Fresno State fielded a young football team a year ago in a rough 3-9 season. Nineteen players made their first career starts, including 14 playing FBS football for the first time – true and redshirt freshmen as well as transfers.
The Bulldogs will be young again while trying to rebound from their worst season since 1978, with seven returning starters on offense and five on defense. And while there are teams in the Mountain West Conference with as many returning starters, there is only one with fewer, Colorado State.
But that is not necessarily a negative, though the Bulldogs are sure to miss Ejiro Ederaine and Kyrie Wilson, Alex Fifita and Bo Bonnheim, Marteze Waller and Justin Northern, Charles Washington and Todd Hunt.
Their youth now has experience, which could make the Bulldogs a sneaky proposition in 2016, starting with better and more consistent play at quarterback.
“We are young, but we’ve got redshirt freshmen that played a year ago and are redshirt sophomores,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “We have a bunch of those guys that had to play a little too early and do have some experience. For me, anyway, we’re too young in the offensive line still, but everywhere else we have some guys that have played and that are young guys that I think have really good upside.”
That is a fairly long list. Safety DeShawn Potts, Mike linebacker Nela Otukolo, outside linebacker James Bailey, defensive end Kyle Hendrickson, guard Micah St. Andrew, quarterback Chason Virgil and wideouts Jamire Jordan and KeeSean Johnson started at least one game as true or redshirt freshmen.
Development last season, which has carried through the spring and summer, will be more aptly measured against a more manageable nonconference schedule. After a Sept. 3 opener at Nebraska, Fresno State faces an FCS program in Sacramento State and Group of Five matchups at Toledo and against Tulsa.
When they open fall practice Thursday, DeRuyter and a staff that includes new coordinators on offense (Eric Kiesau) and defense (Lorenzo Ward) get a first chance to put a barometer to it.
Here is a look at the position groups heading into camp:
Overview – Virgil has the inside track to the starting assignment at Nebraska, though, really, it is by default. Ford Childress is no longer in the program and Kilton Anderson is out after a shoulder surgery; they were the other two quarterbacks in spring ball.
All four in camp (Virgil, Zach Kline, Quentin Davis and Christian Rossi) will get reps for the first two weeks, and if it’s close, that’s not a good sign. Virgil flashed promise in the first two games in 2015 before a season-ending shoulder injury, completing 20 of his first 31 throws (64.5 percent), but gaining consistency will be key in staying ahead of the competition.
Camp priority – Stoke competition at the position; Bulldogs need to push Virgil and find a No. 2.
Player to watch – Kline impressed with his arm strength and accuracy when participating in player-run practices this summer. With six games as a redshirt freshman at Cal in 2013, he has the most experience. He hit 15 of 16 for 202 yards in Cal’s spring game.
Overview – The Bulldogs took a hit when Bryson Oglesby and Wesley Hill suffered injuries in spring practice. Oglesby is expected back in October; Hill is out for the season. But even if all in the position group were healthy, experience would be an issue. Dontel James, who returns after a season at Riverside City College, has only eight carries in five games. Dejonte O’Neal, who started the spring as a slot receiver before moving back to running back, will start fall camp in the backfield at least until talented freshmen Justin Rice, Saevion Johnson and Deonte Perry absorb some of the offense. Rushing the football is not the issue, but it’s only part of what the position requires.
Camp priority – It could be a tricky proposition, but James needs reps ... and to stay healthy.
Player to watch – Rice is an intriguing player, particularly given the inexperience and lack of ready depth in the group. At 6-foot-2 and 206 pounds, he has the physicality to play right away, but the question, as with Johnson and Perry, is picking up everything in the offense to do that.
Overview – The Bulldogs came out of spring ball with what they feel is a solid top five. But the strength and the numbers are inside, where they have returning starters in Jacob Vazquez at center and Aaron Mitchell at guard and gave a lot of reps to St. Andrew. They moved Zack Kinninger to center from tackle in the spring and also have redshirt freshman guard Isaiah Trevino, a Kingsburg High grad. Community college transfer Christian Cronk and David Patterson had solid springs at left and right tackle, but the depth there remains a question, as it does for the group as a whole. It would help if the Bulldogs can get Shane Gama back – the community college transfer was hospitalized after suffering from heatstroke at a summer workout.
Camp priority – Find a first seven or eight and develop some options at the tackle positions.
Player to watch – Cronk went through spring practices with the Bulldogs, and he quickly was moved up to the No. 1 offense, but line depth played a role in that decision. Further development for Cronk is crucial in fall camp because there is limited depth at the tackle positions.
Overview – In the spring, Fresno State installed an offense that makes more and better use of a tight end (and sometimes two), and it spent its 15 practices getting the position group work as both a Y and an H, cross-training Kyle Riddering, Chad Olsen, Jared Rice and David Tangipa. In fall camp, they’ll get to where they fit best and go from there. The Bulldogs do have playmaking ability at both spots, notably the H, where Olsen and the redshirt freshman Rice will line up. Olsen has been an underused but productive asset the past two seasons – he has played in 25 games and has 32 career receptions, 17 for first downs, seven for touchdowns and 13 for gains of 15 or more yards.
Camp priority – With the run game a priority, there will be a lot of work on blocking at both positions.
Player to watch – Rice, Part I. Jared, the older of the Rice brothers, was a redshirt last season, but in practice or in a scrimmage, he always made plays. Rice is still on the lean side, but with his length and athleticism, he is a tough matchup for defenses.
