Well, that was certainly unexpected, wasn’t it? I doubt even the most optimistic Fresno State fan saw last year’s results coming. We were thinking 4 wins, maybe 5 if Tedford was able to turn things around quickly, considering the state the program was in when Tim DeRuyter left it. After watching the team slide from 11 wins, to 6, to 3, then only 1 in 2016, it seemed like we’d be in for a long rebuild that wouldn’t deliver until 2019 at the earliest.
Jeff Tedford is apparently a wizard though, as he turned a 1-win squad into a 10-win team over the course of his first year. After winning 10 games combined over the previous 3 years, they won 10 all in one go. To add to that, they scooped up the West Division title, captured all of their rivalry trophies, and won their first bowl game in a decade. What a virtuoso performance in Year 1 of Jeff Tedford’s return to his alma mater.
The question whenever you rebound that much, that fast, is if it is sustainable. And we will ask that question here as well. Can this team maintain their massive gains from 2017, and maybe even improve to that mythical land of the NY6 bowl game? The Bulldogs do have some questions peppered across the team, from the loss of DC Orlondo Steinauer, to 4 D-linemen from last year, to not being able to surprise anyone in the MWC this year. This preview will cover the ins and outs of the 2018 Bulldogs.
After looking more like a collapsing star than a football team in 2016, the Fresno State offense only needed to return to respectable in 2017. Which they did admirably. After playing on average 3 QBs per year between 2014 and 2016, they Bulldogs kept it to 2 last year. Junior Chason Virgil handled the first 3 games of the season, and did as well as could be expected when going against the heavyweights of Alabama and Washington. When conference play rolled around though, something amazing happened. Former Oregon State signalcaller Marcus McMaryion had transferred back home to the Valley during Fall Camp, and was unleashed against Nevada in conference game number 1. From that point on, it was his team, and he led them to a 9-2 record while limiting mistakes, and pitching in with his legs when necessary. After ranking between 100th and 125th in Offensive S&P since Derek Carr left, the Bulldogs rebounded to 68th, almost exactly the mid-point in the FBS.
This offensive improvement was thanks to a much improved O-Line that was 3rd in the country in sack rate, giving up more than 1 sack in only two games all season, against Alabama and against Boise State. That line will need a light retool, as it lost all-conference center Aaron Mitchell, and senior David Patterson. Coach Ryan Grubb appears to be shuffling the remaining members of the line around, putting senior Micah St. Andrew at Center, soon to be all-world sophomore Netane Muti at LG, and senior Christian Cronk over to OT. Through Spring practice, and the summer, it looks like the remaining two spots will be split between Tyrus Tuitele, Marc-David Bien-Aime, and incoming 4* freshman Tyrone Sampson. Whomever gets those remaining two spots, they’ll definitely have an experienced skill corps around them.
For the first time since 2013, Fresno State will have a returning QB under center, and what a great QB it is. After leading the Dogs to a 9-2 record, Dinuba native Marcus McMaryion has now had an entire offseason to gel with his coaches and teammates. Even with the limited time he had to absorb the playbook, he still threw for 2,700yds and 14TDs. Look for him to have even better stats this year after working under Tedford’s tutelage. Especially with potentially the best receiving corps in the conference around him to catch his passes.
Senior KeeSean Johnson is in the running as the best WR in the entire conference after piling up over 1,000 receiving yards last season. Senior Jamire Jordan went for over 20yds/catch as the Bulldog’s 3rd leading receiver, and now they have even more toys to play with. Oklahoma transfer, and former 4* Michiah Quick is eligible, and ready to show off for the hometown crowd. Sure-handed Jared Rice returns at the TE position after racking up 12 catches for 200yds in the last 3 games, Derrion Grimm is looking for a bigger role in his 2nd year on the team, and 4 freshmen that red-shirted last year will be looking for their turn to shine. Not to mention incoming 3* freshmen Emoryie Edwards and Austin Alexander, and the news that 6th year senior Delvon Hardaway was granted another year of eligibility, giving the Dogs even more weapons across the receiving corps.
Offensive coordinator Kalen DeBeor committed to the youth movement last year at the Running Back position, and it paid off. While they weren’t liable to break off huge runs, the quartet of backs that the Dogs used last year preferred to defeat teams via a thousand cuts. Dejonte O’Neal, Jordan Mims, Ronnie Rivers, and Josh Hokit combined for 4.5yds/carry, and could be reliably counted on to get those tough yards when needed no matter what. Just ask SDSU what the Fresno State rushing attack was like last year. The only question mark here is the health of leading rusher Ronnie Rivers. He suffered a broken foot during Spring Ball that will probably keep him out for the early part of the season. His health could be an experiment in the new redshirt rules, since he has 4 games available without losing the full year. They’ve also gained WSU transfer Romello Harris as another option if Rivers isn’t ready to go by September 1st, given that DeBeor likes to spread the carries around to keep backs fresh.
What a difference a year can make. After hovering around the 80s and 90s defensively, Fresno State turned in a performance for the ages, jumping all the way up to 13th in Defensive S&P. Coordinator Orlondo Steinauer introduced a high-havoc unit that sent pressure from all over to confuse opposing teams, and hunted the ball down like the Terminator. In the long off-season, Coach O returned to the CFL, leading to the promotion of Bert Watts from LB Coach to Defensive Coordinator going into 2018. The Dogs also graduated 4 different D-Line contributors, including 3 starters. Tobenna Okeke, Robert Stanley, Malik Forrester, and Nathan Madsen will be missed, but those were the only losses across a truly exceptional defense.
