Fall Camp: Dense wide receiver group expected to bring balance on offense

Fresno State wide receiver Josh Harper (3) returns from injury this season as part of a group expected to have more stability and bring more balance to the offense this season.

Fresno State wide receiver Josh Harper (3) returns from injury this season as part of a group expected to have more stability and bring more balance to the offense this season. Roe Borunda / Collegian file photo.

During the first half of Fresno State’s second scrimmage of fall camp on Friday, quarterback Derek Carr connected with wide receiver Josh Harper on a corner route for a 25-yard touchdown.

The fans – there to see the Bulldogs in action in the only practice open to the public this season – cheered. And Carr and Harper, a junior, celebrated on the sidelines.

It wasn’t a sight that many fans got to cheer about last season, nor was it an occasion that Carr and Harper had much opportunity to celebrate together in 2012.

Harper suffered an injury – a sports hernia, the same injury that Carr played through last year – at Colorado State last season, and was out for the remainder of the year.

“He plays a different position than me, so I couldn’t imagine trying to play receiver with that,” Carr said.

Enter this season.

With a healthy Harper starting in the outside receiver spot opposite Davante Adams – who led the team with 102 receptions, 1,312 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns – Isaiah Burse in the slot and a young, dense wide receiver group that has jelled together in Year 2 of the spread offense, the Bulldogs are expected to be more unexpected in their passing attack.

“For us, it balances the field,” wide receiver coach Ron Antoine said. “Last year, we had a lot of good players catch a lot of balls. But when you have one that catches 102, it kind of throws the balance of the field off a little bit so far as where the ball is going.

“But having Josh back healthy rebalances the field for us and is going to lighten the box. What lighten the box means is that they’re going to have to keep those safeties back to guard Josh and Davante and now we’ll get to run the ball better.”

Stability at the receiver positions was an area Fresno State struggled with last season. Harper was inactive for eight games, graduated senior Rashad Evans was suspended for the first four and Victor Dean (no longer with the program) fought through injuries throughout the entire season.

That led to Burse – now a go-to option between the hash marks in one of the two slot spots – having to play at all four receiver positions. Harper, when healthy, lined up at three different spots, as well, last season.

When the Bulldogs face Rutgers at Bulldog Stadium on Aug. 29, Harper and Adams are expected to start at the outside receiver spots with seniors Burse and hefty tight end Marcel Jensen expected to bring relief in the interior and subsequently allow Carr to throw the deep ball on the outside.

“We know we can stretch it vertically,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “It’s great to have both Harp and Davante out there because you can’t double both sides. To have both of those guys be able to go and make plays on the ball, we’re going to be able to put some pressure on teams.”

Fresno State expects opposing defenses this season to put added attention on Adams, who, as a redshirt freshman last year, had a breakout season and emerged as Carr’s favorite target. Adams had 39 more receptions than anyone else on the team last season.

The Bulldogs also expect to distribute the ball more evenly among their receivers.

“He’ll definitely get some attention,” Antoine said of Adams. “If you catch 102 balls, you’re going to get some attention. But I think after our first few games when they see Isaiah Burse and they see Josh Harper and Marcel Jensen, and that ball is spreading around, its going to be hard to focus on one guy.”

“Go ahead and stick four guys on [any] one of us,” Adams said. “Somebody is going to be open.”

The team, as a unit, made more plays the second time around on Friday compared to the Bulldogs’ first scrimmage on Aug. 10, DeRuyter said.

One of those plays was a 62-yard touchdown pass on third down from Carr to Adams, a play all too familiar.

And that Carr-to-Harper touchdown catch?

“Him [Harper] coming out here, us being healthy again connecting on a touchdown is always fun,” Carr said.

“As soon as I saw the coverage and we checked to the play, I knew Harp was excited. I knew he was going to win because he’s such a great player … I just pray he continues to stay healthy.”