Since the start of the summer, a lot seems to have happened at Fresno State - even though they haven't played a game. Last week, Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter named redshirt freshman Chason Virgil the starting quarterback as expected. But the cast of characters changed quite a bit over the last three months. Sophomore Kilton Anderson had shoulder surgery while Ford Childress left the program. Cal's Zach Kline pursued a graduate transfer in July, while Christian Rossi moved across town from Fresno City College, creating a new competition at quarterback that Virgil won. Not only is he the starting quarterback, but he also was elected team captain, despite only playing in parts of three games in college.
Fresno's running back situation might best be described as AFSRBHG (Angry Fresno State Running Back Hating God), as the Bulldogs M*A*S*H unit tries to recover from a rash of injuries. Redshirt freshman Bryson Oglesby is still working to get back on the field after missing most of the spring. Incoming freshmen Justin Rice broke a bone in his foot and Deonte Perry suffered a knee injury. Junior college transfer Dontel James missed a couple of weeks of practice after minor knee surgery, but is back practicing. Sophomore Dejonte O'Neal moved back to running back from receiver to try and salvage some depth. All told, five of Fresno State's top six running backs have missed significant time getting ready for this season. For this week, it looks like James and O'Neal will be the main running backs, with freshman walk-on Treyvon Green waiting in the wings.
All told, it sounds like Fresno's defense is ahead of their offense...which might send shudders up the spine of Bulldog fans, who note how awful the Fresno defense was last season. But considering the injuries on the Fresno offense, that might not be quite as bad as it seems. In any event, this Fresno team hardly looks like one of the classic Pat Hill teams that would challenge "anybody, anytime, anywhere" a decade ago.
Each week, I'll refresh the summer preview of Husker opponents; below, you'll find the entire preseason preview of the Fresno State Bulldogs.
After starting strong in his first two seasons at Fresno State, head coach Tim DeRuyter has gone 9-17 the last two seasons. His initial success earned him a chance to reset his staff after going 3-9 in 2015 (instead of earning the ziggy), starting with replacing both coordinators. Defensive coordinator Nick Toth was demoted to inside linebackers coach, with former South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward taking over as coordinator. Offensive coordinator Dave Schramm (a graduate assistant under Tom Osborne in 1989) has been replaced by former Cal and Kansas assistant Eric Kiesau.
Kiesau. That name rung a bell...and a dig into the archives confirmed where I had heard THAT name before. Kiesau was promoted to offensive coordinator at Colorado in 2009, turning Cody Hawkins into a drop-back pocket passer. I took a lot of flak fromColorado Buffaloes fans that year when I suggested that was a "square peg for a round hole" solution. Buff fans were so sure that Kiesau was an upgrade over their previous offensive coordinator that they got really upset at me. Until it all crashed and burned in a blowout loss to Toledo in week two, spawning the infamous RalphieReport Suicide Hotline Second Half Thread.
Who was that awful offensive coordinator that Kiesau replaced? None other than Mark Helfrich. Isn't he now the head coach of the Oregon Ducks? Yeah, that turned out well for Colorado.
We know things didn't go so well for Kiesau against Nebraska in his Big XII days...how will it go in 2016? First, Kiesau has to figure out what he has to work with, which isn't much. Last season's top three running backs are gone as are three starters on the offensive line. And to lead it all, four different quarterbacks got a chance - and mostly failed. Chason Virgil (6'1" 184 lbs.) looks to be the most likely starter at quarterback. Last year, he got a chance early in the season as a true freshman, completing 12 of 18 passes for 140 yards (but with two interceptions) against Ole' Miss, but then suffered a season-ending broken clavicle the next week against Utah. A three-star pro-style prospect from Mesquite, Texas, Virgil originally committed to Mississippi State in the spring of 2014. He rushed eight times for 56 yards last season, so he should be considered a threat to run the ball a little. Virgil will be backed up by sophomore Kilton Anderson (6'2" 217 lbs.) and senior Ford Childress (6'5" 230 lbs.).
