After a 2021 season that saw the highs of a last-minute win over a Top 15 UCLA, the lows of a turnover plagued loss to Hawaii, and a 10 win season that came inches from an appearance in the conference title game; head coach Kalen DeBoer was hired away to Washington, and Jeff Tedford returned to a loaded offensive roster and high expectations. Let’s see what 2022 might look like for the Valley’s football team.
Tedford Returns to Fresno
His first tenure in Fresno began with a division title in 2017, a conference title in 2018 and a Top 25 ranking. 2019 was plagued by injuries and one-possession losses, then Jeff Tedford stunned the Bulldog faithful by announcing his retirement due to health issues. His offensive coordinator stepped up into the big chair and engineered a strong 2021 season after a 3-3 COVID-shortened 2020. DeBoer made the move up to the PAC-12 and Washington, and the natural choice for Bulldog fans and administrators was to get Jeff Tedford back. Luckily, his health has improved, and he was ready to take the reigns again. After a brief flirtation with the transfer portal, star QB Jake Haener decided to stay in Fresno, and the offense looks like it could rival the dynamic 2013 unit. Wide Receiver Coach Kirby Moore has been promoted to Offensive Coordinator, and a host of new faces and veterans will hope to help the Dogs take the next step in 2022.
The 2022 offense will go as far as Jake Haener’s arm can take them, and that is definitely something Bulldog fans are looking forward to. In 2021, he became the first quarterback not named Carr to throw for more than 4,000yds, to go alongside 33 touchdowns. If there was one flaw to Haener’s game in 2021, it’s that he was too much of a gunslinger sometimes, such as the 4INT game against Hawaii. He has spoken at length of his work in the off-season, and choosing throws to cut turnovers has been the key with Tedford and Moore.
Even though the program’s all-time touchdown leader, Ronnie Rivers, has moved on to the NFL, there remains optimism in the ground game with Jordan Mims returning for one more year. In 3 games where he was the feature back as Rivers healed from injuries, Mims rushed for 485yds and 5TDs. He has flashed skill both as a receiver and rusher during his time in Fresno, and as long as he can stay healthy, he could be a vital piece of the offense no matter what the game plan is. The one area of concern behind Mims is one of experience. With the transfer of Jordan Wilmore and Jordan Hornbeak, 2nd string duties fall to sophomore Malik Sherrod, Mizzou transfer Simi Bekare, and hopefully a healthy Jevon Bigelow. Tedford has preferred to work with at least two running backs, so it remains to be seen who is the complement to Mims.
I’ve already made one comparison to the 2013 offensive unit, but it really is the last time Bulldog fans saw a wide receiver group that’s this loaded with talent and experience. Even though Keric Wheatfall and Ronnie Rivers are off hoping to play on Sundays, the rest of the Fresno’s top 10 receivers return for 2022. They are paced by senior receiver Jalen Cropper, who showed his NFL potential with 900 yds and 11 touchdowns last year. 2nd leading receiver Josh Kelly also returns, giving Haener a potent 1-2 punch. Word out of camp so far has been that Cropper is working more on the outside this season, hoping to mix his speed with Wheatfall’s role as the deep threat. I’m sure we’ll still see Cropper used for sweeps, tosses, and maybe even a pass play as well like the last two years.
After being a true strength during his first two years in the Valley, the offensive line has become a bit of a liability for the Dogs, and has put a damper on a true offensive explosion. With 3 spots open on the line this year, the hope is for improved protection for Haener. New O-Line coach Saga Tuitele, most recently of Army, should hopefully be able to get the line back to where it was in 2018, when it surrendered 3 sacks all season. Mose Vavao and Bula Schmidt look to be locked in as starters alongside Dontae Bull if he recovers from off-season surgery. Former 4* recruit Tyrone Sampson is still looking for starting time, 2021 recruit Braylon Nelson got some play as a true freshman, JuCo recruit Jacob Spomer has been spending time with the 2nd team, and Michigan State transfer Jacob Isaia will fight for the last spots on the line. Fans will have to hope that the best 5 hit the field under Tuitele’s leadership, as the offense will only be as strong as the OL.
On the staffing front, Tuitele is not the only new face for fans to get used to. John Baxter makes a return to Fresno after time away at USC and Michigan, and will coach special teams and tight ends. Pat McCann steps into Kirby Moore’s old spot at WR coach after 3 years coaching receivers and coordinating the passing game at Eastern Washington University. They had the top offense in the FCS in 2021, and QB Eric Barriere was both Big Sky and National FCS Player of the Year. Rounding out the new names is Running Back coach James Montgomery. Like McCann, he comes up from the Big Sky Conference, where he coached backs at Sacramento State and Cal Poly. It appears that Tedford will stay as QB coach while Moore moves into the big chair running the offense.
