Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter and his staff have 28 practices before the team’s Aug. 29 season-opener against Rutgers to find some answers.
Derek Carr’s backup has yet to be established. Marteze Waller, Josh Quezada and the rest of the running backs stable are in a race to see who will succeed Robbie Rouse as the starter in the backfield. The depth in the offensive line hasn’t fully materialized and Shannon Edwards and Jamal Ellis are battling to start in the cornerback spot opposite of L.J. Jones.
Fresno State’s depth chart is several position battles away from being finalized for its matchup at Bulldog Stadium against the Scarlet Knights.
But unlike last year, the questions surrounding fall camp aren’t centered on whether or not Fresno State will assimilate — and succeed — to the changes in schemes. Or whether or not the Bulldogs would be physically on par to to run an offense requiring more endurance than the pro-style and a defense predicated on utilizing bigger bodies on the defensive line than the 4-3.
That much has been established. The Bulldogs, in comparison to this time last year, enter fall camp with a “higher baseline,” DeRuyter said.
“A year ago, a lot more things were up in the air,” DeRuyter said. “But guys have had a year and half now, for the most part, to establish who they are and what they can do.”
Fresno State, almost a year-and-a-half removed from making the first installations of its up-tempo, no-huddle spread offense and its 3-4 base formation on defense, isn’t at the same starting point it was last fall camp – when players were in “survival mode,” DeRuyter said.
The Bulldogs, with a second summer under strength and conditioning coach Joey Boese, seem more fit, more stronger and more mentally and physically capable of taking on the fall camp workload, free safety Derron Smith said.
The time lapse – one full season, two springs and two summers in the system – is “a big difference,” Smith said.
The coaches agree.
“A year ago, we were still changing the culture,” defensive coordinator Nick Toth said. “We weren’t trying to teach them how to win; we were trying to remind them how to win. … We get to spend less time doing the cultural changes this year and more time working on coaching ball. That leaves us to be a little bit more confident even though we’ve got some of these position battles that are open.”
The Bulldogs hold their first fall camp practice on Friday, returning 15 starters from last season.
Fresno State will use its practices leading up to the season opener to establish the depth chart, confident in the offseason strides its made off the first-year success it found – a 2012 Mountain West Conference co-Championship – in a new league with a new coach.
The effect? It’s proportionate to the “higher baseline.”
“Part of our mantra this year is ‘9-4 is not good enough.’ Not for this year’s team,” DeRuyter said. “But at the same time, this year’s team is totally different than a year ago.”
Kill the noise
But the higher baseline doesn’t rectify what has been a sore reminder to the Bulldogs about the perils of its final performance of the 2012 season – an “embarrassing” 43-10 loss to Southern Methodist in the Hawaii Bowl that served as the Bulldogs’ fall from grace after scaling the top of the Mountain West.
Fresno State, 9-3 entering the bowl game, was projected as the favorite over the 6-6 Mustangs.
DeRuyter, who has not seen or addressed the team as a unit since the end of spring practices in May, said one of the first messages he’ll address to players on Thursday – when the team reports to fall camp – is simple.
“We’ve got to ignore a lot of the noise out there,” DeRuyter said, referring to the hype that’s come with all the preseason accolades and attention Fresno State has accumulated this offseason.
“We didn’t do a very good job of that last December when people told us how good we were for winning the Mountain West Championship. We didn’t handle that very well. I didn’t do a very good job of keeping that noise away from some of our guys. We’re doing a better job this year. Our guys touched that stove, realized it’s hot and they don’t want to go there anymore.”
Fresno State, picked as the preseason favorite to win the West Division of the Mountain West, has more spotlights this offseason than it did the previous one – when the Bulldogs were able to hide beneath the radar after going 4-9 in 2011.
The Bulldogs had a league-best seven players voted to the Mountain West’s Preseason All-Conference team. Eight players were named to 19 preseason award watch lists. Carr and Smith were named the league’s preseason Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year, respectively.
“All those preseason accolades and all that stuff – that’s all well and good. But preseason isn’t what you want to be recognized for,” said offensive coordinator Dave Schramm.
Added Carr, who has been named to five watch lists: “We know what we need to get better at. I know what I have to get better at. We don’t look ahead and think it’s going to be a magical year or anything like that. If it happens, great. But Rutgers and training camp is first. We know we have to take care of all that before anything else can happen.”