Even with everything currently going on in the world, it’s almost football season, so we’re going to take a look at what things look like for the Fresno State Bulldogs as they enter a new decade with a new coach. After the massively disappointing 2019 campaign, punctuated by Jeff Tedford’s shock retirement, a familiar face comes back to Fresno to take over the program and hopefully get them back to their winning ways. After serving as the offensive coordinator for the first two years of the Tedford era, Kalen Deboer was hired away by Indiana University for 2019. He revamped and improved their offense before the Bulldogs came calling with a promotion to head coach. This is Deboer’s second head coaching stint in college, after a wildly successful 67-3 run at NAIA school Sioux Falls. After being at the helm of a great Fresno State offense that won 22 games in 2 seasons, now we get to see what he looks like in the big chair.
Reasons for Optimism:
After a thoroughly underwhelming season of constant injuries on the offensive line and a whole lot of youth, the Bulldogs are hoping that the adversity will be to their advantage this year. The O-Line returns tons of experience now, even if most of that experience last year was in the form of triage play, anchored by Syrus Tuitele. The senior was one of the only players to go through all of 2019, and is now looked at as the leader of the group with Netane Muti moving on to the NFL. Look for contributors like Matt Smith, Tyrone Sampson, Dontae Bull, and Alex Akingbulu to really step up, but the door is definitely open for up-and-coming players like Elijiah Carson and Tim Anderson to grab one of the coveted spots on the line. And with coach Ryan Grubb continuing as O-Line coach, the group should hopefully get back to the elite play of 2017 and 2018.
At the skill positions, there may be an embarrassment of riches at running back. Ronnie Rivers returns for his senior season after rushing for nearly 1,000 yards, Jordan Mims is supposed to return healthy after a stellar 2018, Saevion Johnson is hoping for more carries, and Wyoming transfer Jevon Bigelow is now eligible. Alongside Malik Sherrod and Zion Echols, I think the rushing game should be fine as long the offensive line can stay upright and open up some lanes.
On the other side of skill position land, the wide receiver group is still a young bunch, but a more experienced bunch. Jared Rice, Cam Sutton, and Derrion Grim may have graduated, but everyone else in the group has returned for 2020. Jalen Cropper was an extremely dynamic playmaker as a true freshman, and looks to make a much bigger impact in his second year, Emoryie Edwards and Zane Pope are more experienced, Jamal Glaspie and Keric Wheatfall are both back, and there’s the exciting local players in Mac Dalena and Josh Kelly. Not to mention that Chris Coleman is back on offense after spending the 2019 season helping out at corner-back after a rash of injuries there. As long as there’s somebody to throw the ball, I don’t think the 2020 offense will struggle anywhere nearly as much as the 2019 one did, especially with Deboer calling the shots.
Reason to Worry:
The one real elephant in the room for the offense is who is going to play quarterback? With Jorge Reyna graduating after an up-and-down season, the competition is between Washington transfer Jake Haener and sophomore Ben Woolridge, who took a few snaps in 2019. All signs point to Haener taking the lead, and he definitely has the measurables and recruiting pedigree you’d want, but the lack of a spring practice may cause some issues. Fresno State fans will well remember the complete vacuum at QB we had after Derek Carr graduated, all the way until Marcus McMaryion arrived in 2017. Will the next PAC-12 transfer prove to be just as successful for the Dogs? Especially in late game situations, the lack of consistent QB play led to multiple losses when the offense couldn’t stay on the field long enough in the 4th quarter to guarantee a win.
Wildcard on offense:
The biggest wildcard I can see right now besides the starting QB will be the potential re-emergence of the tight end for Fresno State. Under Kalen Deboer’s offense in 2017 and 2018, the tight end was a great extra weapon that added something else for defenses to worry about. Jared Rice had an uncanny ability to sneak down the seam and pull down passes for huge games, and I believe every tight end on the roster in 2018 scored points. That sort of play almost vanished completely in 2019, leading to Rice not even being drafted after the season. If Deboer is calling the plays on offense, we could see that position come back, with Jared Torres or Juan Rodriguez filling the spot left by Rice.
Reason for Optimism:
Jared Rice is back. The younger Rice brother completed his transformation from running back to defensive star in 2019, and is now the 2020 Mountain West Pre-Season Defensive Player of the Year. After exploding on to the scene in the USC game, Rice and the linebacking corps were really the strength of the 2019 defense, and all 2 return for 2020. Jared Rice and Aaron Mosby are both seniors, but Levelle Bailey is only a sophomore. Illinois transfer Jacob Hollins is also now eligible, and there’s a glut of talent behind the starters waiting for their shot with Devo Bridges, Kyvin Carroll, Richard Cage, and Sherwin King all looking for snaps. With the transition this season to a base 4-2-5 defense, it would not be outside the realm of possibility to see a couple of these linebackers like Mosby and King move in to what the coaches are calling the Husky role, a hybrid linebacker/safety.
Reason to Worry:
Like the offensive line, the secondary of Fresno State was ravaged by injuries, so lots of young players got pressed in to service before they were ready. Some rose to the occasion, like Evan Williams, while others showed their youth. Like the O-Line though, at least we can say that this will be an experienced bunch this year, even with Juju Huges and Jaron Bryant graduating. If only Mike Bell had returned for 2019, but that’s water under the bridge now. Of those DBs on the 2020 roster that played in 2019, there’s only two upperclassmen, and they’re both juniors. Wylan Free and Chris Gaston are both back, and it looks like Free can move back to his natural position of CB if the injury bug has passed the team by. Evan Williams did a stellar job at safety as the season went on, even earning Player of the Week honors. One name to look out for on the defensive side is Stephen Comstock. The former QB has now transitioned over to defense after getting some reps on special teams in 2019. He’s definitely got the football knowledge and vision to make it work, and he loves hitting guys.
Honestly, the biggest wildcard will be the change in scheme. After Orlondo Steinaeur came to Fresno State in 2017, the team did really well with a 4/3 defense. Now under William Inge, the defense is moving to a base 4/2/5 defense, which should be useful against the pass-happy teams in the Mountain West. The defensive line is experienced, even with Mykal Walker now on the Atlanta Falcons. The linebacking corps could rival the 2018 unit for performance, and the secondary shouldn’t be as heavily injured. All just depends on how quickly they can adjust to a new scheme with no Spring practice, and limited Fall practice to install everything.