Fresno State is looking at their 4th Defensive Coordinator in 6 seasons, and potentially their third scheme change in the same stretch. Veteran coach Kevin Coyle returns to Fresno, where he previously served as DC for Pat Hill from 1997-2000. Since then, he’s had stretches in the NFL with both the Cincinnati Bengals and the Miami Dolphins, alongside a more recent stint at LSU during their title winning 2019 campaign. He brings with him a wealth of experience and familiarity with the Valley, even if it’s been a couple of decades since he last roamed a sideline here.
Coming with Coyle on staff are a host of names that should be familiar to long-time Bulldog fans, as alums Tim Skipper, J.D. Williams, and Jethro Franklin are on the defensive staff. Williams has been in Fresno since Tedford’s first time as head coach, with Franklin and Skipper often being brought up as potential names any time there was a defensive coach opening. Franklin was most recently a defensive line coach for Missouri after a 2 year stint with the Seattle Seahawks, and 3 years with the Oakland Raiders. Skipper returns to Fresno from Jim McElwain’s Florida and Central Michigan staffs, and he was last in Fresno for Pat Hill’s final years from 2006-2011. Rounding out proceedings is nickelback coach Jim Nelson. He has been a defensive assistant at Fresno State since 2019, but this is his first time stepping into an on-field role. This may also give hints at to the defensive scheme, as the nickel position was an important piece of the 4-2-5 from that William Inge ran.
The new staff will have an interesting mix of experience and youth to work with, and the results will be predicated on that youth stepping in to fill some high expectations. The defensive end spots seem relatively set, with both David Perales and Isaiah Johnson set for another season in Fresno. Backing them up should be De’Marcus Johnson, two-sport athlete Charles Remlinger, and some intriguing new freshmen in Jahzon Jacks and Miles Bailey. Hopefully if the freshmen see playing time, it’s because they worked their way into the rotation, and not due to injuries.
Where things are a bit less set is at defensive tackle. Kevin Atkins graduated to the NFL after 5 years as a constant presence in the middle, and the transfers of Evan Bennett and Julius Lewis leave a hole in the line. Leonard Payne should slide into one of those spots for sure, but the other spot remains a bit more up in the air. Matt Lawson seems to be the safe choice to be the other starter, but former DE Devo Bridges and Stanford transfer Andres Fox will be looking for opportunities. Don’t look past freshman Gavriel Lightfoot, who is already earning rave reviews from the coaching staff.
The linebacker room will again welcome in a transfer player to go alongside Levelle Bailey. Last year, it was Tyson Maeva, and this year, it’s USC LB Raymond Scott coming in. He looks to slot straight into the starting role alongside Bailey, with players like Malachi Langley waiting in the wings depending on the package used.
If there’s one spot on the defense without many question marks, it’s in the secondary. outside of DaRon Bland getting drafted by the Cowboys, everyone else returns. Captain Evan Williams continues to be a force at Safety, Elijah Gates is back alongside him, and corners Bralyn Lux and Cale Sanders are both ready to continue improving. If they can limit big passing plays, (which is something every MW defense struggles with), then the defense could return to the force it was in the early years of Tedford’s time at the helm.
The 2022 schedule features early tests, a very tough October, and then a sad lack of a rivalry at the end of the season. The season begins with a Thursday FCS game against Cal Poly to start September. Fresno and Cal Poly squared off last season, with the Bulldogs walking away with an easy 63-10 win over the Mustangs. I wouldn’t expect things to go much differently this year, as the Mustangs are expected to struggle in the Big Sky yet again.
On the next Saturday, the first matchup with the PAC-12 occurs, with an improving Oregon State Beavers visiting Valley Children’s Stadium (formerly Bulldog Stadium) for the first time since 2003. While the Beavers have definitely gotten better over the last two years, they lost to Utah State in the LA Bowl with USU relying on a backup QB for much of the game. If this season is how Mountain West teams will audition for possible conference expansion into the PAC-12, beating at least Oregon State should be helpful with that.
One week after OSU, the true test of the 2022 schedule happens. Fresno State travels to the LA Coliseum to take on the No.14 USC Trojans. While they were 4-8 last season, new head coach Lincoln Riley and a host of transfers has raised the hype and fortunes of the Trojans. If there was ever a year for Fresno to upset them though, it’s this one. They’re still working in a brand new coaching staff and roster, and they could have been knocked off balance by Stanford in Week 2. I’m not overly expecting a win, but if it happened, this would be the team to derail the USC hype train in 2022.
After USC, we actually see the first bye week of the season as the Dogs prepare for a long trip cross country to visit the Huskies of UCONN. Last year, they played in the season opener to a 45-0 Fresno State win under the blazing sun. Now, though, UCONN has a new head coach in Jim Mora, and they will be looking to make a statement in the early going of their season at their home stadium. This is still UCONN we’re talking about though, so this one should be a great way to close out the OOC schedule with a win. If the Dogs are 3-1, or even 4-0 at this point in the schedule, they’ll definitely have made some noise, and will be set up great for conference play.
