A 3-9 finish and every stumble on the way to it was enough, for some, to change perception of Fresno State football.
The Bulldogs were just three years removed from their first conference championship in 14 seasons, two years removed from winning back-to-back titles for the first time in 21 years, and one year removed from a division title, but that didn’t provide much cover for coach Tim DeRuyter.
A once-fervent fan base, which more recently couldn’t fill Bulldog Stadium for a conference title-clinching game in 2012 or the conference championship game the following season, stayed away.
On the field and off, it was not a good look.
And, at the end of the season, offensive coordinator Dave Schramm was not retained and defensive coordinator Nick Toth was reassigned – Toth returns as the inside linebackers coach.
Receivers coach Joe Wade and tight ends coach Phil Earley were let go. Offensive line coach Cameron Norcross moved on and up to Vanderbilt. Running backs coach Ron Antoine went to Texas State, defensive backs coach Marcus Woodson to Memphis.
But even as the on-field losses mounted last season, DeRuyter was confident a quick turnaround was not just possible, but probable given the talent coming into the program.
The Bulldogs still lack the depth and balance between classes that they want in some position groups and again will be a young team in 2016.
But ahead of the start of spring practices Feb. 29, they do not lack energy or an initiative. “Quite frankly, we’re not used to going 3-9, so there’s an urgency to get that fixed,” DeRuyter said.
The Bulldogs’ coach has retooled his staff, hiring coordinators from Power Five conferences in defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward and offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau, who come to Fresno State from South Carolina and Alabama. And the experience gained on the field – Fresno State had 19 players start a game on defense and 20 on offense, including 14 playing at the FBS level for the first time – sets up an interesting 15 spring practices.
Those practices will be more competitive, more physical than in the past, when the team was down bodies in the spring or kept key players out of live work to guard against injury.
And that is not the only change in store this spring.
“I know we’ve got enough talent in here to compete in this league, but talent doesn’t win it, teams win it and it takes coming together,” DeRuyter told The Bee in a question-and-answer session this week. “It takes having a focused plan. Now, you have to get some fortunate circumstances as far as health is concerned and obviously we didn’t get that last year. But that’s football. It’s never an excuse. It could be a reason.
“But getting our guys back, getting them healthy and focusing on what it takes from a year-round program standpoint on how we win, that’s what we’re getting back to. Some things in the last couple of years had slipped a little bit and we’ve got to get back to that. It’s hard for younger guys to be as accountable as older guys are and when you have a majority of your team younger guys, sometimes you have to go through some tough lessons and a 3-9 season results from it.
“But you pick yourself up, you dust yourself off and you get re-energized every year. We expect to compete for championships and, if we do the right things, we’ll be poised to do that.”
The Bee: When you say things slipped a little bit, do you think that was the age level or experience of your team or was there more going on there?
DeRuyter: I think there’s a little bit of that. I think when you go through injuries, particularly at the quarterback position where you don’t know who that starter is week in and week out, I think it can be difficult. It’s hard to have continuity when that position is in flux. But it wasn’t just that position. At other positions, we just didn’t have a consistency of purpose. We’d play well at times and not well at times. Part of that is youth, but part of that is focus and belief on a consistent basis knowing, “Hey, they practice, too.” They’re going to knock you back, but you have to keep that mentally tough mindset that we’re going to keep chopping wood and, at the end of the day, we’re going to finish this thing.
We were able to do that against UNLV, but there were other games ... the last one, Colorado State, we played well for three quarters of the game, but we weren’t able to finish. A team that has confidence in themselves finds ways like we did the first two years to finish those games and win. Even the Reno game, we weren’t able to finish down the stretch.
But how does that consistency of purpose lock in when, again, you’re going to be young at some key positions, positions you’d think there would be that leadership?
