Friday, August 29, 2008

GAME PREVIEW: Fresno State @ Rutgers

Fresno State saw a drastic change for the better in Tom Brandstater (6-5, 225) last season, and will quickly find out if he’s going to make the same types of strides this season as a senior. Brandstater’s confidence and performance down the stretch last year – including trusting his speed and not hesitated to take off with the ball – have many believing he’ll be one of the top handful of quarterbacks in the next NFL Draft. Brandstater completed 63% of his passes for 2,654 yards, 15 touchdowns and 5 interceptions last year – an eye-opening improvement from 55%, 1,490 yards, 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions as a sophomore. If the game is close, don’t be surprised if true freshman Ebahn Feathers (6-1, 210) appears on the field for a surprise play or two – he ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at a high school combine.

Rutgers senior Mike Teel (6-4, 220), like Brandstater, is a third-year starter. Teel put up more prolific numbers last season with 3,147 yards and 20 touchdowns, but was also less efficient completing 58% of his throws and tossing 13 interceptions. The big test for Teel will be how he performs under the spotlight now that superstar tailback Ray Rice is gone. Teel is likely to see more pressure and focus shifted toward the passing game. But he proved a lot last season directing the first offense in NCAA history with a 3,000-yard passer, 2,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers. Reserve junior Jabu Lovelace (6-2, 215) is a running threat with 332 yards and 4 scores in 2007.
Edge: Even

Running Back
If the Bulldogs’ talented trio protects the ball and controls the clock, Rutgers will have a tough time winning. Sophomore Ryan Mathews (5-11, 215) and junior Lonyae Miller (5-11, 215) are expected to share most of the carries with junior Anthony Harding (6-0, 215) taking handoffs and catching passes out of shotgun formations. Mathews is plain and simple one of the most talented backs in the country, and led the team with 866 yards and 14 touchdowns (tops in the nation for freshmen) last season on 6 yards per carry. Miller had 625 yards and 5 touchdowns on 4.6 per carry, and Harding 449 yards and 3 touchdowns on just 3.9 per carry (but he often got the ball in short yardage situations).

Ray Rice was just pure dominant last season, there’s no other way to put it. But gone are his 2,012 yards and 24 touchdowns – being replaced by two sophomore backs who combined for just 54 carries and 260 yards last season. Neither Mason Robinson (5-10, 190) or Kordell Young (5-9, 185) scored a touchdown. Young went down with a season-ending knee injury in the third game last season against Norfolk State. The ol’ big-shoes-to-fill adage doesn’t get any more appropriate than this.
Edge: Bulldogs

This might be the most depth the ‘Dogs have ever had at wide receiver – and they’ve had a lot. Junior Marlon Moore (6-0, 190) broke out late last season with 5 touchdowns in the final 6 games, and tallied 48 catches for 694 yards as arguable the team’s fastest player. The go-to receiver from 2006 returns after missing last season with an injury in junior Chastin West (6-1, 215). Add to that an expected breakout year by deep threat Seyi Ajirotutu (6-3, 210), who had 491 yards on 16.9 per catch, the team’s top possession receiver junior Jason Crawley (6-2, 185) and sophomore Devon Wylie (5-9, 170), who is basically uncoverable in the first 10 yards of a route, and defense should be scared. Oh yeah, and don’t forget to key on senior Bear Pascoe (6-5, 260), one of the best three tight ends in the nation

The Scarlet Knights send an absolute two-headed monster onto the field in junior Kenny Britt (6-4, 215) and senior Tiquan Underwood (6-2, 185). Underwood led the team with 65 catches and was second with 1,100 yards and 7 touchdowns. Britt was second with 62 catches and led the squad with 1,232 yards and 8 scores, while racking up a whopping 19.9 yards per catch. Junior Tim Brown (5-8, 165) added 340 yards and 2 scores, and senior tight end Kevin Brock (6-5, 255) had 241 yards and 2 touchdowns. Rutgers doesn’t have quite as many weapons here as Fresno State, but the Bulldogs will have to keep constant attention on a Britt-Underwood duo that Pat Hill said will be more of a challenge than USC’s Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith in 2005.
Edge: Scarlet Knights

Offensive Line
Four starters return from a group that allowed just 18 sacks last year, and senior left tackle Bobby Lepori (6-5, 290), senior left guard Cole Popovich (6-2, 290) were both major parts of the unit that allowed only 12 sacks in 2006. Fresno State has at least four legitimate first-team All-WAC candidates in Lepori, Popovich, sophomore right guard Andrew Jackson (6-5, 295) and senior right tackle Kenny Avon (6-3, 285). Attempting to fill the large shoes of departed Ryan Wendell at center is junior Richard Pacheco (6-2, 285), who came on so strong in fall camp he unseated sophomore roommate Joe Bernardi (6-2, 290), a future All-WAC player.

While the line is a big unknown for Rutgers with three starters gone from last year, standout sophomore left tackle Anthony Davis (6-6, 325) returns as the only sophomore named to the Outland Trophy watch list. Junior center Ryan Blaszczyk (6-4, 295) is the other returning starter, though senior right tackle Mike Gilmartin (6-5, 290) saw action in every game of 2007. The other two starters are redshirt freshmen in guards Kevin Haslam (6-7, 295) and Caleb Ruch (6-4, 285).
Edge: Bulldogs

Defensive Line
Many have questioned what is somewhat of a no-name defensive line other than senior Jon Monga (6-2, 280), the WAC’s premier pass rushing tackle with the best motor on the team. But the ‘Dogs expect just as big a pass rush from the edge with a healthy senior Ikenna Ike (6-2, 255) at end. The team’s biggest problem defensively in recent years has been stopping the run. If sophomores Cornell Banks (6-3, 300) and Mark Roberts (6-4, 300) play as well as they did in spring and fall camp, the problem will be alleviated. Keep an eye out for sophomore Chris Lewis (6-3, 260), one of the most ballyhooed recruits on the roster who could be an X-factor as a reserve end.

The biggest knock on Rutgers’ defensive front is size up the middle. Senior tackle Pete Tverdov (6-4, 270) and sophomore Alex Silvestro (6-4, 250) are much leaner and lighter than the typical major college tackle. But Fresno State has, at times, had some trouble with smaller, quicker defenders. Tverdov started 8 games last season with 36 tackles (8.5 for losses) and a sack, while Silvestro made 3 starts with 13 tackles and a sack. Both will have their work cut out for them against a strong push from Fresno State’s experienced line in the running game. The ends though, excel in the pass rush. Senior Jamaal Westerman (6-3, 265) led the Knights with 8 sacks, while junior George Johnson (6-4, 260) tied for third with 4 sacks as a part-time starter.
Edge: Bulldogs

Sophomore Ben Jacobs (6-3, 240) was an instant standout last season, finishing second on the team with 81 tackles. At the position with the least proven depth on the team, it’ll be up to him to raise the bar as new starters are ushered in. Sophomore Nico Herron (6-3, 240) is a ferocious hitter, and sophomore converted end Chris Carter (6-2, 220) has great speed and strength. Expect redshirt freshman Kyle Knox (6-1, 215) to make his pass-rushing presence felt.