There will be no easy slide into conference play, as the Bulldogs must travel up to the Smurf Turf to take on Boise. After an embarrassing loss last season, Fresno State will be looking for revenge, and will want to quickly stake their claim as the top contender in the Mountain West. Even though Boise was 7-5 last year, they should be better this year, and back in the running for the conference title. This is a pivotal game if Fresno wants to win the conference and be in with a shot at the NY6 bowl slot. A stumble here, and the margin for error drops to 0 in the conference, especially with the new rules eliminating divisions.
In one of the dumbest scheduling moves of the year, the Dogs will return to the friendly confines for the first time in over a month to face San Jose State. Yes, this game is supposed to be the last week of the season, but someone at the conference level thought differently. Way to screw up one of the oldest rivalries in the conference by putting it on Homecoming weekend. Outside of a weird stretch in the 1980s, this game is played at the end of the season. Just the way it goes. It remains to be seen if SJSU’s 2020 campaign was a blip, or the makings of actual improvement. I struggle to see San Jose’s offense keeping pace with Haener and Co. David Fales isn’t suiting up for them anytime soon.
Speaking of teams looking for improvement in 2022, Fresno will next make the trip to their most recent bowl destination to take on the New Mexico Lobos. The first two years of Danny Gonzales’ tenure hasn’t quite gone to plan, but the administration is dedicated to a long leash there. Still, there’s been a lot of roster turnover down there, and the pieces don’t seem to yet be in place for a bowl trip. I’d be happy to be wrong here, but I think regardless of the Boise game, the Dogs can look at back to back wins here.
The end of October also signals two straight home games, and the most pivotal games on the Bulldog schedule. They face San Diego State and Hawaii on back-to-back weeks at Bulldog Stadium, and the Aztecs are always the most likely foil to Fresno’s success. While Hawaii is facing a steep climb under new coach Timmy Chang, you never overlook the Warriors. They’re known for more football witchcraft than any other team in the conference, so they could be in place for a letdown mistake game like last season. The issue will of course be the Aztecs. After squeaking the Dogs to the Division Title last year despite losing to them in the season, both teams have reason to circle this one on the calendar. SDSU’s defense is always elite, but it’s still a question as to when they’ll ever find an effective offense.
After the two home games, it’s back on the road for two weeks, this time for a tour of Nevada. A Friday night game at UNLV sets up well for Bulldog fans to catch one game Friday, then make a weekend of it with a Raiders home game to watch the fireworks from Derek Carr and Davante Adams on Sunday. The Rebels sure put a scare into the ranked Bulldogs last season, and Arroyo’s team is really showing improvement. Not sure if they’ll be a bowl team, or a true threat this year, but I really expect them to jump up and ruin at least one teams’ season. Just have to hope it’s not Fresno’s in a repeat of 2017.
The next week stays in Nevada as the Dogs travel north to Reno to take on the Nevada Wolf Pack. Nevada is going through a huge rebuild this year, as Jay Norvell bolted to Colorado State, and took seemingly half the roster with him. Others defected to various MWC schools and other programs, leaving them with quite the empty stat sheet going into 2022. Honestly, if I had to pick which of the two games in the Silver State I felt more confident about, it would be the Nevada game. I just don’t see them having enough production to threaten many this year.
Last, but certainly not least, and certainly should not be the last week of the season, is the Wyoming Cowboys on Black Friday. Honestly, I’ve grown to like the Black Friday game. Keeps the rest of the weekend open for binging all of the other rivalry games that weekend (since the last week of the season should ALWAYS be protected for rivalries). Wyoming is a hard one to predict. They always have a great defense, but pretty much any offensive production from last season has transferred out, leaving a bit of a shell for them to build off of. This could be yet another rock fight like last year’s game, although 17-0 two years in a row would be just strange.
I know that this is going to sound super entitled, but given everything coming back, and the return of Jeff Tedford, but anything less than 10 wins would seem a bit like a disappointment. The games at USC, at Boise, and home for SDSU are the toughest ones on the schedule. The game against OSU could be really tricky, but that seems to be the only other challenge. Now, I say this knowing full well Fresno State’s proclivity for tripping over themselves whenever they’re under expectations, but I’m a hopeless optimist. Tedford’s teams here were known for being well-disciplined, and this offense could truly be an historic unit. Hopefully we’ll see just how high Fresno State can fly, and not another season of what-ifs and broken dreams. Either way, I’ll be there cheering them on.
For all your MWC news, keep it glued here. Only a couple of weeks left everybody, we made it through the darkness!