I think it starts now. It’s having a coaching staff that has relationships with our guys off the field and not just on the field. From my perspective as the head coach, it’s demanding our coaches know our guys inside and out, know where they are Monday through Friday and not just for the three or four hours that we’re with them at practice. Where do they live? What classes are they taking? What’s going on in their families? When you’re invested in your players that way, you know when they’re up and when they’re down and when they know you’re that invested in them they’ll be that much more willing to give it back to you on Saturday.
OK, I go in two directions with that. Did the staff last season lose track of that?
I don’t know that the staff slipped. I personally slipped in not demanding it from our staff and I have to get that fixed.
The other part of that, you do have a young team coming back. In talking about a consistency ...
No doubt, and because there’s a lot of youth there, there’s even more of an emphasis that we have to do things exactly right all the time. We’re starting our Red Dawn (conditioning workouts) and the emphasis is on the detail, pushing through when you’re tired, doing it exactly right all the time.
The accountability off the field, which has been dramatically better than it was in the past, having guys understand that what they do off the field affects what we do on the field, that correlation is huge. We don’t expect every one of our guys to be 100 percent right in everything they do – these are young men that have to make decisions every day. When there are 105 of them, not everybody makes the right decisions. But understanding there are consequences when you make bad decisions and when you do it consistently, those things result in 3-9.
So, you need a greater buy-in, both ways?
I think so. That’s the key. Having the buy-in, having our players understand why we do things on an annual basis. My message has to be better to our players to have them to buy in. I learned as a head coach and I’m going to try to get those things fixed.
So Red Dawn is a pretty big test of that buy-in and that accountability ...
It’s going to be a gut-check, because a lot of our guys haven’t done it. A lot of our guys, probably a majority of them, have done it one time or none. The guys that have been here know what the standard is. We went through a team meeting (Wednesday) showing them in a video exactly what we demand, what’s not going to be accepted and what’s going to be championed.
It’s a big test, especially with having six new coaches, six new sets of eyes. I told the guys, “This is a chance to write your résumé, good or bad. You set that expectation and it’s not just for our new coaches, but for your teammates, telling them who you are going to be in 2016.”
You hope that it’s much better than it has been. I think it has been emphasized much more, and so far so good. The true test is going to be as you go along – can there be a consistency there or is it only because we’ve energized and brought guys back? Ultimately, what it comes down to is player-driven leadership and that’s something that we have to emphasize to our players because teammates are going to be around each other all day long. We can only see them so many hours a day, and if that culture is set right, then the leaders of the teams ensure that the culture moves on, and we have to do a great job in setting that culture on our end.
So, that culture slipped some ...
As you turn back and evaluate things, I think that’s clearly part of it. When we first came in here, we had a fairly junior- and senior-laden team as far as our talent and leadership and probably didn’t have to emphasize it as much and you assume as a coach that those younger guys see that direction and you try to have them emulate that. Well, when you look back on it, a lot of that leadership, when it left, didn’t get assimilated to those younger classes, and that falls on me. I have to do a much better job of emphasizing that and showing our guys what the standard is and what we expect of them.
Now that you mention it, I’d go watch some of the voluntary workouts in the summer, and it showed. You go from Derek (Carr) and then I thought Brian (Burrell) in his summer did a good job, but then last summer ... it just wasn’t the same, there’s no question.
I can neither confirm nor deny since I can’t watch them ...
Well, those NCAA rules always get in the way. But that’s what you’re talking about, though. Last summer, those workouts were shorter, not really much focus ...
Exactly. It’s setting that standard, setting that culture, so that our guys know what the standard is and what their responsibility and their role is within that. Because we can’t be around them all the time; having those older players set the culture and enforce the culture ... once you have that like we did those first couple of years, now there’s a ton of things you can do. When you don’t have that, it slips.
There are not a lot of seniors this year to really drive that. ... Is that a problem?
