Fresno State football is back. Here’s what to expect this season

Fresno State’s running back Ronnie Rivers celebrates with his teammates after the first touchdown during the first quarter of the game against Colorado State Rams on Oct. 30, 2020, at Bulldog Stadium. (Vendila Yang/The Collegian)

It’s been close to two years since the Bulldogs played without the Red Wave’s presence at Bulldog Stadium. 

With last season being cut short with injuries and setbacks from the pandemic, the team finished 3-3. All the trials and tribulations these players went through would wear down anyone. 

But the message from the team this season is clear. Hardship has only brought the team closer together and increased its hunger for a championship this season.

“We just want to be a gritty football team this year and be able to fight when things are hard and come out on top,” senior quarterback Jake Haener said. “When things get hard and adversity strikes, we got to keep going… These guys understood that.”

The Bulldogs are scheduled to play 12 games this season. The season opener kicks off in Bulldog Stadium this Saturday versus UConn at 11 a.m.

Fresno State is ready to put on a show now that fans are able to come back, and it’s a first for some players and coaches performing in front of the Red Wave.

So what kind of team should the fans expect?

Players and staff vaccinated

It was announced on July 27, CSUs require faculty, staff and students be vaccinated if they’re accessing campus facilities. From day one of fall camp, the Bulldogs prepared early with most of their staff and players vaccinated.

Since July, 95% of the team received the vaccine or received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to coaches. 

“I’m really proud of the guys. It’s a hard decision. It really is,” head coach Kalen DeBoer said. “I think there’s a lot of guys that made the decision solely because they put the team first. And if they were on the fence, they went the route of getting the vaccine”

DeBoer mentioned how this gave their team an advantage because it prevents any players from missing games. 

Last season, two games were cancelled against rivals San Diego State and San Jose State because of positive testing of the virus. 

“It’s just going to keep us safer,” DeBoer said. “It’s going to keep all the things that go along with [COVID]… from being able to affect a week where maybe we can’t have guys in the football field.”

Mountain West announced its COVID-19 game cancellation policy for this season.

If a game cannot be played due to one team’s inability to participate related to the disease, it’s considered a forfeit and will be recorded as a loss. If both teams are unable to play, the game is declared “no contest”.  

Plenty of returners

The NCAA announced last season that all of its athletes would receive an extra year of eligibility, regardless if they chose to sit out or participate in the shortened pandemic season.

Returning for the Bulldogs is running back Ronnie Rivers – who is just one touchdown away from being the all-time career touchdown leader. Through six games last season, he had 507 rushing yards and nine total touchdowns.

“We know what our expectations are for him on the field. It’s to be superhuman,” DeBoer said. “That’s not fair to him, but we know that. We expect big things.”

Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener looks for a pass during Fresno State’s Spring Preview at Bulldog Stadium on Friday, April 30, 2021. (Vendila Yang/The Collegian)

After transferring from Washington in 2019, Haener finally got a season under his belt, where he tossed for 2,021 yards and 14 touchdowns. Unlike last year – where Haener had to compete with Ben Wooldridge for the starting spot – he is the starter for the Bulldogs.

“I want to be that leader of the team, and be able to build relationships with every guy,” Haener said. “They’re going to lay it on the line for me, and I’m going lay it on the line for them.”

He’ll have a trio of returning wideouts as options, Keric Wheatfall, Josh Kelly and Jalen Cropper – who combined for 1,213 receiving yards, along with a healthy Juan Rodriguez at tight end.

“Jake is becoming so savvy on the looks,” DeBoer said. “He’s seeing and knowing how he can take advantage of it with the calls that are built in. He can get his guys in the right spots with signals.”

The offensive line returns players like center Matt Smith, Dontae Bull and Bula Schmidt, and four starters on the defensive line: David Perales, Kevin Atkins, Leonard Payne Jr. and Arron Mosby.

Justin Houston will be starting at the husky position – a position defensive coordinator William Inge said is similar to that of an extra free safety. Houston played a handful of games last season, including making three starts at husky.

“We’re continuing to take steps… and consistently enhance our fundamentals,” Inge said. “Make sure we’re not a play late, and make sure – from a leadership standpoint – each player is building a new them. That’s some of the things we’re focusing on as we get closer to kickoff.”

The Bulldogs also have good returning depth at defensive back: Bralyn Lux – who started as a redshirt freshman and was awarded a scholarship over the offseason,  Evan Williams and Wylan Free. Kosi Agina will also contribute. 

