Monday, August 31, 2009


Returning lettermen: 5

Incoming: 2
Lost: 1 (Kyle Duffy)

Even last season this group of Fresno State running backs was thought of as possibly the best in school history. Now, all the key ones are back for another year, with more depth and experience. The only thing stopping this unit from being a perfect 10 is the injuries that have struck the past two years. Still, junior Ryan Mathews (5-11, 220), Lonyae Miller (5-11, 220) and Anthony Harding (6-0, 220) are the best Bulldogs trio since Ron Rivers, Anthony Daigle and Lorenzo Neal in the early 1992.

Though the three will all get significant touches in a running back by committee approach, Mathews is the most physically gifted, and possibly the best the school has ever had at the position – if he can stay healthy. He was knocked off track last season by a freak injury late in the game at UCLA that caused nerve damage in his foot. Still, he finished the season with 606 yards (5.4 per carry) and six touchdowns in eight games. Mathews also missed two games with injury as a true freshman in 2007, but wrapped up the year with 866 yards (6 per carry) and 14 touchdowns. With 20 career rushing scores, Mathews is just five touchdowns from breaking into the school’s top 10 career list. In an attempt to combat injury, he hit the weight room hard this offseason, boosting his “body armor” as Pat Hill has referred to it. And he remains one of the fastest, quickest players on the team, with hands down the most vicious stiff arm. Even in a conference as loaded at running back as the WAC, Mathews is far and away the best if he plays a full season. If there’s any knock at all on Mathews ability, it’s his pass blocking skills, something he showed inconsistency with last season.

He should be able to stay fresh, with the help the Bulldogs will get from Miller and Harding. Miller led WAC running backs with 6.8 yards per carry in 2008, and totaled 812 yards and seven touchdowns, including a 90-yarder against Nevada (two 80-plus-yard runs on the year). His breakaway speed is special, as is his lightning-fast burst out of the backfield – rivaled only by Mathews. Miller, too, needs to improve his pass blocking, but even more so his hanging on to the football. With 1,706 career rushing yards and 16 scores, Miller has put together one of the best backfield resumes this decade, and can jump into the top five all-time if he duplicates last season’s numbers.

Even with all the talent of Mathews and Miller, the most dependable guy might be Harding. The workhorse of the group, Harding is the one back who’s never missed a game with injury. And he led the Bulldogs with 822 yards last season (5.6 per carry) and six touchdowns. While Mathews and Miller excel at scooting to the sideline and upfield, Harding is a north-south runner who churns out yards the hard way. He’s also the best blocking back of the group and will see plenty of playing time in shotgun formations.

After the super trifecta, Jamaal Rashad (5-11, 205) offers yet another dose of danger for opponents. Rashad, a former walk-on out of junior college, added 153 yards last season, including a performance at San Jose State when Mathews and Miller were out with injuries that showed he could play a starring role for most other WAC teams. Opportunities for carries might be scarce this year, but Rashad is capable if called upon. He’s also listed second on the depth chart at fullback to open the season.

Listed fourth at tailback is true freshman Robbie Rouse (5-7, 185). It hasn’t been uncommon the past couple years to hear people comparing young backs to former standout Clifton Smith, but Rouse truly fits that comparison. He’s shorter than Smith – even his listed height of 5-7 is generous – but he’s got a similarly stocky build and thrives on being the smallest guy on the field. And his shifty running style is eerily similar, though Rouse actually might have more breakaway speed. He did such a magnificent job of turning heads from Day 1 of fall camp that he’s likely to play right away, despite a scarcity of carries. But he can be used in special teams roles, and will be deadly in option formations. Rouse scored a touchdown in the first fall scrimmage, and was even seen blocking a kick in practice.

The depth doesn’t stop there. A pair of redshirt freshmen wait in the wings with Miller, Harding and Rashad set to graduate after this year. Michael Harris (5-11, 200) accounted for half of the offense’s touchdowns in the two fall scrimmages, including a 40-plus-yard scamper in the first one. If he continues to bulk up, he can be a feature-type back by next season – perfect timing. A.J. Ellis (5-11, 180) is a change-of-pace guy whose athleticism and quickness can cause fits. He impressed as early as last season’s fall camp, but looks to be a tad behind Harris right now. Neither is likely to be relied on to produce this year, but will be thrust into key roles next season.

