Fresno State Football

Fresno State spring football preview: Q&A with offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau

New Fresno State offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau previously worked as offensive coordinator at Washington and Colorado, and this past season was an offensive for analyst for Alabama during its national-championship run.
New Fresno State offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau previously worked as offensive coordinator at Washington and Colorado, and this past season was an offensive for analyst for Alabama during its national-championship run. sflores@fresnobee.com

It has been an eventful year or so for Eric Kiesau, who helped Alabama win a national championship, was hired as the offensive coordinator at Fresno State and then was wooed by Mountain West rival Boise State, the source of much Bulldogs’ angst through the years. On the field, the Broncos have won nine of the past 10 meetings and many have come by very wide margins.

Yes, he was offered the job and according to sources it came with a salary significantly more than he will make at Fresno State. Kiesau passed, which should bring about a few smiles in the Valley, as should his plans to diversify an offense that struggled mightily in a 3-9 season a year ago when generating only 22.2 points and 315.2 yards per game to rank 10th and 12th or last in the conference.

In between the last Red Dawn workout before the start of spring practice and more meetings as the new offensive coaching staff installs a more multiple offense, Kiesau sat on the steps in the shadow of the scoreboard at the south end of Bulldog Stadium and discussed all of it.

The offer from Boise State and what kept him in Fresno, included.

Question: On the other side of the ball, there’s a new coordinator, but this spring it’s a tweak here and there. You’re starting from square one with the new coaches and the players. I know you guys have been putting in a ton of hours, but what has gone into that process getting ready for spring ball?

Answer: I’ll tell you what, typically you’d want five weeks to install an offense and we’re doing it in about two and half, so we’re throwing a lot of information at the kids and the staff, really. Really, like you said, we’re starting with a foundation from the very beginning so my job as the coordinator with a new staff ad obviously a new team and new players is you have to build the structure, you have to build the culture that you want from Day One. The X’s and O’s part will take care of themselves. It’s more building a culture and what you expect from these guys. And once you’ve set that, then you start building on the little pieces. You start with the formations, then you start with personnel groups, then you add a little run game and a little pass game. You don’t give them the whole picture. You give it to them in baby steps.

You give it to them in small pieces and as we get closer to spring ball, like this week when we’re doing Red Dawn, we get an opportunity to see these guys put it all together. It has been as low process. But these guys have been working extremely hard. This coaching staff has been working 13-, 14-hour days, just grinding it out. They’re doing a great job and I like where we’re at right now. Are we there yet? Not even close. But the beginning stages, the foundation, is being set and now we just have to build on that as we go through spring. We build on the foundation, keep building on it, then we’ll have some time in the summer time, then we get into fall camp and then we’ll get rolling.

It’s a process and were starting the process right now.

How much will you have in by the time you get through spring?

The most important thing for us is the culture building the culture that we want. The plays part of it, I’m just going to get the base core in. I don’t want to overwhelm and have too much on them because if we build our culture, build our standard of what we want and what we expect and have your core offensive plays and what you want, your formations, your run game, your pass game, the core, and practice that over and over and get really good at it then we can grow and expand as they get more and more comfortable, because we can only do what he players can do.

We can draw up all these great plays but if the players can’t do it, it really means nothing. You have to slow it down, just get your base core down, build the culture, build the staff and what we want and then we can build from there.

We’ve heard a lot about what it might look like, primarily more multiple and getting in and out of different personnel groups and still playing with tempo. But when it’s in, what does it look like?

That’s another reason why you have to kind of start with the core of what you do because, honestly, we don’t know what it’s going to look like yet. I have a vision of what I want it to look like, but it always comes down to the people, the personnel you have on the field. We have to find out what these kids can do, what they’re good at and then put them in a position where they can be successful.

We’ll figure that out through spring. Like I said, I have a vision of what I want to do and where the staff wants to take this and then once we get into practice and see these guys play, who can blocks, who can’t, who can make plays, who can catch, then you start to put the pieces together and formulate the plan on the personnel that you have.

I was looking at the numbers when you went to Washington. You inherited a starting quarterback coming off a solid season in Keith Price, an NFL running back and an NFL tight end, some receivers. Just on paper, it took a while. When it took off, it really took off, but that was in the second year. So, did that experience help formulate how you go about it here?

