There were moments Saturday during the first open scrimmage of Fresno State football spring workouts when the Bulldogs snarled. And that’s a welcome sight after Fresno State regularly looked and played soft on both sides of the ball last season.
Cornerback DeShawn Potts crushed a receiver in the backfield on a fly sweep.
Safety Dalen Jones leveled a different receiver who was reaching back for a quick pass.
Outside linebacker James Bailey would’ve annihilated Chason Virgil from his blindside if quarterbacks were allowed to be hit.
“I think we’re going in the right direction, but I think we’re a work in progress,” said coach Tim DeRuyter, who’s preparing for his fifth season at Fresno State. “The defense was out there pressuring. We’ve got some veterans on that side of the ball that know what we’re doing. We’re playing a little bit faster on that side of the ball right now.”
But for the time being, DeRuyter said, full-on physical play will have to wait until the Bulldogs get a better handle on their new offense and the nuances of their defense.
“There’s always a fine line,” DeRuyter said. Being more physical is “a mentality you set in practice. But it’s a double-edge sword.”
Fresno State must fix both sides of the ball after last season’s performance.The defense got shredded for 446.2 yards per game (the 27th-worst average in the nation) while lacking an ability to push up front or wrap tackles. The offense got pushed around, too, averaging just 315.2 yards (seventh-worst in the country) lowlighted by its anemic 3.88 yards per carry.
But if the Bulldogs do rev up the hitting at practice, there’s always the concern of injuries.
And with Fresno State annually lacking proven depth, the dropoff can be significant when the Bulldogs lose a key player.
Fresno State already had one running back go down with an injury after second-string Bryson Oglesby left Saturday’s scrimmage early and didn’t return. DeRuyter said he wouldn’t know Oglesby’s status until Sunday.
Scheming to run
Fresno State showcased a few formations that included two tight ends and even three tight ends, signs that the Bulldogs are more committed to running more than past seasons.
The Bulldogs even had a few plays with the quarterback directly under center, abandoning the shotgun-only approach used the past four seasons.
“We will be under center a little bit,” new offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau said. “It’s a small amount. But there’s some good run plays and some play-actions you can get under center that has value.
“If there was some positives today, it’s that we were physical, especially on (short-yardage situations). We definitely will get the physicality down and the run game going, there’s no doubt about it. We just have to work on getting down the details of the entire offense.”
Offense not crisp
As has been the case in four of the five spring camps since DeRuyter took over – with 2013 being the exception as then-star quarterback Derek Carr prepared for his senior year – the Bulldogs offense looked spotty at best.
It took potential starter Virgil roughly 20 minutes of the scrimmage session to complete a pass. And even then, it was merely a bullet to the sideline as Aaron Peck gained about 5 yards.
Virgil did make a few plays scrambling, but no throws downfield, with two attempts going through the hands of would-be receivers.
The defense disrupted the offense most of the day, registering sacks against Virgil and competing backups Ford Childress and Kilton Anderson.
None of the quarterbacks impressed throughout the scrimmage, though Childress was the most productive.
During a two-minute drill, Childress threw a 10-yard pass to receiver Michael Martens then followed with a 20-yard post throw to tight end Jared Rice, the 6-foot-4, 214-pound redshirt freshman who could play a significant role in the offense this season.
On the next play, running back/slot receiver Dejonte O’Neal exploded for a 24-yard touchdown run.
O’Neal, a 5-7, 166-pound sophomore who initially walked on from Bullard High, registered the only two touchdowns Saturday, also scoring on an 8-yard run.
Defense takes command
Outside of those plays, the defense was superb.
No deep balls allowed, for starters.
And continuous pressure in the backfield, with Bailey, defensive lineman Nate Madsen and linebacker Dallas Ruth all getting sacks. Linebacker George Helmuth also had a big hit behind the line of scrimmage, practically going untouched in pursuit of the ball.
“I still say I’m encouraged by today,” Virgil said. “The defense threw a lot at us. We’ll be better because of it next time.”
The Bulldogs’ defensive effort has been aided by the familiarity of running the same 3-4 defense used the past four seasons, which has helped the players’ level of comfort and reduced their learning curve.
New defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward has scaled back some of the defensive package to make sure players know their assignments.
“I want them to understand that I want them to be aggressive and that’s the way I like to call defenses,” Ward said. “But if you’re going to be aggressive, you got to make sure you know what you’re supposed to do all the time. Otherwise, big plays happen.
“So always take care of your assignment.”