Starting at fullback is Reynard Camp (5-11, 270), a bowling ball of a blocker who has improved each season since joining the program as a walk-on. He was visibly quicker on his feet in fall camp, and it provided for plenty of violent collisions as he opened holes for the tailbacks. The Bulldogs brought in a new walk-on to mold for the future in freshman Dylan Cruz (5-11, 225), who has a prototypical build for the position. Cruz impressed from the get-go and hopes are high he’ll develop into the next in a long line of pummel-happy fullbacks at Fresno State.

Rating: 9 of 10

***Anthony Harding photo courtesy of Juan Villa/The Collegian

Sunday, August 30, 2009


Returning lettermen: 12

Incoming: 3
Lost: 4 (Bear Pascoe, Jason Crawley, Drew Lubinsky, Adam McDowell)

So who’s going to lead Fresno State in receiving this season?Take your chances guessing and spin the wheel. In the past three seasons, three different active wideouts have led the team Seyi Ajirotutu (6-3, 210), Marlon Moore (6-0, 190) and Chastin West (6-1, 215). Last season, Ajirotutu had a team-high 714 yards and five touchdowns, and has 1,206 career yards receiving. In 2007, Moore led with 694 yards and five touchdowns, and has 1,032 for his career. West was the 2006 leader with 365 yards and three scores, and has 579 in his career in two
years (he lost all of 2007 to injury).

Ajirotutu is the biggest deep threat, and showed it last season averaging 16.9 yards per catch. Only
problem is, he still has to prove he can overcome the dropsies that plague him every now and a
gain. One simple thing he can work on is the timing of his jumps when the ball is up for grabs. Moore is the fastest of the three, and can emerge as a deep threat again. Part of his disappointing line of 258 yards and one touchdown last season is due to the five games he missed with injury. Still, more was expected of Moore after the way he finished 2007. Moore might be the most talented of the three, but needs to push himself to keep improving and learning all the little things about the position. West is unlikely to take back a leading role, as he’s evolved into more of a blocking and possession receiver since returning from the injury that cost him all of 2007. He’s a big, physical receiver who needs to concentrate on getting separation, as do Moore and Ajirotutu. The good news is new receivers coach Keith Williams looks to be a phenomenal hands-on instructor who grabs the kids’ attention and focuses on detail (plus he’s hilarious).

But don’t be so sure one of those three will repeat as team leader in 2009 – there are two more candidates. Junior Devon Wylie (5-9, 170) proved to be the fastest player on the team when he was clocked at 4.25 seconds in the 40-yard dash in the offseason. Wylie was third on the team with 269 yards and two scores last season in just nine games (four missed with injury). And Pat Hill expects him to really break out this year. Wylie is in superb shape and has added an impressive amount of muscle since his freshman year. Another underclassman, redshirt sophomore Jamel Hamler (6-2, 205) also has the ability to put up the biggest numbers. Hamler has just five catches for 80 yards overall, but missed all of last season due to academics. Now that he’s back on track, the big, built receiver is showing off a pair of the receiving corps’ best hands and demonstrating a winning attitude. He quickly became one of Derek Carr’s favorite targets, as the two worked out together over the summer.

That brings us to the next tier, which presents more danger for opponents. Sophomore Rashad Evans (5-9, 180) broke onto the scene as a true freshman in 2008 with 21 catches for 232 yards, including a clutch first down on the Bulldogs’ game-winning drive at UCLA. Evans sat out all of fall camp’s contact drills with injury though, so his status is up in the air for the season. With the depth at receiver, and four seniors departing after this season, it might not be a bad idea for Evans to redshirt. One of those seniors is former walk-on Darren Newborn (5-11, 185), who recorded his first reception last year en route to finishing with seven catches for 77 yards. Newborn won’t assume a featured role, but is a guy who can get open and make a play when he gets the chance. The other returning letterman at wideout is sophomore J.J. Stallworth (5-11, 185), who looked to be one of the team’s most improved players during camp. His speed and playmaking ability (making the tough catches) had to be pleasing to coaches, but the younger brother of NFL receiver Donte Stallworth has yet to make a catch in a game.

