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Duck Dive: Fresno State Football 2021 Preview

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Going deep with the Bulldogs’ scheme, returning personnel, and unknowns

Fresno State v Utah State Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

Special thanks to Caleb Nale of Beware of Bulldogs podcast for speaking with me on the Quack 12 Podcast during our deep dive into the Fresno State roster. Listen HERE.


Nota bene: While Oregon opens its season against Fresno St on September 4th, the Bulldogs’ season opener will be a “week 0” game against the UConn Huskies on August 28th. I have all six games of Fresno St’s 2020 season charted, but since I’ll have a full FBS game with their actual 2021 two-deep to review then, I’ll reserve commentary on the team’s personnel and playcalling effectiveness for my film study preview the week of the game. This article will simply outline the state of the Bulldogs’ roster going into Fall camp, and which positions are settled or have contests as departures and transfers change the picture from 2020.

Fresno State v Utah State Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

Offense

Returning starter #9 QB Haener, a former Washington transfer and mid 3-star recruit from 2017, has his job locked down for 2021. He was in something of a battle in the first couple of games with Ben Wooldridge, who took several drives through the third week of the season, but Haener secured the position in the back half of the year and Wooldridge has now transferred to Louisiana. There’s no other QB experience in the room - two other QBs, Jalan Early and Braden Wingle, have also transferred out, and the two returners, #10 QB Fife and #18 QB Campbell, have never attempted a pass in college.

Fife and Campbell were both true freshmen last year, the former a 2-star recruit and the latter unrated out of high school. The other three QBs in the room are new in 2021: mid 3-star #13 QB Henderson and 2-star #15 QB Arnou were 2021 recruits, and they recently took an unrated Juco in Alaka’i Yuen. I would have guessed that since everyone is so young and inexperienced the edge would go to the most talented on paper in Henderson, but Caleb says that Fife has been leading in practice as the most likely backup to Haener.

Fresno St returns one of the best running backs in the West regardless of conference in #20 RB Rivers, something of a surprise because the senior was expected to go pro after last year, as well as the equally effective backup #7 RB Mims.

This is a loaded room with two other backups who got reps last year in #28 RB Bigelow and #22 RB Sherrod, and they took a transfer from Utah in #6 RB Wilmore whom I’ve been writing about for years. There are also two mid 3-star backs from the 2021 class, #23 RB Hornbeak and #29 RB Arceneaux, but with so much experience ahead of them they’ll likely redshirt. There were a few departures from such a full room, two scholarship backs and two walk-ons, but none with any real stats.

All three of the Bulldogs’ former Juco low 3-star tight ends return: #88 TE Hanson, #87 TE Pauwels, and #80 TE Rodriguez. Each got significant playing time last year due to some injury rotation and the fact that Fresno St always had one or two tight ends in the formation on virtually every snap.

Former UNLV transfer David Tate appears to have left the tight end room, but they’ve added three more in #82 TE Beachem, #84 TE Watson, and #86 TE Boust - the first two are low 3-star true freshmen and the last a Juco transfer. I don’t expect that turnover to affect the unit on the field in 2021 given the returners.

Fresno State v Utah State Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

Fresno St returns a remarkable amount of production at wide receiver with each of their top six in yardage coming back. They’re led by borderline 4-star junior #5 WR Cropper, then #1 WR Wheatfall and #11 WR Kelly are about tied in production, followed by #85 WR Brooks, #0 WR Dalena, and #27 WR Pope with about equal numbers. Brooks, who’s switched to a #3 jersey for 2021, was unrated out of high school but the other four were all low 3-stars.

They’ve also added former 4-star #8 WR T. Jones from Washington through the portal, who’s the tallest in the room by several inches and I think will break into the rotation despite all the returning production - he was fairly productive in 2018 and 2020, but was injured in 2019 and otherwise I think had been poorly used by that program (something of a trend).

Four receivers are departing, most notably Chris Coleman and Jamal Glaspie who each got three catches last year. The Bulldogs return two other 2018 3-stars in #4 WR Edwards and #17 WR Wright who didn’t see the field last year, and took a couple of Jucos in #26 WR Batton and #19 WR Washington this cycle. Other than Jones I expect the rotation in 2021 to look the same as last year.

The most significant departures on the offense are from the line - starting right tackle Syrus Tuitele is now with the Bills, and starting right guard Quireo Woodley has left as well. They return the other three starters: #72 LT Bull, #58 LG Adkins, and #59 C Smith.

