Fresno State is expected to have found, or to have created, some clarity at the quarterback position about 10 days out from its season opener Sept. 3 against Abilene Christian. But offensive line coach Cameron Norcross said that he is in no hurry to shut down the competition at the two open guard spots, and it likely will continue on through to the end of fall camp.
The Bulldogs, who this season are replacing starters Cody Wichmann and Sean Rubalcava, have depth with sophomore Aaron Mitchell, redshirt freshman Micah St. Andrew and junior Jacob Vazquez the top contenders for the two spots and redshirt freshman Jacob Hicks trying to push his way into the mix.
And the separator is not something to be determined in one day or week.
“Right now we have to see who is going to be the most physical,” Norcross said. “Aaron Mitchell is smart. He’s athletic and he’s tough. Micah is athletic and he’s big, not that he’s not smart. Jacob Vazquez is super smart, maybe the smartest guy on the football team, but he’s not super big right now. Those are going to be the things that we’re going to look at with how they fit against who we’re playing, who has the bigger upside and who gives us the best chance to win football games.”
Mitchell and St. Andrew opened camp taking the reps with the No. 1 offense at the left and right guards, with Vazquez and Hicks with the twos. Vazquez the past two days has taken reps with the No. 1 offense at center, with returning starter Bo Bonnheim sidelined due to a hamstring strain.
But the starting guards will be vital to an offense that will be pressed in early-season matchups to have success running the football and protecting what will be a young starting quarterback, whether third-year sophomore Zack Greenlee, redshirt freshman Kilton Anderson, freshman Chason Virgil or perhaps junior transfer Ford Childress is under center for that first snap.
Bonnheim is back, having started 21 consecutive games. Alex Fifita returns as a preseason all-Mountain West Conference selection at left tackle. And Justin Northern is a fixture at right tackle with 27 career and consecutive starts, the most for the Bulldogs on that side of the football.
Mitchell, St. Andrew and Vazquez will fill in the guard spots for the Bulldogs, who need to build on a 2014 season in which they rushed for 4.5 yards per play and 182.4 yards per game.
St. Andrew, a former walk-on who was awarded a scholarship after spring practices, is one of the more intriguing players in camp with the Bulldogs.
Fresno State evaluated him as a senior at Rialto Eisenhower High, but he was very heavy at the time and they were not sure how well he would fit in their up-tempo spread offense. Still, Norcross was intrigued by his athleticism and footwork. He came in last season as a preferred walk-on, got his weight down and worked his way into the equation for a starting job at the right guard spot.
He reported to camp at 327 pounds.
“Because he was so big, you know he was close to 380 pounds in high school, he doesn’t fit into what we do,” Norcross said. “He had good tape and those things, but we thought he’d be better for someone else who did something a little different. But the thing he has done, he has lost almost 50 pounds. He has lost a second grader since he got here. He has shown the commitment and he was athletic at 375, but right now, being a shade under 330, he is really athletic.
“If we knock six to eight more pounds off him, he’ll be right about where he needs to be. Normally, I don’t like guys to be over 305 pounds, but he’s a guy that has the potential to play at 320 pounds because he has a big ol’ frame.”
Defensive end — The Bulldogs can feel fairly secure at one defensive end spot with fifth-year senior Todd Hunt, who started every game last season and was eighth on the team with 54 tackles. On the other side, Claudell Louis is running with the No. 1 defense and continues to make up ground given a limited background in football, having played only one season in high school, that as a freshman, before enrolling at the College of the Sequoias and picking up the game again.
Louis obliterated a play in team drills on Saturday, which was no accident.
“You really wish you had him for one more year, he’s such a pup. He’s still figuring it out. But he’s going to play a bunch of football for us because he’s doing much better,” defensive coordinator Nick Toth said. “The thing is, before he was kind of just playing, he was on the field because we needed a guy. Now he’s playing and you’re seeing him make some plays. His playmaking has increased as his knowledge of the defense has increased and, frankly, just how hard he is playing because he wasn’t always playing hard and now he’s doing a better job of that.
