After what has to go down as one of the best 2 year starts in Group of 5 history, (he says, knowing full well every Boise fan is currently rushing to fill the comments section with, WELL ACKSHULLY), Jeff Tedford and company face a year 3 with surprisingly more questions than answers. After inheriting a hilariously mis-managed roster, and bringing back multiple Central Valley players that had gone off to other programs, most of them have graduated. The elite linebacking corps that had powered 2017 and 2018’s defensive turnaround are all gone, either to graduation or the NFL. The school’s most prolific receiver is now an Arizona Cardinal. After leaving Oregon State to return home, Marcus McMaryion has graduated, and is prepping for the return of the XFL in 2020.
3 starters on the offensive line are gone. 7 receivers have graduated. All 3 starting linebackers. Half the defensive secondary. The offensive coordinator. It certainly seems like a lot, but things are not all doom and gloom in Fresno. The staff has recruited at a high level for an MWC program, and they are now 3 recruiting classes in. Those first players are ready to take their place in the lineup, and there’s even more high-end recruits coming behind them to fill in any gaps. If there’s anyone though that can deal with all of those graduations, and come out better on the back end, it’s Jeff Tedford and his team. They turned a 1 win team into a 10 win team that almost won the conference. They lost their defensive line and DC going into 2018, but somehow became an even better defense in 2018. Now it’s the offense’s turn to reload.
The Weight of Expectations
It’s no secret that Marcus McMaryion was a very good QB. He wasn’t the flashy, 5,000yd passer of Derek Carr. But what Marcus brought back to Fresno was consistency and efficiency. The guy just didn’t make mistakes that often. Outside of a really weird performance in the 2018 Las Vegas Bowl, he only threw 3 interceptions that season. It definitely does help when you’ve got talent like Keesean Johnson, Jared Rice, and Jamire Jordan to throw to, but a QB still needs to get the ball into their hands. Anyone that remembers back to the 2015 and 2016 edition of the Bulldogs knows that having those receivers doesn’t mean a whole lot without someone to throw them the ball.
Now it’s Jorge Reyna’s turn to step into the big shoes, and lead this team for his final campaign. Reyna was actually Tedford’s first recruit when he got the Fresno State job, and it has long been rumored that he was supposed to be the 2017 starter before a hand injury in Fall Camp took that season from him. He waited and worked though, performing mop-up duties over the last two years, and absorbing the education that Jeff Tedford could give, and he is ready. He is much more of a gunslinging QB than McMaryion, which has both its plusses and minuses. You’re going to be less likely to see him pull the ball down and run it like Marcus would, but now there’s the option of the vertical passing game opening up. Reyna also fits well into that Tedford QB mold, which explains why he was recruited, and why he stuck around behind McMaryion for two years to get his shot at starting.
Behind the QB, there’s a mix of good news and bad news. Ronnie Rivers is back after an MVP performance in the Las Vegas Bowl, but recent injury news has decimated the backfield around him. Going into the Spring, there was so much running back depth that Josh Hokit was moved back to linebacker to help with their depth. Now, Jordan Mims, Romello Harris, and Peyton Dixon have all been hit with knee injuries, and the picture is much murkier. Coaches have announced that Mims will be out for the year, but the news on Harris and Dixon is much newer, so all we know at the time of publishing is that they are seen as potentially long-term injuries. It stands to reason that Ronnie Rivers will now see more of the workload, while Josh Hokit has moved back to offense for the 2nd time in his career. The one bright side is that it gives Saevion Johnson the chance to really shine as a junior, after being the first man up last year in mop-up duty. It also helps alleviate some of the log-jam in the backfield, as 2019 would have had 1 senior, 5 juniors, 2 sophomores, and 2 freshmen on the roster. Now they can redshirt a few players, and help spread out the running back depth over the next few years, instead of losing Rivers, Mims, Johnson, and Harris all in 2020.
The 2019 O-Line represents a conundrum for the Bulldogs. They are losing a lot of experience, including multi-year starters in Micah St. Andrew and Christian Cronk, but they are upgrading in size and versatility. Syrus Tuitele returns to his spot at the right end of the line, with Netane Muti back from an Achilles injury to play anywhere on the line. He is also paired with Quireo Woodley, who also has the ability to slot in wherever is necessary. UCLA grad transfer Alex Akingbolu is supposedly in the running for a starting position, but he will be fighting with senior Nick Abuidefe. Former 4* recruit Tyrone Sampson is in the mix for the open center spot, but he’s competing with Junior Matt Smith for the starting lineup. The one thing that all of these players bring now is size. They are all bigger than their counterparts in 2017 and 2018, and it looks like the recruiting staff is going for bulk going forward. Games are won and lost in the trenches, so you need those big bodies up front to protect the QB and open those lanes for the running backs.
