Coming off of a 1-11 season, the Bulldogs’ offense is making strides to prepare for the season opener against Incarnate Word. The game is less than two weeks away.
After the worst season in school history, where former head coach Tim DeRuyter was fired eight games in, athletic director Jim Bartko brought in former Bulldog quarterback and offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford in a bid to turn the program around.
Tedford led the team through the spring practices, and fall camp started at the beginning of August.
“We’ve had a really good camp, very productive,” Tedford said after practice Tuesday. “Now as we wind down the week here on Thursday, there will be more game plan-type stuff. We’ll start practicing for Incarnate Word, so it’s exciting to finally get to this point and have a chance to focus on someone else.”
Tedford said the team’s standards on how it practices every day out improved since the spring. He said the team has bought in and is committed.
The offense returns 10 starters, including sophomore quarterback Chason Virgil. Virgil is competing for the starting job with junior college transfer Jorge Reyna and Oregon State transfer and Dinuba native Marcus McMaryion.
“It’s a good competition,” Virgil said. “There’s a lot of good talent. Either one of us can go out there and make plays and help the team win. That’s all you want at the end of the day, so it pushes the team as well. They see us competing hard. It gets everybody else pumped.”
Tedford said none of the quarterbacks are standing out over the others, and there is no timetable to name a starter.
Virgil said the offense is shaping up well, but it still has “some kinks to knock out.” He said the offense has picked up all the new plays in fall camp and is on the same page.
Compared with this time last season, the offense has more energy every day, Virgil said.
“We’ll make mistakes,” Virgil said. “A lot of guys get on themselves a little bit, and that’s a good thing. Nobody wants to make mistakes, and people are being coachable, too.”
The new coaching staff’s effect on the team is noticable to junior running back Dejonte O’Neal.
“It’s a big difference,” O’Neal said. “Teamwise, we’re more like a family. We enjoy being here.”
O’Neal said the team has a rope in the locker room, and every player holds it. It signifies that every player is accountable to each other, he said.
“If you’re making a block, make sure that you understand that it’s not about you,” O’Neal said. “It’s about the person behind you that you’re blocking for. It’s a live person with a family that he needs to go home to. He’s important to this team just as everybody else.”
O’Neal is one of the running backs who will see playing time this season. Tedford said it will be a running back by committee offense.
“As far as I’m concerned, the days of one back carrying the whole load are over,” Tedford said. “We really need to keep guys fresh, so it’s really important to have some depth at that position.”
Along with O’Neal, the running backs who will make up the committee include senior Dontel James, sophomore Josh Hokit and freshman Ronnie Rivers, son of former Bulldog running back Ron Rivers.
“Our rotation is really good,” O’Neal said. “Those are my brothers, and we all come to compete every day. When a back is hot, he’s hot. We’re going to keep him in. When he gets tired, we’re going to come in and keep him fresh. We’ll keep the backfield rolling.”
James is the leading returning rusher with 697 yards in 11 games. Hokit emerged on the scene in the second-to-last game of the season against Hawaii last year, rushing for 97 yards on 18 carries, one of the best performances by a Bulldog running back all season.
Junior KeeSean Johnson led the team in receiving with 66 catches, 773 receiving yards and six touchdowns, and returns alongside junior Jamire Jordan as the starting wide receivers. Johnson was an All-Mountain West honorable mention selection last season.
All of the projected starting offensive linemen have experience starting, led by senior center Aaron Mitchell, who paces the team with 24 consecutive starts.
The offense is ready to lead the charge and turn around the program, starting with the first game, as players indicated.
“I feel like we’re a smarter team,” O’Neal said. “I feel like we’re well-prepared for this game, and we’re going to execute because, like I said, we’re going to hold the rope for the whole community – for Fresno, in general.”