Looking back, it’s clear. Fresno State’s wideouts didn’t have a lot of catches, didn’t rack up a lot of receiving yards or score a lot of touchdowns. As a group, they also didn’t have a lot of swagger and didn’t have a lot of fun.
The first three had a lot to do with the next two, and that is one thing coach Tim DeRuyter knew needed to change with the new offense and approach that will be installed by offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau and receivers coach Burl Toler III.
“We weren’t always there last year, in fact the last couple of years,” DeRuyter said. “But we have to have guys play with a swagger, and I think our offense is doing a great job of developing that swagger about ourselves.”
Looking at it Saturday, the signs of change are clear.
The group has more experience, with Aaron Peck back for a second try at a senior season after missing 2015 with a foot injury.
It is healthier overall, with not only Peck back but Delvon Hardaway closer to full strength after knee surgery. The depth of talent hasn’t changed in a group that includes Da’Mari Scott and KeeSean Johnson.
And it is making plays – in the Bulldogs’ first live work of the spring, Peck caught three touchdown passes, Hardaway and Scott also made plays, and it didn’t stop there. Anthony Grayson bounced off a big shot by linebacker George Helmuth and scored, Darrell Fuery made a play in a drill, and Mike Martens made plays.
Last season was not a good one for the passing game. Fresno State, plagued by injury and ineffective play at quarterback, completed only 50.1 percent of its passes and ranked last in the Mountain West Conference and in a tie for 123rd of 128 teams in the nation in averaging only 5.3 yards per pass play. The Bulldogs had 29 pass plays of 20 or more yards, only 21 of them to wideouts.
But that’s also all in the past.
“It’s nothing to hide anymore,” Hardaway said. “We didn’t feel comfortable. We weren’t having fun. Everything was kind of uptight and guys didn’t feel like they could play, and when you don’t have that confidence on the field and don’t have that swagger, it shows.
“Now we’re out here, we have an energetic coaching staff. You see everybody bouncing around when we make plays. We’re just having fun and it’s much better.”
Toler has the group working toward the end result and doesn’t want the personalities in his room to get lost. Before the Bulldogs opened spring practices, he had a video game tournament for the group, which was not all fun and games.
“They were yelling, screaming,” Toler said. “They were being their true selves and I told them, ‘I want to see that emotion and that passion on the field.’
“The reason they feel like that is because they’re confident. They know how to play the game, they know where all the buttons are, they know what plays to choose. They understand all that, so they can talk mess, they can be relaxed and there’s no pressure. There’s no reason that they can’t feel like that on the field. Sometimes on the field, they might go, ‘I don’t know where to line up, I don’t know about the route.’ When you question yourself, there’s not as much confidence. I told them preparation equals confidence and that I will do everything I can do to make sure they’re fully prepared.”
Four practices in, they have embraced change.
“I like the look in their eyes and the way they’re competing,” DeRuyter said.
“The main goal for us is to have our assignments down and be disciplined, and I carry that message on and off the field,” Toler said. “That’s something that we’ve been harping on the past three weeks and they’re getting their assignments down and lining up and we’re taking the thinking out of the game, so everything is second nature, muscle memory.
“They look at the boards and they know where to line up, they know the plays. It’s repetition, over and over and over again. It has been great. I love the personality. I love having them playing relaxed and loose, but I harp on them taking care of business first and we saw that (Saturday). (Saturday) was Day No. 4, second day in pads, and I think they’re starting to understand everything and they’re able to relax and play and have fun and that’s what it’s all about. They’re getting it. They all felt it, all 13 of them. They had fun and they made plays and they were excited and running around.
“We have a good thing going. Now we have to make sure we build on it. We pushed the bar higher and now it’s the expectation and the only thing we take now is higher than that, nothing less.”
