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

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