Here are 10 of the most pressing questions for the upcoming fall practice sessions.
1. Who takes over for Marcus Riley?
This is one of, if not the most important position on defense. The WLB is responsible for not only weak side run stopping, he is part of the last wave to come in on strong side run support, after the DE, SLB and CB close. He is also responsible with aiding in coverage of the Y receiver and tight end. Moreover, he needs to move just as quickly as any of them. With his speed, he is also the most likely of the backers to blitz.
That is tremendous pressure on someone to come in and plug in the hole left by Riley.
Can Quaadir Brown do this?
He has the speed. But does he have the same tenacity and motor? Does he have the coverage skills? Can he focus? Even if the questions are settled with him, who backs him up? Are they just as capable?
Right now, the two-deep is just that, two. Nick Bates is it, until Ryan Machado gets back to 100%. Can someone like incoming Damion Whittington or Ricky Pemasa get in and, in the course of a month, learn the position and not only play, but be effective?
Fall practice should see a lot of movement at linebacker, but especially at the weak side.
2. Who takes over for Clifton Smith?
For not being a starting position, Clifton Smith's slash role in the offense is immeasurable. The X-factor, his position is the most unpredictable and hardest to cover for any defense, and one of the biggest weapons on offense. He had the knack to attract multiple defenders to him, at times clearing the entire middle if he went wide. He was able to move to any skill position on offense, even to split end. Even better, and perhaps his most underappreciated skill, was his blocking ability. In situations where we needed extra help in pocket protection, Smith provided it in spades.
Who will step up?
Will it be Devon Wylie? He was heavily involved as a "fly-back" in high school, and he has worked on his speed and endurance. He can move over from the Y receiver spot.
Will it be Anthony Harding? One of the best receiving running backs from the backfield, Harding has the speed, power running, and blocking skills to do what Smith did.
Will it be incoming true freshmen A.J. Ellis or Rashad Evans? Both were explosive in high school. Both possess great speed and excellent open field awareness. Both have dabbled in rushing the ball. If both can learn the protection side of the offensive playbook, both could see time in Smith's spot.
Or will this position be run by a committee? There is bunch that can take over this spot or line up in it occasionally, including Marlin Moore and Isaac Kinter.
From spring practice, the key is who can receive out of the backfield? The improvements there will go a long ways in determining who will get the repetitions at the slash position.
3. How will practice go with a new offensive coordinator?
New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier worked with departed Jim McElwain at Michigan State. When it comes to offensive philosophy, they are on the same page. Therefore, the transition should be seamless from last year. Since the terminology is the same, the players should not have to contend with learning a new playbook, just new wrinkles. Now, considering that this is a veteran team, can they learn these nuances in a month? More importantly, what are those nuances going to be?
Fresno State has the personnel on offense to pull off just about any play you can imagine.
Spread? Brandstater, Colburn, Faulkner and Feathers can all direct that.
Option? Feathers can run it with anyone, and run it faster than almost all any defensive back he will face this year.
Full-time shotgun? Brandstater can definitely pull that off.
Power-I? The ‘Dogs have three backs who can bruise anyone all game long, and a tight end that will pave the way behind a veteran offensive line.
Three-wide? Four-wide? Five-wide? FS has done that before, and can do it again. The question is with whom and what frequency. The playbook stays the same, so the fundamentals should be a refresher, not an emphasis.
How well FS utilizes the players it has to execute these nuances brought by Nussmeier will determine how well it can continue to grow from last year's experience. It should make the fall practices as productive as possible without regurgitating a new learning process.
4. How will the DL address its run stopping needs?
FS had problems last year stopping the run, whether it was being too aggressive, having too many injuries, being too small, lacking depth, or poor block shedding. Can these issues be solved this year, and by whom?
To make matters worse, who replaces the productivity lost in Tyler Clutts? That is 7.5 sacks and tenacity on the defensive line that needs to be replaced. Can Ikenna Ike replace that? More importantly, can Wilson Ramos or anyone else opposite Ike produce. Will Chris Carter's relatively smaller size be his pitfall when it comes to getting off offensive linemen?
The DL needs depth to produce, and the incoming freshmen may be forced to play early to help aid it. Chase McEntee looks good in voluntary workouts this summer. Can others come in and produce as well? Anthony Williams comes into the program already benching 450 lbs. Can he come in and provide that power plug that can destroy a guard and center and allow the DL to move more freely?
