It may be the middle of March, but try telling that to the athletes and coaching staff at Fresno State: The time for resting on championship laurels is over. The arrival of spring practices means that the 2014 season has already begun.
For fans in the Central Valley, the offseason arrived with more uncertainty than any in recent memory. The quarterback, the top two receivers, the tight end and the left tackle must all be replaced from a record-setting offense, while the defense must establish depth in order to avoid a repeat of last year's misadventures. The spring game looms in the first week of April, but here are some of the biggest concerns that the Bulldogs will attempt to resolve in the meantime.
Who will replace Derek Carr?
There's no sense in burying the lede. The individual who replaces the school's all-time leader in passing yards, touchdowns and quarterback rating will have high expectations thrust upon them.
Last year's backup, Brian Burrell, saw limited action in five games. His small sample of playing time can be interpreted two ways: Either the team wasn't all that concerned with keeping its pedal to the floor on offense when the backups took the field, or his ineffectiveness brought the attack to a grinding halt. The playcalling in the Cal Poly game, for example, was alarmingly conservative once Fresno built a 38-point lead, so much so that Carr had to re-enter the game late in the fourth quarter. Burrell did not receive any opportunity to really make play, though he did engineer short touchdown drives in mop-up duty against Idaho and Wyoming. Our perception of his grasp of the playbook is muddled by the circumstances in which he performed.
Myles Carr may share a surname with the departed Derek, but his skill set is much different. Marek Warszawski of the Fresno Bee noted in December that the sophomore possesses mobility his competitors do not so, if you want to dream on him, it is possible that the offense could develop into a spread option system that leans on its stable of running backs if he seizes the job. His game action in 2013 was more limited than Burrell's, so it is hard to glean much from the interception on his lone pass attempt and the 6.5 yards he averaged on four carries. I believe he has the most to gain if he can demonstrate greater command of the offense in the coming weeks.
The other contender is Zack Greenlee, who redshirted last year but arrived on campus with greater prestige than his competitors. It could be that the staff is eager to give "their" guy, a 3-star recruit in 2013, every opportunity to win the job. Until the snaps are distributed, though, we can only speculate.
What will the wide receiver depth chart look like?
It isn't often that a team must replace two 1,000 yard receivers, but at least the Bulldogs don't lack for options. Josh Harper, for one, will be back and is the obvious number one wideout. Greg Watson flashed potential in spots, and figures to be in the mix as a starter from the slot. The questions creep up when one examines the next one or two spots in the rotation.
Aaron Peck will have a lot to prove to fans during spring practice but is likely get a long look with the first team. At 6'3" and 211 pounds, he is the biggest target listed on the roster. However, the lingering images from his sophomore campaign are the two big drops of would-be touchdowns in the Las Vegas Bowl. He beat press coverage on one play and soft coverage on the other, but the pass slipped through his fingertips in the former while the latter was flat-out dropped. A strong spring could convince the decision makers to put him at Davante Adams' old spot outside when fall camp opens.
Two others guys to watch are Da'Mari Scott and Delvon Hardaway. Like Greenlee, the two were 3-star recruits in Fresno State's 2013 class. Scott took over as Fresno's primary kick returner by season's end, with average results, while Hardaway redshirted his freshman year. However, both have the requisite quickness to get work as slot receivers.
How will the secondary shape up?
The good news is that free safety Derron Smith decided against entering the NFL draft and will once again be counted upon to anchor an aggressive defense. The bad news is that there are no definitive answers for how the rest of the defensive backfield will round out.
L.J. Jones, Fresno's top corner, has moved on. There will be a lot of attention paid to Sean Alston, who has the talent to be an all-conference caliber cornerback but missed 2013 because of injury. There hasn't been any news recently about his rehabilitation, which is a good sign, so he should at 100% when the 'Dogs get back to work.
The battle to watch will revolve around who earns the inside track for the cornerback spot opposite Alston. Curtis Riley is the presumptive number two for now, despite his struggles throughout the year. Jamal Ellis saw significant action when the secondary thinned, though both he and Riley took their lumps. Shannon Edwards was the team's nickel corner, so he'll get a chance at a promotion, too.
Charles Washington is another option, as he was pressed into the job for the conference championship and bowl game, but it's more likely he returns to strong safety. However, if the coaches believe enough in Dalen Jones to let him try and build on his intriguing freshman effort, Washington represents a safe bet at corner. At the least, he may see time there so that the coaches can measure the unit's flexibility.
Who will step in on the offensive line?
The race to replace Derek Carr will be the story that receives the most attention but, just as importantly, the Bulldogs must find replacements for all-conference tackle Austin Wentworth and center Lars Bramer. Josh Tremblay was listed as the backup left tackle in 2013, though his play in the preseason was not particularly inspiring. The team could try Alex Fifita again, but he was replaced by Bo Bonnheim at left guard after six games.
Oh, and as if stabilizing the left side weren't enough, the 'Dogs will need find backups for Cody Wichmann and Justin Northern on the right. The team has invested heavily in offensive linemen through the last two years, including Sean Rubalcava and David Patterson, but there are a number of big boys that should have every chance to work their way into the two-deep.