With those eight wideouts setting the tone, there won’t be many more snaps to go around, but watch out for the up-and-comer in redshirt freshman A.J. Johnson (6-0, 180). Hill went so far as to say he’s got breakout player potential. On the practice field, it’s obvious he’s got speed and above-average route-running ability for a young player. At this rate, he’ll be an impact player next season. Last year, it looked like redshirt freshman Matt Lindsey (6-0, 200) was on a similar route. But the great hands and aggressive, go-up-and-get-it mentality he showed in camp last year and in high school seemed less apparent in camp this year. Hands were definitely an issue, but he has bulked up substantially.

Three walk-ons round out the crew in Matthew De Los Santos (5-11, 180), Dondre McDonald (5-8, 160) and Taylor Stewart (6-0, 185), the son of defensive coordinator Randy Stewart. All three took plenty of reps with the newcomers in fall camp and did as well as could be expected.

The next question is who replaces the mighty Bear Pascoe (draftee of the San Francisco 49ers) at tight end? The short answer – a bunch of guys will get a shot. The Bulldogs will use more H-back-type tight ends this season. But the one built for catching passes is sophomore Ryan Skidmore (6-5, 240), who’s almost like a big receiver running downfield. He’s put on weight and gotten himself in good shape, and seems to have the trust of all the quarterbacks. Skidmore had three catches for 17 yards and a score last year.

Two experienced H-backs return in Isaac Kinter (6-1, 240) and junior Vince “Cub” Pascoe (6-1, 250), Bear Pascoe’s cousin. Kinter caught 13 passes for 97 yards and a touchdown last year, as Vince Pascoe finished with four catches for 33 yards and a score. Kinter is deceptively fast for his size, and Pascoe normally has reliable hands (though they were suspect at times during camp). Both are strong blockers in the running game. Expect to see lots more of redshirt freshman Tapa Taumoepeau (6-3, 220) as well. Taumoepeau saw special teams action as a true, before hanging it up and redshirting. He looks to have improved speed, and made a heck of a catch-and-run in stride in the fall scrimmage before lowering the boom on a defender. Redshirt freshman David Gory (6-4, 235) would also have seen an increased role, but is out of the season recovering from injury.

Redshirt freshman Michael Butler (6-3, 240) is a project at tight end. The blocking aspect will come before the pass-catching, but Butler has bulked up plenty for the role. Also getting work is sophomore Austin Raphael (6-2, 225), who was converted from linebacker in the summer. Raphael has a long way to go at the new position.

Rating: 8 of 10
NOTE: Chastin West photo courtesy of Juan Villa/The Collegian

Friday, August 28, 2009


Returning lettermen: 8
Incoming: 5
Lost: 3 (Bobby Lepori, Cole Popovich, Kenny Avon)

With Pat Hill being a former offensive lineman himself, it’s no wonder the position has been a constant during his tenure as Fresno State’s coach. The 2008 unit helped Bulldogs backs average 4.9 yards per carry for the second straight year, and was tied for 21st in the country with just 17 sacks allowed. Many of the school’s best linemen ever have come and gone in the past decade, but it seems there’s always a guy ready to step in and fill a hole – an heir apparent. But, this year, with three starters lost, there’s apparently no sure heirs.

The undoubted star of the unit is junior right guard Andrew Jackson (6-5, 295), a second-team All-WAC selection last season who is one of the team’s top two NFL prospects. Jackson is the most dominant Bulldogs blocker since Kyle Young and a safe bet for first-team honors this season if he remains healthy after returning from an offseason injury that kept him out of spring camp.

The rest of the starting jobs are up for competition. Junior Joey Bernardi (6-2, 280) returns at center, but has been fighting to hold off the strong charge of Richard Pacheco (6-2, 285). Both have plenty of starting experience, and Pacheco has also seen time at guard. The two alternated first-team reps in fall camp, but the charismatic Bernardi seems to have pulled ahead as of late. Pacheco looks to be in the best shape of his Bulldogs career.