6-foot-6 300 pound Bryce Harris can be the monster in that middle in the mold of the Louis Leonard-Jason Shirley mountains. If he can top out at 330, FS will have another impossible-to-move tackle in the middle. 6-foot-5 320 lb James Robinson can be another twin giant to complement Harris.
While the size issue will rear its ugly head against teams like Rutgers and Wisconsin, it should not be as bad an issue among WAC foes. The biggest question remains how well the defense gets off its blocks and stays disciplined in tracking runners. If the DL can do its job in slowing down blocks at the line, the LB unit should be able to take care of the rest.
5. How will the secondary address its inability to create turnovers?
For a couple of years, the FS defensive backfield has been one of the worst in D1A in producing turnovers. The ‘Dogs one of the last teams to get an interception the last two seasons. They often covered as if they were afraid to be beat deep. The backfield played reactionary instead of aggressive, and was not helped by injuries up front to the front seven that affected how much help the defensive backs were getting.
Fall practices need to see the team turn the coverage, usually man to man, into zones that would allow for more aggressive play and route jumping. Players need to step up and take some risks on the field. Last year, the team dropped at least 11 interceptions that hit defensive backs on the hands or chest. The unit needs to address that, including possibly training their hands this year with some sort of receiver drill.
Damon Jenkins is gone from the backfield. Gone is his leadership. But it may be a blessing in disguise, depending on how the new guys react. Damien Owens came on strong last year, but everyone still has room for improvement. Marvin Haynes and Moses Harris, while solid, are not the same beasts that Tyrone Culver and James Sanders were, at least not yet. AJ Jefferson is one of the fastest players on the team, running a sub 4.40, but has he improved on his route reading skills? How much improved will players like Sharrod Davis be. Moreover, will redshirt freshmen Isaiah Green, Jermaine Thomas and Terrence Dennis make a difference and push the starters?
The way this unit addresses the low turnover issue relates to the defensive front four's ability to pressure on an opposing offense. If the front four needs to continue its improvement in pass rushing skills, mainly the promising bursts from Chris Carter and Ikenna Ike. As the secondary becomes more comfortable in zone coverage, trusting the front four to do its jobs, and takes more risks during fall practice to get in front of receivers to make plays.
6. How is the special teams unit progressing?
Clint Stitser and Kyle Zimmerman are gone. Robert Malone and Kevin Goessling are in. While Goessling looked good from spring drills, this is the year both are center stage. Replacing Clifton Smith as a punt returner is no easy task. Long snapper Greg Titiriga is also gone. At least All American AJ Jefferson, the nation's kickoff return yardage leader, is back.
Hang time is a big part of the punting game, and Malone definitely has the leg to keep it high and in the air. Since most of the key gunners are back on special teams, their improvement should be more noticeable in fall practices. Aside from the pressing issue of who is the punt returner, the question is consistency. FS will need to find a reliable long snapper as well. RFr. Bobby Shepard is the lone LS on the roster. It is the one position that Special Team Coach John Baxter and Coach Hill have prided themselves on finding consistency and reliability at, number of bad snaps in Baxter's entire tenure can be count on one hand.
For Smith's vacated spot, a number of guys can excel, including Moore, Wylie, Chasit West, Ellis and Evans. This spot could be undetermined until near the end of fall practice.
7. Who steps up for the other go to receiver spot?
Moore was the Bulldogs' leading receiver last year, netting 694 yards on 48 receptions (14.5 ypc) and five touchdowns. Big things are expected of him this year as the go to receiver, the deep threat on the team. But what about the other side of the formation?
Who is going to step up for the Z position? Or the Y position? Bear Pascoe was the second leading receiver last year, but he is a tight end. Seyi Ajirotutu came in fourth in receiving with only 453 yards on 28 catches (16.2 ypc). No other receivers were above 200 yards receiving.
Someone needs to step up and compliment Moore. Ideally, three targets need to have good receiving numbers. However, Moore cannot do it alone. While Pascoe can destroy the middle, FS needs someone else to stretch defenses on the opposite sideline.
Moore may demand attention from a corner and safety over the top with his playmaking ability. If Pascoe takes out a safety when he releases and the backfield comes out to receive, it's going to force island coverage at the other receiver position. This is where the ‘Dogs need someone to step up in the fall.
Will it be Chastin West? He came off a serious knee injury in the off-season following 2006 and has not seen the field since.
Will it be Ajirotutu? He has the size that is hard for smaller defensive backs to defend with his huge 6'3 210 lb frame.