Senior Kevin Malast (6-2, 235) is the stud of the unit, finishing second on the team with 92 tackles (7.5 for losses) and 2 sacks in 2007. The team’s third-leading tackler (67 tackles, 7 for losses, 2.5 sacks) from a year ago is junior Damaso Munoz (6-0, 215) who’s listed second on the depth chart in the middle behind junior Ryan D’Imperio (6-3, 240), who broke his leg in spring 2007. Redshirt freshman Manny Abreu (6-3, 245) fills the other starting role. Abreu was rated the No. 2 weak linebacker in the nation coming out of high school by one recruiting service.
Edge: Even

Defensive Back
The biggest positive in the secondary coming out of camp is a newfound aggressiveness that was missing last season when the team finished tied for a nation-low four interceptions. Junior corners A.J. Jefferson (6-0, 190) and Damion Owens (5-11, 200) team with senior Sharrod Davis (5-11, 190) to form what looks to be a formidable unit. Jefferson has tremendous athleticism and speed, Owens is a coverage specialist and Davis keeps his man in front of him and delivers strong tackling. Junior strong safety Moses Harris (5-11, 205) showed immense improvement in his closing speed during fall camp, and is the team’s hardest hitter. Junior free safety Marvin Haynes (6-1, 205) can deliver punishment as well.

One of the top free safeties in the nation lives in Rutgers’ secondary in senior Courtney Greene (6-2, 215), who is on both the Nagurski and Lott trophy watch lists. He led the team with 101 tackles last season (2.5 for losses), a sack and an interception. Junior Zaire Kitchen (6-2, 215) and sophomore Joe Lefeged (6-1, 200) are battling for the strong safety spot. The McCourty brothers return at the corner position in senior Jason McCourty (5-11, 190) and sophomore Devin McCourty (5-11, 185). Devin led the team with 2 picks last season.
Edge: Even

Special Teams
A.J. Jefferson led the nation at 35.8 yards per kick return last season, including 2 touchdowns. The Bulldogs are almost among the tops in the country in blocked kicks as well, with Jefferson returning one for a touchdown last year. Bear Pascoe is a force who disrupts the middle of field goal formations. However, the ‘Dogs must break in a new kicker in redshirt freshman Kevin Goessling (6-0, 190), a power-legged lefty who was lights out in camp. Sophomore punter Robert Malone (6-2, 215) has a chance to be a special player if he finds consistency.

Like Fresno State, Rugers introduces a new kicker in redshirt freshman San San Te (5-9, 180), who was rated the No. 5 prospect nationally by one service coming out of high school. Sophomore punter Teddy Dellaganna (6-2, 210) also has yet to see game action. In the return game, the Knights were led by Tim Brown’s 20.7 yards per kick return, and had no one shine returning punts.
Edge: Bulldogs

Hey, it’s Pat Hill sticking to that “anyone, anywhere, anytime” mentality by opening at Rutgers. Hill is the longest tenured coach in the WAC as he enters Year 12, and is among the top 3 and 4 of WAC coaches in all-time wins and bowls. For the fourth time in the past 8 years, Hill has the national media talking BCS for the ‘Dogs.

Eighth-year coach Greg Schiano deserves respect. The guy turned around a Rutgers program that was absolutely stuck in struggles for years, and has led it to three straight bowls. And, unlike many BCS-conference coaches, Schiano doesn’t shy away from good competition in the early season. The two coaches are very similar in style and philosophy, but Hill wins out on longevity.
Edge: Bulldogs

Pat Hill, Red Wave, get your THUMBS UP!

In honor of the United States and our great performance in the 2008 Summer Olympics, we’ve decided to have a little fun — albeit with real opinions — with the Fresno State football team. Anybody can write a preview about keys to the game, position match-ups and game previews (including us, so check back again today to read that too), but not many football gurus have the kind of outside the box (hardly), attention demanding (read if you feel like it) material that goes for the Gold, a la Michael Phelps. So without further ado, here are our medal winners (Gold, Silver and Bronze) for random but intriguing and unheralded attributes regarding Fresno State football’s best.

Oh, and for your listening and viewing pleasure as you read, here is the Fresno State fight song. Click play and then read; that’s our recommendation.

Hardest hitter
Gold: Moses Harris
Has shown growth each year, improved his speed and learned how to use his body for big impact hits.
Silver: Nico Herron
6-3, 240-pound animal likely deserving of the gold, but we’ll keep him here until he proves it on game day.
Bronze: Lorne Bell
Head down, heat-seeking missile; when he’s locked in you’re done.

Surest tackler
Gold: Jon Monga
Take a second to think about all the tackles Monga’s missed; you can stop thinking, it hasn’t happened.
Silver: Ben Jacobs
He’ll take a shot at you if he has a chance to, but he knows not to gamble if a guy could get by him.
Bronze: Eric Brown
A Kyle Goodman-like presence on special teams, he thrives at being the first guy downfield on kickoffs.

Fastest WRs
Gold: Marlon Moore
No explanation needed.
Silver: Devon Wylie
Devon Wylie doesn’t run like the wind, the wind runs like Devon Wylie.
Bronze: Chastin West
Others in the mix, but haven’t necessarily had the chance to prove it yet like West has.

Fastest RBs
Gold: Lonyae Miller
Similar 40 time to Mathews, but with longer strides and still hasn’t been caught from behind.
Silver: Ryan Mathews
Gone before you know it, but still has something left to prove with breakaway speed.
Bronze: Anthony Harding
Harris and Ellis haven’t proved it yet, and Harding ran so fast he knocked a Georgia Tech guy out.

Fastest LBs
Gold: Mario Moore
175-pound walk-on is just flat out faster than the rest.
Silver: Quaadir Brown
Especially now that he dropped all that weight.
Bronze: Chris Carter
Somebody has to win bronze; Carter gets the nod for experience.

Fastest DBs
Gold: A.J. Jefferson
Just ask those who have chased him what his dust tastes like.
Silver: Isaiah Green
It’s not easy be(at)ing Green.
Bronze: Sharrod Davis
I’m going to make fun Oregon ‘cause they don’t have him anymore. Edges out Phillip Thomas.

Fastest Overall
Gold: A.J. Jefferson
If he and Moore ran side by side they’d tie, but somebody had to get first.
Silver: Marlon Moore
If he and Jefferson ran side by side they’d tie, but somebody had to get second.
Bronze: Devon Wylie
Caught from behind at Texas A&M, but more stamina, speed and strength this year.

Stickiest hands
Gold: Bear Pascoe
Winnie the Pooh was recently overheard saying, “This honey’s as sticky as Bear Pascoe’s hands.”
Silver: Vince “Cub” Pascoe
If Cub played baseball, he’d be catcher.
Bronze: Chastin West
He made the tough, acrobatic catches all camp long.

Best cover guy
Gold: Damion Owens
A true coverage corner who doesn’t allow WRs much space.
Silver: A.J. Jefferson
Jefferson is faster than Owens and can cover best deep.
Bronze: Sharrod Davis
If you catch a ball in front of Davis, you’re getting’ hit.

Special teams guy
Gold: A.J. Jefferson
No. 1 in the country in kick returns and a preseason All-American.
Silver: Bear Pascoe
He’s the reason for the push in the middle that leads to so many blocked kicks.
Bronze: Bobby Shepard
Redshirt freshman is in there every play and expected to be a four-year mainstay.

Most Outgoing on-field personality
Gold: Joe Bernardi
“Joey, Joey, Joey.” If he’s within a mile, you’ll know it.
Silver: Bobby Lepori
A chatterbox on and off the field who is everyone’s friend.
Bronze: Jason Crawley
He’s been seen at practice with a feather in his helmet and a Fresh Prince headband.

Coolest facemask
Gold: Ryan Mathews
The DNA helmet was a fresh look.
Silver: Richard Pacheco
A true old-school O-line mask.
Bronze: Tapa Taumoepeau
We mostly just wanted you to try and say his name.

Prediction for most bones
Gold: Tom Brandstater
His growth coupled with the most opportunity gives him the gold.
Silver: Bear Pascoe
Bones for blocking, catching and blocking kicks.
Bronze: Ryan Mathews
If he goes for 1,000 yards and similar TD numbers he’s in the mix.

