Fresno State football kicks back into gear Friday as fall camp opens. The defending Mountain West Champions are coming off a 12-2 season heading into year three with head coach Jeff Tedford.
The Bulldogs capped off their championship season with a win against Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Also of note, Fresno State’s victory of Boise State in the conference championship game was the first time the Bulldogs beat the Broncos on the blue turf.
Although they’re favored to win the West Division again this year, the Bulldogs have a few question marks heading into fall camp.
The most pressing question is: Can the ‘Dogs replace the bevy of talent that’s gone from last season?
Fresno State returns only 12 starters, so the turnover is high this year. The biggest losses are quarterback Marcus McMaryion, wide receiver KeeSean Johnson, offensive lineman Micah St. Andrew and linebacker Jeff Allison.
Fresno State has a month of practice to get the roster ready to go in preparation for the opening game at USC on Aug. 31.
The quarterback situation has already been handled – Tedford named senior Jorge Reyna the starter during spring practice.
Reyna was Tedford’s first recruit and doesn’t have to worry about support from the coaching staff, something that lacked for quarterbacks in the last coaching regime.
Replacing McMaryion will be tough – while not perfect, he hardly made any mistakes which gave the ‘Dogs a chance in every game.
This is Reyna’s third season at Fresno State. He played at West Los Angeles College for two years before transferring to Fresno State in 2017.
While in junior college, Reyna showed his dual-threat abilities. He threw for 3,646 yards and 39 touchdowns while rushing for 386 yards and seven touchdowns in his last season.
Although he’s had very limited playing time while sitting behind McMaryion for two seasons, Reyna did throw for 111 yards and a touchdown last season.
Besides Reyna, the other key focus on offense will be replacing wide receivers KeeSean Johnson and Jamire Jordan.
The current group of receivers is inexperienced. Senior Derrion Grim only has 33 career receptions, but he looks to take one starting spot.
The other two starting spots are up for grabs, and any of the various underclassmen could feasibly earn it in fall camp. Watch out for Chris Coleman, Emoryie Edwards, Zane Pope, Jalen Cropper, Josh Kelly, Jamal Glaspie and Rodney Wright III.
Also, junior college transfer Eric Wheatfall could be an early favorite to start opposite Grim. He had 798 yards and six touchdowns for Blinn College in Texas.
The Bulldogs are solid at running back and tight end. Juniors Ronnie Rivers and Jordan Mims return to lead the rushing attack, and senior Jared Rice looks to build off a highly productive 2018 season and lead the tight end group.
Although the offensive line lost multiple starters, junior left tackle Netane Muti returns after missing most of last season with an Achilles injury. Adding Muti back to the line might be the most impactful on the team.
He was an All-Mountain West honorable mention selection in 2017, and he had a particularly good showing against an Alabama defense that was stacked with NFL talent.
The biggest question mark on defense is at linebacker, after losing all three starters – Jeff Allison, James Bailey and George Helmuth.
Good news for the position, though, is that former defensive end and all-conference first team selection Mykal Walker moved to linebacker, his natural position, in the spring.
Walker, a senior, wreaked havoc on opposing defenses last year and was second on the team with 87 tackles.
Another player to watch out for in fall camp is senior Josh Hokit, who switched from running back to linebacker in the spring. Hokit, who is also on the wrestling team, played both ways his freshman year.
The cornerstone of the defense is the secondary, with senior cornerback Jaron Bryant and senior strong safety Juju Hughes returning after excellent seasons.
Sophomore defensive back Wylan Free was highly touted coming out of high school and should position himself in practice to earn the starting free safety spot after playing in all 14 games last season.
Expect sophomore Chris Gaston to takeover the other cornerback position after appearing in all 14 games last year as well.
The defensive line should be in for another solid year, returning all the starters, minus Walker. Several players should see playing time throughout the season.
Look for sophomore defensive end Isaih Johnson to fill Walker’s spot in fall camp. He had 2.5 sacks as a freshman while playing in 11 games.
Both starters return from last year – all conference senior punter Blake Cusick and sophomore kicker Asa Fuller.
Cusick is as important as anyone on the team. He was recognized as one of the best punters in the country last season, being named a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award, and opponents have had very little success returning his punts.
Fuller was 14-22 last season but was on when it mattered, making both field goal attempts in the Mountain West Championship. He shouldn’t have any competition for the job unless he struggles throughout the season.
Sophomore wide receiver Patrick Elima-Jeune was the backup kick returner last season and is a favorite for the starting job coming into fall camp.
Expect Rivers to return as punt returner, after he was 21st in the nation averaging 9.9 yards per return last year.
The only big shake up on the staff is at offensive coordinator. Tedford promoted offensive line coach Ryan Grubb to the position, filling the vacated spot left by Kalen DeBoer, who was offered the offensive coordinator job at Indiana.
This isn’t the first time Grubb has filled DeBoer’s position. Grubb was on DeBoer’s coaching staff at the University of Sioux Falls from 2007-09. Grubb took over as offensive coordinator when DeBoar departed in 2009, and the offense didn’t miss a beat.
Fresno State lost a plethora of talent from last year’s squad, so it’s easy to assume that this will be a “reset year” for the program. But when Tedford took charge in 2017, he turned around a 1-11 team, the worst in program history, to a 10-4 team.
And now Tedford has his recruits playing. The Bulldogs may not go undefeated, but there’s no reason to think this team can’t compete for another conference championship.