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Bulldog Bytes: Wide Receiver Spring Preview

How many pass-catchers is too many for one QB?

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

Next up in the Fresno State Spring Preview, we turn to the pass-catchers, the second skill position where the Bulldogs may have almost too many options available. If there was one area that was not a concern for the Dogs in 2020, it was the passing game. Outside of the mistake-filled first game, Jake Haener and the receivers were an efficient and dependable bunch. And now, they all return, along with even more options through the transfer portal and players returning from injury or opting-out of the 2020 season. I will be including tight ends in this group, because it’s just easier for everybody. Let’s take a look at the most likely options, along with a projected starting rotation-

Slot Receivers-

While not potentially the most glamorous receiving position, the slot or Y receivers were still an important part of the passing attack. After not seeing much play in either 2018 or 2019, Junior Erik Brooks had a career high 13 catches on the season for 178 yards. Sure, not any sort of Randall Cobb numbers, but he still played an important part, especially earlier in the season as Jake Haener and the other receivers gelled from the shortened off-season. Backing him up so far are sophomores Jordan Brown and Fresno State legacy recruit Rodney Wright III. Where I think a change could come would be with freshman Mac Dalena. While he’s not naturally a Y receiver, the glut of options outside may bring the athletic freshman inside. He showed that he will do anything to help the team, stepping in during the Nevada game to attempt field goals when no one else could. Only really played in the final game against New Mexico, but still shone with 4 catches for 88yds and TD, including his first college catch on a 51yd reception.

X Receivers-

At the end of the line, but usually set back from the LoS, the X receiver is your go to for sweeps, shallow crossers, and your speedy receiver that can torch the defense. For the Bulldogs, that truly embodies Jalen Cropper. The local 4* recruit that spurned the PAC-12 to stay home truly started to show his potential in 2020, and looks primed for a breakout in 2021. He finally graduated from gadget plays and jet sweeps to a true receiving threat, leading the team in both receptions and receiving yards by the end of a season that saw him get Honorable Mention All-MWC honors. Had a season high 202 yards at Utah State including 3 touchdowns. Now he has gotten even more experience, as well as some extra muscle mass to truly turn him into a star receiver. Cropper will have competition for snaps though, with Emoryie Edwards returning healthy off of injury and an opt-out year, and Zane Pope coming off a strong finish to 2020 after returning from injury himself. After being the team’s leading receiver in 2019, Pope suffered an injury in the 2020 Fall camp that kept him out until the Nevada game. He made his presence felt though, with 7 catches for 119 yards and two touchdowns. Now fully healed, and with a full off-season, he should be ready to split reps with Cropper at the X spot, or even as a 4th receiver when they need to go 4 wide in the pass-happy MWC.

Z Receivers-

Any team’s true deep threats, the sideline burners, the home run hitters and all of the tortured metaphors for the outside receivers. The Bulldogs again return all of their targets from last season, along with two more options coming in for 2021. Both Keric Wheatfall and Josh Kelly showed a lot of flashes of brilliance, and now have even more experience and time to work with Jake Haener. While Wheatfall’s stats didn’t exactly jump off the page, he was effective when needed, and he was splitting reps with multiple other receivers. 363 yards and 1 touchdown in 5 games is fine, especially when an absolutely incredible touchdown was wiped off the board against Colorado State (see header photo), he really did show why he was so heavily recruited by Jeff Tedford coming out of junior college. He was also usually paired against the opposing team’s top CB, and the problems with the O-Line kept Haener from truly having the time to let a deep route develop. If those problems are fixed this year, I think we’ll see a lot more production from Wheatfall in his final season.

On the other side of the field, Josh Kelly truly emerged in 2020 as a future star receiver. Like Jalen Cropper, he was a local kid that turned down bigger offers to play for his hometown team, coming from San Joaquin Memorial where he played alongside Jalen McMillan. This was his first season getting actual playing time, since he had all of one reception in his true freshman season. He managed to haul in 22 catches in the shortened season, including the team’s longest reception against Utah State. He also managed to run the ball twice for a touchdown to add a little extra dimension in the sweep game. He also showed a lot of flashes of greatness in the return game, where he took 12 kicks for 225 yards. Again, his production was slightly limited by the short season, and the pass protection problems on the line, but he did still average 15 yards per reception, so nothing to really scoff at. With an improved line, and this full season and off-season to work with Haener, I think that we will see the Z receivers become much more of a deep threat for Fresno State if the rushing attack draws the defense up and leaves space on the back end.

They’ve also added at least one new target through the transfer portal, with former Washington Husky receiver Ty Jones coming to Fresno State for 2021. With the new one-time transfer rule, he should be immediately eligible for the Fall season, and brings just an obscene amount of size to the position. He stands at 6’4” and 215lbs, making him an instant mis-match against any DB he could face. He should create the same sort of size challenges for defenses that Nevada’s Cole Turner did last year, just standing over anyone that tried to defend him. He will not be arriving to Fresno until the summer, so I wouldn’t expect him to immediately start, but he will be a factor as the season goes on, similar to what Marcus McMaryion did in 2017.

The final outside threat for 2021 was a late add after Signing Day, so probably won’t be part of the team until the Fall camp begins in August. Receiver Kamron Beachem chose the Bulldogs over Arizona State, and like Ty Jones, brings huge amounts of size to the position. Beachem is even taller, standing at 6’5”. Like Jones, I don’t think we’ll see him play right away as he learns the offense and gets settled with the team, but I think we’ll see him sprinkled in more and more as the season goes on. He adds another interesting dynamic, especially when there’s a goal-line situation and you need a receiver that can just go over the top of the defense.

Tight Ends

With Jared Rice departing after 2019, I don’t think any unit saw as steep of a drop-off as the tight end group. Part of this was due to injury, obviously, but the usage of tight ends was almost non-existent after it featured heavily in DeBoer’s time as OC in 2017 and 2018. Due in part to the revolving door on the O-Line, the ends were required to block far more often than they were sent out on routes, which marked a huge change from 2018. The biggest factor though was the loss of Juan Rodriguez in the first game of the year. He is built to be the true pass-catching tight end, similar to Bear Pascoe. In the game against Hawaii, he had started strong with 3 catches for 24 yards and a touchdown before going out with injury, showing that he could be that effective safety valve for the offense. If he can avoid injury in 2021, he definitely an be an effective underneath threat for a team already stacked with receivers.

On the rest of the TE group, the one name to watch going forward will be Jalan Early. He was initially recruited as a very raw QB to the team due to his freakish athleticism, and made the move to TE over the off-season. He comes in at 6’3” and 210lbs, so due to bulk up a bit before becoming a true TE. But his speed and athleticism will make him a tough match-up, and the transition from QB means that he should have the eyes to diagnose a defense and find open spots. If the coaches are truly looking for their Jared Rice replacement that can slip into the seam and disrupt a defense, Early should be the man to do it.

Conclusions:

So now that we’ve looked at the myriad weapons available to Fresno State this season, it definitely looks like this offense could be one to rival the insane 2013/2001/1985 units for production with Haener under center. The biggest question mark is all about that O-Line, and their ability to protect Jake. He was a magician a lot last year escaping pressure, but he also took way too many sacks and had to scramble way more than any QB should. If the line can keep him upright, I think that Fresno State’s offense will be able to keep up with anybody on the schedule, and they might need to get into some track meets if William Inge’s defense gets tired out. Let’s take a look at a quick projected depth chart for the 2021 season-

Slot- Erik Brooks/Mac Dalena/Rodney Wright III

X- Jalen Cropper/Zane Pope/Emoryie Edwards/Patrick Elima-Jeune

Z- Keric Wheatfall/Josh Kelly/Ty Jones/Kamron Beachem

TE- Juan Rodriguez/Raymond Pauwels

Let me know what you think of my selections, or if you think I’m completely wrong. Keep it glued here to MW Connection for all of your conference news through the rest of the off-season.