Most intense coach
Gold: Pat Hill
Every time I see/hear him I want to run through a brick wall.
Silver: Dan Brown
When he’s fired up, the D better be ready for a lecture.
Bronze: Derek Frazier
Brings the hands-on intensity when he doesn’t like what he sees.

Best tactical coach
Gold: Randy Stewart
He teaches and teaches and teaches, ‘til his shirt is soaked with sweat.
Silver: John Baxter
Special teams results speak for themselves.
Bronze: Derek Frazier
Do it right or he’ll show you how to do it right.

Route runner
Gold: Devon Wylie
No one can keep up with his quick cuts and change of direction.
Silver: Jason Crawley
His most refined trait; a true possession receiver who gets the tough first downs.
Bronze: Darren Newborne
Hard-working former walk-on has mastered the little things.

Jump ball catch
Gold: Chastin West
He’s proven his acrobatic ability in games.
Silver: Bear Pascoe
Hands, size and toughness to pull it down in traffic; he’d get Texas A&M’s vote.
Bronze: Seyi Ajirotutu
Height, hands and jumping ability.

Best at changing direction
Gold: Ryan Mathews
He can stay at full speed while contorting his body to either side.
Silver: Devon Wylie
Low to the ground and accelerates fast; uncoverable in the first 10 yards.
Bronze: A.J. Jefferson
Makes his cuts while still moving up the field.

Best practice player
Gold: Ryan Colburn
He’s gone from looking like a mess as a freshman to looking like a big-time QB because of the time he put in.
Silver: Kenny Wiggins
Just waiting for an opening to become the next O-line star.
Bronze: Richard Pacheco
It’s no coincidence why he earned the starting nod at center.

Best NFL prospect
Gold: Bear Pascoe
His skills are most likely to guarantee him a roster spot on an NFL team.
Silver: Tom Brandstater
Might have the highest ceiling, especially as a late bloomer.
Bronze: A.J. Jefferson
As long as he proves last year wasn’t a fluke, he can make it on return abilities alone.

Best motor
Gold: Jon Monga
He’ll grunt, growl, hit and run until the whistle blows.
Silver: Ikenna Ike
Former walk-on had to put out non-stop effort to get to where he is.
Bronze: Offensive Line
They’re a bunch of Energizer bunnies.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Rutgers Q&A with Bleed Scarlet blog

The author of the Rutgers Bleed Scarlet blog came up with the great idea of a Q&A exchange between our two blogs. Thanks for the insight on the Scarlet Knights!

Bulldog Bounce: What is the stadium atmosphere and fan tradition like at Rutgers?
Bleed Scarlet: The seats are very close to the field, so when the crowd gets into games, Rutgers Stadium can get loud. The stadium is currently in the middle of being expanded, so it's likely that there will be a lot of obvious unfinished construction work visible during the Fresno State game.
Some of the older season ticket holders have a "down in front" mentality and disapprove of other fans standing up and making noise. The younger fans and students on the other hand can get unruly at times. It's more of a pro-style atmosphere than a traditional college experience. You'll barely be able to hear the band (but you will hear the cannon), but expect a lot of 70s classic rock and Jock Jams to be played over the PA.

Will Ray Rice be replaced by a committee? How good might the Rutgers running game be in '08?
Right now it looks like Kordell Young and Mason Robinson will split carries this season. Neither has Rice's power or vision, or are as polished as he was last season, but both do have a little more speed than Rice did. Jordan Brooks is a bigger tailback and will see some time in short-yardage situations.
The overall running game will depend a lot on the play of the offensive line. Rutgers lost three starters from last season. So far in scrimmages, they've done well enough in pass protection, but have had some trouble opening holes in the running game. They've made no bones about the fact that they want to run behind their LT, Anthony Davis. The starting left guard was injured a few days ago, and it's unclear as to whether he'll be ready in time for the opener. One reason for optimism is that the team has a great offensive line coach, and it's not too difficult to find a productive runner when using a zone-blocking scheme.

Is Rutgers a team to reckon with now, or is there any worry things could return to how they were before Ray Rice?
Ray Rice was a major part of the team's success the past few seasons, but it wasn't solely on his shoulders. Explaining why Rutgers was so terrible for a good portion of a decade would take a lot of time. In summary: there were a lot of organizational challenges, and the former head coach was absolutely inept. Between facilities, academic support, and reputation, Rutgers is lightyears ahead of where it was before Greg Schiano arrived. Rutgers conceivably could fall back into mediocrity, but I don't expect that to happen, and there's no chance at this point of the bottom collapsing out from under the program.

What did Rutgers fans know about Fresno - the city and the school - before this game was scheduled?
We're familiar with Fresno State's reputation as a team that's not afraid to play anyone. I personally watched the ending of Fresno's game last year Texas A&M and thought that it was an absolute travesty. Most of us aren't that familiar with Fresno itself besides the fact that it's in California.
For Fresno State fans that are curious, Piscataway is about halfway between New York City and Philadelphia, but it's closer to NYC. It's a suburban town. Rutgers's campus is split in between two towns - Piscataway, and the more-urban New Brunswick. The latter is where you'll arrive if you come in by train (there is a shuttle bus that will take you to the stadium). New Brunswick is where any visitors will want to go after the game if they want to visit a nice restaurant or just go bar-hopping.

Rank the Fresno State players Rutgers fans are most concerned about and why?
In general, Rutgers fans aren't very familiar with any players on Fresno State's team. I have been reading what I can leading up to the game, and the Brandstater to Pascoe connection is getting the most press.

What has given Rutgers the worst matchup problems the past two years on both sides of the ball?
RU's biggest vulnerability on defense is to a power rushing attack. Coach Schiano likes to make his corners into safeties, safeties into linebackers, etc... to get the fastest personnel possible on defense. The end result is that the defensive line averages 270 lbs on a good day. This was a problem even in 2006 when the team was playing at a very high level.
Last season, the team did have some trouble opening holes in the running game early in the year, before a few changes were made to the starting lineup in October. Given the inexperience on the offensive line, rushing offense is again a concern entering this year.
The team's special teams were also terrible last season.

What West coast team does Rutgers' style most resemble?
We get a couple of Pac 10 games on Fox Sports Network, but overall I'm not very familiar with the specifics of each west coast team's attack. Personnel-willing, Rutgers likes to throw the football downfield, coupled with a power rushing game that keeps the chains moving and the opposing defense on the field. It's a variant of the classic Air Coryell offense favored by offensive coordinators such as Norv Turner.

Who are the go-to players when in need of a first down?
When the game is on the line, quarterback Mike Teel is going to throw the ball deep to receiver Kenny Britt. Britt is the most talented player on the team, and I'm surprised has has not received more preseason hype after a great 2007. Britt is the focal point of the offense, and everything goes through him if at all possible.

Does the Rutgers defense employ more zone or man?
It really depends on how exotic Schiano (who also serves as the team's offensive coordinator) wants to get with his blitzes, which he has no qualms about sending from every position. The team was very young at CB last year, so they played a lot of Cover-2 and Cover-3. When they did play zone, the CBs usually gave opposing receivers a large cushion. If that continues, they could be very vulnerable to possession receivers with steady hands.

Where does Fresno State rank as far as difficulty of teams on Rutgers' schedule?
West Virginia and South Florida rank first and second respectively. I'd say Fresno State is a little better than Pitt, which is not nearly as good as the Bulldogs offensively, but does have some playmakers on that side of the ball, to go along with a terrific defense. I'd also put Fresno State above Cincinnati, as long as Ben Mauk doesn't win his appeal with the NCAA.

Your prediction for the game?