The tackle spots are expected to go the sophomore Bryce Harris (6-6, 295) on the left and junior Kenny Wiggins (6-7, 310) on the right. But even that’s not set in stone, with junior Devan Cunningham (6-6, 350) searching for his role. Cunningham started eight games last season, and is in the running for either tackle spot or left guard. His speed is a concern, but losing 20 pounds in the offseason should make a difference. Wiggins has been waiting his turn for three years as he’s shown continued improvement. Though he’s the team’s tallest player, he might have the unit’s quickest feet. Harris, a converted defensive lineman, looked the best at tackle during fall camp, and is just a flat out big athlete. Hill likes to talk about Harris’ basketball talent from high school as an example of his athletic ability. The X-factor here is which quarterback will start – the left-handed Ryan Colburn or right-handed Derek Carr? That decision determines which tackle will be protecting the quarterback’s blind side.

That leads to the other two guys competing to start at left guard – sophomore Leslie Cooper (6-4, 305) and freshman Matt Hunt (6-2, 315). Hunt was a much ballyhooed recruit, and was practicing with the first-team during summer voluntary workouts and the start of fall camp. But when Hunt was limited during camp with a minor injury, Cooper took the opportunity and ran with it. Cooper has put on about 40 pounds since joining the Bulldogs and might still be the fleetest afoot. Hunt, though, shows all-conference potential and it’s just a matter of time before he gets his shot. And don’t forget junior Charley Robbins (6-2, 300), who entered the second half at San Jose State last year and sparked an attitude adjustment as the Bulldogs ran down the throats of their rivals for a win. Robbins also saw a few first-team reps with Hunt sidelined.

Thanks to a giant recruiting harvest of linemen in the 2008 class, Fresno State has numerous good-looking (and large) youngsters waiting their turns. The highest-rated out of high school was third-string center redshirt freshman Douglas Spacht (6-3, 285), but his fall camp struggles snapping the ball to Ebahn Feathers are cause for concern. It’ll be interesting to see if he remains at center or is moved to guard.

Backing up the tackles are two more redshirt freshmen – Max Devlin (6-4, 285) and Trevor Richter (6-5, 300) – as well as greyshirt freshman Austin Wentworth (6-5, 305). Though Richter excelled in camp last year, Wentworth and Devlin were most impressive this time around. All three are big bodies and strong reserves. Redshirt freshman Richard Helepiko (6-2, 290) looked to have a strong camp as a reserve at right guard, though he missed some time with minor injury. It’ll be fun to keep tabs on freshman Marcel Jensen (6-6, 265), who was converted from defensive end at the end of fall camp. Jensen suffered a serious leg injury that threatened his playing career last season, but is working his way back. Still, he likely won’t show his true potential until next season.

A couple of local kids are the only true freshmen recruits in Buchanan High’s Lars Bramer (6-5, 260) and Sanger High’s Nikko Motta (6-3, 275). Bramer was an absolute head-turner in camp, lining up as fourth-string center. Coaches will want him to put on some weight, but he’s the tallest center since Kyle Young. His blocking shined from Day 1, meaning Spacht might feel the pressure in the coming years. Motta didn’t have quite the hot start Bramer did, but seemed to progress nicely. Both are likely to redshirt.

Run blocking won’t be a concern this season, but pass blocking has been sketchy at times during camp. Though as many as three new starters might be breaking in, there is enough depth and talent to be confident this unit will find formidable replacements to fill the holes left by last year’s graduating class.

Rating: 7 of 10

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Questions for our readers

All right, there you have it, every position on defense is previewed. In depth. Analysis.

But many of you are expert Fresno State fans too, with plenty of knowledge. What do you think? We want you to comment away and help us create the most high-level Fresno State football convo around.

Feel free to comment under each position...

  • On the d-line, who should start at tackle? McEntee or Banks? How many guys are going to break into the regular rotation? What else do you want to know?
  • At linebacker, if you're Pat Hill, do you redshirt Travis Brown and Daniel Salinas or do you play 'em right away? Do you see Jacobs/Knox/Herron starting all year long?
  • In the defensive backfield, how do you get Phillip Thomas in the game? How big an impact will Isaiah Green and L.J. Jones make? And how good is Desia Dunn?
  • And special teams, are you comfortable using Robbie Rouse's freshman year to give him punt return duties?


Returning lettermen: 8

Incoming: 8
Lost: 3 (Jon Monga, Ikenna Ike, Michael Stuart)

Fresno State’s defensive front was ravaged by injuries in 2008 and forced to throw young, inexperienced players into key roles – and it didn’t work well as opposing offenses averaged 6.1 yards per play against the Bulldogs. It was painful at times to see the team struggle to apply pressure on the quarterback, as the ‘Dogs finished with just 18 sacks on the year (and half of those sacks left with the departure of Jon Monga and Ikenna Ike). With renewed health throughout the unit, and a new coach in Will Plemons, who shifted over from linebackers to replace Kerry Locklin, much improvement should be on the horizon.

Junior Chris Carter (6-2, 240) shuffled between linebacker (where he was second-team All-WAC) and defensive end last season, but looks to have settled in at end. Though Carter is smaller than is ideal, his speed and athleticism can cause fits for opposing tackles – an attribute Fresno State coaches hope will help solve their pass rush woes. He was second on the team with 88 tackles last season, and is the returning sack leader with 3.5. Starting opposite Carter at end is redshirt sophomore Kenny Borg (6-3, 245), who missed all of 2008 with injury. Borg offers a tremendous boost to the unit, and has bulked up substantially from his true freshman season when he had 2.5 sacks in limited time. Don’t be surprised if Borg develops into an All-WAC-caliber player in the next year or two.

While Carter and Borg appear to have a stronghold on the starting spots, junior Chris Lewis (6-3, 260) has shined at times during spring and fall camps. If he turns his motor on, and keeps it running every play, he too can make a big impact. Lewis originally signed with Miami out of high school, but decided before his freshman season started Fresno State was a better fit. Now, he needs to prove he can produce at this level.

It’ll be interesting to monitor how the dominoes fall with junior Donnie Pritchett (6-5, 290), a highly-touted transfer from Santa Rosa Junior College. Pritchett has prototypical size, and the long build Fresno State fans haven’t seen from an end since the Nick Burley days. Pritchett stood out in summer voluntary workouts (with no pads) but had a relatively quiet first week of fall camp. Another two ends battling for playing time are redshirt freshman Matt Akers (6-2, 225), who’s extremely undersized but fits the mold of the speedy pass rusher coaches want to emerge. True freshman Terrance Kindle (6-3, 220) is a candidate to redshirt, but after graduating high school a semester early to participate in spring ball, he’s looked impressive getting into the backfield in fall camp – especially in the first scrimmage.

True freshmen Nat Harrison (6-2, 215) and Ben Letcher (6-3, 240) are likely to redshirt. Harrison received some audible praise from coaches during camp, but both need some seasoning before being ready to hit the field. Freshmen walk-ons Tristan Okpalaugo (6-5, 220) and Ryan Bouchma (6-4, 235) have intriguing size, but fit in the same category.

That leads in to defensive tackle, where there’s a logjam of options for what should be one of the most fun competitions to follow. The one spot that seems locked in is sophomore Logan Harrell (6-2, 275), who saw valuable action as a true freshman in 2008, but has separated himself with his aggressive play in fall camp. He looks to be a run stuffer who can occasionally get to the quarterback. Though fellow sophomore Chase McEntee (6-2, 265) lined up for first-team reps all spring and fall, he’ll have to hold off junior Cornell Banks (6-3, 300), who started all of last season and had 32 tackles. Banks, however, missed spring camp due to academics and coaches are making him earn his way back from the bottom of the depth chart. Lucky for Banks, he looked better than ever in fall camp. McEntee also has looked solid, and appears much larger than his listed weight.

