clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

2023 Fresno State Season Preview

Don’t Call it a Comeback, he’s been here for years

Fresno State Bulldogs defeated the Washington State Cougars 29-6 to win the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl. Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

After returning to Fresno State in 2022, when Kalen DeBoer left for Washington, Jeff Tedford inherited a talented 10-win squad helmed by star QB Jake Haener and a fleet of talented players. Even though things started poorly, with a 1-4 record and Jake Haener potentially out for the season, the team came together brilliantly to reel off 9 straight wins to capture their first conference championship since 2018 and a dominant LA Bowl victory over Washington State to send the seniors out on top. Now, Tedford must reload last year’s Mountain West Champion team without Haener, Jalen Moreno-Cropper, Jordan Mims, David Perales, and a host of others. Evan Williams has transferred to Oregon. Bralyn Lux went to Texas Tech, and Josh Kelly departed for Washington State. A defense that came on strong in the second half of 2022 will mostly return, but the offense features large amounts of turnover as Tedford and his Dogs try to negotiate a college football world that’s very different than the one we ended January with.

Offense Preview:

Jake Haener ruled the roost at Fresno State over the last three years outside of the 4 games last season where Logan Fife took over while Jake recovered from his ankle injury. Now, he’s joined Derek Carr in New Orleans for a wonderful Fresno State reunion on the Saints, but he leaves a big question behind in who will be his replacement? Last year’s backup, Logan Fife, returns with his eyes on the starting job, and the two wins he secured last year did pave the way for Fresno’s championship run, even with the losses to USC, UCONN, and Boise to begin.

The biggest competition for him looks to be coming from UCF transfer Mikey Keene. Keene was the starter for the Knights in 2021 before splitting time with John-Rhys Plumlee in 2022 before transferring to Fresno. He brings a lot of the same skillset as Jake Haener to Fresno, and it’s very clear why Tedford grabbed him out of the portal. Keene and Fife currently are the 1A and 1B of the QB race, although there are two exciting prospects vying for their spot on the field.

Joshua Wood and Jayden Mandal may be redshirt freshman and freshman respectively, but neither seems content to sit and wait for Fife or Keene to finish their time on the 1st team. Wood came highly touted as the Washington Gatorade Player of the Year, and Mandal was the top-rated local recruit in the 2023 class for the Bulldogs, and graduated early to join the team in Spring and get a headstart. While I certainly believe that the race is solely between Keene and Fife, it is great to see that the young players are involved and ready for their turn to shine.

2023 represents the first season since Tedford was first hired, where Ronnie Rivers or Jordan Mims aren’t in the backfield. Ronnie is still with the Rams, while Mims is hoping to make his way with the Buffalo Bills. While Mims leaves a large amount of production behind, Malik Sherrod and Elijiah Gillams both return from last year. Cal transfer Damien Moore will try to capture the space left by Mims alongside sophomore Johnathan Arcenaux. Even though his big brother may be gone, there’s another running back named Rivers joining the team in 2023, this time Devon. If he will have the same instant impact that his brother and father did before him remains to be seen. Either way, every Fresno St fan will be happy to see the number 20 carry on for at least 4 more years in the Valley.

No position on the offense might be facing a bigger loss of production than the wide receiver group. Jalen Moreno-Cropper is with the Cowboys, Nikko Remigio is with the Chiefs, Zane Pope is with the Edmonton Elks, and Josh Kelly transferred to Washington State. Erik Brooks and Mac Dalena return as the most experienced receivers in the group, and then everything else is question marks. 4* Boston College transfer Jaelen Gill appears ready to slot right into the rotation, as does JuCo transfer Josiah Freeman. Senior receiver Emoriye Edwards, Toledo transfer Mikel Barkley, and JuCo receivers Antoine Sullivan and Artis Cole will all look for their time in the rotation. Jalen Moss and Nathan Acevedo used their redshirt last year, so both will be ready to contribute after a year of learning under new OC Pat McCann.

Even with a new coach and all of the turnover in the skill positions, there may be no group with more pressure on them than the offensive line. Jake Haener was a master at creating magic when protection broke down, but he was still sacked 75 times in his 3 year Bulldog career. Coach Armstrong has been brought in from Montana St where his lines were known as road-graders in the Big Sky Conference. While they were not a great unit in 2022, at least there’s a lot of potential and experience ready for this year. Mose Vavao, Jacob Spomer, Braylen Nelson, Tyrone Sampson, and Jacob Isaia all return, with K-State transfer Kingsley Ugwu and JuCo transfer Hyden Pulis both jockeying to join the rotation. Due to the relative inexperience all over the offense, the OL will need to step up early in the season until the rhythm can be built up. While we can certainly hope for a return to the elite play of the 2017/2018 units, even a Top 5 Oline in the conference would be a good improvement in 2023.