Well, we have 16. When we had our accountability team draft, we had eight teams with two captains each and they were drafting all of our players. It’s interesting to see the dynamic when we do the draft to see the first picks and then the picks at the end. It’s an eye-opener for some of our players, on both ends of that. And I think what’s really a great perspective is for our new coaches to see it. You talk to them about the perceptions of our players coming back, but a teammate’s perspective of a guy is very important and it was good for our coaches to see.
I won’t tell you who, but there were some guys that got their eyes opened being the last one or two guys picked. They’re the ones that have to start questioning, “Hey, what is my investment? What is the perception of my teammates if I’m one of the last ones picked?”
Obviously, that’s not the only change, but 3-9 is what it is ...
You have to own it and what you have to do is focus on how you fix it. What were the issues and how do you fix it? I think we’re addressing those things. One of the things I want to do going forward with our offense – I’ve mentioned the running the ball more a part of it – but the other thing is getting into more multiple personnel packages and having more than just 11 guys play.
It’s critical for team morale as well as a physical wear and tear through the season situation. If you have more guys playing those reps, it gets spread out. I think it’s important also not just from a morale standpoint, but making a defense defend four-wide, three-wide, two-wide and all the iterations.
We’ve talked about this in terms of recruits, how elevating the profile of the school has allowed you to go to places that Fresno State hasn’t been. But I’d think for your profession and for a Lorenzo Ward or an Eric Kiesau, that improving profile helped get them here. ... I mean, Fresno State used to be coaches of that caliber left for bigger opportunities and now ...
We had tremendous interest from assistants wanting to be a part of this, wanting to be a part of this community. Once we hired our coaches, they have high profile, and other programs come in and want to try to steal them from us and yet they still stayed here. I think that speaks very highly of where Fresno State is viewed nationally and I think it really helped us in recruiting when guys saw the résumés of the people we were able to attract and keep and know that the vision here is very bright under (athletic director) Jim Bartko and Dr. (Joseph) Castro.
We were losing coaches a lot of times to the bigger programs. Having an administration that understands that it’s not just the head coach, it’s putting the staff together and keeping a staff together that is critical and a big-time help. All those things contributed to, I think, the best recruiting class that we’ve had here and the energy that we have in our program right now.
With a guy like Lorenzo, though ... he was in the SEC, he has coached in the NFL ...
Well, yeah, when I initially called him, I texted him, I didn’t get a response and so I thought, OK, he wants to stay in that league and it’s a lot more money. Then I realized when I talked to coach (Ron) Antoine that I had the wrong number. I was a little bit surprised, but really encouraged because he has been to the top of the mountain and he knows what that looks like and yet he wanted to come to Fresno State because at that level it’s more and more of a business and he wanted to be more involved in developing young men to be great young men in their communities, have them graduate and take care of their families, and hopefully at the end maybe have a chance at the NFL.
But it was more the process of developing a good young man into an outstanding young man at the end of the four or five years. He has a great base of knowledge as far as football, but I think his mentorship is something that is off the charts as far as his role and his persona when it comes to student-athletes.
In putting the staff together, you also had a choice of a quarterback coach or a receivers coach and you went with a receivers coach in Burl Toler III. What went into that decision?
On offense, what I wanted to do, is make sure Coach Kiesau felt comfortable with the guys in the room because obviously that’s not my area of expertise. We had a list of guys – quarterback coaches and receivers coaches – because he has done both, and as we went through, we vetted some guys, some that had ties to our program from the past, some outside the program, some that had experience with Eric at other places. You go through that process and you figure out who’s the best fit.
I think it’s critical to have coaches who can relate to players and, fair or not, sometimes having younger coaches who are a little more relatable to today’s athlete. You can’t have just young guys and you can’t have just old guys, but having that mix of having a Coach (Joe) Bernardi and a Coach Toler and then a Coach (Dave) Ungerer and a Coach (Mark) Weber, I think we struck a really good balance there that I feel good about. And, again, having those connections, Coach Toler having played under Coach Kiesau at Cal and knowing the system and knowing the terminology, all of those things set it in motion.