Junior Mark Roberts (6-2, 300) became a starter last season when Monga was injured and had 24 tackles, but looks to have been passed by others on the depth chart since. That doesn’t mean he can be counted out, especially when he’s making plays like in the last fall scrimmage, when he forced a fumble and recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown. Another experienced starter, who can play tackle or end, is Wilson Ramos (6-4, 270), the lone senior on the unit. Don’t discount the impact Ramos will have after returning from an injury that cost him about half of 2008. He came in as a bit of a project player, but developed into a solid contributer.

Adding even more depth is redshirt freshman Anthony Williams (6-2, 300), who may very well have played as a true last season if not for an injury during camp. The wow factor is his size and strength for being a young guy, and he arguably looked better than McEntee and Harrell in the 2008 fall camp.
Freshman Andy Jennings (6-2, 250) has a long way to go development-wise and is a strong redshirt candidate, as is freshman walk-on Aki Dionsopoulos (5-11, 260).

Rating: 7 of 10

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Returning lettermen: 6

Incoming: 8
Lost: 1 (Nick Bates)

Fresno State gave up a whopping 5.6 yards per rush last season – unacceptable for a team that expects to win. Part of the blame sits with a linebacker corps that was young and inexperienced last season, and is still young now. The difference is the youth now has starting experience under its belt, and a large crop of even younger prospects has added depth to a position sorely lacking a season ago. Coach Tim Skipper takes over the linebackers – a much more natural fit for the former Bulldogs standout – after spending the past two seasons as running backs coach.

The on-field leader is junior Ben Jacobs (6-3, 225), with two years of starting experience in the middle and second-team All-WAC honors in 2008. Jacobs turned his aggressiveness up several notches last season, and though his one weakness is speed, it didn’t stop him from collecting a team-high 113 tackles last season. He came to fall camp noticeably leaner and stronger and should be poised for his most successful season. When he has guys on offense looking up to him, it’s safe to say he’s doing things right.

One guy who did some things right in the offseason is junior strong side linebacker Nico Herron (6-3, 240). Though his listed at the same weight, it’s hard to believe he didn’t weigh more than 240 last year. Herron, too, is noticeably trimmer. His lack of speed was even more of a liability than Jacobs’ last year, in his first season as a starter, when he finished fourth on the team with 65 tackles. With highly-touted true freshman Travis Brown (6-2, 235) in the mix and battling for time, it should be easy for Herron to stay motivated and push himself. Brown, the son of the late longtime defensive coordinator Dan Brown, was expected to offer instant depth, but showed his youth (along with some promise) during fall camp. But it’s no secret coaches expect big things from him eventually.

On the weak side, sophomore Kyle Knox (6-1, 215) takes over as the full-time starter. Knox had lots of experience in 2008, but was in more of a reserve role as Chris Carter toggled between linebacker and defensive end. Now, Knox has the position to himself, and has quickly established himself as a wreckless hitter who loves to make big plays – see his team-high eight tackles for losses last year. He should be the unit’s best pass rusher. Sophomore Shawn Plummer (6-0, 200), a former walk-on, is the only reserve with much experience. Plummer can compete for time at weak or strong side after adding muscle to his frame. Frankie Manquero (6-1, 205), another former walk-on, converted from safety in the offseason and entered fall camp second on the depth chart. Manquero has been predominantly a special teams player, but might offer help in passing downs.

Backing up Jacobs in the middle is junior Sonny McCree (6-0, 230), yet another former walk-on, with very limited experience – five tackles last year. The way true freshman Daniel Salinas (5-11, 205) stands out in practice, it’s hard to imagine him not working his way up the depth chart this season. Salinas graduated high school a semester early to participate in spring camp, and has a knack at flying to the ballcarrier – something that used to be typical of Bulldog defenders.

The most noticeable thing about the incoming freshmen is their size – none of them look like Fresno State’s freshmen linebackers of recent years. They’re bigger. That’s the case with Salinas and Brown, as well as Patrick Su’a (6-2, 215), who has monster calves, Jeremiah Toma (6-0, 215) and Ibe Nduka (6-0, 220), whose physical build resembles former standout Bryce McGill. Another guy, currently behind Brown at strong side is freshman Damion Whittington (6-1, 235). While Su’a, Toma and Nduka are likely to redshirt, Whittington might be ready to see the field this season.