“Obviously, he’s further along than he has ever been mentally. The Kansas City Chiefs were out there asking about him, so he has that type of potential. He’s still so raw. He’s as strong as he wants to be — you can put as much weight on that bar as you want and he’s able to lift it. There are all sorts of really cool things with him, still some upside.”
Rushing attack — Fresno State last season ranked sixth in the Mountain West in rushing offense, averaging 182.4 yards per game at 4.5 yards per play, numbers impacted a bit by losses to Power 5 opponents USC, Utah and Nebraska to open the season.
The Bulldogs averaged 105.1 yards per game and 3.2 yards per play in those games.
Linebackers — The plan with freshman linebacker Nela Otukolo was to get him up to speed at both the Mike and the Will in fall camp, but with junior Jeff Camilli playing well after dropping about 15 pounds and the emergence of redshirt sophomore Robert Stanley, the Bulldogs are going in a different direction.
Otukolo, one of the top players in the Bulldogs’ 2015 recruiting class, will play the Mike exclusively.
“He’s going to play a bunch of Mike and we’re going to play Kyrie (Wilson) on both sides,” Toth said. “I’ve got Jeff, I’ve got Robert, so instead of teaching Nela to be a Will, I’m going to be able to do that with Kyrie and I’ve got Jeff and Robert, so I have three Wills there.
“Then, I still have Michael Lazarus, who is a Will, and if things start to get stacked on the depth chart, he can play Mike. We adjusted a different way to get (Otukolo) on the field faster instead of having him learn more. It’s all Mike all the time.”
Wilson, the No. 1 Mike, started for the Bulldogs last season at Will.
Et Cetera — Quarterback Zack Greenlee participated in drill work and did some limited work in 7 on 7, but was held out of team to rest a mild hamstring strain.
▪ The Bulldogs didn’t waste any time getting cornerback Tyquawn Glass on the field. The transfer from Mt. San Antonio College, who joined the team on Friday, took some reps in 7 on 7 and in team. Glass is behind with the defensive installations, but in those periods they were running a lot of man-to-man outside and so they sent him out there and told him to get after it. “We ain’t messing around,” Toth said. “We’re going to push him.”
▪ Senior wide out Aaron Peck, who has struggled with consistency in his Fresno State career, continues to impress in fall camp and in 7 on 7 on Sunday made some tough catches against coverage look easy. On one, quarterback Chason Virgil fit a pass up the sideline into a very tight window and Peck made the play against freshman corner Mike Bell. “That’s what I expect from him,” receivers coach Joe Wade said. “I’m not surprised. He puts in the work. It was never a matter of the work, it was just being locked in all the time. That’s what I’m going to demand from him and he knows that, because if he doesn’t we have depth in the room. I love him, but the guys that make plays are the ones that are going to be out there.” Walk on receiver Mike Martens also made a very tough catch against coverage, making an adjustment to the ball in the air and reeling in a pass from quarterback Ford Childress right on the sideline.
▪ George Helmuth, the walk-on linebacker from Clovis North, continues to flash when given opportunities and Toth said he could see the field this season. “He’s like Adam DeCosta and Jonathan Norton have been for us in the past. We’ve made a living off those guys doing stuff for us,” he said. “That’s what George is. He’s rarely wrong. He’s always in the right spot. He works his butt off. He’s an everyday dude. He cares about the football team. He’s a Red Waver, man, he’s a Green V.”
▪ The Bulldogs’ offense ran through red zone in 7 on 7 and in team, the results a little rougher than on Saturday, but the progress with young quarterbacks and receivers evident. “We had some good situational work,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “We’re getting crisper in running our schemes on both sides of the ball. I saw some guys making some plays. I thought Aaron Peck showed up again. It’s good to see him starting to play like a senior should, making consistent progress. (Cornerback) Jamal Ellis is starting to flash. It was good to see him. We’re getting three groups running, which in the past it was a struggle sometimes to get that second group going. It’s good to see. We’re starting to develop our young guys. They’re still a work in progress, but it’s starting to look like football as opposed to what it has looked like in the past.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada