Fresno State a year ago at this time was looking to fill some holes on its roster and address soft spots within position groups. Coach Tim DeRuyter and his staff did well, adding five players well after national signing day, and each played last season or will this year.
In that group were wideout Josiah Blandin, who tied for the team lead with five touchdown receptions; cornerback Tyquwan Glass, who led with four interceptions; defensive end Nick Kristofors, who got reps in all 12 games; nose guard Patrick Belony, a four-for-three JC transfer who will be in the two-deep this season; and running back Dustin Garrison, a graduate transfer from West Virginia who was fourth in all-purpose yards.
DeRuyter again saved some scholarships on 2016 signing day – Fresno State had 21 players in its recruiting class, five midyear signees and 16 that signed in February, with four spots still available – giving the Bulldogs the ability to bolster the roster, be it with a graduate transfer or late-blooming high school or JC player.
But this year, the shopping list is much shorter and the need much less pressing than it was a year ago.
I think we’re in pretty good shape in a lot of the other positions other than offensive line, and then possibly we could get somebody who would be in the mix at safety, an older guy to possibly come in.
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter, on potential target areas for late signings heading into 2016
“Right now, we’re still looking at an offensive lineman, possibly a young developmental guy or a JC who was eligible as a freshman that would be a four-for-three type of guy,” DeRuyter said. “I think we’re in pretty good shape in a lot of the other positions other than offensive line, and then possibly we could get somebody who would be in the mix at safety, an older guy to possibly come in.”
The offensive line long has been a trouble spot, the position group down numbers and lacking balance between classes. The Bulldogs have solidified it to a degree, adding tackles Christian Cronk and Ryan Popolizio and guard Shane Gama as midyear JC recruits. All three are in the two-deep this spring, and Cronk is working with the first offense at left tackle.
With the overall number still down – the Bulldogs have 11 scholarship linemen on the roster with freshman Quireo Woodley from Murrieta Valley High coming in this summer, three to five less than most FBS programs carry – an add likely will be a younger player with upside to add depth.
“We have some leads on a few guys. We want to see how those kids have developed,” DeRuyter said. “I think Coach (Mark) Weber has done a nice job getting our top five solidified. Obviously, we need the 29 practices in fall camp before the first game, but I think some guys have made big strides.
“I think David Patterson has really come on from a confidence standpoint. Aaron Mitchell has made good strides. Jacob Vazquez is a guy who is very smart and is playing hard and fast. That has been fun to watch. Christian Cronk is learning every day. He still has a way to go, but physically, he is a guy that could potentially be a three-year starter for us.”
Hi, Mike – Fresno State had two inside (Mike) linebackers available this spring in sophomore Nela Otukolo and JC transfer Trent Soechting, and both are closing it at a good pace, starting with some and no experience in the Bulldogs’ schemes.
Otukolo, who played in eight games last season before suffering a knee injury, is much more consistent than he was a year ago. Soechting, after getting up to speed in the defense, has played well the second half of the 15 spring practices, and inside linebackers coach Nick Toth said they might have underestimated parts of his skill set during the recruiting process.
“The thing that showed up most for me with him, there are two things,” Toth said. “No. 1, his speed is well beyond where we evaluated it. He’s probably our fastest inside linebacker, which is saying something because I think we have some guys that can run in there. He has legitimate speed.
His effort to the ball is the definition of fanatical.
Inside linebackers coach Nick Toth, on early impressions of JC transfer Trent Soechting
“And, No. 2, we were talking today; I couldn’t find a loaf for him all spring. His effort to the ball is the definition of fanatical. Even when he hasn’t known what he was doing, those three or four practices where he was getting his feet wet, to be able to say I couldn’t find a loaf and then he was our fastest player, you don’t ever say that about a guy. When a kid comes in and is learning the defense, he stands around; there’s a lot of watching, I’m telling you, ‘Man, I don’t know when he’s going to be physical because I have to wait for him to learn the defense’ – so that’s something special there.”
Both have work to do this offseason. Soechting is listed at 207 pounds but closer to 212 and still needs to add weight. Otukolo only has to keep climbing toward what the Bulldogs believe to be a very high ceiling.
But the gains this spring set up a highly competitive fall at a position that has produced the Bulldogs’ leading tackler in two of the past three seasons.
Man to man – Outside linebacker James Bailey played good football last season as a true freshman, tying for seventh on the team with 47 tackles, including two behind the line of scrimmage.
He has continued to impress, including at Thursday’s practice, in showing off his coverage skills. Playing their base defense, Bailey was matched up man to man against the slot receiver. The Bulldogs’ offense took two shots at him downfield, the receiver running an inside fade, and Bailey not only matched strides with the receiver but gained position and was able to break up both passes.
“I didn’t know that he would be able to play as well in man coverage as he has, but he’s a smart football player,” DeRuyter said. “He understands leverage; he understands alignment and can slip from one leverage to another based on alignment, just being a heady football player. Sometimes, you’ll see a linebacker running with a receiver like that and they look like a fish out of water. The ball is in the air and they’re beating the receiver up because they’re panicked. There was no panic there.
“In both cases, he’s running stride for stride with him and playing the ball the way you want, playing the hands and making sure that completion isn’t happening. He has done that all spring, and I think it’s impressive for a guy who is 210, 215 pounds and can run really well.”
10:30 a.m. Start time for Saturday’s final on-field workout this spring at Bulldog Stadium
Et cetera – Fresno State will have a brief practice Friday in helmets and shorts, a final run-through before the last of three scrimmage opportunities this spring. The on-field work in Saturday’s Spring Showcase will run from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., preceded by the Bulldogs’ Yard Sale, where the athletic department will be liquidating more than 8,000 uniforms, sweatshirts, polo shirts, jackets, sweats and pieces of equipment.
A youth clinic follows on the field at Bulldog Stadium. The yard sale starts at 8 a.m., the clinic at the conclusion of the scrimmage around 12:30.
▪ Defensive line coach Pete Germano said third-year sophomore Kyle Hendrickson is expected to be cleared by June 1 to return from a knee injury suffered in the Bulldogs’ final game last season.
▪ DeRuyter on the depth at the safety positions, a spot they could look to add a player this spring or into the summer: “Right now, I like the strides that Stratton (Brown) and DeShawn Potts have made. You’ve got Dalen (Jones) and Alan (Wright), who have played some, but you’d like them a little closer to the top two guys. We’ve got another practice and one Saturday to evaluate where everybody is at, and if nothing changes, that’s an area we’ll look at, not that we’re definitely going to go in that direction.”
▪ Nose guard Malik Forrester, one of the Bulldogs’ midyear junior college signees, started the spring with high expectations and has flashed working toward them. The 315-pound junior is working to put the right technique to every call, but when he does he is a tough guy to block, explosive off the snap, powerful. “Malik has shown what I needed to see,” Germano said. “I’m not surprised. I told you (before the spring) I’d be shocked if he wasn’t what I thought he was. He has showed it. We just have to take all the rough edges off of him and fine-tune him and keeping pushing Patrick (Belony) and Jaleel (Carter) to get better so we can have a rotation there.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada