2020 Fresno State Football Preview: A Comprehensive Breakdown of Bulldog Starters and Depth Chart

Kalen DeBoer has something he wants to share with the Central Valley.

The new leader of Fresno State football has said it in press conferences, radio interviews and to his own players and coaches during the lead-up to his Bulldogs head coaching debut Saturday.

“There is a story to be told in the 2020 season.”

The story of 2020 as a year overall – pandemics, protests and wildfires all included – will be a complicated, unforgettable one. It was a story almost written without Bulldog football, when the Mountain West postponed fall sports indefinitely back on August 10.

Mountain West football was back on six weeks later, and so began the first real test of DeBoer’s tenure: How will the coach get a Fresno State team with new and old faces alike to gel together in a month?

That question will receive an answer Saturday night.

When the 2020 season kicks off on October 24th against Hawaii, and the Bulldogs take the field for the first time in 328 days, there will be a number of firsts:

  • First game for Kalen DeBoer as Fresno State’s head coach
  • First game for Haener as starting quarterback
  • First time the Bulldogs will wear their new jerseys, featuring the athletic department’s new partnership to Adidas
  • First time there will be no fans to greet players at Bulldog Stadium

Of course, there will be efforts off the field to provide as close to a normal game environment for the players as possible: cut-outs will be placed in the stands and crowd noise will be piped in. DeBoer has grown fond of using another acronym, BYOJ – Bring Your Own Juice, to get his players ready for the fan-less atmosphere

The pages of this season’s story, however, will be filled with how DeBoer’s Bulldogs perform on the field. The former Fresno State offensive coordinator has a talented offense at his disposal, with dangerous playmakers at the skill positions in 2020. Paired with key returners to the offensive line and another year with OC Ryan Grubb calling plays, the potential for a high-scoring Fresno State offense is there.

The defense will miss the presence of preseason Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year Justin Rice, who transferred to Arkansas State on August 20. Playing in a new 4-2-5 defensive formation, with a Husky position serving as a linebacker-safety hybrid, the linebacker corps will look different to Fresno State fans this season. The defensive line and secondary will see some new faces at starting positions, adding more intrigue to a defense that looks to rebound after falling to the middle of the pack last year.

To preview the upcoming 2020 Fresno State football season, here is a position-by-position break down of the Bulldogs, on offense and defense:

Quarterback:
Starter: Jake Haener
Next in line: Ben Wooldridge

The quarterback competition was the talk of 2020 fall camp, with Haener emerging victorious over Woolridge on Monday. Haener received reps in practice last season as scout team QB, routinely facing the first-team defense each week. Prior to that, he attended the University of Washington and saw playing time in four games as a Husky. Now, Haener will make his first ever Division-I collegiate start at Bulldog Stadium – coincidentally the same location where his mother and father met. Yes, it’s a small world.

Haener has a strong arm and features athleticism in his 6-foot-1 frame, enough to elude would-be tacklers. He does not have the same powerful physique like Fresno State’s past quarterbacks Marcus McMariyon and Jorge Reyna had, but Haener is capable of extending plays with his legs and giving his speedy wide receivers opportunities to make plays. There is a reason why former Bulldog QB Kevin Sweeney allowed Haener to wear his retired No. 9 jersey – this is a quarterback who has the talent and poise to live up to the precedent set by past Bulldog greats.

Running Back:
Starter: Ronnie Rivers
Next in line: Jordan Mims
Keep your eye out for: Zion Echols, Saevion Johnson, Jevon Bigelow, McKinley Lee III

This is a running back room with two local products in it (Bigeow of Central High and Lee III of Edison High), but the starter – and the most important playmaker in the Fresno State offense – is Ronnie Rivers. The senior led the Mountain West in total touchdowns last year with 16 (13 rushing, 3 receiving), and led the team in rushing with 899 rushing yards, to go along with 348 receiving yards. Rivers was consistent in his production as well, racking up 113.9 all-purpose yards per game.

If Haener needed a security blanket this season, somebody to trust with the football in a tough spot, Rivers is the guy. Backing him up is Jordan Mims, a redshirt junior who is also capable of spearheading the running game. In fact, he split the starting job with Rivers during his sophomore season in 2018, when he rushed for 436 yards on 113 carries and six touchdowns. Mims redshirted last season due to a foot injury he suffered in the last game of the 2018 season vs. San Jose State. Mims is now healthy and ready to pick up where he left off two years ago.

Wide Receiver:
Starters: Keric Wheatfall, Jalen Cropper, Chris Coleman or Josh Kelly
Next in line/Injured: Zane Pope, Jamal Glaspie, Erik Brooks
Keep an eye out for: Emoryie Edwards. Patrick Elima-Jeune, Kevin Parker, Rodney Wright III, Mac Dalena, Grant Lake, Jordan Brown

This wide receiver group features a load of Central Valley high school standouts: Cropper (Buchanan), Coleman (Garces), Kelly (San Joaquin Memorial), Edwards (Tulare Union), Lake (Clovis), Wright III (Clovis West) and Dalena (San Joaquin Memorial) to name a few.