Balancing youth with experience, recruiting, knowledge of the system, it kind of just fit when we were putting it all together.
Eric, like you said, has done both, but clearly he made his name coaching receivers, so ...
I think anytime you coordinate, you’re very involved with the quarterbacks. He has done both. You’re right, he has had more experience coaching receivers. But I was with him and I just said, “Hey, talk me through it,” as we evaluated our high school prospects. “What are you looking for? What are you teaching?” I know he has a great background in it and I know he has a demeanor that’s going to really help our players. One of the things that I asked him to do within his system, we’re going to simplify some things so we can go faster with our quarterbacks, so that they can execute better.
He understands that from a quarterback’s perspective, where maybe someone who has just been a receivers coach doesn’t have that same feel.
Go fast? There were, what, maybe two or three games last season where you were able to push tempo for a few series? You went from first to fourth to 12th in plays run over the past three seasons.
I think every time you talk to a different coordinator about their philosophy on how they install things, they all have different perspectives. To me, some of the big-picture things I want to get done are play with tempo, because I think that’s a great advantage that an offense has in college football. But you can do that in a number of ways. I think an offense plays faster when there’s less thinking. I mean, football players in general do and so some of the things that we’re going to try to do this year, we may take some things off the quarterback, have some predetermined things so that it’s not a constant read and we can’t go fast. We’ll see this spring how our players take to it. I like to think we’re going to play faster, but at the end of the day, we’re going to have to execute it.
When we did push, we had success. But we couldn’t do it consistently. It’s going to be stressed from Day One of spring and it has to be our M.O. all the time. When you have a bunch of guys who have never started, it’s tough to do that, but we have everybody back and (Quentin) Davis coming this summer. We’ll see if we can’t get that established this spring, which is our goal.
The other one was Dave Ungerer. ... running backs coach, with special teams coordinator in front of it. How does that dynamic work?
Most of the places I’ve been in college, we did special teams the way we did it the first four years here, where we had a special teams coordinator, but we had other coaches run different segments of it, and there are plusses and minuses to that. When I evaluated things at the end of the season I thought we needed a change where a guy wakes up every morning and the first thing he thinks about is special teams, in all phases. I think you can gain advantages when you have that guy who can do that, especially when you have a guy like Coach Ungerer with his great experience in doing it.
In my discussions with him, he coached with Eric at Cal in the same role, coordinating special teams and coaching running backs. As we get into the season and even now, the first thing he thinks about is, “Hey, let’s get special teams rolling and here’s our plan for the installation, here’s our plan for drill work.” All those things come under one voice and on game day, it’ll be much easier where I’ve got one guy on the sideline and it’s third down, whether we want to fake or go for it, whether we want to go for a block or go for a return, any of the phases. Are we going onside-surprise here? You have one guy to talk to, and in the past that was difficult because you have four different guys to talk to and they all have different positions they’re coaching, where Dave knows his No. 1 role is special teams. It’s much easier to do that when you’re coaching one guy, the running back in this offense, as opposed to coaching three guys like Coach (Pete) Germano had to or Coach (Jordan) Peterson having to coach both outside linebacker positions. The game day dynamic I know is going to be better.
With all the changes, the coaches are the ones who always get fired and all that, but at the same time, your team last year was young, it was not deep and it was in development. Are there more things that you try to do to get them up to speed physically as well as on the field?
I think that what you do is you keep investing reps in them, you get them to play with a swagger. The first time you go out there, you’re just happy to get lined up correctly, let alone be productive. We got a lot of that out of our players last year – for a lot of guys it was the first time they had made a road trip, the first time they had been on the field. This spring is about competing.
This spring is about establishing yourself that you’re going to be a dude when we go to Nebraska.