Tuitele played every snap last year, but Bull was unavailable the last two games. His replacements for the penultimate game were UCLA transfer #75 OT Akingbulu and then Juco #77 OT Abbs, both of whom return and are former 3-stars, so I would have guessed at that point one of them would be in line to be the new starting right tackle. But in the final game they moved Woodley over from guard to left tackle instead, and Caleb tells us that the New Mexico St transfer #52 OT Guerrero is now leading for the position. Guerrero was unrated out of high school in 2017 and came to Fresno this cycle from NMSU after starting 11 games in 2019 but not playing in 2020 (the Aggies didn’t play last Fall, instead playing two FCS opponents in Spring).

I believe Bull has his left tackle job totally secure due to good play last year and his size - 6’7” and 326 lbs. Smith will also probably return to his center job since he’s a captain and the starter the past two seasons, although both Caleb and I observed that in the few snaps we saw him the backup #54 C Schmidt looked better. Making the switch would be a very bold move given Smith’s incumbency but apparently there’s been some real talk about it during the offseason.

Adkins probably has a serious fight to keep his left guard spot, however. He played fewer than 50% of meaningful snaps last year, and from the way he was rotated in and out I think this was a choice by coaches due to his performance, not due to unavailability. The two backups who played the most were #51 LG Vavao and #50 RG Sampson, who got 39% and 34% of reps on the season respectively and were the two guards for the entire final game with Woodley over at left tackle. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if those two were the new starters at those spots with Adkins as backup.

At any rate, with three returning starters, a former starter transfer, and five experienced backups who’ve played tackle, guard, and center, Fresno St shouldn’t have difficulty assembling a good starting lineup with serviceable depth.


Fresno State v Utah State Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

Defense

The Bulldogs made a defensive scheme change in 2020, going from a 3-down front for at least the last decade to a 4-2-5 with the nickel being a hybrid LB/S (called the “Husky” position, obnoxiously). While I think the scheme better fits the existing personnel’s skillsets and sizes, the numerical balance at several positions is still somewhat off and there was some clear experimentation with different backers and DBs trying out at the new spot during last season.

The defensive tackle unit needed the most help this offseason. They return one of the two starters who played almost every snap, #90 DT Atkins, but lose the other starter Alex Dumais and the primary backup Kurtis Brown. I don’t think they had enough big bodies as it was in 2020 for a proper rotation in this kind of front, and those losses are significant. The three other returners saw little or nothing of the field last year: #91 DT Lawson only played a couple snaps, I don’t think I ever saw unrated Juco #98 DT Pizzuti, and #55 DT Payne opted out.

Fresno St is getting two new tackles through the portal: #0 DT Bennett from Oregon St and #37 DT Boehm from FCS Cal Poly. Readers may recall from my preview of the Beavers how devastating a loss Bennett was for that team after Spring practice because he certainly would have been their starting and perhaps only nose guard. Tackle in an even front is a somewhat different job, but Caleb and I both expect that he’ll join Atkins as a starter for the Bulldogs. I don’t know what to think of Boehm and the three other returners, but six tackles with two being very experienced is probably adequate depth assuming an average hit rate for the other four, though there’s no room for error and they should probably get a couple more bodies here to complete the schematic transition.

Fresno State v Utah State Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

There is an enormous amount of turnover at defensive end, with six departures and eight additions. But I think this is just managing the transition and planning for the future, because for 2021 the starters and backups appear very stable. They return both starters from last year, #99 DE Perales and #33 DE K. Jones, as well as both backups, #52 DE D. Johnson and #18 DE I. Johnson. They’ll also add a former linebacker, #15 DE Mosby, who’s played extensively at Fresno St and in high school at a couple positions but whose size is in line with the rest of the unit, and they’ve taken another Oregon St d-line transfer #92 DE Garcia, though he’s only played sparingly for the Beavs the last three seasons.

EDIT: A few hours after publication, Garcia re-entered the transfer portal.

The departures don’t look like they’ll have much of an impact - three hadn’t played and the other three saw very little of the field last year. I think the rest of the additions outside Mosby will redshirt - all are true freshmen. However, of the six ends mentioned above who I think will make up the rotation, five are seniors and probably on their last year, so it’s possible that the big crop of new players gets some early playing time to prepare for 2022.

