After a breakout performance as arguably the best player in the Mountain West last year, Ronnie Rivers is gearing up for one last run through Bulldog Stadium.
Fresno State’s fifth-year senior running back had already been an established starter for years heading into the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, but he took the Mountain West by storm as he led the league with 136.3 all-purpose yards per game.
For Rivers, that success is attributed to his work in the weight room, bulking up from 183 pounds in 2019 to 195 pounds last year.
While he’s still listed at 195 pounds again heading into the 2021 season, Rivers said he has worked on maintaining his weight while getting stronger in the offseason.
“It takes a load off,” Rivers said. “When I was lighter in previous years, things just seemed a little bit harder to break tackles and fit guys up in the hole. But now putting on a little bit more weight makes things a little bit easier.”
It’s a game-changing transition in the eyes of Offensive Coordinator Ryan Grubb.
“Now when it’s close-corridors and he has to, he can run a guy over,” Grubb said. “To me, it’s a whole new tool set for him.”
As physical as Rivers was last year – when he racked up 507 yards on the ground to go along with 265 receiving yards – fall camp this year has been a little different.
Rivers has been effectively receiving the quarterback treatment in practice. In other words, he’s been off limits for the most part to getting hit, Head Coach Kalen DeBoer said.
The logic behind the decision is simple: Rivers was the best player on the team last year, and there’s no concern to the quality of play that he brings.
Since he’s the most sure thing this team has, there’s no reason to risk an injury before the season starts.
“He’s been off limits with a lot of our scrimmages and stuff,” DeBoer said. “He’s been doing this for a while, and he looks as good as I’ve ever seen him. And that goes back to what we saw throughout the spring, the winter and summer with all the workouts and training.”
Even as the other running backs are seeing more action during practice, Rivers’ presence has been front and center for the team.
Rivers was voted as one of the four team captains by his peers, the first time he has received that honor, which DeBoer pointed to as a testament to the positive impact he brings to the table.
“I think the biggest thing – I’ve talked about it quite a bit – is his leadership,” DeBoer said. “I just see that being such a stronger piece to who he is, and I think it’s going to make our whole team a lot better.”
Rivers is not an “in your face” type of leader, instead saying that he prefers to set the example and show his teammates how to work the right way.
“It’s a real honor,” Rivers said. “We have a team full of great guys, so being named team captain makes me feel good on the inside, and I just can’t wait to go out there on Saturdays and lead these guys.”
When that first Saturday comes up against UConn at Bulldog Stadium on Aug. 28, Rivers will have an opportunity to cement himself atop the touchdown leaderboard in program history.
Rivers finished last season with 44 career touchdowns, tied with former Bulldogs running back Anthony Daigle in first place.
Even though the personal accolades are soon to come, Rivers has a humble mindset and is not looking to set himself apart from his teammates.
“That’s not really on my mindset right now,” Rivers said. “That will come as the season goes. I have to give all the props to my teammates. Everything that I’ve accomplished here at Fresno State couldn’t be done without the guys playing on the field with me, so shout out to them.”
The highlight of Rivers’ Fresno State career was scoring the game-winning touchdown against Boise State in overtime to secure the 2018 Mountain West Championship.
While he could have declared for the NFL Draft and tried to latch on with a team, Rivers used his extra year of eligibility – granted by the NCAA to all players because of the pandemic – to return for another shot at a conference title, which would wrap up his five-year storybook career quite nicely.
“Definitely a roller coaster of emotions,” Rivers said, reflecting on the fact that 2021 will be his last year at Fresno State.
“I feel like I’m going to miss this place when I’m gone. It feels like I’ve been here for ages. I’m going to miss this. It holds a lot of value in my heart, and I’m going to miss being here with my guys.”