Though redshirt freshman Mario Moore (5-11, 180), a walk-on last year, might be the fastest linebacker, it’s odd to see someone his size not playing defensive back. He’ll battle to find a niche that gets him on the field this year, but new walk-ons David Halopoff (5-11, 210) and Steven Plevney (6-2, 205) have a long way to go.

Rating: 7 of 10

Monday, August 24, 2009


Returning lettermen: 9

Incoming: 3
Lost: 3 (Sharrod Davis, Will Harding, Jake Jorde)

It’s the biggest fundamental difference in Fresno State defenses now and in the recent past. Why the poor record in 2006 and the mediocre one in 2008? A lack of playmaking on defense. The Bulldogs have intercepted just 14 passes in the past three seasons combined (2006-08). In the three seasons prior (2003-05) Fresno State recorded 41 interceptions – a difference of 27 potentially game-changing turnovers.

So what gives? Do the ‘Dogs not have the guys capable of making plays anymore? While that’s possible, another explanation is a lack of emphasis on forcing turnovers, something coaches have tried to change during fall camp by instituting a rule that the defense has to do conditioning drills after every practice in which at least one turnover is not forced – incentive at its finest. Randy Stewart (who takes over as defensive coordinator this year) is a great, passionate, hands-on instructor who will focus on safeties this year while new assistant Micah Alba coaches cornerbacks.

The team has at least one star talent who has yet to emerge at corner – A.J. Jefferson (6-0, 190). Jefferson looked like a blossoming force in last year’s opener at Rutgers, showing that he had coverage skills and not just speed. But, somehow, Jefferson fluttered out of the starting lineup by season’s end. If Jefferson commits to working on the nuances of the position, and not just relying on raw talent, he might have NFL scouts paying attention for more reasons than kick returning.

Playing his way in to a starting role last year was sophomore Desia Dunn (5-9, 190), a former walk-on who had one of the team’s five interceptions last season. While Dunn was susceptible in isolation situations at times last season, he seems more confident this year and has looked far more aggressive in making plays on the ball. Also competing for a starting spot is Damion Owens (5-11, 200), whose 68-yard interception return during the first series at Boise State last year was one of the team’s only highlights. Owens was as impressive as any defender during the first fall scrimmage, making multiple open-field tackles to snuff out would-be big plays. That said, he’s not the fastest corner and was a liability in downfield coverage last year.

A crop of youngsters are itching to show their stuff, and it starts with sophomore Isaiah Green (5-10, 180), who’s said to be one of the team’s fastest runners but has been used mostly on special teams so far. Green picked off a Ryan Colburn pass in the end zone during the first fall scrimmage and also recovered a fumble. Expect him to be in the regular rotation. Coaches are also high on athletic freshman L.J. Jones (5-10, 170), who was practicing with the veterans from Day 1 of fall camp.

The Bulldogs will need some youth to emerge within a crop of inexperienced corners that also includes sophomore Jermaine Thomas (5-11, 180) and walk-on redshirt freshman Cris Wilson (5-10, 180). A couple of true freshmen have already impressed in camp in J.B. Dock (5-10, 170) and Erik Brown (5-11, 185).

While the interesting competition at corner is for the reserve spots, several safeties with starting experience are battling for a job. One spot is locked down by Moses Harris (6-1, 205), a second-team All-WAC performer last season who was third on the team with 75 tackles. With three years starting experience, Harris needs to become more of a sure tackler and work on shedding blocks, but his fitness is almost unparalleled.

There’s a three-way battle for the other job between two experienced starters in junior Lorne Bell (5-10, 205) and Marvin Haynes (6-2, 205) and redshirt freshman Phillip Thomas (6-1, 205). Bell has been in on first-team reps all fall, but Thomas looked like the man in summer voluntary workouts. Bell was hampered last season by a nerve injury in his leg, but seems to be healthier and faster, and remains the defense’s hardest hitter. Thomas excels in pass coverage, as he showed with a 60-plus yard interception return for a touchdown in the second fall scrimmage, and might be too good not to start. He’ll make an impact this season either way. Haynes, while athletic and talented, looks to be playing catch-up with his competition. He had two interceptions in the opener at Rutgers last season, but injury kept him out down the stretch.