Rutgers and Fresno State both should have prolific offenses this year, but Fresno State's experience on the offensive line gives them the edge there. I think Rutgers will have the better defense. That, combined with home-field advantage, will hopefully make for a narrow Rutgers win. 27-24. No Rutgers fan will be stunned if we lose though, or if Fresno State runs the table this year and crashes the BCS.


Returning kickers: 2
Incoming: 1
Lost: 2 (Clint Stitser, Kyle Zimmerman)

As has become the norm with Fresno State under special teams coach John Baxter, who’s been with Pat Hill since he took over for the Bulldogs in 1997, the special teams are special. Baxter has made the Bulldogs one of the most feared special teams units year in and year out as one of the nation’s top blocking threats. And adding to that is the return of junior cornerback A.J. Jefferson (6-0, 190), who wowed the nation last season with the top-ranking average of 35.8 yards per kick return and 2 touchdowns with a long of 98 yards. He also returned a blocked field goal more than 60 yards for a touchdown at Nevada. Jefferson has been named first-team on several publications’ preseason All-America teams.

It’s still somewhat unclear whether he’ll handle punt return duties too – that assignment was the departed Clifton Smith’s (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) last season. Now, it’ll likely be either Jefferson, sophomore wide receiver Devon Wylie (5-9, 170) or junior wide receiver Marlon Moore (6-0, 190). Wylie looks matured with speed and endurance from his true freshman campaign last season, when he was second in kick returns with 22.2 yards per attempt and a long of 47. Moore returned 4 kicks for a 28.2-yard average with a long of 34, and 2 punts for 16 yards. One of them will likely also be the other kick returner, unless junior wide receiver Chastin West (6-1, 215) reclaims the role he held in 2006 before missing last season with injury. West averaged 22 yards per kick return as a redshirt freshman, including a 93-yard touchdown at Boise State. No matter who gets the nod, it’s safe to assume the Bulldogs are in good hands in the return game.

The kicking game is much less proven, but looking strong. Redshirt freshman Kevin Goessling (5-10, 165) has a booming left leg comparable in power to Clint Stitser’s. The hope, though, is that Goessling will prove more accurate. After a so-so Spring Game, Goessling nailed 5 of 5 attempts in the first fall scrimmage, including a 53-yarder, but still has yet to face a real-life game situation. The Bulldogs also have some surprising depth with the emergence of walk-on Andrew Shapiro (6-1, 170). The right-footed Shapiro showed tremendous leg strength, and a quirky sense of humor, of his own in fall camp, and will be able to fill in at kicker or punter if needed. He’s also competing with Goessling for kickoff duties. Another walk-on will back those two up in redshirt freshman Stephen Ferdinandi (5-7, 165). Ferdinandi leg just isn't comparable to the other two kickers, so he'll have to work on his accuracy from mid-range to ever see playing time.

Atop the depth chart at punter is sophomore Robert Malone (6-2, 215), who does have some game experience. He started 2 games as a true freshman before going down with a season-ending injury, and then started last season before Kyle Zimmerman won the job. Malone had a career-long of 53 yards as a true freshman, but has struggled with consistency. If he can solve that part of the equation, watch out, because he showed as powerful a leg as any punter in school history during camp. Malone also returns as the holder on field goal attempts, but will have to adjust to working with a lefty this season.

The unit should also benefit a great deal from redshirt freshman holder Bobby Shepard (6-1, 235). He’s the first holder ever redshirted by Hill, a sign that Hill feels he can be a fixture on special teams for four years. He’s drawn comparisons to former Bulldog Kevin Murphy, who in four years as the starter never botched a snap. Senior tight end Bear Pascoe (6-5, 265) is the backup.

Rating: 9 of 10

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Returning players: 16
Incoming: 2
Lost: 1 (Damon Jenkins)

With the strength of some of the WAC’s passing attacks, it’ll come in handy that Fresno State’s defensive strength is its secondary. Four players with starting experience return. Junior strong safety Moses Harris (5-11, 205) has assumed a leadership role for the defense, on the field and in the classroom. He hit the practice field during camp with a more boisterous confidence that is shared by the rest of the defensive backs. Harris, a workout demon, is one of the team’s hardest hitters and thrives in blitz packages. He’s beatable in pass coverage, but did a lot of running work in the offseason and should be improved all around – especially in his closing speed. Harris ranked fifth on the team with 62 tackles last season, including 3.5 for losses, an interception and a blocked kick.

The free safety job is still up for grabs. Junior Marvin Haynes (6-1, 205) was the starter last season and part of his redshirt freshman year, but missed spring camp with injury. That opened the door for much-improved senior Jake Jorde (6-1, 205), who came on strong in the final few games of the 2007 season. Haynes was third on the team last year with 65 tackles, including 2.5 for losses and a forced fumble. He looks to have added some upper body size in the offseason, and has split first-team reps with Jorde during fall camp. Jorde played mostly on special teams until last season, capping the year with a game-sealing interception against Georgia Tech in the Humanitarian Bowl. He finished with 23 tackles on the year. Both are sure to see significant playing time.

At cornerback, the Bulldogs have a trio rotating for the top two spots. So far, they’ve all been playing so well there’s no clear cut winners. Junior Damion Owens (5-11, 200) was the best coverage corner last season and looked to be on his way to stardom. After starting all 13 games as a sophomore, Owens finished with 42 tackles, 1 for loss and an interception. More interceptions are expected from Owens, and the rest of the unit, this season after they were tied for last in the nation with 4 in 2007. In fall camp, Owens biggest improvement was the way he jumped routes, picking off two passes in a short 11-on-11 drill during camp’s first week.

Another corner who looks more aggressive than a year ago is junior A.J. Jefferson (6-0, 190), who is one of the 2 or 3 fastest players on the team. Jefferson was chosen for preseason All-America honors by several publications for his kick return abilities. He had 37 tackles last season, and has the closing speed to give quarterbacks and receivers fits.

The standout this season though, might be senior Sharrod Davis (5-11, 190), who’s brings a high level of physicality to the table. Last year was Davis’ first as a Bulldog, after transferring from Grossmont College via Oregon. Davis has great awareness of where the first-down marker is at all times and does a superb job of keeping the receiver from reaching it. He also showed last season he’s capable of delivering a knockout blow, which he did in a shutout of San Jose State in 2007. Davis had 16 tackles in 10 games last season, but is miles ahead now of where he was entering camp in 2007.

Another senior, Will Harding (6-1, 200), will be a big boost to the secondary. He was granted an extra year of eligibility because of a season-ending health issue while at Modesto College. Splitting his time between corner and safety in his first year as a Bulldog, Harding (the older brother of running back Anthony Harding) recorded 10 tackles, 2 for losses and a sack. He’s another much-improved corner.

A bit of encouraging news at safety is sophomore Lorne Bell (5-10, 200) was able to participate from Day 1 of fall camp. His season was ended last year with an injury against Kansas State that was thought to possibly keep him out a good portion of this season as well. But he’s looked good speed-wise in recent contact drills. If healthy, Bell is as good a safety as there is on the Bulldogs and will see plenty of playing time. Another one of the team’s hardest hitters, Bell was tied for sixth on the team with 51 tackles (3.5 for losses).

Another safety expected to emerge this season is redshirt freshman Zak Hill (6-2, 200), the son of coach Pat Hill. Hill earned scout team defensive MVP honors last season, and has good coverage speed and game knowledge. Still, he had an up-and-down first week of fall camp, and didn’t do a whole lot to stand out. But he’s definitely got that potential, though it may be a year away. It also wouldn’t be surprising to see Hill converted to linebacker if depth issues arise.

