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

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