Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter looks on as his players run warm-up drills during Tuesday’s practice. (Darlene Wendels/The Collegian)
A year ago, the Fresno State football team opened the season with a 52-13 loss on the road to the USC Trojans.
As it turned out, that was only the beginning of a whirlwind season for the Bulldogs, who finished the season with a 6-8 record and a 30-6 loss in the Hawaii Bowl against Rice.
Now, after an offseason full of questions, the Bulldogs are set to open the season Thursday at home against the Abilene Christian Wildcats, who come from the lower Football Championship Subdivision.
Although the Wildcats were picked to finish seventh in the Southland Conference preseason poll, they have surprised their opponents in the past.
In 2014, the Wildcats earned their first win over an FBS team in 55 years with a 38-35 upset of Troy University.
“They’re a team that’s extremely explosive on offense,” Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter said. “They’re a group that averaged 275 yards passing, another 165 rushing.”
The Wildcats are led by junior quarterback Parker McKenzie, who completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 3,084 yards and 22 touchdowns against nine interceptions in 2014.
Sophomore running back De’Andre Brown also returns for the Wildcats after rushing for 962 yards and nine touchdowns a year ago.
Head coach Ken Collums will enter his fourth year as head coach of the Wildcats.
Under Collums, the Wildcats have averaged 287.8 yards per game over the last three seasons.
“This is a program that has put guys in the NFL,” DeRuyter said. “ This is not your average FCS program that doesn’t have talent. On defense, they have a couple of defensive tackles that are 300 pounders. They play extremely hard. They’re very well coached.”
The ‘Dogs go into Thursday’s game with a young roster that includes a total of 65 freshmen and sophomores.
Particularly at the wide receiver position, the ‘Dogs are looking to overcome inexperience.
With senior receiver Aaron Peck out for the season because of a foot injury, Justin Johnson is the only eligible senior for the ‘Dogs.
Fresno State will look for a quick spark from redshirt freshmen KeeSean Johnson, Jamire Jordan and Keyan Williams as well as junior college transfer Josiah Blandin and true freshman L.J. Reed.
DeRuyter said the young receivers will grow much like Devante Adams, who developed as a redshirt freshman before becoming a standout at Fresno State and a key player in the NFL for the Green Bay Packers.
“We have some younger guys that have been in the program for a year to develop,” DeRuyter said. “We know these guys can compete in this conference.”
Third-year sophomore quarterback Zack Greenlee is expected to develop with his young team after being named the starting quarterback for Thursday’s opener.
Greenlee won the fall camp competition over junior transfer Ford Childress, redshirt freshman Kilton Anderson and true freshman Chason Virgil.
Running back Marteze Waller will be a big part of the ‘Dogs’ offense after starting all 14 games in 2014 and rushing for 1,368 yards, which was the seventh-highest total in Fresno State single-season history.
“He can run through tackles and make guys miss,” DeRuyter said. “Once he gets by somebody, there’s very few people that can catch him. We’re gonna lean on him. I think that will take the pressure off our young quarterbacks.”
The ‘Dogs also go into Thursday’s game with some experience in the secondary.
Fifth-year senior Charles Washington returns after recording a team-high two interceptions in 2014, and sophomore Malcolm Washington returns after making seven starts as a true freshman.
The returning players on the team are looking forward to some game action for the first time since the bitter loss against Rice in December.
As for the new players, they can finally make a name in front of the Fresno State fans on Thursday. Either way, no matter what their experience level, the players are looking forward to quieting the doubters.
“I listen to everything the (media) says,” senior outside linebacker Ejiro Ederaine said. “Then I like to tell my teammates, ‘Hey they said this about us’. (Greenlee) is my roommate. I tell him ‘They said you can’t throw.’ I tell the receivers, ‘They said you can’t catch.’ I like to tell them how we’re portrayed in the media. It’s definitely a rally cry. I like to eat it up. And when we do what we do on the field, it charges me up.”