Big things could be in the near future for redshirt freshman cornerback Isaiah Green (5-10, 180) if he’s healthy. Green missed sat nearly all of the first week of fall camp, but has blazing speed. He ran the 100 meters in 10.50 seconds in high school. Greyshirt freshman Jermaine Thomas (5-11, 180) may not find the field as quickly as Green, but is another youngster to keep an eye on for the future.

Junior Frank Manquero (6-1, 190), a former walk-on from Orosi High, is working with the third team. He’s still raw and inexperienced, but adds solid depth and works hard. The young safeties to watch include greyshirt freshman Phillip Thomas (6-0, 190) of Bakersfield who should eventually develop into a standout. Thomas has seen a lot of reserve reps during camp and stood out. He’s joined by redshirt freshman Terrance Dennis (5-11, 170), who has looked solid in camp but needs to put on at least 20 pounds to be as physical as the Bulldogs would like.

Walk-on redshirt freshman corner Desia Dunn (5-9, 175) was tested early in camp with coverage assignments against the Bulldogs’ tallest receiver, Seyi Ajirotutu. Dunn held his own despite the obvious height difference. If he develops into a guy who can contribute it’ll be a nice bonus. The same holds true for junior walk-on safety Dorian Penn (6-0, 195), who has received plenty of reps in camp. He’s got comparable size to the starters.

A couple walk-ons round out the unit in freshman corner Kevin Russell (6-0, 180), a twin brother out of Clovis East High, and junior corner Raul Hernandez (5-10, 175). Neither is likely to play this season. The lone 2008 signee at corner, athletic L.J. Jones (5-11, 170) didn’t report to camp. He was expected to compete for immediate playing time.

Rating: 8 of 10

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Saturday, August 23, 2008


Returning players: 7
Incoming: 2
Lost: 5 (Marcus Riley, Trevor Shamblee, Ryan McKinley, Todd Chisom, Robert Schenck)

This isn’t the first time in recent years linebackers have been called the team’s biggest question mark. Last season the group thrived on the challenge, thanks in large part to sophomore Ben Jacobs (6-3, 225). Jacobs was thrust into a starting role in the middle as a redshirt freshman after Ahijah Lane suffered a career-ending injury in fall camp. Now, Jacobs enters the season as the veteran of the group, coming off a season with a team second-best 81 tackles, 6 for losses and 2 sacks. He also blocked 2 kicks on special teams. He fits that prototypical mold of the player who always seems to be around the ball. This year, Jacobs will be expected to take charge of the defense, especially the linebacker corps. During Jacobs’ first year in the program, former teammate Tyler Clutts predicted he’d be an All-American by the time he graduated. That’ll take some hard work, but Jacobs is off to a solid start.

The other two starting roles are what have fans wondering. Junior Quaadir Brown (6-0, 210) was expected to be the veteran presence of this group, but reportedly had some off-field issues that took his mind off football for a while and led to him losing a significant amount of weight. Brown spent at least the first week of fall camp on the sidelines, not participating in contact drills. With his status up in the air, sophomore Chris Carter (6-2, 220) was converted from defensive end. Though just a few weeks into his new role on the weak side, Carter has earned most of the first-team reps and has demonstrated he’s going to be a standout once he refines his technique and gets used to playing in open spaces. Carter had 15 tackles, 2 for losses and a forced fumble as a true freshman last season at end, but was ranked as one of the state’s top linebackers coming out of high school – so he’s not a stranger to the position. Carter is one of the most chiseled players on the team, and probably the fastest of the front seven.

On the strong side, the long-awaited arrival of sophomore Nico Herron (6-3, 240) seems to have arrived. Herron had a standout spring, and an even better start to fall camp, and looks to be the starter. He’s got prototypical linebacker size and is a vicious hitter. He’s even shown some ability in pass coverage during camp, something that won’t always be expected of him. It shouldn’t take the Red Wave long to fall in love with Herron after he crunches a few bones out there. The downside is that he has very little game experience other than on special teams. He missed the first 8 games with an injury last season, finishing the season with just 2 tackles.

The Bulldogs took another big blow to their depth with word that junior Ryan Machado (6-0, 210) is reportedly done for his career. Machado was having a breakout season in 2007 before an injury at Nevada sidelined him. But there is some reserve experience with sophomore Nick Bates (6-2, 210), who originally came to Fresno State as a highly-touted catcher on the baseball team before deciding his heart was in football and walking on under Pat Hill. Bates had 19 tackles, 4.5 for losses, 2 sacks and a forced fumble in his first season, but enters fall camp No. 2 on the depth chart.

A player who has somehow managed to flow under the radar so far is redshirt freshman Kyle Knox (6-1, 215). But he won’t be under the radar long – those who saw his high school film knew right away what type of an athlete the Bulldogs were getting. Knox moves well and is an aggressive, punishing tackler who specializes in snuffing out running backs and blitzing. He showed early glimpses in the first scrimmage of fall camp, delivering a crushing blow to running back Lonyae Miller and then intercepting a pass for a touchdown a few plays later. He’s sure to find his way onto the field this season.

Serving as backup in the middle is another redshirt freshman, Austin Raphael (6-2, 225), who has shown surprising speed early in his career and might play his way into the rotation a bit sooner than expected. He’s had an up-and-down camp, but definitely grown since last season.

A pleasant surprise in camp has been the emergence of freshman walk-on Shawn Plummer (6-0, 200), the son of longtime Hoover High coach Pat Plummer, a former Bulldog lineman. Plummer, who played safety at Clovis High, is a bit undersized but makes up for it with speed. He’s played well beyond his years in scrimmage situations, and draws comparisons to Bates last season.

A couple of local walk-ons from last season are working hard to climb the depth chart and will definitely play large roles on special teams, as they did last year. Sophomore Sonny McCree (6-0, 230) of Edison High has 3 tackles in 4 games since converting from H-back last season. Sophomore Eric Brown (5-11, 210) out of Clovis West High is the son of defensive coordinator Dan Brown. He finished with 9 tackles in 6 games, and was often the first defender down the field on kickoffs. Being brought up in a football family didn’t hurt his on-field intelligence either. Brown says his favorite football player is Marcus Riley, the WAC Defensive Player of the Year who graduated from Fresno State last season and is now in the NFL. Both McCree and Brown have been solid in camp.

True freshman Michael Butler (6-3, 220) of Sunnyside High was originally thought to be either a tight end or defensive end, but is now working at linebacker. Typically, the Bulldogs would want to redshirt him, but might need him this season with such unproven depth. He’s one of the most driven and positive-thinking recruits under Hill, who committed to Fresno State last season and then worked on convincing other area targets to become Bulldogs.

A couple of walk-ons fill out the unit in freshmen Dustin Russell (6-0, 210) of Atwater and Chad Martinez. Neither is likely to see a significant role this season. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, two of their most highly regarded recruits didn’t yet show up for camp in Ricky Pemasa (6-1, 205) and Damion Whittington (6-1, 220). Both would have been candidates to play as true freshman.

Rating: 6 of 10

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Friday, August 22, 2008


Returning players: 10
Incoming: 6
Lost: 4 (Tyler Clutts, Jason Shirley, Charles Tolbert, Jason Roberts)

This unit is a tough one to predict. It’s possibly the deepest defensive line in Pat Hill’s tenure, but most of the depth comes from guys who have little to no college experience. The one guy who has plenty is senior tackle Jon Monga (6-2, 280). While a bit lean for his position, Monga is a tenacious player who has quietly developed into one of the WAC’s most feared pass rushers while playing in somewhat of a shadow cast by former teammates Tyler Clutts (Canadian Football League) and Jason Shirley (Cincinnati Bengals). But 2007 marked a breakout year for Monga, who finished second on the team with 6.5 sacks and 11 tackles for losses. Monga has 11.5 career sacks. Coming off his first year as a starter, the man with light poles for arms added another key element to his game – becoming a vocal leader. Monga has taken charge of this group, shouting instructions and giving hands-on examples during drills for the younger players. He’s definitely got respect from his teammates. For the defense to be strong this season, Fresno State will need Monga to step his game to another level and become a guy defense game plan against.