Will it be Devon Wylie? He has the speed to break away from defenders and the size to get lost in coverage. He is also worked on his endurance and leg strength in the off season and should be much improved.
Will it be incoming Rashad Evans, the dynamic player who was recruited to play the slot position, and could dominate it playing around holes left by Pascoe in the middle.
There are two solid pass catchers on the team, Moore and Pascoe. If a third one can emerge from the pack this fall, you'll hopefully see opposing defenses pushed back farther because of that threat across all sections of the field and allow the running backs more room to work with underneath.
8. What are the changes to the lineup from Spring?
Spring saw a hodgepodge of a lineup across almost all units. The OL was injured. The DL was thin. The LB unit was basically on its knees. The DBs had their own injuries and people sitting out. There were a lot of missing bodies. Therefore, the changes to the fall lineup should be dramatic.
In question is not only how the incoming freshmen will impact the lineup, but how returning healthy bodies will play a role in who plays and what the depth will look like.
One major change will be the offensive line. Bobby Lepori, Adam McDowell, Cole Popovich and Joe Bernardi sat out spring practice. When those starters return, players like Charley Robbins and Kenny Wiggins will all have extensive repetitions, and should be ready to seamlessly insert themselves into the lineup and not miss a beat. But it would not be surprising if a true frosh like Doug Spacht comes in and takes over the center position with a great August. If the returning starters are not 100%, the guys behind them can easily displace them.
The linebacker unit will also see a dramatic change, mainly with its depth. Nick Bates is the only sure thing as a substitute with extensive experience. Otherwise, the unit is floating Kyle Knox and Austin Raphael around as raw faces that need to produce. Then it is looking to incoming freshmen to come in and contribute right away. It is still exploring depth issues, and may move people around, for instance incoming Mike Butler, who can play both DE and LB, to the SLB role. It may even move a choice defensive back, even someone like Zak Hill, from safety over to linebacker to shore up the depth. Moreover, DE Chris Carter can drop back and play a linebacker in certain formations.
The offensive line, slash position, Y and Z receiver position, punt return position and linebackers are going to see the most shifting of personnel. It will look nothing like what it did during spring, especially when the incoming freshmen start to meld with the team.
9. Which true freshmen will make an impact?
Last year saw the most participation by true freshmen ever since Pat Hill has been coaching at Fresno State. Devon Wylie, Ryan Mathews, Devan Cunningham, Chris Carter and Tim Lang were among the true freshmen who played right away. This year will see an even bigger group participating.
Linebacker needs dictate Damion Whittington and Ricky Pemasa are needed to make an immediate impact in the unit. OL depth will see Doug Spacht try out for the center position. It is one area on the OL where effective depth seems the shakiest.
Ebahn Feathers will play early, with plans already in place to utilize him in ways that will remind fans of Clifton Smith's slash position, with the notable exception that Feathers can launch it downfield as well.
Evans and Ellis will see time at the slot and slash positions in the fall and both of them are likely to make huge impacts on offense, especially Ellis with the slash. Both possess game-breaking moves, field awareness and excellent speed to excel at their positions.
Right now, the most likely to make a Ryan Mathews-like impact are Feathers, Ellis, Evans, and Pemasa.
10. Can FS get healthy again, and stay healthy?
This is the team's big question mark in terms of its continuity. The ‘Dogs had a load of missing bodies in the off-season that need to return. Among them: Bobby Lepori, Adam McDowell, Joe Bernardi, Cole Popovich, Lorne Bell, Marvin Haynes, Kenny Borg that is the short list.
Once everyone comes back healthy, this team will take off. But until then, there are big question marks. The health concerns hit the OL hard this off-season, as Kenny Avon and Andrew Jackson are the only starters that have been going since spring. It should not be a worry, however, since the OL does have excellent depth, and its second team has as extensive starting/playing experience.
The biggest worry continues to be the defensive side of the field, specifically at LB. This team cannot sustain any injuries to its LB corps, especially any of the starting three. And even if fall practice manages to introduce a surprise performance from someone else, one single injury can throw the unit completely off, since few on the roster have the flexibility to move around like the coaches would prefer at each of the three LB positions.
The secondary will also need to stay healthy. FS will use a lot of raw, inexperienced talent for depth, and if a starter goes down, the unit may struggle initially.
FS cannot prevent injuries per se. Most of the injuries the Bulldogs have sustained have been non-contact. The key is to get the banged up bodies back healthy to run through August.
At the end of Fall Practices, we will revisit these 10 questions and see how the team has addressed each one of them.
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