It definitely helps and if you really look into those numbers from year one to two, it was very different. Meaning, that first year I was there we were still a huddle team, because that’s what (coach Steve Sarkisian) wanted to do. It wasn’t until the end of the year of that first year that we started to gravitate more to the no-huddle stuff because he didn’t really understand it and once he started understanding and started seeing it work, it was that offseason that we said, ‘OK, let’s go. Let’s go dive in. Let’s do this no-huddle thing.’ And that’s when the numbers went exponentially through the roof.

We broke every record at the University of Washington with the same exact players. All we did was change the system. It was the same plays; it was the process and how we did it. All we did was go no-huddle, went fast, wore them down. They started to buy into the culture and the system of how we set it in place and when they did it took off. That’s a cool thing when you’re talking about the exact same plays and the exact same plays, just the platform they were doing it on. Going no-huddle, going fast, using tempo, that’s the advantage to the system we want to run here at Fresno State.

So it wasn’t really how you installed, it was what you did.

We simplified and we went really fast, because if the players know what they’re doing and they can execute and feel confident about it you can make plays and you can move the ball down the field.

The quarterback obviously makes that go in large part, so this spring what’s the plan there? Will they get the same number of reps, is one ahead of another going in?

For me, because I don’t know those guys and I don’t want to look at the past; I don’t want to know what they’ve done in the past. Obviously. I’ve watched some film of them and the games last year, but I want to come in with just a clean slate. They’re all going to get an even number of reps and then as guys do better, if a guy has a better day, then I’m going to move him up.

Part of building that culture is building competition, and I’ve talked to every group about that, and at the quarterback position it’s the same thing. They’re all going to get a fair chance and whoever can move the ball down the field will get opportunities to have more plays and get more reps and get better.

You have to earn it. That’s the big thing. It’s not because this guy started last year, this guy started four games or whatever, because all of that is behind us. This is a new slate and it’s whoever can fit into the system we’re going to build here, the culture we’re going to build here, and whoever does well and makes plays will play more.

That will be kind of a sliding scale. That quote-unquote depth chart – we don’t use the word depth chart. They’re just positions on the field. You go play and if you make plays and earn it, you’ll get more reps.

How different is what they’re going to be doing? Utilizing more position groups and more formations, getting under center, the terminology is different.

When you watch it on the field, it will look and feel very, very, different. Schematically, the plays will have kind of the same feel, but you’ll see a lot more personnel groups, you’ll see some tight ends involved, we’ll have more of a downhill running game. We’re going to emphasize the run game. Again, I say that, but I have to see what these guys can do.

I want to say we’re going to run the ball, but if we don’t have a running back that can do it then we can’t do it. If we don’t have guys up front that can bock the plays, then we can’t do it. That’s part of the evaluation process and building a culture based on the personnel that we have, the guys that we have. What can they do? What can they do well? And then we have to put them in the position to do that.

So, how do you get that tempo back? It was part of the offense last year, but they maybe got a chance to push and use it in maybe three or four games. This was an up-tempo, no-huddle spread team and they were 11th of 12 in the conference in plays run, just 68.8 per game. I know you’re taking some things off their plate pre-snap, but how do you help them along?

We’re going to take a lot off their plate, because it’s the most important position in all of sports – I believe that. I think for a guy that has to make decisions in three seconds or less, you have to take less off him mentally and go play. You have to make a read and react. If you’re thinking, it slows you down. You can’t process things fast enough, so a lot of the reads that we talk about and even the system that is set in place is really built on making it simple for the quarterback so that he can just read and react and make plays.

You talk about the starts from Washington, you look at the starts from 2012 to ’13, same exact quarterback, we just changed the platform that he was on. That guy was not thinking he was playing fast and ripping the ball. That was it. You have to make it very clean, very concise. I always tell the guys, the quarterbacks, your reads and what you do are going to be very black and white. There’s no gray area. If there’s gray area, that’s my fault as a coach, that’s my fault as a communicator. I’m not teaching you well enough. It’s going to be ‘A’ or it’s going to be ‘B.’ When you have to make decisions in less than three seconds you can’t have gray area. If you’re gray, you’re thinking too much. You’re overanalyzing. At the quarterback position, you can’t have that.