Where the Bulldogs have no questions at all is across the back 7. The return all of their starters, and almost all of their backups. Leading the charge is human missile Jeffrey Allison, the pre-season All-Conference selection and Butkus Award watchlist member. The 250lb Junior wrecked opposing offenses, and is poised to be even better this season. While he is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, he was coming off surgery last year, and look at the damage he was able to do. He’ll also have seniors George Helmuth and James Bailey anchoring what should be the best LB corps in the conference this year, and should be able to plug any gaps in a less experienced D-Line.
Behind them, the secondary return all 4 starters, including ball-hawk Jaron Bryant and lock-down safety Juju Hughes. While it is hard to imagine the defense being quite to the Top 15 level it was last year, it’s hard to imagine it dropping too far down the rankings in Watts’ first season at the helm.
To refill the spots across the defensive line, things aren’t quite as dire as they may seem at first glance. The defense made its name last year on rotating bodies at all spots, so there is experience across the line. Sophomore Kevin Atkins started 4 games, and Jasad Haynes pitched in a pair of TFLs behind Malik Forrester. They also return DEs Kwami Jones and Emeka Ndoh, who combined for 8TFLs and 6 sacks. They’ll also be joined by UNLV trasnfer Levell Tatum, star recruit Isiah Johnson, sophomore Damien DeGruy, Keiti Iakopo, and new freshman Leonard Payne, I think the D-Line will be just fine come September. And there’s the chance that Washington transfer Ricky McCoy gets a waiver to play this year, adding another option.
Edit: Ricky McCoy has been granted immediate eligibility
Now we hit the one problem section for the Dogs going into 2018, the Special Teams. Steadily reliable kicker Jimmy Camacho is gone, and there really isn’t much to back him up. Fresno State is bringing in two new players in Mateo Thompson and Shane Ciucci to compliment Asa Fuller, but the kicking game is going to be a huge question mark during Fall camp. The punting game should be fine, as Blake Cusick returns for this junior season, and has improved over the last two years. The return game will be shaky without Rivers at the start of the year, but this might give someone like Saevion Johnson or speedster Deonte Perry a chance to shine handling returns.
- Unlike last year, there’s no juggernauts like Alabama on the schedule. The Bulldogs will start out at home against the new to FCS Idaho Vandals, a former conference mate from the WAC days. Fresno State hasn’t lost to the Vandals since 1978, and I don’t see that changing now. S&P gives the Dogs a 94% chance of starting the season 1-0, and I like those odds. Should give the defense some time to tune-up any new players
- Next up, the Dogs will travel out to Minneapolis to take on PJ Fleck and his Minnesota Golden Gophers. Now, this is a road game against a Big 10 team, but Minnesota is going through a strong rebuild. S&P gave the Dogs only a 54% chance of winning this one, but that was before the Gophers lost their presumptive starter at QB, which should raise the chance of Fresno State being 2-0 quickly.
- Having another road game next, they need to travel south to the Rose Bowl to take on the UCLA Bruins, now under the direction of Chip Kelly. This isn’t the Chip Kelly of old though, as he’s facing a Year 0 situation in Westwood without a QB. I’m sure most Bulldog fans will remember the last game against UCLA fondly, where Ryan Matthew ran past, around, and through the Bruins to deliver a win in 08. Look for the Bulldogs to do the same here, as Chip Kelly doesn’t get his system fully installed by week 3. Dogs 3-0
- Finally making their way back home, they face what should be their toughest OOC challenge in the Toledo Rockets. The 2017 MAC champions have been one of the most consistent programs in G5-land, and look to be much of the same next year. They do need a new QB and RB, but the Rockets lost Kareem Hunt and still won 10 games. They’re the strongest chance to bruise or bloody the Dogs, but the home crowd should carry them through to 4-0.
- The first 4 conference games shouldn’t present too much challenge for the Fighting Tedfords, but we learned last year what complacency can do against UNLV. We’re on the road this year, and Tony Sanchez has been improving the Rebels each year he’s been there. As long as the Bulldogs don’t let success get to their heads, they should enter the final stretch of the season 5-0 in conference, and poised for another West Division crown
- The next two weeks represent a brutal stretch for the power players of the MWC, as Fresno travels up to the blue turf of Boise, then back home to host SDSU the next week. The MWC West Division and home-field advantage will be won or lost during these two weeks, and could even represent the inside track to the NY6 bowl game for the MWC winner.
- The final regular season game is against the Spartans of SJSU for Rivalry Week. While SJSU is going into Year 2 under Brent Brennan, it’s pretty hard to see them posing much of a challenge, and will hopefully lead to the Dogs locking up the West Division crown while keeping the Valley Trophy home.
Well folks, there it is. My 2018 Fresno State preview. Nothing seems to show a step back in Year 2 of Jeff Tedford and Co., and the team seems to have their sights set appropriately high. While we can’t expect another Top 15 season out of the defense, the offense should approve more than enough to offset any defensive regression. The only questions going into 2018 are at kicker, and who steps up at D-Line. Are the Bulldogs ready to take that big step up from solid G5 program to NY6 participant? Could they capture their 3rd MWC title behind the senior-heavy offense? Or will they fly too close to the sun, and have to settle for a bowl game and 8-win season? Considering how lifeless they were two years ago, even thinking that an 8-win year could be disappointing is magical, but that shows how quickly Jeff Tedford redid expectations around Fresno.
Watch this space for in-season coverage of the MW, and as always, Go Dogs!