“Our defense… they’re so far ahead of where they were a year ago. It’s not even funny,” Haener said. “ I got nothing but confidence in them and what they’re going to do.”

Important role players finally healthy and coming back on the offensive team. 

Last season the team suffered from multiple injuries from the tight end position. 

Rodriguez was a big loss to the Bulldog’s offense, and players that stepped up in his place like Rory Hanson and Raymond Pauwels Jr. would have their own individual injuries later in the season. 

“We were super thin at tight end. It was a struggle honestly with game plans because you couldn’t necessarily count on including them as much,” said associate head coach Ryan Grubb. “[Rodriguez’s] kind of the godfather of the offense… He’s a guy that really brings that workman-like mentality everyday to practice. We really missed him.”

After utilizing the additional year of eligibility approved by the NCAA, Rodriguez was able to come back one more year. Having spent the majority of last season and this off-season to recover, the 6-foot-2-inch senior said he feels back to normal.

Rodriguez, Hanson and Pauwels Jr. coming back adds more depth to the tight end position. Tight end coach Paul Creighton plans to bring more physicality to the o-line, and they have proven to be reliable throughout fall camp and scrimmages, according to coaches. 

Another crucial player coming back from injury is veteran running back Jordan Mims. After sitting out the 2019 season due to injury, he played all six games in 2020, and was the team’s second leading rusher with 28 carries for 145 yards, behind senior running back Rivers. But the team wasn’t able to utilize Mims’ full potential since the injury.

Mims will contribute a lot to the team this season as the No.2 running back, according to coaches.

“[Last season] there was just things that weren’t quite right with his body, and he’s had a whole off-season where he stayed fresh and healthy,” DeBoer said. “He’s got a lot of heart, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him in such a great mindset in his toughness.”

DeBoer is now confident to bring back the “1-2 punch” with Rivers and Mims as the key running backs, so Rivers has less of a load to carry for this season. 

Last season, Fresno State finished 10th in rush offense, and players like Mims can improve that part of their offense.

Promising newcomers throughout the entire roster.

This season has a lot of new faces with great potential from both freshman and veteran players who transferred to Fresno State.

When team captains for this year were announced, the three recognizable names would be Haener, Rivers, and senior defensive end Perales. But one name that stood out is first year transfer and senior linebacker Tyson Maeva from Florida International University. 

“I just got chills thinking about what [Maeva] brought to us and how the guys have received him as a teammate,” DeBoer said. “He’s a naturally vocal guy… He knows what championships look like. This is his last hurrah”

Playing four out of six games with FIU last season, Maeva recorded 19 tackles. But before that, he played two seasons at Boise State. Now, the Bulldogs have integrated him into the roster, and his energy in camp is what made him a great leader.

“You can hear Tyson from probably the locker room if he yells,” junior linebacker Levelle Bailey said. “[Maeva] brings the juice. Brings the energy.”

Maeva is not the only transfer player to improve the defensive team. Senior defensive backs Daron Bland – who was named first team all-Big Sky while at Sacramento State –  and Elijah Gates from UCLA also joined the Bulldogs roster, and became standouts throughout the entire fall camp.

“Those guys are hoopers,” Perales said. “They’re going to help me get to the quarterback. Lock down corners and safeties. You know, I’m just excited and happy that they’re here for sure… They make plays and are good guys in general.”

Many Bulldog veterans, like Perales, are excited to see the new players showing out, and many from the freshman class have done just that.

Fresno State running back Ronnie Rivers runs through Nevada defenders during the first half of a home match at Bulldog Stadium on Saturday, November 23, 2019 (Armando Carreno/The Collegian)

One standout is defensive back Cale Sanders Jr. because of the aggressiveness he adds to the defensive team according to coaches. Running back Malik Sherrod has shown he can be in that third rotation according to Grubb.

Another big addition the tight end groups will be looking to capitalize on is Tre Watson, a 6-foot-5-inch freshman who played football and basketball with collegiate offers from both sports. His height and athletic abilities is what made him stand out in fall camp.

“He’s got his big plays moments,” DeBoer said. “And he’s so good out in space. People probably think just as a receiver, but he’s a great blocker out in the space too.”

The only thing to prepare for now is UConn and defending the first game back home.

What does the team expect from the fans?

“What you want is to make sure when an opponent  comes into the dog house that they feel those 40,000 fans,” Inge said.

Jesús Cano contributed to this story.

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