You have to come up, analyze the field, make a decision and go with it. It’s about decision-making and getting the ball out quick. That’s part of the system that we have to build, and I always tell people, when I am building a system and the vision I have, it all starts with the quarterback’s eyes. Everything. It’s what he can do and what he can process and how fast he can do it. So we’ll find that out. I’m excited. I wish it Monday was right now to be honest.

When you were watching the film and evaluating what was here, were there guys that you identified that might stand out or benefit from this new offense? Dejonte O’Neal, obviously, moving to an inside receiver from running back is one.

We moved Da’Mari Scott inside as well, put Mike Martens outside. Those are probably the two biggest ones, I’d say. David Tangipa is going to play a little tight end for us, kind of grow into that role because we need a tight end up front and he has a bigger body to help us there.

But that’s really the big thing. I wanted to move some playmakers inside to that slot position because we’ll be able to do some things in the run game and the pass game with those guys, to get those guys out in space, get them out there. If a linebacker wants to cover Dejonte, if they want to bring a safety down on Da’Mari, we have to be able to isolate those players and get our better athletes on their linebacker body types. You use formations to move guys around to get mismatches on the field.

What was it about Da’Mari that made him a better fit inside than outside?

I went back and watched some of his high school film. Same thing with Dejonte. Tay O’Neal, this guy is a walk-on and as I’m explaining the system of what I want to do to Coach DeRuyter he says, ‘Will you do me a favor, just watch this guy’s film.’ So I watched his film and it was like, ‘Oh, this is what we need right here. This guy is a running back? Let’s put him in the slot. We have three good running backs. He’s not going to get a lot of reps at tailback being the fourth guy. Let’s put him in the slot where he can be the No. 1 or No. 2 guy.’ That’s the thing. You have to have a vision of what you want to do and you have to kind of find the personnel and know who they are, then you have to put them in position to make plays for us. That’s why I made some of these moves and then we’ll figure it out through the spring, as they go, if it’s comfortable for them and they can do it, and then we’ll grow it and continue to do that.

Da’Mari was the same thing, his high school tape?

It was good … really good. He can make guys miss. Put him in space and he can make some plays. We have plenty of guys on the outside and we need a couple of slots on the inside.

Kind of the same question with the offensive staff. You had a choice there toward the end, whether to coach quarterbacks or whether to coach receivers, which is where you made your name. How did that play out for you?

The No. 1 thing in hiring all these guys was the right fit, the right chemistry ... good guys, good integrity. Obviously the football part is important. I don’t know if you’ve noticed here in this first week, but the energy level, the excitement and the juice, and the culture we’re going to create is part of that, is the personalities that you hire to lead these young men. That was very important to me. I kind of slowed the process down to get the right guys and the right fit, because if we work well together and we respect each other, the players will feel that.

And then back to the quarterback/receiver deal, I knew I could have gone either way. We could hire a real good quarterback coach so I can do receivers or you say I want to run the quarterbacks, I need a receivers coach that I know and trust. That’s why coach (Burl) Toler was so important. He played for me (at Cal). He was a walk-on, earned a scholarship. He is one of the hardest-working guys that I have ever been around. He has got that blue-collar, roll-up-your-sleeves mentality and at the receiver position in this offense, these guys work and they grind. So a guy who has been through it and done it. … He knows my terminology. He knows all my technique. I taught him everything at Cal, so it was an easy transition. I don’t have to spend time teaching him on technique. He knows it because I taught it to him. That’s why it was such an easy fit and he’s such a great kid. He’s a great coach and he’ll do a great job for us.

And I’ll be involved with the receivers. We’re going to meet all together a lot. We’re going to have the quarterbacks and receivers together so they can hear one voice. Burl obviously is going to have his (meeting) room and he’s going to run the receivers, but then we’ll be meeting a lot together.

The important thing is I want the receiver to know why things are happening. You’re running these routes, but why? I tell our staff all the time, with a lot of coaches they coach the how and the what. They tell you what to do and how to do it. The most important thing in coaching is the why. Why things are happening. That’s why you get them all in the together, the quarterbacks and the receivers together, you start teaching the receivers the quarterback reads and why things are happening. Don’t just run a route because the coach says run a post. Why are you running a post? What’s the purpose of the play? Put it all together. That’s why when you have one voice talking to the quarterbacks and the receivers together, everybody hears the message and that’s why we’ll do that.