Defense Preview:

With all of the turnover and question marks on the offense, it’s up to Kevin Coyle and his group of returners to potentially carry this team in the early going of 2023. While it took time in 2022, the defense became a dominant unit during the 9-game win streak and will look to carry that forward. There certainly are losses that need to be addressed, namely Evan Williams transferring to Oregon and David Perales playing for a roster spot with the Pittsburgh Steelers. What remains though could easily continue on the strong play and potentially rival the defenses from the first two years of Tedford.

David Perales was a one-man wrecking crew off the edge during his time in Fresno, and that does leave a space on the defensive line. LA Bowl MVP Devo Bridges appears most likely to take that spot, and both Isaiah Johnson and Charles Remlinger return alongside Bridges. Idaho edge Kemari Muniel-Bailey joins the competition at the end spot alongside high-potential 2023 recruit Ezra Christensen. Bridges and Christensen do also have the versatility to shift inside that we saw from Devo last season for run-stopping.

The center of the line also looks to have carryover from 2022, with Johnny Hudson, Jacob Holmes, and Gavriel Lightfoot all back alongside Bridges. All 3 have starting experience, although Lightfoot had an injury that slowed him down as a true freshman. College of San Mateo transfer Kavika Baumgartner will also be pushing for those starting reps, but he will need to displace one established starter to get there. Freshmen Isiah Chala, Mordecai Hines, and Dupre Mendoza may need to wait a year, but they’ve got experienced players to learn from and an experienced coach in Jethro Franklin teaching them.

With Williams off to Oregon, the defensive leader position now falls to Levelle Bailey. The senior linebacker has been a fixture in the middle, and now he’s back for one more year in the Valley. Bailey and Malachi Langley formed a great duo last year, and both now return with more experience and more hype going into 2023. 2022 contributor Raymond Scott returns from injury and welcomes another USC transfer in Tuasivi Nomura. 2022 recruits Phoenix Jackson and Tim Thomas are in the mix for time, but Bulldog fans will certainly be hoping that Bailey and Langley can play just as well in 2023 as they did together in 2022.

Alongside the linebacking corps, Fresno State might be returning the premier cornerback duo in the conference. Cam Lockridge and Carlton Johnson might not have been the starters to begin 2022, but they quickly put their mark on the defense last year. Lockridge turned himself into the MWCCG MVP with 2 interceptions in the title game, and Johnson’s INT sealed the deal in the wild comeback game against San Diego State back in October. The two have one year of eligibility remaining and will be looking to leave a mark as lock-down cornerbacks for a team with a long history of them.

If there is a part of the defense with question marks, it’s at the safety spot. Evan Williams transferred out, and Elijiah Gates graduated. Every other part of the defense returns at least one starter, but the safeties have to replace both starters now. The coaching staff went out and got Kent State safety Dean Clark from the portal after he registered more than 110 tackles in 2021 before an injury derailed your 2022. The second spot looks to be between former QB Stephen Comstock and reserve safety Kosi Agina. A lot of success in the pass defense will come down to the safeties stepping up to the task in 2023. Evan Williams and Elijiah Gates were instrumental in Fresno St winning 10 games in back-to-back years, so there will be big shoes to fill for their replacements.

Schedule Preview:

The Mountain West moves into a new era in 2023 by going away from the traditional divisions and moving to rotating schedule opponents. That does mean that some traditional rivalries might take a break for a period, but the conference title game is now guaranteed to be between the two teams with the best records. So this does mean no game against Hawaii this year, but Utah State joins the schedule for the first time since 2020. We’ll also see the first-ever matchups between Fresno State and Purdue, and Kent State, and the first regular season matchup against Arizona State since WW2 began. Home games against Kent State and Eastern Washington sandwich the two Power 5 road trips, with conference play beginning at home against Nevada the last week of September. A pivotal home game against rival Boise State will fall on November 4th, and then a potentially conference-deciding game against San Diego State is the final week of the regular season. There is a decent chance that the title game again features a rematch, but conference darkhorse Air Force does not appear on the slate.

If Fresno St wants to repeat as conference champs and get to another 10-win season, they will need at least 2 wins in that OOC slate and hopefully knock off at least one P5 team. Both of Fresno’s opponents have new coaches this year and have significant roster questions to answer. The road may not be smooth within the Mountain West conference, especially with Boise returning a large amount of production from last year’s team. SJSU should have a potent offense, and SDSU/Wyoming are always going to try to beat you with defense. Utah State could be like their 2021 conference champion team, or the 2022 team that slumped to 6-7. Nevada could be improved in year 2 under Wilson, and UNLV has been on an upward trajectory.

The biggest question for the Dogs in 2023 is just how quickly they can replace all of the lost pieces from last year. If Mikey Keene and the new receivers can gel during Fall practice, then Jeff Tedford and his guys have a good chance at repeating at least as a 10-win team, with a strong chance at another conference title. If the offense can not get together, or is beset by injury, then things could go sideways. The defense looks strong enough to help carry things in the early days, but as we’ve seen in the past from other MWC teams, you really do need offensive production if you want to win this league. And with how much the world is swirling with conference realignment, now is the best time to make a statement to the world and not fall back to mediocre play.