Having our players in all three phases with that confidence and that swagger is where we need to get to, and it’s hard to do with a bunch of brand-new starters. But having gone through that and with the way we’re going to coach our guys, I feel really confident that our guys are going to attack this thing with a lot more confidence because of what we went through last year.
There’s a physical component to that, though, where you were well short ...
Oh, no doubt. Especially up front when you have young guys playing. Kyle Hendrickson, I think, is going to be a tremendous player. But last year he’s playing as a redshirt freshman. You’d love to only play him 10 to 20 snaps a game, but obviously he had to play a lot more than that.
We’re still not there, but were getting closer to getting more junior and seniors. You look at the teams we lost to last year, the disparity in the ages on the roster was a big-time indicator of why our results were the way they were. It’s not an excuse. It’s the way it is. We have to overcome that and I think we have a great plan in place to do that.
And that plan would be ...
Quite frankly, we’re going to be doing more this spring than we’ve ever done, competitively and physically. We’ve got probably more depth this spring than we’ve had since we’ve been here and we’re going to have guys grinding it out. We’re going to have longer scrimmages. We’re going to have more reps at practice. We’re not going to worry about necessarily protecting a guy where he can only get so many reps. It’s, “Let’s go.” We’re going to make sure our guys get plenty of reps.
From an infrastructure standpoint, are there plans to expand the training table or do more there?
No, I think our administration is doing a nice job with the training table. Our guys are getting plenty to eat. We have fruit and bagels and things all day long for our guys to eat. Those kinds of things are a big-time help. I think our guys are making good gains.
We have a BOD POD that measures body fat percentages for all of our guys. Having the detailed information on those things, I think, helps our guys visualize where we need to get them to, and then we’re giving them the raw material for them to do it. Now, are we at the level of a Texas A&M or some of those programs as far as having the all-day-long training table, no, but for our conference, I think we’re at the top end of what we can provide to our guys.
Didn’t think I’d ever hear a Fresno State coach say that ...
Well, it hasn’t been that way until recently. You always want to keep pushing, but I think we’re well situated to compete at the top of this league. I love the view from our senior leadership of where athletics is in our university and what their expectations are for us to be able to compete and be that shining beacon for the university, that first look.
That was the biggest difference to me last year. Some of those teams, and not just a Utah or an Ole Miss, but San Diego State and San Jose State, they were dudes ... your guys weren’t there yet.
Sometime you have to take a step back to step forward, and obviously last year was a step back. But being able to redshirt the majority of that class, to get a bunch of redshirt freshmen really significant playing time. You suffered through the good and the bad of getting those guys experience but it really bodes well for the future. And then tweaking some things on both sides to help our guys play hard and play fast because they’re not thinking, that’s the key.
Spring ball then, practices with more reps, more reps in scrimmages ... like Seinfeld sitting in first class on the airplane, “More Everything!”
I think with where our depth is now, we can get more reps and have them spread out where you’re working three groups and not worried about, when that starting group is out there, these four or five guys better not ever get touched because if they sprain an ankle, its going downhill in a hurry. We have to develop a hard edge on our team. I think by establishing more run, you do that on both sides of the ball, but I think just the number of reps is going to help as well.
When it came down to it in the first few years, we erred on the side of caution. We wanted to take care of our guys and we had those get into the fall and they were healthy. Obviously when you’re protecting a Davante (Adams) and Derek, those things obviously make a ton of sense – not that protecting somebody doesn’t make sense, I don’t mean that. But young players need to develop and the only way you do that is by playing the game, and you have to play it hard and you have to play it fast. Unfortunately, because of the nature of the game, there is some risk in it, but you have to go prove yourself to be able to play as hard and fast as you can, so we’re going to trend toward the other way to get more reps this spring and more physical reps.
You also have more players available to practice this spring than you did last year, more players to actually get reps, to compete, get things done ...
