Fresno State Football

933 passes, many headaches later: Does Fresno State now have fix on QB position?

With a deep quarterback group that includes redshirt freshman Chason Virgil as the starter, Fresno State in 2016 has a chance to win football games and end a reliance on last-minute transfers at the position and develop depth.
With a deep quarterback group that includes redshirt freshman Chason Virgil as the starter, Fresno State in 2016 has a chance to win football games and end a reliance on last-minute transfers at the position and develop depth. ezamora@fresnobee.com

Three large white boards, maybe 4 feet by 6 feet, cover one wall of the staff room on the second floor of the Duncan Building, home to Fresno State football. One, a depth chart. Two, offensive personnel. Three, defensive personnel.

On two of the boards, every player in the program is represented, has a magnetic placard that is color-coded by class and has a small photo with uniform number, height and weight, high school or junior college, all arranged neatly by position group and lined up in a row.

But no matter how orderly it might appear, there is one spot that just has never been quite right, even when the name at the top was Derek Carr, a two-time All-American who set 27 school records and should have been a draw for aspiring quarterbacks.

Over the past five years, filling it and fitting it just so has been like putting together a puzzle with pieces missing or hidden somewhere as an annoying, really?, joke.

Think you’re there and … no, you’re not.

Of the seven quarterbacks Fresno State signed on a National Letter of Intent day following Derek Carr in 2009, only one made it to a senior season and he did it at a different position.

“You lay out the plan and it almost never works out perfectly,” coach Tim DeRuyter said.

But finally, maybe, the Bulldogs are close.

Fresno State in 2016, with redshirt freshman Chason Virgil the opening-night starter and a deep and talented group behind him, has a chance to win football games, to end its reliance on last-minute transfers at quarterback and to build and develop one of if not the most important position group on the field.

It happens

Fresno State is not the first college football team to win big, perhaps bigger than ever, only to fall dismally flat the very next season or a year or two later.

For the Bulldogs it was 3-9, last season, but it could have been 2-10, 4-8, even 0-12, as it was at Rice, at Kent State, at Ball State, at Southern Miss.

There is a common thread through many of those programs – quarterback play – and they are not the only ones that have been way up and then way down.

“There’s a reason they pay them that much in the NFL,” said Rice coach David Bailiff, who has been on a ride similar to DeRuyter at Fresno State. “The greater your quarterback, the greater your program.”

The Owls went 10-3 in 2008 with a senior quarterback in Chase Clement, their first 10-win season since 1949. They fell off to just two wins the very next season and then four the next two seasons before building back to seven and 10 in 2013 with a senior quarterback in Taylor McHargue.

You bring in and groom a quarterback so once he’s there two or three years, maybe as a redshirt sophomore or junior, he’s ready to play.

Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter

Ball State was 12-2 in 2008 with Nate Davis, but after he left school a year early to enter the NFL Draft the Cardinals went 2-10, then 4-8, then 6-6. The build continued from there, 9-4 and then 10-3 in 2013 with a senior quarterback in Keith Wenning.

Kent State went through three 5-7 seasons with Spencer Keith at quarterback. But in his senior season in in 2012 the Golden Flashes went 11-3, their most wins going back to 1962. The following season, playing a freshman quarterback, Kent State was 4-8, which was followed by 2-9.

Southern Miss developed Austin Davis over a four-year period that culminated with a 12-2 season in 2011, the most wins in program history. The following season the Golden Eagles played four quarterbacks in a new system under a new coach and went 0-12.

Fresno State obviously had a lot of problems a year ago, on both sides of the ball. But that experience at the quarterback position can be invaluable.

Go back through 2000 and there have been 200 teams that have won 11 or more games in a season, but only three that got there with a defense that allowed 30 or more points per game: Fresno State in 2013, with a senior quarterback in Carr. Northern Illinois in 2011, with a senior quarterback in Chandler Harnish. BYU in 2001, with a senior quarterback in Brandon Doman.

“It’s incredible what that does,” Bailiff said. “Like Chase in ’08, he came to me and said, ‘You know what’s incredible now? I see the whole field. I see it all. I know when they’re blitzing. I know when they’re bluffing. I know what protections to set.’

“By that point in his career, he had learned to read the demeanor of linebackers and defensive backs and knew when their true intent was to blitz and when their true intent was to drop. He just had a commanding skill set for the game. While he was good as a junior, he was great as a senior.”

