Following the surprising resignation of Jeff Tedford at the end of the 2019 football season, things moved quickly in Fresno to find his replacement. The first name on everyone’s list was former Offensive Coordinator Kalen Deboer, who had taken a job at Indiana following the incredible 2018 Bulldog season. Moving from coordinator to head coach was the natural progression for Deboer, and everyone in Fresno was delighted to be bringing the signal caller back into the fold. Let’s take a quick look at Kalen Deboer, where he came from, and what he will bring back to Fresno State as they look to rebuild in the new decade.
The 45 year old began his career in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he played both football and baseball at the University of Sioux Falls. While a receiver there, he set school records for receptions, yards, and touchdowns over his 4 year career. He also earned NAIA All-American honors his senior season for the Cougars. He was also proficient on the diamond, hitting .520 with 10 home runs and 34RBIs as a senior in 1997. After college, he played a year of Independent League baseball for the Canton Crocodiles in Ohio.
Returning to his home of Sioux Falls, he took up an assistant coaching position for Washington High School in 1998. This would lead to him returning to his alma mater as Offensive Coordinator in 2000 for the Sioux Falls Cougars, a position he would hold for 5 seasons. In December of 2004, he was promoted to head coach of the Cougars, where he would go on an absolutely incredible run at the NAIA level. From 2005-2009, his team would go 67-3, winning 3 NAIA national championships, and finishing as runner up in 2007. Two of his three losses were to the only other team to win a title in that stretch, the Carroll Fighting Saints. You’d be hard pressed to find a coach at any level that has above a 90% winning percentage as the program head. He was awarded for his hard work with 3 NAIA Coach of the Year Awards, and 3 AFCA NAIA Coach of the Year Awards.
He used this run as a successful NAIA head coach to take a job with Southern Illinois as Offensive Coordinator in 2010. He was with the Salukis for 4 years, where the team unfortunately hovered around .500. Despite the record, he was offered the offensive coordinator job at Eastern Michigan in 2014 under Chris Creighton. This is where DeBoer’s stock truly began to rise. Using SP+ numbers, his first offense was 118th. By 2016, they had shot up to 72nd, and earned EMU their first bowl appearance after that season. This was more than enough to get the attention of new Fresno State head coach Jeff Tedford, who poached both DeBoer and Ryan Grubb from Eastern to move out to take over a moribund Bulldog offense. In 2016, the last year under Tim DeRuyter, the Bulldogs had been an abysmal 127th in offense, only ahead of Tulane. For a team with an identity built on offense, that was more than unacceptable. DeBoer installed an offense built around balance and limiting mistakes on all fronts. Utilizing this simple method, the offense went from 127th up to 81st, then rocketed all the way to 16th in 2018. Propelled by the brilliant play of Marcus McMaryion, Keesean Johnson, Ronnie Rivers, and DeBoer’s playcalling, offense returned to Fresno State, leading to 22 wins over 2 seasons.
The problem with being a really good Group of 5 coach is that the Power 5 programs will quickly come calling, and Indiana was enough to lure DeBoer out to Bloomington for the 2019 season. Even with an offense dealing with QB injuries, Indiana surged up to 22nd in the country in offense, along with 444yds/game, good enough for 2nd in the Big Ten. His stock was rising even quicker now, and the timing was right for him to get his first FBS head coaching job back in Fresno. His offense was definitely missed in a 2019 plagued by injuries and close losses, ending in a 4-8 record a year after winning 12 games. Asked about coming back to the Bulldogs, Deboer was quoted as saying, “It’s a special place, and I was hoping I might someday get the opportunity to come back here. I love Coach Tedford, and it’s unfortunate, kind of bittersweet — I get the great opportunity that I was hoping to have some day, but it happened sooner than I expected. That’s a little bit tougher to handle just because I have so much respect for who he is and what he accomplished here in a short amount of time.”
Now the tough part will be rebuilding the Fresno State offense. He inherits an offense that was young, inexperienced, and injured in 2019. He will need to decide who will play QB, with sophomore Ben Woolridge, junior Jake Heaner, and JuCo recruits Danny Velasquez and Braden Wingle to compete for the top job. Behind them will be an experienced stable of running backs, with both Ronnie Rivers and Jordan Mims returning, along with Saevion Johnson looking for a bigger role. Wyoming transfer Javon Bigelow will be added to the rotation, along with Cal transfer Zion Echols. The WR room is another area with a deep group, but not an especially experienced group. Jalen Cropper, Zane Pope, Keric Wheatfall, and Emoryie Edwards all return after taking roles in 2019, along with Patrick Elima-Jeune, Jamal Glaspie, Chris Coleman back on offense, Josh Kelly, and Rodney Wright III come back as redshirt freshmen.
What happens at Tight End raises many questions for Bulldog fans. After watching Jared Rice break out in 2018, he was shockingly underutilized in 2019, and now the unit is left with almost no receiving yards returning. Raymond Pauwels and Juan Rodriguez both played in 2019, and they’re joined by Jarred Torres, David Tate Jr., Rory Hanson, and Micah Pasion. Maybe one will rise to the occasion, and take over the receiving role we saw from Rice in 2017 and 2018 in the seam game. I’ll save my thoughts on the Offensive Line for the rest of the Coaching Profiles that I will cover in the next few weeks. Since we don’t have Spring Sports sadly, I’ll try to get an early jump on Fall writing, hoping that we have a college football season to enjoy.
Hopefully everyone is staying home, staying safe, and staying healthy in this trying time. I know we all like to use sports as an escape, but at least there’s YouTube highlights of past games to watch.