by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

What happened to Fresno State? Do the Bulldogs still play football? How about basketball?

You’re forgiven if you’ve forgotten about the latter. As for the former? We’ll grant a partial excuse if you’ve lost track of the Fresno gridiron version, which has not made much of a peep lately on the national stage after not long ago threatening to become what Boise State eventually became, an insurgent-turned-powerhouse.

That Boise magic never quite materialized with the Bulldogs, however, and the FSU program took one last wrong turn last year for HC Pat Hill (left), who lost his job as a result. Regional sources had seen it coming for the past several years, and suspected that Hill has had an idea that the party has been over for a while, too. Insiders have been telling us the past few offseasons that Hill had recently, and discreetly, been inquiring about many job openings, including the one at UNLV after Mike Sanford was stripped of his duties a few years ago.

Fresno AD Thomas Boeh, however, wasn’t going to give Hill another mulligan as the Bulldog program endured a steep descent last year. After keeping Fresno’s head above water for most of his 15 seasons in charge at Bulldog Stadium, the world finally crashed around Hill last fall when FSU collapsed to a 4-9 record.

Thus, for the first time since 1997, and only the second time in 32 years, the Bulldogs begin with a new coach this fall after only knowing Hill and predecessor Irish Jim Sweeney in that role since 1980.

The new man in charge in the Central Valley is Tim DeRuyter (right), most recently at Texas A&M and an accomplished defensive coordinator at a variety of outposts for several years. DeRuyter, a Southern California native (St. John Bosco HS in Bellflower), is saying all of the right things about being a proper fit in Fresno, even citing family ties to the Valley. His reputation is solid and squeaky clean, having spent several years prior to A&M at alma mater Air Force, where he was Troy Calhoun’s d.c. before moving to College Station. Prior to that, DeRuyter had made a pretty good reputation for himself at outposts such as Nevada and Ohio U, two programs not normally known for their defense that nonetheless improved remarkably on the stop end when DeRuyter showed up.

The Bulldog job, however, will be DeRuyter’s first as a head coach, unless you want to count last December’s Texas Bowl, when Tim (who had already accepted the Fresno job) stayed on with the Aggies as their interim HC following Mike Sherman’s dismissal. Indeed, DeRuyter is actually 1-0 as a head coach after the Aggies’ 33-22 win over Northwestern in the bowl game at Houston.

DeRuyter also arrives in Fresno just as the Bulldogs transition into the Mountain West after 20 seasons in the WAC. Nevada and Hawaii (for football only in the Warriors’ case) are also making the same move this season, as the Mountain continues to take on much of the look of the recent composition of the WAC, with Utah State and San Jose State ready to enlist as well next season. Indeed, the Mountain is also starting to resemble the old PCAA and Big West, from where the likes of the Bulldogs, Nevada, Utah State, San Jose, UNLV, and, for this fall at least, Boise and San Diego State, also roamed once upon a time.

Just think, all we need is Long Beach State, Cal State Fullerton, and Pacific to revive their long-since shuttered football programs, and we could have an almost-full PCAA/Big West reunion in the Mountain!

Many trace Fresno’s recent regression, ironically, to the night that almost became the Bulldogs’ greatest ever on the gridiron back in November of 2005, when a fearless Hill Fresno team battled mighty, top-ranked Southern Cal on mostly-level terms, even forging a 4th quarter lead, before succumbing heroically to Reggie Bush and the Trojans, 50-42. But like a spent boxer who has punched himself out, the Bulldogs began to look arm weary immediately thereafter, a gridiron version of Earnie Shavers in the sixth round of his classic slugfest vs. Ron Lyle in September of 1975. After throwing haymakers all night at SC, Fresno lost its next two games vs. underdog Nevada and La Tech to close the regular season on a downer before similarly dropping a decision in the Liberty Bowl vs. Tulsa.

Hill’s program, though eventually returning to bowl games later in the decade, still never quite recovered from the near-miss that late November night in 2005 at the L.A. Coliseum, reflected in a subsequent, and unmistakable, pointspread downturn. Indeed, the Bulldogs’ overall pointspread mark is a woeful 27-49 since that narrow loss vs. Pete Carroll’s Trojans almost seven years ago.

Now, the once-raucous Red Wave support base has become almost dormant, and AD Boeh feared further erosion in the booster ranks if he didn’t at least attempt to make a course correction. Fresno fans had similarly tuned out the once wildly-popular but recently-struggling Bulldog hoopsters, who began all of the commotion in the Central Valley in the first place back in the late ‘70s when HC Boyd “The Messiah” Grant energized the region with his successful basketball teams. The support spread quickly to football, as the Red Wave soon became one of the most identifiable and rabid booster groups in the West.