How do you replace the most prolific receiver in school history? That was the question posed to Keesean Johnson when he arrived from the same high school as Devante Adams in 2015. He answered the question by replacing Adams in the record books, and becoming the school’s top receiver. Now the question will get asked again of a new and hungry batch of receivers. Derrion Grim returns after being the top back-up in 2018, and looks poised for his chance at the spotlight as a senior. He’ll be joined by a new cast of characters, including one of Fresno State’s highest rated recruits in recent memory. Jalen Cropper stunned analysts by choosing to stay home and play for his hometown Bulldogs, and expectations will be high for the Buchanan Bear as a freshman. He is projected to get starting time in the slot, so that he can pair with another highly rated JuCo recruit, Keric Wheatfall. Both receivers come with a prolific background, and are looking to make their mark on Fresno State history.
If there is one area where the Bulldogs do not need to worry on the offensive side, it is at the tight end position. They return safety valve Jared Rice one year after breaking every tight end record at Fresno State, and Cam Sutton looks poised for a breakout season as a receiving target. Rice was lethal when he could slip a block and escape up the seam, and Sutton brings a 6’6” frame for jump balls and red zone usage. They also bring in two of the highest ranked JuCo tight ends in the 2019 class Raymond Pauwels and Juan Rodriguez, who will fill more of the blocking tight end role that David Tangipa and Kyle Hendricks filled. Look for Rice to be Reyna’s favorite target in the early season as the rest of the offense develops around them.
On the coaching front, Kalen DeBoer has departed for the OC job at Indiana, but Ryan Grubb was promoted to replace him the same day. Grubb will still retain his O-Line coaching duties, while adding in his OC job. Luckily, Grubb and DeBoer have worked together at multiple stops in their careers, so share the same philosophy and coaching style. That will mean that the offense won’t need to learn new terminology, or adjust to a new system to prep for 2019. That should help ease some of the drop-off concerns with how many players departed from last year’s 12 win campaign. I’d expect to see the same balanced offense, with the same emphasis on being able to establish the run game to open up the passing game.
Defense Reloads Again
On the defensive end, things are a bit sunnier, and the questions much closer to being answered. There wasn’t a change in coaching staff this year, as Bert Watts returns as DC, and every other school can keep their dirty hands off of him. After coaching the 3rd ranked scoring defense in the country, and No. 8 overall defense, the Mountain West’s premiere defense looks poised for a repeat in that area. The line is more experienced, the linebackers are reloading with physical clones of those lost, and the secondary is getting bigger and more experienced. The D-Line will again be anchored by Kevin Aktins and Jasad Haynes, with Ricky McCoy and Keiti Iakopo ready to cycle in right behind them. The best part is that with all 4 returning, players like Leonard Payne and Matt Lawson can get healthy rotation reps, and build that confidence to take over in 2020. Defensive end does lose Mykal Walker to the linebacking group, but Isiah Johnson, Kwami Jones, Levell Tatum, and Andrew Wright return from a unit that wreaked havoc on opposing backfields last season. Expect Johnson and Jones to be the starters at the end positions, but this defense has been built around rotating players to fit schemes, so all of them will see significant minutes.
It is tough to replace 3 multi-year starters at linebacker, especially when one is the 2018 Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year in Jeff Allison. It helps though when you can just slide MWCCG MVP Mykal Walker back to his natural position at linebacker. After being a revelation at defensive end, Walker now gets to make his mark in the middle of the defense, although I’m sure the staff will have enough plays where he can sneak up to the line and get in the backfield. Joining him will be the 2nd team linebackers from last year, Aaron Mosby and Justin Rice. Mosby jumped onto Bulldog fans’ radar with his pick-six against SJSU last season, and he’s another local kid making good with his hometown Bulldogs. When rotations do come in, look for Dorzell Hicks, Richard Cage, and a mix of Levelle Bailey and David Tate.
When you lose two starting defensive backs, it’s naturally to worry a bit about that end of the defense. Especially when they’re players like Tank Kelly and Mike Bell. The good thing for the Dogs though is who they still have left, and who will move into the two starting spots now open. Coming back for their senior seasons are two of the best DBs on the West Coast in Juju Hughes and Jaron Bryant. Bryant will be well remembered for taking two blocked FGs for touchdowns against Idaho in the 2018 season opener, but he was an elite level defender all season. And now he comes back even more experienced, and with an elite partner. Pro Football Focus ranked Juju Hughes as the best DB in the Mountain West last year, and you know that he wants to be even better this season. The defensive backfield seems to be the other area of the defense where they’re slotting the 2018 second-teamers up onto the starting lineup with Wylan Free and Chris Gaston. Those two should serve as more than appropriate replacements, and make it even harder for teams to pass the ball on the Bulldogs.