That’s something the team has had for at least seven straight seasons now, but is somewhat in question this year. After Monga, at least six other linemen are plug-and-play, meaning they’ll be mixed and matched based on personnel groupings and stamina. Senior end Ikenna Ike (6-2, 255) is the next most experienced linemen. The former walk-on has made major strides in the weight room since starting sporadically over the past two seasons. And injury last year cost him about half the season. Ike is another player who’s earned teammates’ respect and taken on a leadership role in fall camp. He’s shown a knack for harassing the quarterback since he first stepped on the gridiron. In 6 games last year, Ike recorded 21 tackles, 1.5 for losses and a sack.

Junior end Wilson Ramos (6-4, 270) has made eye-opening improvements since his freshman year when he was constantly facing the wrath of coaches in practice. They must have seen the potential, as Ramos got his first starting experience last season, finishing with 27 tackles, 7 for losses and 3 sacks. Ramos strength is his versatility – he can play end or tackle.

An interesting battle is ongoing at the other starting tackle spot between sophomores Cornell Banks (6-3, 300) and Mark Roberts (6-2, 300). Banks added about 35 pounds from the start of 2007, while Roberts looks to have lost at least 20. Banks, a local Edison High product, got significant playing time last season with 23 tackles (3.5 for losses) and the added size should help him become the run stuffer up the middle coaches are hoping for. But, as the preseason favorite for the job, he’s facing a heck of a fight from Roberts, who’s new shape has allowed him to make huge strides in quickness, agility and endurance. The improved speed he demonstrates going through drills is jaw-dropping compared to his redshirt year. Roberts played in 9 games and had 7 tackles, 1 for loss and a sack as a redshirt freshman.

Not far behind those two is redshirt freshman Bryce Harris (6-6, 280), who fans should be drooling to see. Harris is large, to put it simply. The former Tulare High basketball standout is an athlete and added Division I strength during his redshirt year. He just might be a darkhorse who surprises some people this year.

At the same time, either of the second-string ends just might jump into impact roles at any time. Senior Michael Stuart (6-2, 250) looks to be listed 10-20 pounds under his actual weight. He had a strong offseason in the weight room, yet the converted tight end kept most of his speed. Stuart originally signed with USC as a tight end out of high school, before transferring to junior college and then Fresno State. Now that he’s settled in on the defensive side of the ball, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him break through.

But a guy with even more potential might be sophomore Chris Lewis (6-3, 260), formerly of Clovis West. Lewis hasn’t yet seen any playing time after serving a season-long suspension last season. The former state No. 1-ranked heavyweight wrestler in high school, Lewis originally signed to play football under his father’s childhood friend Randy Shannon at Miami, but decided Fresno State was where he wanted to be before his freshman season started. Lewis was a very highly rated recruit, and will be fascinating to keep an eye on with his physical prowess and bodybuilder’s physique. He’s had a strong fall, specifically in the passing game where he’s stood out as a guy who can drop into coverage and show off his jumping ability to bat down passes.

A big blow to the Bulldogs during spring was an injury to possible starting end sophomore Kenny Borg (6-3, 245), who is likely out for the season. Sophomore Taylor Smith (6-3, 250) has battled a recurring injury since his final year at Buchanan High (Clovis). His speed makes him a very interesting prospect if he can stay healthy. Smith has been a diehard, lifelong Fresno State fan.

Then there’s the wave of youth. Never before under Hill have the Bulldogs brought in such a large crop of newcomers who are all physically ready to play. Each of the four has seen time with the veterans in camp, and at least one or two is likely to play right away. Logan Harrell (6-2, 275) might be the best candidate based on the fact he can play tackle or end. Harrell has shown well in camp, and been tough against the run. The same holds true for tackle Anthony Williams (6-2, 280) of Humble, Texas. Williams is already one of the most physically imposing guys of the group, and should figure in large in the team’s future plans.

Tackle Chase McEntee (6-2, 265) of Galena Park, Texas was the first true freshman to get called in for practice with the veterans, and didn’t disappoint. McEntee is an enthusiastic youngster who’s catching on quicker than some predicted. Most knew end Matt Akers (6-3, 240) of Liberty High (Bakersfield) would be one to watch. Coaches have taken an interest in Akers in practice, as he’s working out some technique fundamentals.

The Bulldogs also got a huge boost when their biggest defensive line recruit of last year, Porter Hill (6-4, 275), was cleared to practice. Hill’s status was in limbo after a transcript mix up kept him off the practice field all of last season. Though large and muscular in stature, Hill spent the early weeks of camp in need of conditioning. He’s the type of guy who could end up being a future star.

The same holds true for redshirt freshman end Kyle Bell (6-4, 260), a former Mt. Whitney High (Visalia) standout who transferred from Oregon State. Bell is known for tremendous speed, and has already been a standout in practice, but must sit out this year because of NCAA transfer rules.

The only two disappointments in this unit were the two no-shows to fall camp. Tackle James Robinson (6-4, 315) and end Marcel Jensen (6-6, 230) were unable to report to camp.

Rating: 7 of 10

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Returning players: 11
Incoming: 3
Lost: 7 (Ryan Wendell, Chris Piligian, Pierce Masse, Sean Yandall, James Meeks, Nick Wright, Kyle Rainer)

There are a lot of players to focus on here with six linemen returning with starting experience. This deep, veteran group is led by its four seniors, including four-year starter Cole Popovich (6-2, 290) at left guard. In 2004, Popovich became the first true freshman to ever start on the line under Pat Hill before an injury cost him most of the season and he eventually earned a medical redshirt. On an extremely physical line, Popovich might have the biggest mean streak – when he was recruited out of Yosemite High (Oakhurst), Hill called him the next Logan Mankins (New England Patriots), who is known for mauling defenders. Popovich is also one of the team jokesters, making it a tradition to run up behind unsuspecting teammates during media interviews and planting a smooch on the cheek. Popovich, the WAC’s premier guard, is devastating in the running game as one of the strongest players on the team – he became the first freshman in Fresno State history to squat 600 pounds. After returning from injury, Popovich earned Freshman All-America honors in 2005.

Senior left tackle Bobby Lepori (6-5, 290) returns for his third season as a starter, and might be the best lineman of the bunch. Lepori has added a great deal of size, and is another All-WAC favorite. Coming out of high school in Reno, Lepori verbally committed to Fresno State before signing with hometown Nevada at the last minute. But during the first couple weeks of team meetings he had a change of heart and Fresno State coaches allowed him to walk-on with the Bulldogs. The highly-touted prospect didn’t disappoint. In his two years starting, the team has allowed a total of just 30 sacks (18 last season and 12 in 2006).

Senior right tackle Kenny Avon (6-3, 285) is the fastest of the starters. He’s logged 17 straight starts at the position since converting from defensive line during the 2006 season. Multiple preseason publications have predicted All-WAC honors for Avon as well, as his quick feet allow him to excel in protecting the quarterback in passing situations.

The other senior is utility man Adam McDowell (6-4, 290), who is probably listed 10-20 pounds lighter than he now weighs. The converted defensive end started the first two games last season at right guard before an injury at Texas A&M ended his season. Now, we the emergence of his former backup, McDowell is fighting for a starting spot at center, where he was used during spring camp, but can play any position on the line. Hill isn’t one to substitute much on the line, but is also known to be drastically loyal to his seniors, so expect to see McDowell at some point. Plus, he’s too talented to not have on the field in some role.

His replacement at right guard last year was sophomore Andrew Jackson (6-5, 295), who took the job and put it on lockdown. Jackson is built like Frankenstein – a solid, rectangular mass of strength. Likely the unit’s biggest NFL prospect of the future, Jackson also was a converted defensive tackle and carries a 4.0 GPA. With 11 starts as a redshirt freshman last season, he is expected to be the next in a lineage of star linemen under Hill. Jackson is the most physically imposing starter, and is only going to get better this year.

So that leaves the battle at center. Who will replace four-year starter Ryan Wendell (Patriots)? The obvious choice would be sophomore Joe Bernardi (6-2, 280), and not just because he’s known for his outgoing personality that steals the show every time he shows up. When McDowell and Popovich went down with injuries last season, Bernardi stepped up to start six games at center and Wendell moved to his natural guard position. Then Bernardi’s season was ended with an injury of his own against Boise State. He’s since returned to fall camp and is taking a share of first-team reps.

The other candidate is junior Richard Pacheco (6-2, 285). As a freshman, Pacheco was already getting playing time and was thought to be a future star, but has been passed on the depth chart by several others since then. That was before Hill called him the team’s most improved player as fall camp started. He’s been sharing first-team reps with Bernardi and just might win the job.

While no other Bulldogs figure to earn starting spots before camp’s end, several are on the verge of breaking onto the scene with flare. Biggest amongst those, literally, is sophomore Kenny Wiggins (6-7, 310), who has always had some of the quickest feet of the unit. The slightly trimmed-down Wiggins is slated to replace Lepori at left tackle in 2009.

Sophomore Charley Robbins (6-2, 300), a product of Fresno’s Bullard High, is in line to replace Popovich at left guard. In preparation, the Bulldogs have had Robbins splitting reps with the veteran during fall camp. He’s another guy who opens gaping holes in the running game and has shown great improvement in the past year.

The most decorated recruit of the group is sophomore Devan Cunningham (6-6, 350), who is still not in the playing shape he needs to be, but has some of the best raw size and strength of any linemen in school history. He saw limited playing time as a true freshman, but coaches will redshirt him this season to preserve his eligibility when he’s more needed in 2009. The hope is he’ll shed about 30 pounds and improve his quickness.

It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on redshirt freshman Leslie Cooper (6-4, 260), who is likely the only linemen faster than Avon. With Cooper’s speed it wouldn’t be surprising to see him convert to defensive line at some point, but he’s already shown growth on the offensive side. He’s another guy who can play all five positions, but likely won’t make much of an impact for another year because of the team’s depth.

It was a big recruiting year here too, knowing four seniors will be on their way out. The Bulldogs landed Long Beach Poly’s Douglas Spacht (6-3, 285), the nation’s No. 6 center prospect according to one recruiting service. Spacht has already looked competitive against the experienced players, and with the ability to also play guard, may challenge for a starting job as soon as 2009.

Other incoming freshmen getting reps in fall camp are Trevor Richter (6-5, 285) and Richard Helepiko (6-2, 290). Both already have solid Division I size, and would have a shot for immediate playing time on a team with less depth. Richter has the makings of a future standout at tackle, and Hill can’t say enough good things about Helepiko.

It’s tough to find a downside with this group, but if there is one it’s that two more of the prized recruits, Matt Hunt (6-2, 315) and Max Devlin (6-4, 275) didn’t report for fall camp. Both figured into future plans, but their status is now in question.

Rating: 9 of 10

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Returning players: 5
Incoming: 2
Lost: 1 (Jesus Tapia)

Da Bear. It doesn’t get any better than this in Fresno State’s school history. Senior Bear Pascoe (6-5, 260) is arguably the nation’s best tight end. After beginning his college career as a quarterback, Pascoe was converted to tight end by Pat Hill and the coaching staff. It turned out to be a wise move. Just as impressive as Pascoe’s ability to get open on seemingly every passing play is his bulldozer blocking mentality. He excels in every aspect of the game. Though his speed isn’t up to par with some of the newer breed of tight ends entering the NFL, his size and strength is above and beyond, making him a surefire NFL draftee. He gets up deep, makes big plays and consistently drags defenders for yards after the catch. Oh, and he also stands out in special teams, with four career blocked field goals. Last season, Pascoe got off to a barking start with 3 touchdowns at Texas A&M en route to totaling a team second-best 45 receptions for 553 yards and 4 scores, despite missing all or part of three games with injury.

The Bulldogs offer another dimension with H-back junior Isaac Kinter (6-1, 240), a tight end who often lines up in the backfield similar to a fullback. Kinter developed into a major factor in the passing game after overcoming an injury late last season. Originally a linebacker, he offers uncommon speed for his size and has the soft hands to go with it. Kinter finished with 111 yards and 2 touchdowns in 8 games. While he’s also an above average blocker, similar to the makeup of Stephen Spach (most recently with the New England Patriots), the only thing keeping Kinter from having a 500-yard season is opportunities – because the Bulldogs have so many playmakers to distribute the ball to. Because of this, many opposing teams aren’t yet aware of the threat he presents.

The same holds true for sophomore Vince Pascoe (6-1, 250), the younger cousin of Bear who walked on last season and proved good enough to play right away. Nicknamed “Cub,” he’s more under the radar than anyone in this unit after catching just 1 pass for a 1-yard touchdown last season at Oregon. But he’s earned a much larger role in fall camp, and will work from several different spots on the field, including H-back and the slot. Like Kinter, the younger Pascoe is also a standout blocker.

Senior Drew Lubinsky (6-6, 250) started his career with the tight end of the future title, but hadn’t battled his way in for much playing time until last season. His role will increase even more now that Jesus Tapia is gone. Used more as a blocker, Lubinsky caught just 1 pass last season, but it was a big one – a diving 3-yard touchdown that helped clinch the Humanitarian Bowl win over Georgia Tech.

The biggest mystery of the group is redshirt freshman Ryan Skidmore (6-5, 240). Coming out of East High (Bakersfield), Skidmore was built more like a wide receiver than tight end, but has put on a considerable amount of weight and muscle. He is arguably the fastest of the unit and has hands that rival Bear Pascoe’s. Still, he’s visibly less refined and more mistake-prone than the other tight end candidates who have more experience. He may still be a year away from making large contributions.

A couple of true freshmen round out the unit in David Gory (6-4, 235) and Tapa Taumoepeau (6-3, 220) of Trinity High in Texas. Gory played just one season of organized football before a serious injury sidelined him in his senior year of high school. Still, he showed enough potential to garner big-time college interest, and is catching on quick in fall camp. His body type is very similar to a young Bear Pascoe. Taumoepeau has looked to be a quick study himself, with a couple nice catches already under his belt in scrimmage situations. Both are likely to redshirt, but have a chance to play a big role in future years.

Rating: 10 of 10

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Players returning: 8
Incoming: 3
Lost: 1 (Tim Lang)

It seems to be a common theme on the Fresno State offense, but, again, depth is the name of the game. Fresno State has had the “Wide Receiver U” reputation for a long time, but rarely if ever before this many guys who are considered on the verge of breaking out. The discussion begins with junior Marlon Moore (6-0, 190), who overcame a big mental mistake last season in fumbling away a victory at the goal line at Texas A&M, to close out the season with an average of 107 receiving yards in the final three games. Moore made a name for himself with 9 catches for 134 yards and 2 touchdowns in the win over Kansas State. While arguably the Bulldogs’ fastest player, Moore is also a standout in the weight room, and its well known among his teammates. The highest praise, though, for Moore is the comparison he often draws from coaches to former Fresno State great Bernard Berrian, now of the Minnesota Vikings. The two have very similar bodies and running styles, and Moore is also expected to see action in the return game. The Bulldogs had 16 players record a reception in 2007, and Moore led the way with 48 catches for 694 yards and 5 scores. He also rushed 5 times for 37 yards and a touchdown.

