caught just three passes for 42 yards – and after the spring offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb said they needed to be more creative in finding ways to get the football into Sutton’s hands.
They have made some adjustments to do that, without cutting into their options with tight end Jared Rice, who is returning off a 55-catch junior season, and the addition in the spring of junior college transfer tight ends Raymond Pauwels and Juan Rodriguez.
Sutton will go into fall camp lining up at the “H” as a slot receiver rather than a tight end. In that position, Sutton could find a high number of exploitable matchups.
The Bulldogs do not have much experience at the position; redshirt freshman Erik Brooks, who had a strong spring, is in that group along with freshman Rodney Wright III.
But Sutton can be very productive as a slot receiver given his size, speed and athleticism and the mismatches he can create. How productive he is in an offense that is looking for replacements for three of its top four outside receivers in Johnson, Jamire Jordan and Michiah Quick comes down to how quickly he can learn the position and how to work from it with quarterback Jorge Reyna.
Fresno State last season when winning the Mountain West Conference and the Las Vegas Bowl in a 12-2 season was one of the most efficient passing teams in the nation, third among the 75 teams that put the ball in the air 30 or more times a game with an efficiency rating of 156.58.
Sutton needs to be an answer for Reyna., and can be an every-down factor in a receivers’ group that early in the season will be looking to develop some playmakers.
Romello Harris, running back
Ronnie Rivers is established as the Bulldogs’ No. 1 back and Jordan Mims is expected to be a full go at some point in fall camp, coming back from a foot injury that kept him out of the last two games a year ago.
The Bulldogs in 2017 had three backs with between 101 and 151 rushing plays, 7.8 and 10.8 per game, and a fourth in the game plan every week. Last season it was three backs with between 73 and 132 plays, 5.6 and 12.0 per game, and again a fourth in play week to week.
How those running back reps are distributed this season is an open question, and it could be impacted by the depth in the position group. But that puts Harris, the former Tulare Union High standout and Washington State transfer, squarely in play, especially if it takes Mims some time to return to form.
Fresno State has options in the backfield, starting with junior Saevion Johnson.
But Harris, who played in five games last season, had a strong spring and looked to be all the way back from a leg injury he was working through in 2017 when sitting out as a transfer.
He had a burst, ran downhill, was solid in pass protection and a capable receiver out of the backfield.
Rivers toward the end of last season looked like the could handle a larger workload, especially in the Las Vegas Bowl victory over Arizona State when carrying the football a career-high 24 times for 212 yards and two touchdowns. But that also was game No. 11 and not game No. 14 for Rivers, who was coming back from a spring foot injury.
If the Bulldogs again are three- to four-deep at running back, Harris is likely to be in the rotation and a very productive counter punch.