The Fresno State football team experienced a monumental turnaround in 2017, a turnaround so dramatic it will forever be known as the second time in Football Bowl Subdivision history that a team won double-digit games just one season removed from a double-digit loss season. Furthermore, the Bulldogs’ 10-4 season will stand for the time being in the FBS record books tied for the second-best win improvement in FBS history, having improved by nine games – just a half game back from the all-time best turnaround.
The renaissance was led by Fresno State alumnus Jeff Tedford in his first year as the Bulldogs’ head coach. Tedford, a quarterback for the Bulldogs from 1981-82 and assistant coach from 1992-97, restored the pride and tradition of Bulldog football. As a result, attendance spiked as Fresno State ranked No. 7 in the FBS for the greatest jump in attendance from the previous year, increasing by an average of 5,139 fans per game in 2017. Bulldog Stadium saw its best average attendance in the last three years.
There are seven former Clovis Unified players on the 2018 roster: George Helmuth (Sr., Clovis North), Kyle Riddering (Sr., Clovis North), Josh Hokit (Jr., Clovis), Ka’Lonn Milton (Jr., Buchanan), Jasad Haynes (Jr., Clovis North), Ricardo Arias (Fr., Clovis West), Trevor Hartman (Fr., Clovis).
The season included an appearance in the nation’s Top 25 poll, clinching the Mountain West’s West Division crown and the Bulldogs’ first trip to the MW Championship Game since 2014. Fresno State capped its season with its first bowl victory since 2007, a 33-27 victory over Houston from the American Athletic Conference, at the Hawai’i Bowl.
Tedford was honored as the Mountain West Coach of the Year, and the team had 16 student-athletes recognized with MW postseason honors – the most for the Bulldogs in a single-season since joining the conference in 2012.
All this in only one season, which sits as the foundation for the Tedford era to build on in 2018. Fresno State returns 17 starters and 43 lettermen from last season’s team while Tedford kept his staff intact outside of one departure. There are just 13 teams that return more starters than Fresno State in 2018.
With eight starters returning to the offensive side of the ball, Fresno State ties for 14th in the FBS in that category. Of those eight, five are two-year returning starters and two are three-year returning starters (KeeSean Johnson and Jamire Jordan). In total, the eight starters own a combined 175 career Fresno State starts between them.
Tedford, known as a quarterback guru having a history of first round NFL Draft picks under his mentorship in Kyle Boller (Cal), David Carr (Fresno State), Trent Dilfer (Fresno State), Joey Harrington (Oregon), Aaron Rodgers (Cal) and Akili Smith (Oregon), turned over the keys to Valley native and Oregon State transfer Marcus McMaryion after the third game of the 2017 season and never looked back.
McMaryion stepped foot on a Fresno State practice field for the first time on Aug. 13 during the Bulldogs’ 2017 fall camp and learned the team and system at a rapid pace. Despite that, he was 9-2 as a starter and was the first Bulldog to complete better than 60 percent of his passes since Derek Carr did so in 2013. The 2018 season is looking even brighter now that the Dinuba native will have had a spring and full fall camp to prepare for his senior campaign.
And with that, McMaryion will have all the tools necessary to succeed as it could be argued the Bulldogs have the top receiving corps in the Mountain West.
Johnson, the Bulldogs’ active leader in career starts (35), enters 2018 as the nation’s leader in consecutive games with a reception at 36. He needs just 54 receptions and 1,222 receiving yards to become the program’s all-time leader in each of those categories, entering his senior campaign with 180 career catches and 2,123 career receiving yards. Pair that with Jordan, a 33-game career starter with 188 career catches and 1,815 career receiving yards alongside senior-transfer Michiah Quick, from Oklahoma, and McMaryion should have all the firepower needed for a deadly aerial attack.
A very deep receiving corps also includes junior Derrion Grim, senior Justin Allen, senior Brian Burt, redshirt freshman Chris Coleman, and potential true freshmen playmakers in Arias (Clovis West) and Emoryie Edwards, who should all compete for playing time.
The Bulldogs’ return their starter at tight end, Riddering (Clovis North), who will play alongside heavily relied upon junior Jared Rice. Riddering made nine starts in 2017 while Rice earned six, with four of those six starts coming in two tight end sets. Riddering, who is utilized more so on the line of scrimmage, caught eight passes for 54 yards and a touchdown last season.
The ground game was a four-man attack a year ago, three of which were underclassmen in then-true freshmen Jordan Mims and Ronnie Rivers and then-true sophomore Hokit (Clovis High). Joined by Dejonte O’Neal, who was a junior, all four are back to do it again in 2018. In fact, Fresno State returns 95 percent of its rushing yards from a year ago. Only 99 yards were lost from last year’s ground game from departed wide receiver Da’Mari Scott (93) and quarterback Chason Virgil (6).
The freshmen duo of Mims and Rivers, who combined for 11 starts, accounted for 1,107 rushing yards while Hokit logged 583 yards, amounting to 1,690 yards of the team’s 2,170 rushing yards. With Rivers anticipated to miss the start of the season due to a foot injury suffered in the spring, the door is open for Mims, Hokit or O’Neal to secure more of the workload, while now-eligible Romello Harris, a transfer from Washington State that sat out in 2017, could see some additional carries as well.
It will be hard to replicate what the Bulldogs’ defense produced last year, having one of their most dominant seasons over the past 30 years, ranking No. 10 in the FBS in scoring defense (17.9), No. 11 in rushing defense (113.4), No. 15 in total defense (320.6) and No. 13 in fumbles recovered (12). That squad will return seven starters in 2018.
Of all the Bulldogs’ position groups, the defensive line saw the most rotation throughout 2017 so it will not be a complete rebuild. Sophomore Kevin Atkins (DL), sophomore Damien DeGruy (DE), Haynes (Clovis North, DL), junior Keiti Iakopo (DL), junior Kwami Jones (DE) and senior Emeka Ndoh (DE) all saw significant reps during the 2017 season. Atkins gained the most experience of that group seeing five starts, one in the middle of the season and the final four games of the year.
If the Bulldog wide receivers don’t get honors for top position group in the league, the linebacking trio of junior middle linebacker Jeffrey Allison, and senior outside backers James Bailey and Helmuth (Clovis North) are next up to vie for that honor. Despite 16 Bulldogs picking up all-league honors in 2017, Allison was the sole player to earn first-team distinction last year. With a team leading 126 tackles, Allison was one of 15 FBS players to record 126 or more, and was one of two underclassmen with 126 or more. His tackle total was the most posted by a Bulldog since 2007.
Bailey, who has been making starts for the Bulldogs since his freshman year, enters 2018 as the team’s active leader in career tackles with 177. Meanwhile, Helmuth, once a walk-on that was used sparingly, started the first game of his career in the fourth game of the season in 2017 and did not miss a start from that point on. He entered his junior season last year with 24 career tackles and broke out in 2017 with 89 tackles, including 8.0 TFLs and 4.0 sacks.
Junior strong safety Milton (Buchanan) and sophomore free safety Arron Mosby will provide stability to the safety positions while Kesomi Mafi, coming off an ACL injury in 2017, could see some time in the secondary after playing linebacker last year.