Changing of the tackle – With the Bulldogs running live contact periods for the first time, there was a change at left tackle with community college transfer Christian Cronk moving up to work with the No. 1 offense, fourth-year junior David Patterson moving from left tackle to right tackle with the ones, and redshirt freshman Zack Kinninger moving from right tackle with the ones to left tackle with the twos.
“I think Christian Cronk is really starting to do some things and got noticed,” DeRuyter said. “Nobody has a solidified position. I think David Patterson has made some improvement, but having those guys stacked behind each other when they were probably playing the best, we decided to move David on over to the right tackle, which he has played in the past, and slide Christian up and see what that looks like in live periods. From my sense of things, it wasn’t quite as natural for David moving left to right, but he’ll get better at it. But I thought we competed better at the tackle position (Saturday) than we did (Friday).
“We’ll keep evaluating all the time. This spring, when you have five brand new sets of eyes on offense, no position is solidified and you have to keep competing every day.”
Ryan Popolizio, another midyear community college transfer, also is an option at right tackle. Popolizio has taken his reps there with the No. 2 offense.
Alston update – Former Fresno State cornerback Sean Alston was at practice after driving in from Missouri, where he spent last season as a recruiting graduate assistant.
All of the paperwork has not yet been completed, but Alston is expected to serve as a defensive graduate assistant for the Bulldogs once he’s enrolled in graduate school.
Et cetera – The quarterback reps behind Chason Virgil were changed up a bit, as well, with Ford Childress getting some reps with the No. 2 offense along with Kilton Anderson.
Virgil, though, continues to rep with the ones.
“The ones get a little more than everyone else and he has been running with the ones,” DeRuyter said. “So far, he has earned it. Every day we’ll go back, evaluate it and see where the percentages are. Wednesday, I think he completed close to 70 percent of his passes, which is our standard, and until somebody knocks him off and takes it, he’ll be with the first group.”
▪ Quarterback Quentin Davis (St. John Bosco-Bellflower) and tight end Johnny Rojas (Clovis West) from the Bulldogs’ 2016 recruiting class watched the practice.
▪ The Bulldogs ran a bubble-bullet drill for the first time this spring, with receivers trying to block on the quick passes to the perimeter so important to the offense.
There were some solid plays, from both sides.
Safety Dalen Jones busted up two plays, defeating blocks to down the ball. Daquawn Brown made a quick recovery from a cut block to get back on his feet and beat a play. And Johnson and Fuery had nice blocks on a play to spring Martens down the field.
▪ Fresno State ranked fourth in the Mountain West last season in punt returns, averaging 10.6 yards on 11 returns. Scott had five returns for 32 yards and cornerback Tyquwan Glass four for 75 yards.
They will have some competition to get back there this year – and, the Bulldogs are hoping, more than 11 opportunities to return punts. On special teams, Scott and Glass shared punt-return reps with Johnson, Brown and slot receiver Dejonte O’Neal.
▪ Safety DeShawn Potts had an interception against Virgil in a team period, pulling in a pass that was intended for tight end Jared Rice and thrown a bit high.
▪ The quarterbacks are not live, so some plays continue when they might be cut down with a sack, and that happened a few times in the first team period.
Mike linebacker Nela Otukolo, coming back from a knee injury, had one. Outside linebackers Brandon Hughes, Tobenna Okeke and James Bailey also got in position to make sacks. Three of the four came off the right side of the Bulldogs’ offense.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
’Dogs Spring Football schedule
- Monday: Practice 5, 8-10 a.m.
- Wednesday: Practice 6, 8-10 a.m.
- Friday: Practice 7, 8-10 a.m.
- Saturday: Scrimmage 1, 8-10 a.m. (open to the public)
- March 14: Practice 9, 8-10 a.m.
- March 16: Practice 10, 8-10 a.m.
- March 18: Scrimmage 2, 8-10 a.m. (open to the public)
- March 29: Practice 12, 8-10 a.m.
- March 31: Practice 13, 8-10 a.m.
- April 1: Practice 14, 8-10 a.m.
- 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.