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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1 comment:

  1. just to let you know the low key "OSO" Pacheco has been named the starting center for the Bulldogs vs. Rutgers. This has been confirmed by Hill and Frazier.


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