Fresno State has had variations of a fly sweep on its offensive play sheet for two-plus seasons now, running it out of different formations and dressing it up with different shifts, the football ending up in the hands of a wideout in motion at the snap.
The results before this season, modest. The Bulldogs averaged just 4.4 yards per play with a receiver carrying the ball, the best going for all of 15 yards by Da’Mari Scott in a 2017 victory over Nevada.
Out of 34 plays, just five went for 10 or more yards and nine resulted in a first down.
But this season freshman Jalen Cropper has changed that with one dynamic step, one that he has been making since he first set foot on a football field in Sanger.
“I was 4,” he said.
Not as easy as it looks
There is a lot that goes into the fly sweep, and Fresno State is executing every piece at a high level. The snap from center Matt Smith has to be timed up with the wideout in motion. The offensive line has to ace its assignments. The Bulldogs have run the play with two tight ends on the field, using Jared Rice and Cam Sutton as lead blockers creating a cut-back lane for the wideout with the ball.
But the heart of the play’s success is speed and ability.
That is Cropper, who had an 82-yard run in the Bulldogs’ victory over UNLV last week and a 79-yard touchdown run in a victory at New Mexico State.
Those are the longest and third-longest rushing plays in the Mountain West this season.
“It’s one cut and getting vertical,” receivers coach Kirby Moore said. “He just has very good vision and a very good feel as a runner.”
There is, offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb said, a suddenness to it.
“Jalen has an innate ability to just put his foot in the ground,” he said. “I think that’s one of the most difficult things as a ball carrier – a full-speed cut.
“There is literally separation between levels of football player because of that single move. You can say, ‘That kid is a Division II kid – he really struggles to corner.’ But you watch Jalen and it’s, ‘Boom, boom.’ It’s a pretty natural deal for him.”
At New Mexico State, the first touchdown of Cropper’s college career, the Bulldogs lined up with quarterback Jorge Reyna in the shotgun and utilized a shift to get Rice and Sutton from the left of the formation to the right and Reyna under center.
Cropper, lined up in the slot to the left, went in motion and took a handoff while Reyna continued on with a play fake to running back Ronnie Rivers.
Right tackle Syrus Tuitele engaged the Aggies’ tackle, then got to the next level to take on the middle linebacker. The defensive end was sucked inside by the play fake and went right by Cropper as he ran into the boundary, beating the outside linebacker to the edge. Sutton took the Aggies’ cornerback completely out of the play and Rice blocked the safety.
“It’s fun being a bully out there and just getting mean,” Sutton said. “Me and Jared told him, ‘Just follow us outside,’ because we have the edge player and the contain player so it’s really just daylight as soon as he hits it.”
“That’s the thing that’s not to be undervalued,” Grubb said. “Whether we’re using a back and a tight end or two tight ends, those guys, it’s really a two-man game out there to at least initiate the play, and they understand that very well.
“It’s a lot of practice, giving them different looks, and understanding who that ball carrier can and cannot beat. When do I have to peel back or when can I leave him and climb to a higher guy? That understanding of the concept, it looks a lot easier than it is, to be honest with you. People are like, ‘Oh, yeah, just go fast and hand it off and get him outside. What’s the problem?’ But there are some moving parts to that.”
Of all of them at New Mexico State, Cropper was moving the fastest. Once Rice chucked the safety five yards and out of the play, all that was left was open space and Cropper was gone.
“The play, the whole concept starts with blocking,” Cropper said. “I give a lot of praise to the blockers – when they do that, it’s something special to see …
“Being able to see that much green grass in a college game, you don’t get too many chances to see that. I took my shot and never looked back.”
More to it than just a sweep
The Bulldogs will continue to run the ball with Rivers or Josh Hokit, continue to use the run game to set up play-action pass.
They also can keep pushing the fly sweep. Cropper has run the ball 12 times for 252 yards, averaging 21.0 yards per play. Six of his runs have resulted in a first down, and the one touchdown at New Mexico State.
It is suited to the freshman, who at the start of his prep career was an option quarterback at Sanger and also played wherever he best could get the football in his hands.
“I ran a lot of fly sweeps,” he said. “I was elusive and they would put me at receiver, running back, wherever they wanted me to be. I think that’s my skill type here. I think that’s why I’m able to run these fly sweeps and be productive with them.”
Moore, his position coach, said, “He’s good in space and setting up his blocks. There have been guys that have had the opportunity to get tackles on him and they just don’t get clean hits. He’s very shifty, can spin, can contort his body and get within those creases.
“I think that kind of goes back to him playing quarterback at Sanger in the option and some of those things they were doing. He just has a feel for, ‘I can get this outside or I can’t …’ Even when he catches the ball on the outside, he has a scorer’s mentality. He’s not planning on getting tackled. He’s planning on getting yards after the catch and finishing past the last defender.”