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Fresno State Spring Game Recap

Beast Mode, defense, and nice weather

NCAA Football: Nevada at Fresno State Kiel Maddox-USA TODAY Sports

After 15 practices spread over three weeks, the Bulldogs wrapped up spring practice today with their annual Spring Preview. In front of about 1,500 fans, the Dogs started their title defense season with a 2 hour preview of drills, 7-on-7, and live scrimmage periods. You can see the excitement that Tedford has generated for the program by how full the stands were today. I haven’t seen that many people in the stands for a spring game in close to a decade now, good to see the spark back in Fresno. Also helped that the weather was absolutely perfect, being 70 with a light breeze.

The big news of the offseason was the departure of Orlondo Steinauer back to the CFL, and the promotion of Bert Watts from LB Coach to DC. This left a hole in the coaching staff, and led to the hiring of Kenwick Thompson from East Carolina as new LB coach. After leading probably the biggest single season turnaround in Fresno State history, turning a defense from 84th to 13th, losing Steinauer could have been a big loss for the Dogs. Especially losing 5 contributors along the D-Line. The good thing is that the entire back 7 returns, and the rotation of DL players meant that multiple players got game reps, and Bert Watts has committed to keeping the scheme the same for this upcoming season. Continuity is important going from Year 1 to Year 2 of a new coach, and is the first time the Senior class will have the same coordinators from one year to the next. The other coaching addition was promoting Lucas Gingold from the football office to an assistant RB and Special Teams coach, in accordance with the new NCAA rule for 11th coaches.

Let’s get the big news out of the way first before I really tear into the nitty-gritty of the Spring Preview. The Bulldogs had an unexpected guest today, as Marshawn Lynch of the Oakland Raiders showed up, watched the preview, and talked with the team afterwards. Being a former Tedford player, there’s definitely a relationship there between the two, but he is also friends with WR Kevin Parker’s family up in Oakland. Gotta be a great boost to the players to see someone like Lynch coming out to their practice, and shows Tedford’s credentials for getting guys to the next level

The other big news of the day isn’t exactly new news, but more of a confirmation. Ronnie Rivers is out with a foot injury, and was in a cast and rolling cart today on the sidelines. I was able to grab a quick word with him after the game, and he said it is a Lis-Franc injury. That probably means that the season is over before it even began for Rivers, and will most likely be looking at a medical redshirt for this season. The silver lining here is that RB is one of the areas where Fresno State is completely stocked with players. They retain 3 of their top 4 rushers from last year in Jordan Mims, Josh Hokit(more on him in a minute), and Dejonte O’Neal. They also have redshirt sophomore Seavion Johnson, and Romello Harris, now eligible after transferring from Washington State last year. They also added Jaylen King from local Edison High during the spring, adding another weapon to an absolutely loaded backfield. While losing Rivers for the season will be a tough blow to this team, this is probably the one area where they can afford it, and will give Rivers an extra year on the back end of his eligibility.

Unfortunately, the Spring Game didn’t give us the chance to see some of the other highly touted transfers that are now eligible. Michiah Quick was not in pads today, meaning we’ll have to wait until Fall to see what the former Oklahoma Sooner can do for the WR and KR departments. Also on the no-pads list was Mike Bell, Marcus Boyer, David Tangipa, Namani Parker, and Jeffrey Allison. It’s been well known that Allison was recovering from off-season surgery, and won’t really be available until the Summer. The rest seem to just be minor issues, and nothing to cause concern for the Bulldogs down the line. Washington transfer Ricky McCoy was also there with the team, but will not be available until 2019 because of transfer rules.

On the attendance front, we got a first look at 2 early enrollees, 1 late enrollee from last season, 2 2017 transfers, and 3 new recruits that will be joining the team in the Fall. For most fans, this was the first time we had gotten to see Dontae Bull and Marc-David Bien-Aime, the two Canadian monsters that will be joining the OL and pushing for playing time. Bull joined the team in October of last year after working through the NCAA clearinghouse, but was of course too late to play. Marc-David was supposed to sign last year, but because of an NCAA issue, had to wait for this season. Bien-Aime is looking to be everything that was promised, and even more. It’s rare to see a player that is that large, (6’5”, 350), and be that agile and quick. He was splitting time with both the first and second team O-Line, which is rather amazing for a freshman after only 15 practices with a team. The only challenge is looks like for Bien-Aime will be finding a QB that can see over him to throw, since he towers over pretty much everyone else on the field.

We also got our first look at Isiah Johnson and Mykal Walker, both new faces to the defense. Johnson was the 2nd highest recruit of the 2018 class from Downey High School in Modesto, and is currently being slotted in as a DE. He took reps with the 2nd team D-Line, although that could change as he becomes more ingrained with the team and scheme. Mykal Walker transferred to Fresno State last year from Azusa Pacific, and is already making a huge impact on the LB corps. Watching a player with his size (6’3”,220) and speed against DII players must have just looked unfair, and shows why he was able to jump straight up to the FBS level. He again worked with the 2nd team defense, but will probably find ways into the 1st team through rotations this year, and then probably as a starter next year. Justin Rice was filling in for Jeffrey Allison in the Mike spot, and really did a great job in a very important spot in Bert Watts’ revamped defense. Getting this sort of depth at LB is going to be important for the Bulldogs going forward, since James Bailey is a Senior, and Jeffrey Allison may be off to the NFL after this junior season if he turns in another performance like last year.

On the recruit front, 3 of the Bulldogs’ 2018 recruits were at the game, including one making a big trip for it. James Lawson and Matt Kjeldgaard(pronounced Keel-Guard) made the trip to the game, and we got our first look at Tyrone Sampson, that made the long trip out from Detroit for the Spring Preview. He also brought a few friends with him out from Michigan, but I’ll cover that angle at the end of the report. Great to see all three players getting involved with the program, and we all look forward to seeing what they bring to the table in 2018 and beyond. All 3 will face a stiff climb to playing time right away, but the defense likes to rotate players a lot, which should give Lawson and Kjeldgaard a chance at live reps.

The other brand new player that we got to see today was Romello Harris, and what an impression he made. After transferring back home to the Valley from Washington State last year, he is now eligible for the Dogs, and enters a crowded RB room. That means he’d need to do a lot to stand out, and stand out he did. He ran with the 2nd and 3rd team offenses today, and showed a mix of power and speed that might even make him a feature back in the future. He had 14 rushes on the day for 75yds and 1 TD, which actually made him the leading rusher on the day. Josh Jokit and Saevion Johnson did the majority of the rushes on the day in Ronnie’s absence, with Mims and O’Neal just chipping in when needed. Hokit spent the off-season wrestling for the newly restarted Fresno State wrestling program, and just missed out on competing for the national title. Wrestling also meant that he had to cut about 30 pounds in 4 weeks to get to wrestling weight. That means the staff has been slowly working him back in, and getting him back to his playing weight with Andy Ward. They also said they want him to have a break, since he’s going straight from football to wrestling, then straight back to football. These are young adults again, and they need a break just like the rest of us. I’m sure he’ll be back to full-size and full-power by the time September rolls around, and he could become RB1 for the Bulldogs this Fall.

Fresno State was running with 3QBs, with Brent Bailey absent today. That means Coach Tedford had to step in for a couple of the drills, and shows that he hasn’t lost anything in the 25 years since he was slinging passes in Bulldog Stadium. Marcus McMaryion of course ran the 1st team offense, Jorge Reyna ran the 2nd team, and Kyle Lindquist ran the 3rd team offense. All three QBs bring something different to the table, and their own skill set. Lindquist is the most prototypical QB of the bunch, and has a rocket of an arm. Reyna has really improved since last year, and is definitely ready to step in if something happens. And Marcus of course has the starting experience, the elusiveness, and the ability to lead the team. There will be two more QBs joining in the Fall with Ben Woolwidge and Steven Comstock, although one will probably end up red-shirting.

The Spring Game started out with your typical stretching and drills period, although there was a few twists thrown in for those paying attention. That included players joining different position groups that normal, such as Jamire Jordan working with the TEs, and Kevin Parker working with the RBs. Was probably just an attempt to give guys a different training, and help guys develop different skills. We also got to the see the O-Line go through different rotations, as Coach Ryan Grubb tries to make sure he’s got all of his players in the right spots. Losing both a Center and Right Guard means two open spots, although giving all the players tests at different spots could mean all five positions will have new starters come September 1. The current starting Line-Up moves Micah St. Andrew to Center, Netane Muti at Right Tackle, Christian Cronk at Right Guard, Quireo Woodley at Left Guard, and finally Syrus Tuitele at Left Tackle. Look for this to change through the Summer and Fall as different combinations and players are tried out.

The D-Line looks tentatively set right now with Emeka Ndoh and Kwami Jones at D End, with Kevin Atkins and Jasad Haynes holding down the Defensive Tackle spots. All 4 got a lot of reps last year, with Atkins starting 4 games, and Ndoh logging 4 sacks. Steinauer last year, and Watts this year, thrive on rotations along the line, so look for players like Isiah Johnson, Damian DeGruy, and Keiti Iakopo to get a lot of playing time this season for the Bulldogs. Replacing 5 contributors off of the 13th ranked defense from last year is a tall task for any program, let alone a G5 program. If there’s a team that can do it this year though, it’ll be the Bulldogs. The big takeaway from today for defense lovers is that the D-Line looks like it’ll still be incredibly stout against the run. I wouldn’t expect too much of a drop from that 13th ranking last season for the defense.