You had relationships with (offensive line coach Mark Weber) and (running backs coach Dave Ungerer) as well?

Dave has been a real good friend of mine for about 15 years. We coached together at Cal back in 2002 and we’ve known each other through the years. That was an easy fit. I’ve known Mark Weber for years. When I was at Cal he was at UCLA and I’ve kind of followed his career through the years.

And, I wanted a blend of some Fresno guys. That was another important piece to the puzzle when hiring the staff. I wanted guys like (tight ends coach Joe Bernardi) because he has Fresno ties. Mark Weber has Fresno State ties. With Weber, obviously, you’ve got 30 years of coaching experience. He’s a great coach. I’ve known him for years. And he has that Fresno State brand in him. I like that. This place can be special if people understand what this place is all about and I have a couple of guys on staff that understand that.

Joe, he’s pretty vocal about that …

Joe is money. I’ve said this 100 times. When Joe Bernardi’s name came up for this job, I had probably 15 people, my friends out in the business, texting me, ‘Hey, will you give coach Bernardi a call, he’s a Bulldog.’ So I really did it as a courtesy to my friends, really not knowing what I was getting into. I talked to Bernardi on the phone for 45 minutes. I hung up the phone and immediately I called Coach DeRuyter and I said, ‘Coach DeRuyter, I don’t know where we’re going to hire this guy, but this guy is going to be on our staff.’ His passion for Fresno State was just blowing up through the phone, and I wanted that.

Like I said, you can teach football. You can teach plays. You can teach one-back power. You can teach a post route. You can’t teach people to have a true passion and love for this place. That’s the magic pixie dust. You have to have that. If I felt it, I know these players will feel it, our fans will feel it, this city will feel it and that’s what you want. He has been out here. His blood, sweat and tears are right here on this field. He has been through it. He knows what it’s all about. He has it. Same thing with coach Weber. Same thing. …

I’m curious about the experience at Alabama. You went there to install your up-tempo, the no-huddle part of their offense?

Alabama in 2014 was in the exact same place that Washington was in 2012 when I first got there. The year before I got there they were a huddle team and near the end of the year they started dabbling in the no-huddle stuff but didn’t go totally all in. So in that offseason, Coach (Nick) Saban said, ‘I want to go no-huddle.’ So I had done it for Charlie Weis, I had done it for Jeff Tedford, I had done it for Sark at Washington. So I had done it for three coaches and the word kind of got out that I could transition NFL pro-style guys into no-huddle.

He called me, we talked, he flew me out there. I did my deal for about three hours with him and showed him the process of how we do it. Didn’t change the plays because Alabama, they have their plays. I just changed the platform, changed the process of how they did it.

That’s a pretty good phone call to get.

How about this? Nobody told me I was getting the call. My phone rings and I’m sitting on the couch with my kids – no joke – my phone rings and it says, ‘Blocked caller’ and the only person I know in the entire world that calls me as a blocked caller is my mom. I almost didn’t take the call. I thought: ‘Ah, it’s my mom. I’ll talk to her later.’ But for some reason I grabbed the phone. I picked it up and said, ‘Hello?’ and he goes, ‘Eric, this is Nick Saban.’ So I was like this, (he rolls his eyes). I was like, ‘No way.’ I said, ‘Hey, coach. How’s it going?’ to see if he’d keep talking and he kept the same monotone and didn’t change his voice and I went, ‘Oh, man, this might be coach.’

I know Lane (Kiffin) and I was like, ‘Lane, could you give me a heads-up that coach is going to be calling? I’m on the couch in my pajamas watching cartoons and I have Nick Saban on the phone.’ It was actually pretty cool. They flew me out in the next couple of days and the rest is history. It worked out pretty well.

The phone call that you got after getting this job, a little different. I’m just guessing, but I’d think Fresno is pretty tired of getting beaten by Boise State, but you’re 1-0 and haven’t even set foot on the field against them yet. What went on through that process?