Moore was undoubtedly the No. 1 receiving target last year, but will have competition for that title this season from junior Chastin West (6-1, 215), who missed all of 2007 after an injury in a preseason scrimmage. West is back to his old ways of out-muscling and outrunning defensive backs. As a freshman in 2006, West led the Bulldogs with 33 catches for 365 yards and 3 touchdowns in a down passing year. He also showed off his speed that year with a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. West’s presence makes it extremely difficult for opposing defenses to choose who to concentrate on, especially with two other established threats.

The guy with the biggest upside, and biggest frame, is junior Seyi Ajirotutu (6-3, 210). He hasn’t come anywhere near reaching full potential yet, but showed glimpses last season as he finished with a team-high 16.9 yards per catch, and was third on the team with 491 yards on 29 catches. He’s still looking for that first trip into the end zone, however. Ajirotutu’s rare combo of speed and height make him the team’s best deep threat since Paul Williams (Tennessee Titans). He was arguably the MVP of spring camp.

So there’s the speed guy, the strong guy and the tall guy – how ‘bout the possession guy? That title belongs to junior Jason Crawley (6-2, 185). Crawley knows his role and plays it well. He’s dominant blocking downfield and has a knack for coming down with big grabs in tight spaces for first downs. Last season, Crawley had 199 yards and a touchdown on 22 catches. And while this entire unit (especially the four juniors) lead the team in swagger and charisma, Crawley takes it to a new level – he even showed up for spring practice with a feather sticking up from his helmet. Each of the receivers feed off each other’s bravado.

Two candidates are battling it out in fall camp for the fifth spot in former walk-on junior Darren Newborne (5-11, 185) and true sophomore Devon Wylie (5-9, 170). Wylie got off to a shining start in fall camp, and has shown improved speed and strength, as well as endurance (which was considered his biggest weakness last season out of high school). Watch for Wylie to develop into a dangerous weapon for worn out and spread out defenses when he comes across the middle and burns defenders to the outside. While most of his action came as a kick returner in 2007, Wylie’s highlight came in his first collegiate game at Texas A&M, when he recorded his only reception – for 44 yards. Newborne had three catches for 23 yards, but could develop into one of Tom Brandstater’s favorite targets in the corner of the end zone.

Sophomore Jamel Hamler (6-2, 205) is another star on the rise in the receiving corps, but will redshirt this season to preserve his eligibility. Hamler had 5 catches for 80 yards, averaging 16 yards per grab.

The next wave includes even more talent that will be hard to keep off the field in redshirt freshman J.J. Stallworth (5-11, 185) and greyshirt freshman Matt Lindsey (6-0, 185) out of Clovis High. Stallworth, the younger brother of the Cleveland Browns’ Donte’ Stallworth, still must improve his hands and route-running, but has shown great athleticism in camp. Lindsey may be even closer to playing time, with arguably the best hands, route-running and jumping ability of the unit (very rare for a freshman’s routes to be so refined). His biggest challenge will be improving on shedding physical corners who can sometimes disrupt his routes.

With so much depth, it’ll be hard not to redshirt true freshman Rashad Evans (5-9, 180), who was listed by nearly every preseason magazine as the WAC’s top recruit. Evans took some time to adjust to the college game, but by the end of the first week of fall camp had hauled in a 44-yard touchdown reception from fellow true freshman Ebahn Feathers.

Freshman walk-on Isiah Barton (5-10, 180) sustained an early fall camp injury, and doesn’t figure in to this year’s plans. As of the first week of fall camp, it remained unclear whether true freshman Anthony Johnson (6-0, 180) of Highland High (Bakersfield) would qualify. Overall, no one in the WAC has anywhere near the depth in playmakers of Fresno State.

Rating: 8 of 10

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Monday, August 18, 2008


Players returning: 5
Incoming: 3
Lost: 1 (Clifton Smith)

Pat Hill has never been one to use many true freshmen. But Ryan Mathews (5-11, 215) was different. After leading the nation in rushing at West High (Bakersfield), Mathews played his way into the rotation at Fresno State right away. The results – 866 yards and 14 touchdowns (most in the nation by a freshman) while averaging 6 yards a carry. And get this, he missed part or all of four games with injury and was only responsible for learning a small package within the Bulldogs’ playbook last season. Fresno State even un-retired jersey No. 21 for the phenom, after former star tailback Dale Messer met Mathews and granted him permission. Mathews, now a sophomore, is an explosive back with Iron Man legs who hits the hole and makes his cut before the defense realizes what’s happening (which is why he had three carries for more than 50 yards last season). Most amazing though, is the way he can turn his hips sideways to evade tacklers while maintaining top speed. The only question mark is that he didn’t catch a single pass last season, but that is sure to change now that Clifton Smith is off to the NFL. No WAC back is more talented.

The crazy thing is, Mathews didn’t even start last season. That job belonged (and may still belong) to junior Lonyae Miller (5-11, 215), who entered fall camp looking faster, bigger and stronger than last season, when he rushed for 609 yards and 7 touchdowns on 4.6 yards per carry. Though the two are listed at the same weight, Miller has a larger upper body more conducive to the prototypical every down back. And with Smith gone, Miller will become an even bigger part of the offense this season in the passing game (which has already been seen in fall scrimmage situations). Miller led the team with a long of 72 yards last season, and has, arguably, an even quicker first step than Mathews.

While Miller and Mathews earn most of the reps at tailback, another junior deserves his own share – Anthony Harding (6-0, 215). With injuries nagging Miller and Mathews down the stretch in 2007, Harding took over and rushed for 231 yards against New Mexico State and Kansas State in the final two regular season games. Then, he lowered a shoulder so hard into a Georgia Tech defender in the Humanitarian Bowl, he knocked the guy out cold. Heading into the season, Harding is listed first on the depth chart at fullback, but will get carries in shotgun formations and short-yardage situations. He’s also the best pass-blocking back. In 2007, he rushed for 449 yards and 4 score, and also had a receiving touchdown.

Don’t be surprised to see junior Jamaal Rashad (5-11, 200) carve out a niche of his own in the offense. Carries will be hard to come by, but Rashad is good enough to start for a handful of WAC teams and flat out makes plays in pretty much every situation he’s put in. His biggest challenge after the past two years since walking on from Glendale College will be staying healthy.

The only true fullback on the roster is junior Reynard Camp (5-11, 270). His nickname “Camper” is fitting, as he’s like a camper shell driving through the defense and leading the way. He’s vastly improved his quickness and agility since last season, and should start to see reps outside of his normal special teams duty.

The rest of the unit will likely have to wait another year or two to see significant carries. True freshman A.J. Ellis (5-11, 175) was thought to have the best shot at immediate playing time after being recruited to help replace Smith, but Ellis has a big learning curve to overcome. Plus, he just might be too small right now to be effective catching passes out of the backfield and cutting across the middle. Whether he redshirts will depend on how he performs the final two weeks of fall camp.

Sophomore Kyle Duffy (5-8, 175) has shown growth since his days at Clovis West High, and has had some eye-opening performances in scrimmages (such as this year’s Spring Game). Still, his biggest contribution will be on special teams, where he’s been an absolute stud in kickoff coverage.

True freshman Michael Harris (5-11, 195) has shown some promise early on in fall camp, but it almost a surefire prospect to redshirt for the future. The same holds true for walk-on Justin Webber, who is coming off a devastating knee injury at Sanger High that likely prevented him from being a scholarship player. Webber will eventually find his way onto the field at this position or another.

Rating: 9 of 10

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