Fresno State last season gave up 27 sacks, an improvement over the previous year but still a lot for an offense designed to play at a high tempo, for the quarterback to get the ball out expediently and into the hands of its playmakers.
Line play was only a small part of that. One sack came in a loss at San Diego State on what was supposed to be a quick hit to a slot receiver, the line cutting the Aztecs’ front in a well-orchestrated sequence that might net 5 or 10 yards and maybe more.
Every defender that they wanted on the ground ended up there. But when they all looked up the quarterback for some reason still had the football in his hands and eventually, down he went – and that was not the only time.
But with three senior starters gone from the 2015 line, the Bulldogs had a number of questions to answer this spring and in the first week – when still digesting a new offense – it didn’t appear they would be all that close at the end of their 15 practices. But coach Tim DeRuyter and new offensive line coach Mark Weber started the final week Tuesday with some pieces falling into place. One of those is right tackle David Patterson, who struggled to make an impact in his first three years in the program but is morphing from spare piece to part of the solution.
The fact that he has come on has made Coach Weber, Coach Kiesau and myself sleep a little bit better at night because obviously he is in a critical position.
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter on the spring emergence of junior David Patterson at right tackle
“We’ve always known he’s an athletic guy who had the potential, but hadn’t really shown it,” DeRuyter said. “But he had probably his best scrimmage since we’ve been here last Friday and that was good to see. The fact that he has come on has made Coach Weber, Coach (Eric) Kiesau and myself sleep a little bit better at night because obviously he is in a critical position.
“Coach Weber has been doing it a long time and we were talking the other day after evaluating the scrimmage and he thinks he has enough ability that if he continues to develop he can play at the next level. But he has to believe it and play like it and he’s starting to get there. He is working with his craft and I think he is getting more confidence every day.”
Patterson, moved to right tackle from left tackle at the end of that first week when JC transfer Christian Cronk moved up to the ones at left tackle, has held his own there.
We’re not close to where we need to be, but they’re getting better every day and that’s the key. We have a lot of days until we play the first game.
first-year offensive line coach Mark Weber on his position group
On Tuesday, from left tackle across, the first unit was Cronk, junior Aaron Mitchell, senior Jacob Vazquez, third-year sophomore Micah St. Andrew and Patterson. The twos were fourth-year junior Brendan Bailey, JC transfer Shane Gama, redshirt freshman Zack Kinninger, redshirt freshman Isaiah Trevino and JC transfer Ryan Popolizio.
There could be some tinkering come fall, as the Bulldogs try to develop depth at those tackle positions. But they like the way the line is trending.
“We’ve made progress every day we’ve been out here,” Weber said. “I really like the improvement the guys are making, how they’re working. It is all a process. We’re not close to where we need to be, but they’re getting better every day and that’s the key. We have a lot of days until we play the first game.
“I’m pleased with the talent. I’m pleased with the guys’ want-to and their ability to learn. It just takes a little time. The encouraging thing is they have improved – the fundamentals always have to come.”
Not weight-ing around – With strength and conditioning coach Joey Boese off to Illinois – new Illini coach Lovie Smith finally getting him last week after initially making a run at Boese when Smith was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – DeRuyter is looking to make a quick hire.
The Bulldogs end spring practices Saturday and the following week is what the NCAA defines as a discretionary period, with no required workouts or weight training. But after that, the team starts a five-week strength and conditioning program, and obviously physical development between now and the start of fall camp will be critical for a number of position groups.
“This week, we’re lifting (Wednesday) and it’s really our only lift day this week,” DeRuyter said. “Our current staff has got the plan and we’re just going forward with that. We’ve got a number of résumés in right now that we’re evaluating and hopefully by the end of next week we’ll have somebody hired.”
Signal strength – In the offense installed this spring by Kiesau, the center rather than the quarterback is setting and checking the protections. The expectation there is that the quarterbacks will be able to play faster with less on their presnap plate.
Vazquez, who started five games at center and two at right guard last season, has handled the transition and additional dialogue as expected.
“Really good,” Weber said. “Jacob is an extremely bright and a tough kid. He is doing a really nice job communicating and setting the front, getting us in the right spot. He has done a nice job.”
The difference, Vazquez said, is in the detail.
Just being clear, loud and confident with what you’re saying so everyone believes you and trusts in what you’re doing so there’s no doubt.
senior center Jacob Vazquez on the mandate in taking over the pre-snap setting and checking of protections
“The calls weren’t as particular,” he said. “This year, it’s a little more detailed, specific to who I’m talking to, which offensive lineman and the calls can change per play.
“You just have to be clear and loud. Here in practice it’s not too bad, but when we get into the games it’s going to be loud so (it’s about) just being clear, loud and confident with what you’re saying so everyone believes you and trusts in what you’re doing so there’s no doubt.”
Et cetera – In developing a top seven or top eight offensive linemen to take into the season, the Bulldogs in the fall could get some of their guards reps at tackle. Trevino and Gama have the build of interior linemen at 6-5, 357 and 6-4, 300, but could expand their roles.
“When I was here before we played with (Dartangon) Shack at tackle and he was 6-2 and a really good tackle,” Weber said. “I don’t think the measureables is as big a deal as the feet and the mindset.”
▪ Redshirt freshman tight end Jared Rice made a couple of more big plays in the pass game, making a late adjustment to the ball in the air to pull in a pass down the field on one and catching a touchdown pass in the back of the end zone in a goal-line period on the other.
That offseason program will be significant – he is listed on the roster at 6-4 and only 215 pounds.
“He’s a guy that can run very well, catches the ball well, but ideally he needs to put some weight on obviously,” DeRuyter said. “His main goal between now and August is to put as much solid weight on – not ‘go out and eat chocolate doughnuts’ weight on.”
▪ Kinninger moved inside to center from right tackle after that first week of practices. The Bulldogs tweaked some things Tuesday, but like his progress. “It’s always tough moving a guy. Zack, he has never played center,” Weber said. “We figured out a little flaw in his mechanics snapping it and I think his snaps were better. For a guy who just started at that position, he’s doing a solid job of communicating. We need to keep him coming and develop him as a viable backup center. He has so much more on his plate, but he’s handling it well.”
▪ Fresno State under DeRuyter has always finished its spring practices before spring break, but this year had 11 before it and will have its last four after it. The first day back, there was some rust. The offense turned over the ball five times, and there were some dropped passes and missed assignments. “It was the way the calendar fell this year,” DeRuyter said. “We’ll probably evaluate whether or not we want to do it again, but I think it’s good in that you’ve got guys for a little longer period of time thinking football and any time you can stretch that part out it’s good.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
Spring ball winds down
A look at Fresno State’s remaining spring schedule:
- Thursday: 7:55-10:05 a.m.
- Friday: 8:10-9:35 a.m.
- Saturday: 8 a.m.-1 p.m., Spring Showcase at Bulldog Stadium. Free and open to the public, day includes a final scrimmage from 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. as well as the Bulldog Yard Sale of old uniforms and other gear, a youth clinic and a chance to win free season tickets.