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Fresno State football: A look back at Tim DeRuyter’s tenure

Peaks and valleys are the nature of college football, and the Bulldogs’ ousted coach experienced both.

NCAA Football: Fresno State at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

I only had limited interactions with Tim DeRuyter, but there’s one that I think illustrates the kind of man he is overall.

I had an opportunity to explain my MFA thesis to DeRuyter, about the ongoing season, in the vein of literature like Friday Night Lights, when he asked me, “Have you ever had to drive through Odessa?” He joked about the obsession as he’d seen it firsthand, and he was amiable, cordial.

So in spite of his removal this afternoon as the head coach of the Fresno State Bulldogs, I feel for DeRuyter. But the game is about wins and losses and, when it came down to it, DeRuyter had to go.

His win-loss record, 30-30, doesn’t do justice to just how wild the last four-plus years have been. You’ll hear the argument that DeRuyter won with the players he inherited from Pat Hill, and it’s a fair one, but then not every head coach can step into a situation and maximize that degree of talent the way he did. It’s one thing to have a highly regarded talent at quarterback, for instance, and another thing to unleash that talent upon the college football landscape.

And make no mistake, DeRuyter’s leadership was integral to Fresno State finally getting over the top, winning a share of the Mountain West title in 2012 before making a run to the last BCS in 2013. Every program wants a winner, and he brough us one. And perhaps there were warning signs — an embarrassing showing in the 2012 Hawaii Bowl and the 62-52 crusher against San Jose State in 2013 — but fans in the Central Valley relished those titles.

They still relish those titles. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Those dizzying heights are most of what made the last three seasons, the precipitous decline of the program, equal parts startling and frustrating.

  • By quarterback rating, Fresno State’s passing offense went from 17th to 16th, in 2012 and 2013, to 104th and 116th and 119th.
  • In the last three years, the rushing offense (by yards per carry) fell from 4.51 (52nd) to 3.88 (98th) to 3.43 (117th).
  • Most problematically, the defense — from which DeRuyter had made his bones as a coordinator at Ohio, Air Force, and Texas A&M — went from allowing 3.63 yards per carry on the ground in 2013 to 5.0 in 2015 and 5.2 this year.
  • The pass rush, which led the conference in sacks in 2012, fell from 38 and 40 in DeRuyter’s first seasons to 30, 28 and, through eight games in 2016, just nine.
  • After finishing fifth in the FBS with 35 takeaways in 2012, the defense was never as good at forcing turnovers. The number fell to 23, 20 (in 2014 and 2015) and five.
  • Scoring on offense went from a 2013 high of 43.4 points per game to a low of 20.5 this season, and points allowed on defense rose from 23.8 (2012) to a high of 38.1 (2015).

Suffice it to say, the evidence was damning despite a lot of promise. DeRuyter’s first two recruiting classes, 2013 and 2014, ranked third in the Mountain West (according to 247 Sports), and his hauls never finished below fifth in the conference. The list of touted recruits, however, reads like a future of what could have been: Zack Greenlee. Donnell Vercher and Rodney Matthews. Michael Lazarus and Xavier Ulutu. Keyan Williams and L.J. Reed and Josiah Blandin.

The attrition was one thing, but it wouldn’t have been such an Achilles heel if DeRuyter had not also overlooked promising talent in his own backyard: Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen hails from Firebaugh and played at Reedley Community College. Jordan Love, likely to be Utah State’s future starter under center, played in Bakersfield, a city long rich with talent. Charles Williams, a rising star at UNLV, played at Bullard High in Fresno, some fifteen minutes from Bulldog Stadium.

Those are the glaring examples, but they were emblematic of a Texas strategy that has yet to pay significant dividends. James Bailey has been a revelation as a linebacker with surprising coverage skills, but Randon Knotts left after his redshirt year in 2013, Malcolm Washington now plays at Northern Iowa and Anthoula Kelly has yet to have seen more than limited action.

Chason Virgil is the starting quarterback of the future who’s having a tough 2016. Bryson Oglesby should be in the mix for a share of the running back workload, but he suffered an injury in the spring and hasn’t seen the field. It’s understandable to be where the talent is, and a continued presence in the Lone Star State makes sense to me, but any failure to develop that group will only delay re-opening the competitive window.

It’s already been argued that even if DeRuyter doesn’t land another head coaching job, he’ll be a hot commodity as a defensive coordinator. I admit some skepticism, but then I think Kliff Kingsbury probably could use an experienced hand in Lubbock. Maybe he lands in Houston, if the current staff splits up after Tom Herman’s inevitable departure, or perhaps he takes a chance somewhere like Boston College or spends a year in Alabama. The odds are good that he lands on his feet, and I hope that he does.

He raised the expectations in Fresno, after all, which is better than having no expectations at all, and he’ll be a Bulldog, as we all are in the Valley, until the day he’s dead.