Overview – There is talent in this group and now that talent has some experience – Jordan and Johnson were the leading receivers last season as redshirt freshmen. That and some position changes in the spring give this group a chance to help produce a more productive passing game. The quarterback play was the primary culprit there with four quarterbacks completing only 50.1 percent of their passes at a conference-worst 5.3 yards per play and with a passing efficiency rating of just 103.17. But there also were a lot of drops – the coaching staff counted seven in one game – and the group as a whole needs to be much more consistent with routes, at the ball, blocking ...
Camp priority – Play to the potential in the position group.
Player to watch – A year ago, Delvon Hardaway returned from a spring knee injury to play in Week Four at San Jose State, but he spent the season working his way back to health. When right, he can make plays, and now, more than a year since ACL surgery, he should be there.
Overview – The defensive line was a work in progress at the end of spring practices, but clearly the pieces were there to turn around a group that was very young, lacked depth and struggled to stop the run a year ago, when it finished 11th of 12 in the conference. The Bulldogs brought in community college nose guard Malik Forrester for spring practices and now have legitimate depth at the position with Patrick Belony and Jaleel Carter. Nathan Madsen is back at end after playing inside last season and can have more of an impact at his natural position. There is a lack of experienced depth outside, but the numbers are there with community college transfer Austin Vaimili and freshmen Kevin Atkins and Elijah Piper joining the group.
Camp priority – If Forrester gains a comfort level with the defense, he can be a difference maker.
Player to watch – Vaimili, the community college transfer, missed spring practices, which obviously hurt his development. But at 6-5 and 257 pounds, he has the measurables the coaching staff looks for, and if he can make a quick transition to the FBS level, he can become a factor.
Overview – The Bulldogs lost Kyrie Wilson, who was third on the team in tackles. But a lot of experience returns inside with Otukolo at the Mike backer and Jeff Camilli and Robert Stanley at Will – all three made at least one start during the year. George Helmuth also returns and the Bulldogs added a community college transfer in Trent Soechting and an incoming freshman in Jeffrey Allison. Soechting has his weight up to about 225, which is a plus. Allison comes in a solid 6-feet and 255 pounds. It is one of the deeper position groups in the program and only Camilli is a senior. Given the experience gained last season by Otukolo and Stanley, the level of play, consistency and overall production should improve
Camp priority – Camilli missed the spring with a lower leg injury; making sure he is back at 100 percent will be key.
Player to watch – Stanley made a lot of progress through his third-year sophomore season and continues to make gains on the field and physically. At 6-3 and now up to 249 pounds, he could take a significant step forward this season after playing in nine games with one start last season.
Overview – The outside linebackers get a lot of play in the Bulldogs’ 3-4. Ederaine finished his career with 21.0 career sacks and 45.5 tackles for a loss, ranking second all-time in the conference. Donavon Lewis was productive for three seasons and Tristan Okpalaugo and Shawn Plummer were for the one they played in the defense. But there are question marks this season. One, how good can Bailey be with a year of experience under him? Two, how healthy and productive can the rest of the group be? Opportunity will be there, but the Bulldogs are not particularly deep with Tobenna Okeke, Brandon Hughes and Justin Green the most experienced in the group.
Camp priority – Given the lack of depth, stay healthy.
Player to watch – Bailey played in all 12 games last season as a true freshman and has the ability to develop into a dynamic playmaker. He was in on 47 tackles last season, most by a Fresno State true freshman since 1995, including 2.0 tackles for loss.
Overview – DeRuyter and his staff have had a difficult time rebuilding this position group – for every step forward there has seemed to be one or two backward. Just since spring, the Bulldogs lost Tank Kelly (knee), Daquawn Brown (ineligible) and Malcolm Washington (left program). Tyquwan Glass and Jamal Ellis are solid starters, but the depth obviously is a concern for a group that is expected to be much more competitive this season than the past two when giving up 20 and 32 touchdown passes. Community college transfer Jerrell Sykes had some glossy stats at Kilgore College in Texas, taking advantage of some poor throws and worse decisions to pick off 10 passes, but will have to be a quick study.
Camp priority – Get some talented incoming players up to speed quickly.
Player(s) to watch – The Bulldogs need to develop some depth in the positon group. Reports from summer strength and conditioning workouts are that freshmen Jaron Bryant and Juju Hughes, a Hanford High grad, will have a chance physically to compete right away.
Overview – There was not much production from this group a year ago, and while a lot goes into that, there’s also no getting away from it. The safeties combined for just 3.5 TFLs with no player collecting more than one. Go back just to 2013, when Derron Smith and Charles Washington combined for 16.0 and the group had 18.0. Last season, safeties accounted for one interception. In 2013, there were nine interceptions by safeties. Two things will help. One, continuity – the Bulldogs changed starters at free safety four times over the last seven weeks with three players getting starts. Two, experience – Potts, Alan Wright and Stratton Brown all will be better with it.
Camp priority – Settle in, get them comfortable with the defense and develop some playmakers.
Player to watch – Potts missed the first part of the season coming back from an injury but played in eight games and started the last two. In the finale against Colorado State, the third-year sophomore dropped a strong hint to his playmaking ability with eight tackles and one pass breakup.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
Fresno State football key dates
- Wednesday: Players report for fall; first of 29 preseason practices is Thursday
- Sept. 3: Season opener at Nebraska, 5 p.m.
- Sept. 10: Home opener vs. Sacramento State, 7 p.m.