It will be Cropper and Wheatfall who start with either Chris Coleman or Josh Kelly as Haener’s pass catchers. Cropper and Wheatfall showcased their explosiveness and big play ability last year – the sophomore Cropper had a 79 and 82-yard run a piece last season, while the senior Wheatfall averaged 18 yards per catch to reach 307 receiving yards on the year. Health was an issue for the receiving corps last season, as Cropper and Wheatfall each missed time dealing with injuries.

Injuries also affected Coleman’s season last year, as he switched to cornerback after Week 4 to help the team’s injury-depleted secondary. Through his first three weeks at wide receiver, the junior had 158 yards and a touchdown, and he battles with Josh Kelly this season for the third wide receiver spot. Kelly, a redshirt freshman, made one start last year vs. Nevada to maintain his redshirt eligibility, and helped San Joaquin Memorial reach a state championship game his senior year of high school.

Zane Pope, who was the team’s top receiver last year with 47 catches for 525 yards, is injured to begin the season and was left off the initial team depth chart released Monday. Sophomore Emoryie Edwards, the all-time Central Section leader in receptions and receiving yards, will also be in the mix to receive snaps out wide this season.

Tight End:
Starter: Juan Rodriguez
Next in line: Raymond Pauwels Jr.
Keep an eye out for: David Tate Jr., Jared Torres, Rory Hanson, Micah Pasion

Filling in the hole left by Fresno State’s all-time receptions leader at the tight end position (Jared Rice) is senior Juan Rodriguez. He played behind two outgoing seniors last season – Rice and Cam Sutton – and logged five catches for 47 yards in 2019. While in junior college, Rodriguez showed an ability to rack up yards after catch with his speed and athleticism, and ranked as the No.5 JuCo TE recruit in the nation in 2018 by 24/7 Sports.

Following him in the depth chart is another junior college transfer, redshirt junior Raymond Pauwels Jr., who 24/7 Sports ranked as 2018’s No. 7 ranked JuCo TE recruit. A new face to the TE room is former linebacker and Edison High product David Tate Jr.

Offensive Line:
Starters:
LT: Dontae Bull (Next in line: Alex Akingbulu)
LG: Dante Adkins Jr. (Next in line: Mose Vavao)
C: Matt Smith (Next in line: Bula Schmidt)
RG: Quireo Woodley (Next in line: Tyrone Sampson Jr.)
RT: Syrus Tuitele (Next in line: Nick Abbs)

An offensive line decimated by injuries last season returns four of the five starters from the 2019 season opener. Coached by Roman Sapolu, a graduate assistant last year who was elevated to OL coach this season, the line is spearheaded by senior center Matt Smith, a team captain who was named to the preseason Rimington Award watchlist for best center in the country.

Smith, Woodley and Tuitele all had their seasons ended early due to injury, with Bull missing a few weeks to injury as well. If this unit can stay healthy, the experience of seniors Smith and Tuitele and juniors Woodley and Bull could form a formidable offensive line that will buy time for Haener to throw, and open wide holes for Rivers and Mims to run through.

Defensive Line:
Starters:
DE: Kwami Jones (Next in line: Da’Marcus Johnson or Isaiah Johnson)
DT: Kevin Atkins (Next in line: Level Tatum)
DT: Alex Dumais (Next in line: Kurtis Brown or Matt Lawson)
DE: David Perales (Next in line: Alex Cruz, Nikko Thomas)

The defensive line returns 11.5 sacks from last year, including Fresno State’s 2019 team sacks leader (Kevin Atkins). Atkins is the only returning starter on the Fresno State defensive line from last year’s team, but redshirt senior Kwami Jones is a name Bulldog fans may be familiar with. Jones played in all 14 games and made 10 starts in 2018, recording 26 tackles, two sacks and two tackles for loss. An injury in 2019 sidelined Jones for all but four games, granting him a medical redshirt.

Sophomore Dumais and redshirt junior Perales fill the other two spots on the defensive line, with Perales an intriguing player with a lot of potential in 2020. The Merced native redshirted last season after transferring from Sacramento State, where he made 23 tackles, seven tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks in the 2018 season as a Hornet.