Boise State is perhaps the top example of a Group of Five program sustaining success. But in 2012, after Kellen Moore had left with a 50-3 record as a starter, the Broncos had Joe Southwick, who was in his fourth year in the program. The following season, when Southwick suffered an injury in Week 7, they were able to turn to Grant Hedrick, who was in his fourth year.

Before Moore, Ryan Dinwiddie made his first start for the Broncos in his third year in the program as a redshirt sophomore in 2001 and was followed by redshirt sophomore Jared Zabransky in 2004 and a fifth-year senior in Taylor Tharp in 2007.

Sustaining a run for Group of Five programs, which are not recruiting at the top of the food chain, is a challenge not many meet. Top 25 programs are susceptible as well.

Oregon last season started graduate transfer quarterback Vernon Adams from FCS Eastern Washington. This season, it could turn to a graduate transfer in Dakota Prukop from FCS Montana State.

It is not as if the Ducks stopped recruiting quarterbacks. Between 2012 and ’15, Oregon signed five, three rated as four-star prospects.

“It’s difficult to do. It’s almost impossible to keep that standard,” said San Diego State coach Rocky Long, who last season led the Aztecs to an 11-3 season, their most wins since going 11-0 in 1969.

He was pretty special, You don’t just replace that.

Rice coach David Bailiff on former Bulldogs quarterback Derek Carr

“A two- or three-year period, you might evaluate really well in recruiting and you’ve got good enough players to be winners,” Long said. “Well, two or three years later, you still do the evaluation but your evaluation wasn’t as good or you weren’t as lucky and now all of a sudden you don’t have quite the talent level and now you’re not playing at that level anymore. It has nothing to do with how good your program is or how good a coach you are. It has nothing to do with that.”

It’s a development game and Fresno State has been well behind.

The Bulldogs after Carr?

“He was pretty special,” Bailiff said. “You don’t just replace that.”

A rough road

DeRuyter was in scramble mode from the start.

Inheriting Derek Carr was an epic windfall for a first-time head coach, but behind the record-setting quarterback coming out of a 4-9 season in 2011 was a redshirt sophomore in Kelly O’Brien, a redshirt freshman in Greg Watson and a freshman in Marcus McDade.

O’Brien didn’t make it through the first spring.

Watson played in a backup role in 2012, completing 7 of 22 passes (31.8%) for 128 yards with no touchdowns and one interception and the following season was moved to inside receiver.

McDade played in two games in 2012, left at the end of the season and transferred to FCS Sacramento State, where he played two games and never attempted a pass.

What followed was a year-by-year run trying to catch up, with suspect evaluations and in some years a scramble just to have an upper-division quarterback in the program.

DeRuyter signed Myles Carr in his first abbreviated recruiting class in 2012. With O’Brien and McDade no longer in the program, Fresno State that spring signed Brian Burrell out of Bakersfield College.

Fresno State quarterbacks have completed only 53.7 percent of their passes, averaging only 5.7 yards per attempt with 45 touchdowns and 37 interceptions.

Myles Carr was a redshirt in 2012, attempted one pass while playing in five games in a backup role in ’13 and was moved to wideout the following spring. He left Fresno State after the 2014 season and is in his final season at Texas A&M-Kingsville.

Burrell was the primary backup to Derek Carr in 2013, completing 7 of 12 passes (58.3 percent) for 51 yards and was granted a medical hardship waiver after suffering a broken collarbone in his freshman season at Bakersfield College.

The Bulldogs signed Zack Greenlee out of Lincoln High-Stockton in their 2013 recruiting class. But with Myles Carr changing positions, that summer they had to add a graduate transfer from Duke in Brandon Connette to add depth and experience.

Burrell started 13 of 14 games in 2014 and the Bulldogs took a flier on Greenlee, then a redshirt freshman, with a start against Wyoming that did not go well.

Fresno State signed Kilton Anderson in its 2014 recruiting class, finding him available late in the recruiting calendar. But on signing day, Burrell informed DeRuyter and then-offensive coordinator Dave Schramm that he had decided to forgo his senior season of college football and with Connette gone, they again were in dire need of depth and experience at the position.

The Bulldogs had signed Virgil out of West Mesquite High in Texas and he graduated from high school early to enroll in spring practices, competing there with a redshirt sophomore in Greenlee and a redshirt freshman in Anderson. But in Burrell they had lost a returning starter and to add depth and experience that summer they added a JC transfer in Ford Childress, who had started his college career at West Virginia.