So rapidly was the region mobilized that a new football facility, Bulldog Stadium, was soon a necessary upgrade to Radcliffe Stadium (at Fresno City College) and the new football arena was completed in time for the final home game of the 1980 season against Montana State. A bit more than a decade later in 1991, an additional 11,000 seats, plus 22 luxury suites, were added, giving Fresno one of the best facilities in the WAC when it joined up in 1992.

The Bulldogs were an immediate hit in the WAC under Irishman Sweeney, with potent offenses featuring QB Trent Dilfer and a stable of RBs led by Lorenzo Neal; both Dilfer (who would win a Super Bowl as the QB for the Ravens) and Neal eventually enjoyed long NFL careers, and Fresno has an extensive collection of NFL alumni that also includes WR Henry Ellard, LB Ron Cox, and QB David Carr. Among the many accomplished Bulldog QBs beyond Dilfer and Carr are longtime NFL backup Billy Volek and a couple of stars from the ‘80s that include current Cal HC Jeff Tedford and Sweeney’s son Kevin, who had a cup of coffee in the NFL and led the ‘85 Bulldogs to an undefeated 11-0-1 mark and a Cal Bowl rout past Bowling Green, 51-7.

Since Fresno couldn’t score that upset win over then top-ranked SC in 2005, the school’s greatest football moment remains another game vs. the Trojans in the 1992 Freedom Bowl at Anaheim, when an underdog Bulldog squad pounded SC, 24-7, effectively ending Larry Smith’s coaching career at Troy (Diler shown at right, exulting during that drizzly night in December of '92).

Under Sweeney and Hill, Fresno would routinely take on all comers, and their Bulldogs were notorious for their ultra-difficult non-conference schedules. Despite sometimes winning those games and developing a rep as a team the “big boys” wanted to avoid, Hill’s Fresno teams still never won an outright WAC title despite becoming a bowl regular in the late ‘90s and into the ‘00s. Momentum, however, had slowed, and the last thing Boeh needs is for fans to start disguising themselves as empty seats at Bulldog Stadium after doing the same for several years at Fresno’s large and modern, but mostly-empty, Save-Mart Center for hoops.

DeRuyter is thus tasked with changing the gridiron recipe and has wasted no time putting his stamp on the program. Spring work featured sweeping changes both offensively and defensively, with new systems in place for both platoons, as DeRuyter and staff stressed a fast, fast, fast tempo that they hope can result in 95-plus plays per game from the strike force.

It’s on defense, however, where the Bulldogs need the most help, and where DeRuyter’s area of expertise is most likely to come in handy after Fresno collapsed on the stop end a year ago, allowing a whopping 35.2 ppg (a poor 106th nationally in scoring “D”) and placing a poor 100th in total defense, numbers that are historically bad even at a program most renowned for its offensive prowess.

DeRuyter and new defensive coordinator Nick Toth immediately changed the look of the defense, changing Hill’s ineffective 4-3 to a new base 3-4 scheme in spring. DeRuyter wants as many playmakers on the field as possible after last year’s platoon forced a mere nine turnovers, the worst such number in the country.

Fresno also gets back two potential key cogs defensively who missed all of 2011, DT Anthony Williams (back from a season-long suspension a year ago) and SS Philip Thomas, who suffered a broken leg before last year’s opener vs. Cal at Candlestick Park and missed the remainder of the campaign.

The strength of the “D” should be the LB corps that features four returnees with starting experience plus DE/LB Nat Harrison (left, vs. Utah State last October), a 240-lb. chainsaw who seems ideally suited for the hybrid DE/LB role that will often make it seem as if DeRuyter and Toth’s new-look “D” is aligning in very unorthodox 2-5 looks. Harrison certainly looked menacing in the spring game when recording three sacks from his various new places in the alignment.

Some stop unit position shuffling occurred, as expected, in March, as DE Tyeler Davison moved to NT, while Patrick Su’a transitioned from an outside to an inside linebacker spot in the new-look 3-4. DeRuyter and Toth are also hoping that sr. OLB Travis Brown, perhaps the top playmaker on the entire platoon, will be ready for fall practice after missing all contact work in spring due to shoulder woes.

Most eyes, however, will be on the restructured DL, where Williams, Davison and Harrison try to mitigate the loss of all-WAC DT Logan Harrell, one of the few overachievers from a year ago. Upgrades are also needed in the secondary that is noticeably thin despite the return of three starters (which includes SS Thomas). West Coast sources say a couple of newcomers, frosh S Dalen Jones and CB Shannon Edwards, are good bets to get on the field at some point this fall. FSU ranked a lowly 106th in national pass defense stats a year ago.

