Fresno State football will be better in 2017 – here are 5 reasons why

Fresno State QB Chason Virgil on what he needs to refine in summer workouts

Fresno State quarterback Chason Virgil, proud of how spring football went for the Bulldogs' offense, talks about what he needs to work in the summer.
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Fresno State quarterback Chason Virgil, proud of how spring football went for the Bulldogs' offense, talks about what he needs to work in the summer.

The Fresno State football team will be an improved football team next season. That much should be abundantly clear.

How can I be so confident the Bulldogs will be better than they were a year ago? Mostly because it’s nearly impossible, just from a pure probability standpoint, to be any worse.

Even if we rebooted 2016 – same players, same coaching staff, same schedule – in all likelihood the Bulldogs win more than one game. They’d finish off that last-minute drive against Nevada with smarter play calls. The winning field goal against Hawaii, from a kicker who’d made 15 straight, doesn’t get blocked at the line.

It’s extremely difficult to go 1-11 in the Mountain West Conference. You have to be really bad and really unlucky.

Bottom line: It’s extremely difficult to go 1-11 in the Mountain West Conference. You have to be really bad and really unlucky.

So, yes, I expect Fresno State to win more than one game this fall. How many more? Let’s put it this way: not enough to be bowl eligible, but enough to no longer be a national punchline.

Hey, it’s progress.

Since making too much out of spring football is a foolhardy endeavor, let’s avoid any proclamations or judgments. Instead here are five observations (aside from simple probability) that make me think there’s light at the end of the chasm.

Chason Virgil is leading the quarterback derby – After watching Virgil struggle last season and detecting a need to turn the page, most figured new head coach Jeff Tedford would want his own guy calling signals. Instead, the sophomore outperformed the competition and will almost assuredly be No. 1 on the depth chart come August.

Here’s why this is significant: As one of the team’s primary leaders, Virgil will be a lot more invested in the team’s summer program as the presumed starter than if he thought he was going to be Jorge Reyna’s backup. Which gives him more incentive to organize and enforce player-run workouts on steamy triple-digit days.

“I plan on being that guy,” Virgil said. “That’s something me and the coaches talked about. I plan on being that guy, being that voice, being that motivator that everybody needs.”

The offensive line isn’t doing the same ol’ stuff – Before Saturday’s Spring Showcase, I spent a lot of time observing offensive line coach Ryan Grubb and came away impressed by both his teaching methods and communication skills.

We have to have nasty intent.

Ryan Grubb, Bulldogs offensive line coach

From watching film, one of the primary weaknesses Grubb detected was hand striking. The Bulldogs’ o-line didn’t punch with force. Instead, he saw arms just floating and slapping around.

To combat this, Grubb employs a drill that he calls “hand fire.” Three linemen are stationed around the goalpost in a passing set, moving their feet in place. When Grubb calls “Right” the players punch the goalpost with their right hand. When Grubb calls “Left,” they punch the goalpost with their left. When he calls “Both,” they punch with both hands.

“When you just slap your hands out there and extend your arms against good defensive lineman, they’re just going to whack you away and throw you out of leverage,” Grubb said. “If our hands extend from our body, we have to do it quickly and purposefully. We have to have nasty intent. When our arms leave our core, it has to be for good reason.”

More playmakers at the skill positions – When the Bulldogs needed to make a play last season, KeeSean Johnson and Jamire Jordan were pretty much the only options.

Even with Jordan (hip surgery) sitting out spring practice, the difference in dynamics was evident. The return of Da’Mari Scott, ineligible last fall, gives the Bulldogs a tough slot presence, and a fully healthy Delvon Hardaway provides another explosive presence on the perimeter.

The playmaking extends to the backfield as well. Saevion Johnson and Deonte Perry both showed the ability to make people miss and pick up extra yardage, qualities that were sorely lacking last fall.

The defensive system is better tailored to the talent – When the Bulldogs had Tyeler Davison at nose tackle, when they had the likes of Tristan Okpalaugo and Donovan Lewis at outside linebacker, the 3-4 made sense.

Once those players graduated, it started to feel like Fresno State was plugging players into a scheme they didn’t fit. Which is a huge reason why the Bulldogs only made 56 tackles last season behind the scrimmage, 11th in the MW and tied for 115th in the country.

56 Fresno State’s total tackles behind the line of scrimmage in 2016, which ranked 11th in the Mountain West

Malik Forrester and Nathan Madsen are better fits as interior linemen in a 4-3, where they can use their quickness to make plays instead of just taking on blocks. Linebackers Nela Otukolo and Robert Stanley should also be freed up to make more tackles. What about a pass rush? Well … er … not sure.

Tim DeRuyter checks his watch as the team continues taking the field at Bulldog Stadium for a 2016 spring practice. DeRuyter was fired in the midst of a 1-11 season last year. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA

The head coach doesn’t talk on his cell phone during practice – This may be a small thing, or it may have been emblematic of something larger. But unlike his predecessor, Tedford did not spend one moment of any spring practice yapping on his cell phone.

In fact, Tedford doesn’t even have his cell phone with him during practice.

“Why would I need my cell phone out here?” he asked me with some suspicion.

Why indeed.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee