After the long off-season and the weird 2020 half season, Mountain West football is just a few weeks away from returning with potential fans in the stands for a full 12 game slate. Fresno State had the shortest pre-season of any team in 2020, especially under a brand new coaching staff and schemes. That led to some fits and starts in a 3-3 season, including 2 canceled games against SDSU and San Jose State. Now, the staff has had a full off-season and a raft of new transfers and recruits to fill in the gaps in the team. Let’s take a look at what the two-deep may look like for 2021’s season opener against UCONN
QB: Jake Haener/Jaylen Henderson or Logan Fife
Haener had an up and down 2020 with a lot of flashes of talent and dynamic playmaking ability. Now, he will look to build off of a campaign that saw him place Top 10 in the country for offense and an incredible crop of receivers and backs behind him for another year.
The interesting question comes in who backs up Haener. Logan Fife was in the program last year, and steps up now that Ben Woolridge has transferred to Louisiana. Joining him though may be one of the highly touted QB recruits in Jaylen Henderson. Henderson turned down multiple P5 schools to be a Bulldog, and the staff has been raving about the lefty ever since he committed. While he might not be in line for the No.2 spot to start the season, expect him to be there by the end of the year.
RB: Ronnie Rivers/Jordan Mims
Could it be anyone besides these two? The extra year of eligibility allows both to come back for the 2021 season, and hopefully completely healthy after Rivers ended the season injured. Rivers continue to be one of the most effective runners and pass-catchers in the conference, and he should write his name in most of the record books by the time the year ends. Mims should return his top-line speed and gadget ability that he flashed in the past, even though he was under-utilized in 2020.
Behind them though, neither back can get complacent. Fresno State brought in Utah transfer Jordan Wilmore, to go along with Jevon Bigelow and Malik Sherrod who were on campus last season. Also new this year are two extremely highly rated running back recruits in Jordan Hornbeak and Jonathan Arcenaux. Even if Fresno State’s passing attack isn’t as explosive as it was last year, their rushing game will try to pick up the slack behind a hopefully improved O-Line.
WR: Ty Jones or Keric Wheatfall/Mac Dalena
One of the biggest transfers of the off-season, both in size and composite score, was Ty Jones from Washington. The former 4* receiver comes in at 6’4”, creating a huge size mis-match over most defenders. Paired with him will be Keric Wheatfall, who made a huge impression in his first season in Fresno, highlighted by an acrobatic one-handed catch against Colorado State.
Behind the two is freshman Mac Dalena, who truly only got one game last season at receiver, although he did fill in as kicker against Nevada. He showed a lot of the skill that was promised when he arrived in that one game, so look for the coaches to use him when the situation warrants it, or when Jones and Wheatfall need a breather.
WR: Josh Kelly/Zane Pope
2019’s leading receiver was injured for a lot of the 2020 campaign, and that allowed Josh Kelly to come forward and explode onto the scene. Kelly was an incredibly sure-handed receiver, who even had a spectacular one-handed catch in the Fall scrimmage game. Kelly looks to be Haener’s top target coming into 2021, with Pope being used to spell Kelly when the time is right. Having either on the outside gives Fresno State a strong weapon that can get behind the defense, or win a contested pass across the middle
WR: Jalen Cropper/Emoryie Edwards
Fresno State’s breakout star of 2020 looks to continue on that path in 2021, and live up to his high recruiting billing and a potential OPOY as long as Jake Haener can stay upright in and out of the pocket. He did evolve from much more than a gadget player in 2020, and used his elite speed and smooth route-running to great effect against Utah State, where he racked up more than 200 yards and 3 scores. I’d expect him to continue his dynamic ways, and he might be the next Fresno State receiver to hear their name called in the NFL draft.
Emoryie Edwards opted out of the 2020 season, so it has been awhile since Fresno State fans have seen him on the field. The Valley native will definitely want to make his mark, and Haener seems more than okay with spreading the ball around to as many weapons as needed.
TE: Raymond Pauwels/Juan Rodriguez or Tre Watson
Now, this one could flip by the first game. I’m only really putting Pauwels first because Rodriguez suffered a pretty bad knee injury during Game 1 of 2020. Pauwels has been taking the first-string reps in the Spring and Fall, but that could be a mix of his skill, and Rodriguez still recovering from his injury. We’ll see more as we get closer to game week August 28th.
The wild card in this mix could be Tre Watson, the freshman tight end who is seen as absolute athletic freak by the coaching staff, leading his high school to state championships in basketball and football. Even if he does not take over as a starter in 2021, I think Watson will be a huge star in the future
OL: Some mix of Dontae Bull, Mose Vavao, Matt Smith, Dante Adkins, and Alex Akingbulu/Elijah Carson
It’s no secret that the offensive line was a massive weakness in 2020. The turnaround from the elite 2018 unit to 2020 has been a shock for many Fresno State fans, and injuries can only explain away so much of it. Now the only stable part of that line, Syrus Tuitele, is off to the NFL now. All 5 projected starters did have experience on the line in 2019 or 2020, but finding the right position and getting a lot of improvement out of them will be the challenge for Ryan Grubb and Roman Saupolo. If Fresno State’s offense truly wants to be elite in 2021, and they have the talent for it, the O-Line will need to keep Jake Haener upright, and open up lanes for the running backs. It could be the difference between Fresno State being merely okay and being great, and potentially contending for another Mountain West title.
That’s it for the offensive breakdown and projection of the team, the defense and special teams will follow shortly as we get closer to kickoff against the Huskies.