The new scheme uses two inside linebackers with responsibilities typical to most nickel defenses. They return four of the seven players who got significant rotational time last season, though picking out whom to call the starters is tricky because of positional experimentation. To start the year, the starters were #35 LB Langley and #31 LB King, but by the end of the year King wasn’t playing much and #6 LB Bailey appeared to be the new starter after switching from Husky. All three return, as does backup #42 LB Mello whom Caleb thinks looks the most talented of all.

They’re losing primary backup #3 LB Hollins and deeper backup #8 LB Jarvis, as well as Mosby to the DEs who was limited as a backer in 2020 while recovering from surgery. This unit took three freshmen in the 2021 cycle who I think will all redshirt - they’re slightly more talented on paper than the returners but the experience gap is pretty big. The interesting addition is #58 LB Maeva, whom I’ve written about in the past when he played for Boise St in their 2017 Las Vegas Bowl team - he’d transferred to FIU last season after not playing in 2019 but has 185 tackles in his career since 2016.

Caleb suggested that despite returning Langley and King, the two backers who started the season and had the most tackles, this position could continue to evolve throughout 2021. There’s a good chance of Bailey, Maeva, and possibly Mello taking over, using different packages for expected rush and pass plays, and some continued swapping with the Husky position. This unit is in the most flux of any on the entire team and I plan to watch it closely in Fall camp and the opener against UConn.

The Husky position looks set, possible trades with the backers notwithstanding. By the end of last year they had settled on high 3-star true freshmen #13 H Houston as starter at the position, and they’ve converted a backup DB, #7 H Strong, who had a lot of rotational time last year (he was one of thirteen players with between 18 and 30 tackles in 2020, making a real logjam of the “leading tackler” title). Houston and Strong have pretty different body types and I think it may be that they’re deployed according to the down & distance rather than first- and second-string at the same job.

For depth, there’s an unrated junior labeled as a Husky (they didn’t use that label on the official 2020 roster but are doing so in 2021), #16 H Fields. I didn’t see him play last year but given that four of last year’s defensive starters were unrated it’s difficult to use any player’s 24/7 score as predictive. The two others listed in this unit are low 3-star true freshmen, #23 H Brooks and #25 H Pait. Normally I’d guess they’d redshirt but given the small size of the room and the experimentation last year which may continue into this year, there’s a decent possibility they break in.

Like the defensive ends, there’s a lot of turnover at defensive back with eight departures and seven additions. But also like the DEs, I think all of that churn is happening in the deep reserves and for future planning, and I expect the 2021 personnel on the field to look essentially the same as last year.

Fresno State v Utah State Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

Fresno St returns both starting corners, #4 CB Free and #38 CB Lux, as well as backup #24 CB Jordan. I believe those three are the only corners I saw last year. It’s hard to tell which of the seven additions to the secondary will be cornerbacks, but Caleb tells us that unrated FCS transfer #1 DB Bland has looked good in practice to become a new backup corner. They’ve taken former 4-star #2 CB Gates from UCLA through the portal, though longtime readers know that I’ve thought he’s been basically unplayable after 2018 and I suspect he’ll remain on the bench in Fresno. But given how poorly managed the Bruins have been since he arrived it’s possible that the change of scenery revitalizes him.

There was an unusually high level of rotation among the safeties in 2020 with eight different DBs getting significant play at just two spots, and neither Caleb nor I have any good theories as to why. Two of the seven departures in the secondary were rotational safeties with limited playing time, Chris Gaston and Matthew Sanchez, and the other five didn’t play at all … though it’s notable that three of those five were 2020 recruits.

The two safeties I saw on the field most both return, #17 DB Perry and #32 DB E. Williams. The former seems like his job is less secure than the latter, and probably the best interpretation of all the rotation last year is trying to find out if they have a better option than Perry. If it’s anyone my guess would be #10 DB Agina, a low 3-star but who got a lot of playing time as a true freshman last year and was pushing more experienced but lower rated (or unrated) upperclassmen around him. But Caleb says he hasn’t looked like he’s there yet in practice, and he suspects it’ll be unrated Juco #27 DB Early.

There are three other returning safeties in the room, two unrated seniors in #30 DB Gagnon and #39 DB Lake who got a few reps in 2020, plus a converted quarterback recruit in #22 DB Comstock whom I don’t think I saw. Other than the aforementioned Bland and Gates, they’ve taken five more new DBs, four freshmen and a Juco. Again, this is a position where I’d normally expect those guys to redshirt given multiple returning starters and backups, but with all the experimentation last year and the possibility of a talent upgrade, we might see some true freshmen in the mix here.