But depth-wise it’s hard to ask for more.Sophomore Zak Hill (6-2, 200), Pat Hill’s youngest son, has been exposed often in pass coverage during camp, and might even be better off with a switch to linebacker. Redshirt freshman Terrance Dennis (5-11, 180) will have more of a chance to stand out next season with Harris and Haynes graduating, but walk-on redshirt freshman Justin Webber (5-9, 180) has already made some noise. Webber, a converted running back who’s bounced back from multiple serious injuries, flew around the field in the first fall scrimmage, making two tackles for losses.

Rating: 6 of 10

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Returning kickers: 3
Incoming: 1
Lost: 1 (Stephen Ferdinandi)

It’s hard to fault a special teams coach who has been so revered for so long at Fresno State, but John Baxter let his stubbornness get in the way of Fresno State’s success last season. It will be crucial for the Bulldogs to clean up their uncharacteristic kick and punt coverage woes from a year ago, when they allowed three touchdown returns and two near-misses at UCLA. Still, Baxter continued to challenge the opposing team’s best return men, even when it was hurting Fresno State’s chances.

The good news is Fresno State’s own return men are better than anything they’ll face, and it starts with All-America candidate A.J. Jefferson (6-0, 190), who was recently highlighted in ESPN the Magazine. Jefferson led the nation with a whopping 35.8 yards per kick return as a sophomore, before averaging 29.3 yards last year, including a 92-yard touchdown against Nevada. Jefferson’s three career touchdown returns are the most of any active NCAA player.

He’ll likely be joined deep by either junior Devon Wylie (5-9, 170), Chastin West (6-1, 215) or sophomore Rashad Evans (5-9, 180). Wylie had just two returns last year, but has improved his speed to a personal best 4.25-second 40-yard dash in the offseason. Evans averaged 21.6 yards and West averaged 19.2 last season.
Evans, who’s nursed a hamstring injury throughout fall camp, took over punt return duties last season, averaging 13.2 yards. West and Marlon Moore (6-0, 190) each averaged a few yards more on about half the attempts. All three returned a punt for a touchdown last season. The X-factor could be true freshman Robbie Rouse (5-7, 185), who’s wowed pretty much everyone in fall camp with a body type similar to former ‘Dog and current Tampa Bay Buccaneer Pro Bowler Clifton Smith. If Rouse doesn’t redshirt, which is a strong possibility, he’ll compete for this job right away.

Like the return game, the kicking game returns fully intact. Punter Robert Malone (6-2, 215) showed just how strong his leg is when he boomed a 74-yarder at San Jose State last season. Malone had a breakout power year, averaging 42.8 yards and placing 20 of 54 punts inside the 20-yard line. Expect him to have fewer punts behind a higher-scoring offense this season. Freshman walk-on Matt Williams (6-1, 190) will get a shot in practice to prove whether he’s worthy of inheriting the job next year. Long snapper Bobby Shepard (6-1, 235) returns for his sophomore campaign after a solid 2008 season. Malone and Shepard seem to have great chemistry, though their signature games of playing catch (with a baseball and mitts) during summer voluntary workouts was a bit odd.

Sophomore kicker Kevin Goessling (6-0, 195) rebounded from early-season adversity last year – missing potential game-clinching kicks against Wisconsin and Hawaii in consecutive weeks – to bury a school-record 58-yarder to beat Utah State. The turnaround was likely due to maturity and experience, and landed Goessling on the Lou Groza Award watch list. He finished 15 of 22 last season, with two misses coming from beyond 50 yards. The biggest concern with Goessling is kickoff power – he had just two touchbacks in 73 attempts. Backup duties go to redshirt freshman walk-on Andrew Shapiro (6-1, 185), the chatterbox of the group, who’s looked solid in practice and scrimmage situations kicking and punting.

Fresno State’s 44 blocked kicks since 2002 rank tops in the country, three ahead of Texas. Since Pat Hill took over as coach in 1997, the Bulldogs have 79 blocks.

Rating: 8 of 10