While DeRuyter tries to jerry-rig something resembling a competent defense, expectations are higher for a strike force that returns most of its key weapons and began the adjustment in spring, under new o.c. Dave Schramm, from Hill’s pro-style attack to a wide-open, no-huddle spread for Fresno’s Mountain West debut.

Triggering the assault will be jr. QB Derek Carr (right), brother of aforementioned former Bulldog star David Carr and off a productive 2011 campaign when he passed for 3544 yards, plus 26 TDs and just 9 picks. Although top returning receiver Jalen Saunders (50 catches last year) decided to transfer out to Oklahoma after rejecting the scheme changes in spring, Carr still has enough established weapons at his disposal to elevate the pulses in the Central Valley.

Specifically, mighty-mite (5-7, 185 lbs.) RB Robbie Rouse returns after gaining an eye-opening 1544 YR and catching another 44 passes while scoring a whopping 16 TDs a year ago. Regional insiders expect Rouse (left) could be an even more effective weapon out of the spread, which can be expected to open some new and wider running lanes as defenders are spread across the width of the pitch. It’s also likely to see more runs from QB Carr (whose feet aren’t in concrete) as the new spread calls for more zone reads. If the Dogs can also get touted true from RB Marteze Waller, a Georgia product who “jumps off the screen” according to DeRuyter, eligible in time for the opener vs. Weber State, Rouse could have some explosive cover.

Saunders’ unexpected departure after spring has created a few concerns within the receiving corps, especially since he was such an established long-ball threat (Saunders gained better than 21 yards per catch a year ago), but Carr is plenty familiar with returnees Rashad Evans (right) and Isaiah Bruce, who combined for 88 catches a year ago. Either long-striding 6'5 soph Victor Dean, limited by a foot injury last fall, or fleet RS frosh Devante Adams could assume the deep threat Saunders provided. Aforementioned frosh DB Dalen Jones doubled as a dangerous wideout as a prep and could even see double-duty with both platoons this autumn.

What must concern DeRuyter and Schramm the most about the offense, however, was how the linemen appeared in no shape to handle the new uptempo style in spring work. Hopefully, better conditioning over the summer will alleviate some of those issues, but the blocking assignments are much different in the spread than they were last year in Hill’s pro-style, two-back looks, and such adjustments often take time. Only two starters return on the OL, although sr. C Richard Helepiko is rated as a likely honors candidate.

DeRuyter will also be crossing his fingers that special teams don’t hurt the Bulldogs too much. Only non-scholarship kickers are on the roster, and graduated WR Devon Wylie was also a feared punt return threat, ranking 5th nationally at 15.4 yards per return and a pair of TDs last year. Aforementioned wideout Isaiah Bruce, who handled kickoffs last season, likely adds punts to his return chores this fall.

Although the DeRuyter era should open comfortably when hosting Big Sky Weber State (whose new coach John L. Smith bailed out for Arkansas after spring practice), the schedule gets tougher in a hurry thereafter with Oregon, Colorado, and Tulsa next in the queue (and only the Buff game in Fresno) before the Dawgs make their Mountain West debut vs. Rocky Long’s San Diego State on September 29. The new league will likely provide a tougher challenge than the WAC, and Fresno caught a bad break in the transition as it misses out on Mountain lightweight UNLV this fall.

The program’s recent pointspread downturn was mentioned earlier in this report, but if there’s one thing DeRuyter must be intent on re-establishing is Fresno’s once-intimidating home-field edge at Bulldog Stadium, which disappeared in the later years of the Hill regime (FSU is only 7-25 vs. the line its last 32 on the board at the Dog House since late ‘05).

Summary...If good guys always win, then Fresno will have nothing to worry about with class act Tim DeRuyter now running the Bulldog program. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works in college football, and there’s lots of “new” in Fresno this fall. New coach. New staff. New defense. New offense. Maybe even a new attitude. But this is also a new experience for DeRuyter as a head coach, and we’ve seen many of these rebuild projects get off to slow starts in recent years. The ace up DeRuyter’s sleeve could be QB Derek Carr, of whom Mountain West scouts believe could be a perfect fit for the new spread offense. Carr might be good enough to single-handedly get the Bulldogs back into minor bowl territory this fall, but we doubt Fresno emerges as a contender in its first trip around the Mountain West track unless DeRuyter can forge a quick turnaround with that suspect defense.


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