Fresno State trying to bring back the bite: Your 2016 Bulldog football season preview

Photo by Nick Baker – Junior wide receiver Delvon Hardaway is part of a very good receiving corps this season. The offense is looking to improve from their offensive woes last season when they averaged 22.1 points per game.

Freshman Fresno State quarterback No. 5 Chason Virgil is the heir apparent to start the season. But, Virgil is being pushed by No. 10. Zach Kline a fifth year player and Cal transfer.
Freshman Fresno State quarterback No. 5 Chason Virgil is the heir apparent to start the season. But, Virgil is being pushed by No. 10. Zach Kline a fifth year player and Cal transfer. [Photo by Nick Baker]
By Paul Meadors | Sports Editor

OK Bulldog fans, let’s try this one more time – this time with feeeeeeeeeling. At this point last year The Red Wave was cautiously optimistic coming off a 6-8 record, crossing their collective fingers and hoping that season was more an aberration than the new normal. But here we sit again, the year of our lord 2016, and the Fresno State Bulldog football program is coming off its worst season in recent memory; a 3-9 semi-debacle where the notoriously high-scoring ‘Dogs averaged only 22.1 points per game and allowed 38.1 in return. Now, I’m no math guru but those numbers ain’t too good.

In short, this 2016 team needs to improve in all facets of the game to be competitive in the Mountain West Conference, a year that opens with a whopper of a non-league game at Nebraska on September 3. The esteemed members of the media picked the Bulldogs to finish fourth out of six teams in the West Division.

But, let’s focus on some promising aspects heading towards the opening game, and there’s a few to highlight. The positive energy surrounding the program is refreshing largely due to DeRuyter’s hiring of two big-time assistant coaches with Eric Kiesau as offensive coordinator and Lorenzo Ward as defensive coordinator. 

Ward spent the last seven season as a defensive coordinator at South Carolina and has had 16 of his defensive backs drafted in the NFL. Kiesau is coming from defending national champion Alabama where he helped install their up-tempo offense where they averaged 35.1 points per game.

DeRuyter thinks so highly of Ward he’s also named him Associate Head Coach and the early results have been visibly evident – the defense is back to its high-flying, aggressive style of play mixed with fundamentals. Add in a massive missing ingredient from the past couple of years – trust – and there’s a solid recipe for improvement.

The offense, while a step behind the defense during at least during the team’s first scrimmage of the year, will have a slightly different look this season under Kiesau relying on the passing game as the running backs are an unproven bunch. The wide receivers are a plus heading into the year. Consistency within the offense will be a key.

While we await how these changes will affect the play on the field, this much is certain – Coach DeRuyter is as much concerned with the X’s and O’s his new coaches bring to the table as the relationships they build with players.   

“Immediately when the players got here they sensed that this group has it together,” said DeRuyter as the opening press conference. “These guys (the coaches) care about each other and the players. When you start from that sense it’s easy for the players to go all in.”

A breath of fresh air indeed, and one that could very well revive the Fresno State football program as a whole.

“Our message to our guys this year is about fighting back. We got knocked down with our group last year. It’s time to fight back. When you’re young and and inexperienced and you have the adversity we had last year sometimes you don’t handle it well. And as a head coach I didn’t do a particularly good job of handling it. We’re changing that.” – Fresno State head football coach, Tim DeRuyter

Five burning questions:

1. Can the Bulldogs find consistent quarterback play?

2. Will a number one running back emerge from a inexperienced cast?

3. Will the defensive intensity step it up a notch under new defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward?

4. Will head coach Tim DeRuyter’s more hands-on approach translate to success on the field?

5. Coming off an extremely sub-par season can this team bring back that old Bulldog spirit and drive up the once-thriving attendance?

Freshman Fresno State quarterback No. 5 Chason Virgil is the heir apparent to start the season. But, Virgil is being pushed by No. 10. Zach Kline a fifth year player and Cal transfer.
Freshman Fresno State quarterback No. 5 Chason Virgil is the heir apparent to start the season. But, Virgil is being pushed by No. 10. Zach Kline a fifth year player and Cal transfer. [Photo by Nick Baker]

Coaching: DeRuyter is entering his fifth year as head coach and if we broke his career into fractions, well, it’s been a tale of two halves. The first half, as in his first two seasons, he won back-to-back Mountain West championships with a combined 20-6 record. But the euphoria has since turned to apprehension as the Bulldogs have gone 9-17 total including last year’s poor 3-9 record. So, what’s a coach to do when the Red Wave is squirming and the ‘Dogs bite has become a whimper?

Well, you get some new blood after firing offensive coordinator Dave Schramm and re-assigning defensive coordinator Nick Tooth to coach linebackers and hire Kiesau and Ward (see above).  DeRuyter stated he will be involved in more of the day-to-day activities, noting that there was some dysfunction within the staff last season.