Linebackers:
Starters: Aaron Mosby, Jacob Hollins or Malachi Langley
Next in line: Sherwin King Jr., Deven Jarvis, Tyler Mello
Keep an eye out for: Devo Bridges, Rian Fields, Kyvin Carroll, Richard Cage, Cam Lamanuzzi, Tanner Blount

The obvious missing piece is Justin Rice, who led the team in tackles (112) and forced fumbles (4) in 2019 prior to his transfer to Arkansas State. The departure of Mykal Walker – the team’s second leading tackler – will sting too, but what the Bulldogs do bring back is hard-hitting Sanger native Arron Mosby. The senior set career highs in tackles and tackles for loss last year, and will be relied upon for veteran leadership in a young linebacker corps.

Redshirt sophomore Hollins (a Central High product) and redshirt freshman Langley are both competing for the second linebacker spot in Fresno State’s new 4-2-5 defensive scheme. A cool inclusion on the Fresno State depth chart for south Central Valley Bulldog fans is true freshman and former Hanford Bullpup Tyler Mello, who is listed as a backup for Hollins and Langley for the second linebacker position.

Husky:
Starter: Levelle Bailey
Next in line: Justin Houston

First-year defensive coordinator William Inge introduces a hybrid “Husky” position that is a mix of linebacker and safety. Levelle Bailey will be the first Bulldog to get a crack at the new position. The sophomore was an active part of Fresno State’s defense last year, appearing in all 12 games and recording six tackles for loss – the most by any Fresno State freshman since 2008.

Secondary:
CB: Wylan Free (Next in line: Randy Jordan)
CB: Bralyn Lux (Next in line: Chris Gaston or Myles Martin)
FS: Evan Williams (Next in line: Reggie Strong)
SS: Deonte Perry (Next in line: Kosi Agina)

The secondary returns only one starter from last year’s unit that allowed the second-most passing yards in the Mountain West. The lone returning starter – Wylan Free – had two interceptions (tied for team-high) and had one of two defensive touchdowns scored by Fresno State in 2019. With two years of playing experience and 10 starts under his belt, Free is expected to be the team’s top cornerback headed into 2020.

On the opposite side of the field, Bralyn Lux picks up the start at cornerback as a redshirt freshman, a surprise to many considering Lux walked onto the program only a year ago. Lux played on both sides of the ball in high school, rushing for 1,811 yards as a running back and getting two interceptions as a cornerback at The King’s Academy in San Jose, CA. Now, he’ll make his first collegiate start after beating out Chris Gaston and Myles Martin in fall camp.

The safety position also sees a mix of experience and inexperience. Sophomore team captain Williams gets the nod at free safety after playing in all 12 games (five starts) in 2019 while leading all freshmen in tackles. Redshirt senior Deonte Perry will start at strong safety over true freshman and Sanger product Kosi Agina. It will be Perry’s first year playing at safety; he played primarily on special teams during the last two seasons, and was recruited originally at running back.

Special Teams:
K: Cesar Silva
P: Cade Fuller
KR: Patrick Elima-Jeune, Josh Kelly
PR: Ronnie Rivers

Senior Cesar Silva returns for his second year as the primary placekicker for the Bulldogs, after an up and down 2019 season where he went 12-for-21 on field goals. Cade Fuller takes over for outgoing punter Blake Cusick, and redshirt freshman Josh Kelly earns a kick returning role.

Up next for the Bulldogs:
After so much uncertainty, the 2020 Fresno State football season will finally kick off on Saturday, October 24th as the Bulldogs face the visiting Hawaii Rainbow Warriors. Fresno State leads the series 29-22-1 all-time, having won the last three games against their West Division rival. In their last meeting, Fresno State traveled to Honolulu on November 2nd, 2019 and held off a furious Hawaii comeback to win 41-38 on Cesar Silva’s game-winning field goal.

Hawaii went on to win the West division and lose to Boise State in the 2019 Mountain West championship game. Head coach Nick Rolovich and Mountain West passing leader Cole McDonald are gone, replaced by a new head coach (former Arizona State head coach Todd Graham) and new quarterback (redshirt sophomore Chevan Cordeiro, who led the near-comeback against Fresno State on November 2nd).

The Bulldogs’ season opener kicks off at 4:30 p.m., with the game being shown in the Fresno area on KSEE 24.

2020 Fresno State Bulldogs football schedule

10/24 – vs Hawaii – 4:30 p.m. (KSEE 24)
10/29 – vs. Colorado State – 7:00 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
11/7 – at UNLV – 12:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
11/14 – at Utah State – Time TBA (FS1/FS2)
11/21 – vs San Jose State – 4:00 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
11/27 – vs San Diego State – Time TBA (FS1)
12/5 – at Nevada – Time TBA (FS1/FS2)
12/12 – at New Mexico – Time TBA (FS1/FS2)

Gabriel Camarillo
Gabe Camarillo is in his second year writing for the Clovis Roundup, covering Fresno State football and high school sports. In addition, Gabe works as a sports broadcaster for Fresno State Athletics on the Mountain West Network. Gabe is currently pursuing a major in broadcast and print journalism at Fresno State.