Well, the first thing I’ll say is I know and have personally worked with probably seven of those guys on that staff, seven or eight of them. I know their wives; I know their families. I’ve known those guys for years and I’ve worked with those guys before. I’ve known (Bryan) Harsin for a while, so when he called and I was already here, it was tough. It was really tough. I struggled with it. But I needed to go out there and see it and feel it and kind of go out there and talk to them. I hope that people see that I stayed, it was because of the people here. That’s why I stayed – the staff that we’ve assembled, the passion that you can feel in the Valley here for this place is real.

My first couple of weeks, I’m calling some high school coaches and talking to some people here in the city and you could just feel how much they love Fresno State football. That’s what kept me. I mean that. The staff we’ve assembled, the direction where we’re going offensively and the things that we can do with the personnel that we have and then, everybody knows this, but there’s a serious passion in the Valley for Fresno State football and I love that.

Talking to some of these high school coaches on the phone, it was like talking to coach Bernardi. I could just feel it on the phone. I was like, what else do you need? You’ve got a great place, you’ve got great people, you’ve got people who love this city, who love this football team. So why not be here and turn this thing around and have fun doing it? I believe this can be a special place. It has history, it has tradition, and I think we can revamp that with a little bit of a positive culture and getting guys to make plays and feel good about themselves.

There were a lot of factors that went into it, but I’ll tell you, I didn’t sleep for a couple of days. It was tough. If I didn’t know those guys personally over there, it probably would have been a lot easier to say, ‘No, I won’t get on a plane. I won’t check it out.’ But because I knew them and they’re good friends of mine, I had to go and at least check it out for my family and make sure it was the right decision. And, really, when I went there, it really confirmed how special this place is and why I want to stay and be a part of this. Most people thought, ‘Well, you go there and it’s going to draw you in and pull you away from this place.’ It really just confirmed that this is where I want to be.

Did that surprise you?

Quite honestly, yeah, it did. I went there with kind of an open mind and to listen to what they had to say and what it was all about. But I’ll tell you when I left there, it just confirmed that this is the right place for me.

So you didn’t get swayed by all the shiny buildings and everything like some recruits?

That was the thing, (Athletic Director Jim Bartko) and Coach DeRuyter, they were saying it’s going to be like a recruiting weekend and believe me, I’ve been doing this for a long time and I know the recruiting pitch and I kind of took those goggles off. I wanted to go there and really get into the core of what was going on and really kind of figure that place out, and it’s a special place. It’s a cool place, too. But I just felt like there was a draw for me here.

Pretty flattering year for you with Alabama, Fresno State, Boise State …

Definitely. I’ll tell you what, though: You can win here and if I didn’t think we could win and win championships, I probably would have gone to the other team. But I think we can do it here. Like I said, I keep saying it over and over: We have a really good staff here. We have players here set in place. There’s tradition here. They know how to do it. They know what it takes. They know what it looks like and if we can just kind of get it going in the right direction we’ll win a lot of games here.

If I didn’t believe it, I could have bolted. I believe it.

Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada

Fresno State Spring Football Schedule

  • Monday, Feb. 29: Practice 1, 8-10 a.m.
  • Wednesday, March 2: Practice 2, 8-10 a.m.
  • Friday, March 4: Practice 3, 8-10 a.m.
  • Saturday, March 5: Practice 4, 8-10 a.m.
  • Monday, March 7: Practice 5, 8-10 a.m.
  • Wednesday, March 9: Practice 6, 8-10 a.m.
  • Friday, March 11: Practice 7, 8-10 a.m.
  • Saturday, March 12: Scrimmage 1, 8-10 a.m. (open to the public)
  • Monday, March 14: Practice 9, 8-10 a.m.
  • Wednesday, March 16: Practice 10, 8-10 a.m.
  • Friday, March 18: Scrimmage 2, 8-10 a.m. (open to the public)
  • Tuesday, March 29: Practice 12, 8-10 a.m.
  • Thursday, March 31: Practice 13, 8-10 a.m.
  • Friday, April 1: Practice 14, 8-10 a.m.
  • Saturday, April 2: Spring Showcase (free admission)

Times subject to change

Practices to be held in Bulldog Stadium.

All practices open to Quarterback Club members, scrimmages open to the general public. To join the Quarterback Club, contact club president Kenny Mueller at 559-288-0991 or the Bulldog Foundation at 559-278-7160.

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