I think last year we were 50-something for spring ball. This year the practicing bodies will be close to 70. Again, when you’re able to go two-deep and even at times in the two-deep, you’re worried about, “OK, we didn’t want to get a Marteze (Waller) hurt” ... now you’re low on running backs.
You’re repping guys that, come the fall you know aren’t going to be playing for you. It hurts both ways.
I think we’re much closer to where we want to be from a depth standpoint. I know a year from now when we get this next class of freshmen in here, we’ll be real close. We don’t have a ton of seniors this year with the 16, but we’re getting closer to getting that glut of offensive linemen moving up. If we can sign another great class this year and get them moving up, that will be critical.
Obviously, when you started, you had a ton of holes to fill. But your first full offensive line class, high school recruits, was your third class overall, second full-year recruiting season after the transitional deal where you had about three weeks to recruit. In hindsight, was that a mistake? Could you have started earlier there? Or were there just too many holes to fill?
I think there were a combination of things. Obviously, in hindsight you say we could have done that better. But we knew those first two years, with the quality of our juniors and seniors, that if we could bring some JC guys in to be in the two-deep right way, because there’s a bit of a hole, that we could compete right away, because I thought we were good enough to do that.
When you do that, you’re not investing in guys at the front end where in years three and four, those guys are ready to roll for you. It was a calculated decision and then where we got hurt is we made some poor decision on guys that aren’t in the program anymore. Ultimately, that’s on me and we’re taking steps to rectify that, but it will take a little time to get through that, too.
Are your quarterbacks included in that contact?
Well, they’ll be the one position that will be protected. Having only three, we won’t have those guys live. I think there has been only one place that I’ve ever been to where the quarterback has been live and they weren’t totally live ...
Anything else different this spring?
We’re going to be more open. It is spring. All of our scrimmages will be open to the public. Practice eight will be a Saturday scrimmage, practice 11 will be a Friday scrimmage, because it is the Friday before spring break. The other practices during the week will be open to our Quarterback Club members, so if you want to come to practice, join the Quarterback Club.
That’s an interesting decision there. I think if you did that last year, those people would have thrown you in the trunk and run you and your two championships right out of town. ... I mean, they had won so many before you got here. Did you pay any attention to all of that?
You know, people would tell me about it, but I really don’t. I know what the product was on the field and it was unacceptable, so I don’t necessarily need people to remind me of it. But I do know that the foundation of the program is solid. We have good, young players here. We have to do a better job of developing them and coaching them and we’ve taken steps to get there.
I think, particularly this spring, giving our fans an opportunity to come and watch our new guys, watch our new coaches, see the energy that our guys are coached with, see the effort and enthusiasm our players play with, I think will do nothing but help our guys. The only thing we ask is to not have recording equipment out here and put it on the Internet so everybody in the country sees what we’re doing.
It had been a pretty charmed existence the first two years here, so how did you deal with all that?
It’s difficult. But I think what you do is, you go back to your foundation. I was talking to my family this winter – it was the first time in 11 or 12 years we hadn’t gone to a bowl game. You reflect on, OK, how did we get to this point? We knew going into the year that we had to be fortunate with injuries and that we had a young team and I felt very confident that we were going to be a team in October and November that, had we stayed healthy, had a chance to compete for our division.
We didn’t get there. So you go back to why and what do we have to tweak. We had to make some changes, some tough changes in the offseason, but I do think that the plan going forward, the people we have here going forward, are very capable. The résumés obviously are well documented on their success. But as I met them, and I met with a bunch of different guys, there are a lot of guys who have great résumés. I felt that these guys had the intangibles that I was looking for in this program. Guys are going to be invested in our players, which is what we needed to have our guys re-energized, to be able to lock arms and let’s go forward together, and I think we have the coaches and staff in place that can inspire that.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
Looking ahead to the 2016 Fresno State football season:
- Feb. 29: Spring practices begin
- Sept. 3: Season opener at Nebraska
- Sept. 10: Home opener vs. Sacramento State