DeRuyter also has the mighty task of blending together a team that welcomes 68 freshman and sophomores to a team of 105 total – with only 15 seniors.

Quarterback: Look, there’s no skirting last year’s quarterback issues but if there was a silver lining that emerged it was the fact that Chason Virgil showed he has a lot of talent. After taking over the position from now-departed Zack Greenlee, the true freshman showed flashes to be the next great Bulldog signal-caller. Unfortunately in the third game of the year against Utah at home he broke his collarbone, and earned a medical hardship, therefore keeping his freshman status in tacked.

The talented Virgil is the frontrunner for the starting gig but is being pushed by fifth year senior transfer Zach Kline who possesses a strong arm and more experience than Virgil.

Freshman Quentin Davis and Fresno City College and former Clovis North High School star Christian Rossi round out the group of four.

Fun fact I: Current Oakland Raiders starting quarterback Derek Carr threw five or more touchdowns in a game eight times in his Bulldog career, including a record eight against New Mexico in 2013. Second most on the list? Brother David with three total and six against Utah State in 2001.

Running back: The position that is a concern this season will be the backfield, and it didn’t start off well when frontrunner  junior Dontel James had minor knee surgery two weeks ago. They hope he returns by the fourth game against Tulsa at home. Waiting in the wings, though, is sophomore Dejonte O’Neal from Bullard who could be in line for a bundle of carries.

Banged up are Bryson Oglesby, Deonte Perry, Justin Rice, and Wesley Hill, further complicating the matter.

Under Kiesau’s offense pass protection is extremely important so this group of running backs must learn the nuances in order to help give whoever is the quarterback the needed protection. 

“This season feels a lot like four years ago when we were coming off disappointing nine loss season when nobody gave us much of a chance and we had a young team, new coaches, new schemes, but our guys believed. I think we’re talented enough to do that again.”  – Fresno State head football coach, Tim DeRuyter

Receivers: The receiving corps should be strength this season with three returning starters – sophomores Jamire Jordan and KeeSean Johnson and senior Da’Mari Scott. Add in the return of senior Aaron Peck, who missed the entire 2015 season due to a foot injury, and there’s reason for optimism. Delvon Hardaway, a junior, could be a factor as well and tight end Chad Olsen (6’4” 233) is extremely talented and could see plenty of targets this year.

The ‘Dogs need a big year from Jordan, who led the team with 46 catches for 540 yards and five scores in his first year. He’s not very big at 5’10” 170 pounds but he’s quick and runs excellent routes.

Add up all the returners’ totals and there’s 15 touchdowns and 1,716 yards coming back. In fact, Fresno State had the fourth-highest total number of receptions by freshmen last season.

Defense: The defense absolutely has to be better this season and there are signs that this will be the case after placing 118th in points allowed and 102nd in total defense last season. New defensive coordinator Ward brings with him a 3-4 defense (same defensive scheme as last season), which allows the luxury to disguise who a fourth rusher could be and allows linebackers to make plays, especially on the outside. Add the increased intensity seen so far this fall and the overall defense, and effort, should improve.

Sophomore James Bailey played in all 12 games last year as a freshman outside linebacker and senior Jeff Camilli is a bruising inside linebacker who was named to the Butkus Award watch list. And a nice surprise has been freshman walk-on Josh Hokit from Clovis High, who has impressed coaches with his no-holds-barred style of play. In fact, coaches have had to tone down Hokit in practice and tell him to save it for the scrimmages.

The two returning defensive backs, Jamal Ellis and Tyquwan Glass, are exceptional. Ellis had eight pass breakups last year and Glass picked off four passes which led the team. Nathan Madsen will anchor the defensive line.

Fun fact II: Former Clovis High quarterback Tyler Clutts recorded 23.5 sacks in his Bulldog career from 2004-07 from the defensive end position. Clutts played fullback in the NFL for five teams from 2011-13, the latest being the Dallas Cowboys.

Clovis Kids: Clovis area players are well represented this season with four true freshman in TE Johnny Rojas III (Clovis West), K Mitchell Souza (Buchanan), ILB Tanner Rice (Clovis), ILB Josh Hokit (Clovis), redshirt freshman DL Jasad Haynes (Clovis North), sophomore Kyle Riddering (Clovis North), sophomore ILB George Helmuth (Clovis North), junior QB Christian Rossi (Clovis North).

Season outlook: This is an important year for the Fresno State football program to right the ship and restore confidence in the Central Valley. With the promise of stadium renovations and upgrades in the near future they need to put butts in the seats and win some football games. Coach DeRuyter took the initiative and hired new offensive and defensive coordinators who are already making a difference, with just as much people skills as Xs and Os smarts. A mediocre .500 record would be a step in the right direction and putting together competitive games in the Mountain West Conference will be a sight for sore eyes.