Without a trip to a bowl game, the 4-8 Bulldogs can start working on putting this season behind them and moving on to next year.
Even though the Bulldogs skewed younger this year, Fresno State has a tough challenge ahead in replacing 19 seniors, many of whom were starters.
The departing seniors on offense are wide receiver Derrion Grim, running back Josh Hokit, quarterback Jorge Reyna, tight end Jared Rice and tight end Cam Sutton.
Defensively, the Bulldogs lose a little bit more production: cornerback Jaron Bryant, safety Juju Hughes, defensive tackle Jasad Haynes, defensive tackle Keiti Iakopo, defensive end Kwami Jones, defensive tackle Ricky McCoy and linebacker/defensive end Mykal Walker.
Punter Blake Cusick is the only senior on special teams.
That should be all the talent that’s leaving the program. It’s unlikely that any eligible juniors will declare for the NFL Draft. The only player who might declare early is left guard Netane Muti, but it’s hard to see that happening since he’s missed most of the last two seasons with injuries.
So where are the Bulldogs strongest heading into next year? There are four spots where they return a bevy of talent: running back, linebacker, offensive line and wide receiver.
Let’s start with running back. Ronnie Rivers will return for his final season at running back, and the unit should be very strong. Jordan Mims will return after missing the season due to injury. Romello Harris and Peyton Dixon will also return from injury to give the Bulldogs a more than competitive backfield.
With all the injuries on the offensive line, the Bulldogs will return nine players who received significant playing time. Most importantly, all five starters return – assuming Muti stays. Head coach Jeff Tedford and the coaching staff often stresses how important game experience is, so the Bulldogs could easily return the deepest line in the conference.
Wide receiver might be the best position group next year, at least if the unit lives up to the potential is flashed over the last 12 games. Jalen Cropper, Fresno State’s most exciting player, returns for his sophomore season. He started to make an impact in the receiving game as the season progressed, so look for him to have a breakout season.
Emoryie Edwards flashed some incredible potential at times this year after dealing with some injuries. Zane Pope was the Bulldogs’ most consistent target and should only improve. Keric Wheatfall proved to be a big-play threat, but he too battled injuries. He’ll be back for his senior season, hopefully 100 percent healthy.
On the defensive side, the Bulldogs’ strength lies at linebacker. All-Mountain West first team selection Justin Rice returns, as well as starter Aaron Mosby. Levelle Bailey earned opportunities as a true freshman and showed that he’ll be ready to be a full-time starter as a sophomore.
The problem on defense will be finding replacements in the secondary and along the defensive line.
Freshman Evan Williams played his way into a starting spot at the end of the season, so he’ll slot in for Hughes. Wylan Free was benched for Williams, but he should take the other safety spot. Losing Bryant at corner will be the toughest spot to fill since there was a revolving door at the other corner position due to injuries. Fresno State could benefit from finding a graduate transfer or junior college transfer at cornerback.
Losing Walker as an edge rusher will be rough, but look for defensive end David Perales to step up. Perales is a standout transfer from Sacramento State and had to sit out the season due to NCAA transfer regulations.
Defensive tackle and Fresno State’s sack leader Kevin Atkins will return along with defensive ends Alex Cruz, Alex Dumais and Isaiah Johnson.
Lastly – to flip back to the offense – who will win the quarterback job? Tedford named Reyna the starter in spring practice before last season. Will he pick another quarterback that early next year? Whether he chooses in the spring or waits until the fall, all signs point to Jake Haener winning the battle.
Haener – a former three-star recruit out of the Bay Area – transferred to Fresno State from Washington right before the season started after he wasn’t named the starter. He’s clearly already impressed Tedford and the coaching staff – he was named scout team offensive player of the year.
Ben Wooldridge spent the season as the No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart, so he’ll be Haener’s biggest competition. But Haener transferred to Fresno State for a reason, likely because he knew he’d be a favorite to win the starting job.
Up next for the Bulldogs is National Signing Day on Feb. 5, 2020, and spring practice will start in the following months, which will provide the first look at what Fresno State will look like in 2020.
Photo: Fresno State Athletics