Special Teams Remain the Same
One of the most overlooked parts of successful football teams is the special teams unit. Having a punter that can flip the field, or a kicker that can be productive on the PATs and FGs can be the difference between a championship season, and losing bowl eligibility. The most underrated and underappreciated weapon on the Fresno State team has to be senior punter Blake Cusick. He has been nothing but reliable since arriving in 2016, to the point that he was Player of the Week on 3 separate occasions on that moribund team. He’s averaged 42yds/punt over the last two years, and only had 12 punts returned all season. Now there’s one more go-around, and I’m sure he’d like another All-MWC selection for his record. Handling place-kicking should be Asa Fuller, in his sophomore campaign. After a shaky start to his first season, he came through absolutely clutch when the Bulldogs needed him on that snowy night in Boise. He booted through two perfect field goals in the snow, and landed the PAT that would end up being the vital difference in the game. You’d have to assume improvement in this second season, especially now that he’s got his younger brother Cade to push him on the team.
Schedule Shows Chances for Wins
While the last two years have started out with easy FCS games, there will be no tune-up game in week 1 this year. The Bulldogs instantly take their show on the road to the Coliseum to take on a rebuilding USC Trojan squad trying to save Clay Helton from the unemployment line. Even though they’re coming off a 5-7 season, this USC team will still be loaded with talent at every position. This will definitely be a game of who wants it more, and I have to think that Fresno State coming in with a permanent chip on their shoulders will have the desire and attitude advantage. Then it’s a return home to welcome the Minnesota Golden Gophers to Bulldog Stadium. This game was originally meant to be the opening of the vastly renovated stadium, but things change. The Dogs will be looking for revenge in this game, as Minnesota was the only OOC loss suffered last year, and it was on a heartbreaking interception in the endzone. You just know that the Bulldogs want that game back, and will do everything in their power to get a win in the home opener against the Fighting Flecks in year 3 under PJ.
After taking on their two Power 5 opponents for the regular season, the Dogs get a very early bye week, then face Sacramento State at home, and New Mexico State in Las Cruces. Not exactly the sexiest slate of out of conference games, but it does give the Bulldogs a great opportunity to hit October at 3-1, or 4-0. That sets them up for yet another double-digit win season, as long as they don’t trip themselves up in conference play.
The two year swing schedule does unfortunately mean that Boise State isn’t on the regular season schedule, but you could say that this provides the easier side of the Mountain Division. No top-end defense of Wyoming, no Battle for the Milk Can against Boise. They do have to start conference play against the triple option voodoo that is Air Force, but then it’s UNLV, Colorado State, and Hawaii to close October. Not really teams known for being able to stop anybody, and only Hawaii made a bowl game last year based on their offense. Then the two deciding weeks come. The Bulldogs will face Utah State at home before needing to go on the road to take on San Diego State. If things shake out the same way they have over the last two years, the game in San Diego will be for the leader of the West Division, and that crossover game with Utah State could be the one that decides who goes to the Mountain West Championship Game. Especially with SDSU facing Utah State in September. The last two weeks of the season are a home game against what should be an improved Nevada squad, and a road game against their “rival” SJSU for the Valley trophy. Unless San Jose becomes a massively improved squad, or things go completely sideways for Fresno, they should retain the Valley trophy for the 3rd year. Then the Bulldogs will be hoping for a date in the Championship Game, against probably Utah State or Boise State. The big question mark is what happens to Utah State with the return of Gary Anderson, and if Jordan Love becomes the Heisman candidate many think he could be.
IF tradition holds though, and that’s a very big IF, I’d bank on the MWC championship game being a rematch. 4 of the 6 MWC Championships so far have been rematches of regular season games, the only aberrations being the inaugural 2013 game, and the 2015 SDSU/Air Force matchup. Although I’m sure Fresno and Boise want to see each other at least once a year, so championship game it would have to be.
Looking at the schedule as a whole, it’s really hard to see many roadblocks to Fresno State winning double digit games again. Yes, USC will be very tough, and Minnesota should be improved, but it’s really hard to see the Dogs going 0-fer, and then losing multiple conference games. With Jeff Tedford and his staff at the helm, we really do seem to be looking at two pre-eminent Mountain West programs that expect to win at least 10 games a year, and compete for conference titles year in and year out.
The biggest challenge this year is the expectations. After winning 22 games in the first two years of a program, two division titles, one conference title, and 2 bowl games, the bar is suddenly very high. A starting game against USC in the Coliseum represents a potentially tough start to the season, then a chance at revenge against Minnesota at home should represent the only other hurdle in the OOC schedule. Will the new-look offense be ready for August 31, or will the defense need to carry the team until the offense can find its footing? We’ll just have to see what Tedford and his team of magicians can come up with.