Of the quarterbacks who played in 2014, Burrell had attempted 12 passes at the FBS level entering the year; Connette had played in 39 games with four starts at Duke but went into fall camp without benefit of even a spring practice at Fresno State; and Greenlee was a redshirt freshman playing for the first time.

Of the quarterbacks who played in 2015, Greenlee went into the season with 41 career attempts, a completion percentage of 43.9 percent and an efficiency rating of just 95.59, Anderson was a redshirt freshman and Virgil a true freshman playing for the first time, and Childress, like Connette, had scant experience in the offense and also had missed the start of fall camp because of an academic issue.

Six quarterbacks, and only Burrell and Greenlee took snaps for the Bulldogs in two seasons while the other four were playing for Fresno State for the first time.

There was little continuity or experience in the position group.

“You bring in and groom a quarterback so once he’s there two or three years, maybe as a redshirt sophomore or junior, he’s ready to play,” DeRuyter said.

“You look at the teams that win consistently, they’re typically playing with quarterbacks who are redshirt sophomores or juniors or seniors to get to that next level, that elite level.”

The Bulldogs didn’t have it. Weren’t close.

In seven of 12 games last season, the Bulldogs’ completion percentage was at 50 percent or lower, the bottom a 14 of 39 (35.9 percent) in a loss at Air Force.

This at a time offenses were hitting top speed with a premium on quarterback play. In 2015, there were 32 teams that averaged 75 or more plays from scrimmage per game. Five years before that, in 2011, there were 18. In 2006, there was one.

“Offenses used to fight like men – they’d huddle and they’d break the huddle and they’d give those defensive coaches about 25 seconds to see what they were up to and we could flip corners and roll safeties and then they’d snap the ball and run right where we wanted them to,” said Bailiff, a defensive coordinator at Southwest Texas State and TCU before taking his first job as a head coach at Rice.

“Now it goes so fast the defensive coaches have less to do with the game because you have to educate your high safeties and linebackers because there’s a lot of times you’re just going to check it to where your defense is calling it because they’re getting that ball off so fast.”

For Fresno State, the results were predictable.

The bottom, 3-9.

The board takes shape

Of the seven quarterbacks Fresno State signed on a National Letter of Intent Day following Carr in 2009, only one made it to a senior season and he did it at a different position.

Greenlee and Anderson were the last to leave. Greenlee transferred to Texas-El Paso after the 2015 season; Anderson left with the intent to transfer two weeks into fall camp this season.

“That,” DeRuyter said, “obviously wasn’t the plan.”

But that board now is taking shape.

You’d love to get to that point where you bring a new class in and you’re reloading. But you have to have a blueprint to go by and I like where we’re at with our quarterback situation now where we do have quarterbacks spaced down in classes.

Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter

Virgil is a redshirt freshman with two spring practices, two summers and one season of experience having played in three games last year before suffering a shoulder injury in his first career start.

James Quentin Davis is a freshman from Southern California prep power St. John Bosco-Bellflower who flashed in fall camp.

The Bulldogs have a graduate transfer in Zach Kline and a junior college transfer in Christian Rossi, a veteran presence to get through the season and another building block.

The NCAA does not allow coaches to comment on prospective student-athletes until a national letter of intent has been signed and validated, but Cameron Burston from Contra Costa College in San Pablo and Mark Salazar from Rancho Bernardo High in San Diego have confirmed oral commitments to Fresno State in the Class of 2017.

In 2017, the board will look even better with balance between classes and more legitimate competition in the group than Fresno State has had in years.

Rossi will be a senior and Burston a junior. Virgil will be a redshirt sophomore, Davis a sophomore or a redshirt freshman and Salazar a freshman.

They are talented, competitive players. The Bulldogs have a chance to develop and build.

“I think one of the biggest struggles, particularly at this level, is trying to even out your classes with good competitive guys that are going to do the right thing off the field and who are going to stick to the program,” DeRuyter said. “It’s a challenge every year. Sometimes, there are unfortunate family things that happen and guys leave for different reasons.

“You’d love to get to that point where you bring a new class in and you’re reloading. But you have to have a blueprint to go by and I like where we’re at with our quarterback situation now where we do have quarterbacks spaced down in classes. Obviously when you first get here and you don’t have that, it takes a while to get back and hopefully now going forward we’ll be in that position.”

Now, at least, finally, maybe, they are close.

Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada

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