Where there should be no questions for the Bulldogs is in the Back 7, where they return all of the starters from last year’s unit. While we didn’t get to see Jeffrey Allison or Mike Bell, they should both be good to go for Fall football, and their absence did give two role players a good chance at starting reps. Justin Rice took over for Allison at the Mike position, with Aaron Mosby and Maamaloa Mafi splitting reps to replace Bell at the S spot. Bert Watts has remained actively engaged with the LB corps as Thompson gets more accustomed to Bulldog football, while J.D. Williams returns to coach the secondary. Jaron Bryant came back from the off-season the exact way he ended last season, with a Pick-6 off of Marcus McMaryion during the 7 on 7 period. He had a great play on a tipped ball (sound familiar?) and ran it straight back into the South Endzone for a defensive TD. The defense actually got 3 INTs today, with Tanner Rice and Justin Rice logging the other 2.

It’s hard to glean too much from what an offense will look like from a Spring Game, but the Bulldogs look a lot more comfortable in Year 2 of the Tedford era than they did in Year 1. Calls came in much faster, players knew assignments much quicker, and everything seemed more confident and smooth than this point a year ago. Winning 10 games and a division title will do that for any team, I suppose. There was a lot more RPO looks like I’ve seen in the past from the team, with both McMaryion and Reyna working on tucking and running when the play isn’t there. Marcus had an almost 30 yard scramble during the live period, and Reyna had a great 18 yard RPO run when the pocket collapsed. Maybe they will take a bit more advantage of their QB’s legs to open up the offense more, and open up those deep passing lanes for Jamire Jordan and Keesean Johnson.

Speaking of Wide Receiver, I do not envy any DC that has to plan for this unit this year. All but Da’Mari Scott return, and they gain Michiah Quick, along with a couple of monstrously tall recruits in Austin Alexander at 6’6”, and Bryce Parker at 6’4”. It looks right now like Justin Allen will be taking over the slot receiver role from Scott, and we’ll see a rotation of Johnson, Quick, Jordan, and Derrion Grimm at the outside receivers. This has the potential of being of the nation’s best WR units, and the best in the G5 is not out of the question. Especially with a full year to build rhythm with McMaryion, and of course another year under Kalen DaBeor, Kirby Moore, and Jeff Tedford. Sophomore Zane Pope filled in well with the 2nd team offense, and caught 2TDs from Reyna during the live scrimmage. I’d look for him to move up to a starting spot next year with Johnson and Jordan moving on after 2018.

The biggest question mark for the Bulldogs remained today, and will remain until at least Fall Camp, and that is kicking. The Bulldogs are replacing both Jimmy Camacho and Kody Kroening this year, and both options are incredibly untested walk-ons. Asa Fuller handled all of the PAT work today, but we didn’t get to see any kick-offs, or long field goals. This may show that the coaching staff isn’t the most confident in their kickers, as we saw a kicking demonstration last year from Camacho all the way out to 55yd FGs. The competition between Fuller and Mateo Thompson will continue through the Fall Camp, and there’s a scholarship on the line for the winner of the competition, and there may be a 3rd option added if the two present ones aren’t up to standard. Last year, Camacho was asked to try 32 FGs, good for 3rd most in the country, and he converted on 25, good for 78%. I’m sure the coaching staff would like a similar hit rate, but not need to try as many FGs this year. More PATs, less FGs.

QB stats on the day were pedestrian, but what can you really expect from a Spring Preview? Marcus threw for one beautiful long TD to Keesean Johnson, but the other TDs by the 1st team offense were on the ground, including on an end-around rush by Jamire Jordan. That was an interesting wrinkle that we hadn’t seen before. We’d seen the RBs catching passes, but not the WRs rushing on option plays. Could be a new twist for this year to add another running option teams have to worry about. Reyna threw 2 TDs, both to Zane Pope, while Romello Harris rushed in a TD for the 2nd team offense. Saevion Johnson also added in his own rushing TD with the 2nd team offense. Again, not a whole lot to be seen when things are kept extremely vanilla in the spring. I wouldn’t put too much stock in Spring Game performances unless someone completely goes off.

I’m kind of realizing now that this was less of a Spring Game recap, and more of a Fresno State preview article with bits of Spring football mixed in. Hopefully that was informative for everyone. This is the one quick sip of water in the massive desert of the offseason, and now there won’t be much information between now and August. Just off-season workouts and potential transfers after school gets out.