The receiver corps should be better, with five of last season's top six returning. And with senior Aaron Peck returning from a foot injury that kept him out all of last season, the Bulldogs will certainly be stronger. Sophomores Jamire Jordan (5'10" 168 lbs.) and KeeShan Johnson (6'1" 190 lbs - not the kid from Calabasas) caught 46 and 37 passes respectively last season, combining for seven touchdowns. Peck (6'3" 213 lbs.) caught 32 passes for 419 yards in 2014, which should more than make up for the loss of Josiah Blandin, who chose to pursue a graduate transfer elsewhere. Fresno's leading returning rusher from last season, sophomore Dejonte O'Neal (5'7" 166 lbs.) moved into the slot at receiver this spring.
That leaves running back with a serious lack of depth. Redshirt freshman Bryson Oglesby (6'0" 190 lbs.) and junior college transfer Dontel James (5'11" 217 lbs.), back in Fresno after a year's detour to Riverside (CA) College, look to be the favorites to start. Oglesby missed most of spring practice after undergoing knee surgery, which could limit him at the start of fall practice. Two incoming freshmen, Justin Rice (6'2" 201 lbs.) and Deonte Perry (5'11" 169 lbs.) will almost surely get a chance to play this season. Needless to say, I suspect Kiesau will once again lean more towards the passing game at the start of the season.
For that to be successful, the offensive line has to improve significantly despite losing three starters. It'll be incumbent for the most experienced players on the interior line to set the tone, starting with junior left guard Aaron Mitchell (6'2" 300 lbs.) - the only full-time returning starter on the line. Senior Jacob Vazquez (6'3" 287 lbs) is scheduled to slide over to center, with sophomore Micah St. Andrew (6'3" 327 lbs.) at right guard. A lot is expected of junior right tackle David Patterson (6'4" 288 lbs.), who appeared to turn the corner this spring after moving from left tackle. That move was prompted by the emergence of junior college transfer Christian Cronk (6'5" 290 lbs.), who looks like he'll play left tackle.
On defense, it's definitely a rebuilding effort with only five returning starters and a new defensive coordinator in Ward. Not that the Bulldogs were all that successful on defense last season: 101st nationally in total defense, 118th in scoring defense and 116th in rushing defense. About the only thing that Fresno's defense did well last year was rush the quarterback...and the guys who did that now need to be replaced. Junior nose tackleNathan Madsen (6'4" 290 lbs.) could probably play anywhere on the line, and might have to, depending on who else emerges on defense. He tallied 19 tackles last season as a sophomore with 3.5 for a loss.
In Fresno's 3-4 defense, senior inside linebacker Jeff Camilli (6'2" 255 lbs.) will have to be a key part of any success the Bulldogs have on that side of the ball. His 76 tackles last season (two for a loss) leads all of the returning Bulldogs, and he's the best run-stopper Fresno has. Sophomore outside linebacker James Bailey (6'1" 202 lbs.) is really sized more like a nickel back than a linebacker. Racking up 47 tackles shows quite a bit of promise as he matures, especially if they use him on the pass rush.
Senior cornerbacks Tyquwan Glass (5'11" 185 lbs.) and Jamal Ellis (5'10" 179 lbs.) return for a feast-or-famine secondary. They combined for 14 pass breakups and four interceptions last season, but far too often found themselves burned deep. Fresno will need to replace both safeties, with senior Dalen Jones (6'1" 201 lbs.) perhaps the most likely candidate to start. Highly regarded coming into Fresno, his playing time has been sparse up to now.
The 2016 edition of the Fresno State Bulldogs won't be confused with any of Pat Hill's "Anybody, Anytime, Anywhere" squads. The only people who might be afraid of what the Bulldogs do this season probably are the coaches families, who might be moving elsewhere if things don't improve. Tim DeRuyter ranks #14 on the Coaches Hot Seatgoing into this season, and Bill Connelly projects the Bulldogs to finish somewhere around 6-6, give or take a couple of wins. Needless to say, Connelly lists the Nebraska game as the game Fresno is least likely to win this season, which makes this a good opportunity for Mike Riley to start the Huskers 2016 season on the right track.