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Fresno State spring football preview: Offense

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The bottom fell out as hard as it could in 2016 on offense, so Jeff Tedford’s “QB guru” bonafides will be put to the test.

NCAA Football: Fresno State at Colorado State Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

By metrics both new and old, Fresno State’s offensive production in 2016 was, by the program’s standards, historically bad:

103rd in yards per pass attempt. 116th in pass completion percentage. 120th in team quarterback rating. 125th in yards per play, rushing yards per attempt, and points per trip inside the 40-yard line. 126th in Success Rate.

The Bulldogs lost ground, compared to 2015, in each of Bill Connelly’s Five Factors, and while they are one of just four FBS teams to return ten starters on offense (per Phil Steele), is that necessarily a good thing? The pessimist would argue that cleaning house, as Jeff Tedford was enabled to do in the offseason, should extend to the playing field itself, while the optimist might contend that certain components of the offense were so broken as to give many starters a pass.

The truth, as usual, is probably somewhere between the two, but Tedford isn’t beholden to anyone coming back. This will make the competitions later this month especially intriguing. Here’s the breakdown.

Quarterback

Best-guess depth chart: Chason Virgil, Jorge Reyna, James Quentin Davis, Christian Rossi

Coming into 2017, Virgil might be one of the most divisive players in the Mountain West. I argued last year, when many were howling for him to be benched, that his production was pretty much in line with what other freshman quarterbacks in unenviable (read: Year Zero) situations had done in the past few years. Not much has happened that has shaken my belief that Virgil, now a sophomore, if given adequate talent around and in front of him, is good enough to grow over the next year or two, but the injuries that (kind of, sort of, not really) justified his benching at the end of the season are something to mind going forward.

The other significant development is Reyna’s arrival, since teams don’t usually sign three-star JuCo transfers and expect them to sit. With apologies to Davis and Rossi, who had flashes in the practices I saw last fall, the West Los Angeles College product is likely to get a lot of run with the first team. Reyna put up impressive numbers — 70.5% completion rate and 39 touchdowns against just eight interceptions — and he has about twenty pounds of Virgil if the official roster descriptors are to be believed.

In other words, the depth chart might suggest the same logjam we saw in both 2015 and 2016, but the reality is probably a two-man race that lasts well into the fall.

Offensive line

Best-guess starting five: Christian Cronk, David Patterson, Micah St. Andrew, Aaron Mitchell, Zack Kinninger

Let’s not beat around the bush, this line was bad at everything. Zach Kline was sacked on 11.2% of dropbacks, and I suspect the only reason Chason Virgil’s own rate (6.1%) is so low is because he was elusive enough to escape a broken pocket and throw the ball away every once in a while.

If there’s an area of the offense that begging for open competition, this is it. Offensive line continuity, after all, may not matter as much as other things on the offensive side of the ball. This might not get sorted out until the new recruits get to town next fall — Zelan Tupaola and Syrus Tuitele were three-star linemen — but someone like Shane Gama, who fell victim to heatstroke last July and missed the season, could restate his case for a role in the rotation in the meantime.

Running back

Best-guess depth chart: Dontel James, Josh Hokit, Bryson Oglesby, Deonte O’Neal, Saevion Johnson

It’s tempting to throw out all of the rushing numbers because the line ahead of all of these guys was so abysmal last year, but I’ll acknowledge the pattern of inconsistency that pervaded the entire season: James had a couple of good weeks, after all, and Josh Hokit had one, too. O’Neal looked like he might be a Sproles-type contributor before getting hurt, and Oglesby flashed power and speed late in the year. All of these guys are back, and good luck figuring out who will do what.

I call this a depth chart, but the reality is that these are probably the handful of backs (Fresno State’s site lists ten in all) who will get the most time with the ones and twos in the spring. That might not mean much when, say, Ronnie Rivers arrives in the fall, but I’m interested in seeing what Tedford and new offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer value in their backs.

As just one example, Shaq Vann and Darius Jackson had a combined 78 targets in 2015, but that number dropped to 42 targets between last year’s two top backs, Ian Eriksen and Breck Turner. O’Neal and Oglesby strike me as guys who could fit that 2015 mold, whereas James and Hokit probably profile more as power backs. We’ll see what kind of mix the coaches strive for soon.

Wide receiver

Best-guess depth chart: Keesean Johnson, Jamire Jordan, Derrion Grim, Da’Mari Scott, Delvon Hardaway

Don’t let the naysayers fool you: This unit did about as well as it could in 2016, given the hand they were dealt. All three of last year’s target leaders improved their catch rate incrementally and two of those three, Johnson and Jordan, also saw increases to their yards per target (shocking, I know) and yards per reception. They both return to lead what is suddenly a very deep crew of potential playmakers.

The veterans behind Johnson and Jordan are probably most at risk of getting replaced in the rotation (which could depend largely on how many receivers see the field on an average play), since Scott and Hardaway have been disappointments in their time as Bulldogs. That makes a newcomer like Grim, who practiced with Nebraska this time last year before transferring to a California JC, one of the most interesting new ‘Dogs to follow in the spring.

Keep an eye, too, on Justin Allen, who began to see more playing time late in 2016 and could earn a longer look with a good spring of his own.

Tight end

Best-guess depth chart: Kyle Riddering, Jared Rice, Donte Coleman, Kyle Hendrickson

The Chad Olsen hype train never left the station in 2016, and while he won’t be back it’s not as big a loss as one might have expected a year ago. The production from this group essentially zero, which is not to say it’s totally devoid of talent. DeBoer’s offenses in Ypsilanti showed a willingness to feature the tight end, too, which is more than can be said of departed OCs Eric Kiesau and Dave Schramm.

Riddering, the de facto incumbent, shouldn’t be too comfortable. Rice showed nice hands in limited playing time, while Coleman, who’d previously announced an imminent transfer but is still listed on the roster, and Gunner Javernick, another JuCo pickup, have the size to figure in the conversation, as well.

Kicker

Sadly, the Kody Kroening 4 Heisman campaign never got the respect it deserved, but despite missing what were, in retrospect, two significant field goals in 2016, it’s hard to see anyone seriously challenging the senior for the starting role at this point. He ceded kickoff responsibilities to Jimmy Camacho and Nick Van Valkenburg, but he was also the steadiest part of the entire offense all year long.