As Tim DeRuyter enters his third year as the head coach of the Fresno State Bulldogs, he faces some serious turnover after an almost spectacular 2013 season. Behind the phenomenal arm of Derek Carr, the Bulldogs won their first 10 games of the season and looked poised to bust the BCS. But a late-season loss dashed those hopes and left a sense of disappointment around the program, despite the program winning the Mountain West Conference Championship game.
The challenge this season for Fresno State is to bounce back from their nearly perfect regular season last year without the services of Carr or 1,000-yard receivers Davante Adams and Isaiah Burse. This season will test how well DeRuyter has built the program for sustained success. The system is there for the team to continue being atop the MWC in 2014, but do they have the players to make it happen?
Carr was an excellent leader of this offense over the last three seasons and his production will be difficult to replace. Former Duke Blue Devils quarterback Brandon Connette announced he will transfer to Fresno State this fall and looks to provide an experience boost at the position with his dual-threat ability to make plays. Last season in split starting duties, Connette threw for 1,212 yards while completing 62.1 percent of his passes and rushed for 337 yards while scoring 27 total touchdowns.
At receiver, there is a great opportunity for some fresh faces to make an impact in 2014. Last season, the Bulldogs had three difference receivers record 1,000 yards receiving or more and only one of them, Josh Harper (1,011/13 TDs), returns. Between the now-departed Adams and Burse, Fresno State loses 2,745 receiving yards and 30 receiving touchdowns. Someone in the receiving corps will have to step up and replace that production.
The running back position is the one spot on offense that will remain stacked for 2014. The team returns it’s top three backs from last season, led by senior Josh Quezada. The dynamic back rushed for 807 yards and six touchdowns in 2013 while finishing fourth on the team in receptions with 51 catches for 290 yards and a touchdown. He is platooned by Marteze Waller who was nearly just as productive last fall with 646 yards rushing and seven scores on the ground.
The Fresno State defense ran incredibly thin in 2013, using just four defensive linemen in their rotation for their 3-4 defense for the entire year. With two of those four now graduated, the team will have to rely on some inexperienced options up front to get the job done. They will be led by Tyeler Davison who will move from nose guard to defensive end depending on the situation. His size (6-foot-2, 304 pounds) helps him occupy space while his athleticism helps him make plays. Last season, he recorded 34 tackles with 7.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.
At the linebacker level, Fresno State returns a lot of talent from last season, getting all four starters back. That includes the team’s leading tackler Karl Mickelsen (79.5 tackles) and their leading pass-rusher Ejiro Ederaine (10 sacks, 16.5 tackles for loss). The staple of a DeRuyter defense is an aggressive, blitzing attack and the linebackers are a huge piece of that. While the defensive front may be thin, the linebackers should flourish once again in 2014.
In the secondary, the team gets three of four starters back this season, led by an aggressive free safety in Derron Smith. Smith was everywhere for the Bulldogs in 2013, recording 73.5 tackles, eight tackles for loss, four sacks, seven interceptions (tied for second most in the country) and six pass breakups. With Smith manning the back end, Fresno State will once again be able to be as aggressive as they want to be in bringing pressure from every level.
Fresno State is going to be breaking in a new quarterback and a host of new receivers into the offense, but they will have to do it without the benefit of a soft opening to the schedule. They start the year with road trips to face the USC Trojans and Utah Utes in back-to-back weeks before their home-opener against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. That’s a brutal start to the season that will likely start the Bulldogs in a 1-2 or even 0-3 hole to start the year.
Once they get past the opening three games, however, the schedule becomes much more manageable. Fresno State should have one of the most talented teams in the MWC once again in 2014 even with the big-name losses they suffered on offense. Their biggest challenge in conference play will likely be a mid-October showdown with the Boise State Broncos on the road.
In all, Fresno State should be an entertaining team to watch this season but a difficult opening stretch and turnover at quarterback will likely keep them from matching their 11-win season from 2013. Look for the Bulldogs to win around eight games this fall and be in the mix for another MWC Championship.