Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!
When it comes to college football hires, I often get caught up in the aesthetics, in the feel of the hire, in whether the right process was followed. I’m often right to do so, but if there’s anything we’ve learned through the years, it’s that no matter what, any hire can work, and any hire can fail.
I very much got caught up in the aesthetics of Fresno State’s 2016-17 head coaching search. Tim DeRuyter was fired in October of 2016 after a 1-7 start to his fifth season in charge. The Bulldogs were one of the first schools on the market for that carousel, and they had a chance to get the best read on the market, scout coaches who still had active teams, and make a move right around when the regular season ended. Instead, they hired Tedford within two weeks.
At 55, Tedford still theoretically had quite a bit to offer, though his recent heart problems were reason for concern. While I liked Tedford alright, I was put off by the timing.
Were the good recruiting ties and memories of great Tedford offenses really enough for Fresno State to so quickly pounce? Without seeing who else the market might have to offer, the Bulldogs nailed Tedford down in early November. It was a safe, uninspiring, and quick hire.
Whoops. Here’s what’s happened since Tedford came aboard:
- In his first season, the Bulldogs rebounded from 1-11 to 10-4 and from 122nd to 81st in the latest version of S&P+. (The only reason they didn’t rise more is because S&P+ is now designed to more heavily use priors and, basically, tap the brakes on what appear to be sudden changes in quality.)
- In his second season, the Bulldogs made S&P+ believe its eyes. They improved to 12-2 and rose from 81st to 16th, best in the mid-major universe. They lost only at Minnesota and at Boise State, and in the MWC Championship, they avenged the Boise loss. They beat two Pac-12 teams (UCLA and, in the Las Vegas Bowl, Arizona State) by a combined 35 points, they manhandled a solid Toledo, and their seven regular season MWC wins came by an average of 25 points.
Here are Tedford’s accomplishments in chart form:
Act I is now complete, and it was an obvious success. But with the amount of change that the Bulldogs are facing this offseason, we get to see how he fares in the maintenance stage.
- After losing his defensive coordinator after 2017, Tedford had to make a replacement on the other side of the ball. Offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer took the same position at Indiana, and Tedford promoted line coach Ryan Grubb. He also brought in former Oregon State and Nebraska coordinator Danny Langsdorf as QBs coach.
- After throwing for 3,629 yards and leading FS to a No. 16 Passing S&P+ ranking, quarterback Marcus McMaryion graduated. His replacement: longtime backup Jorge Reyna, who threw 12 passes and rushed nine times last fall and looked in command of the offense this spring.
- McMaryion’s two leading wideouts (new Arizona Cardinal KeeSean Johnson and Jamire Jordan) need to be replaced, as do two all-conference linemen in tackle Christian Cronk and guard Micah St. Andrew.
- Defensively, the line returns mostly intact, but last year’s top three linebackers are gone (they combined for 26.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, and 10 passes defensed), as are stud corner Tank Kelly and safety Mike Bell (combined: seven INTs, 26 breakups, three TFLs). That’s a lot of production and experience out the window.
Tedford’s still got an experienced skill corps, and his defensive front could be good enough to make those new linebackers’ jobs pretty easy. But the turnover is extreme, especially on offense, and the Bulldogs should slip a bit back toward the field in an exciting MWC West.
Sheesh, just imagine what Fresno State might have been able to accomplish last year with a run game. The Bulldogs were 109th in rushing marginal efficiency and 85th in Rushing S&P+; leading rusher Ronnie Rivers had average efficiency numbers, his backups were far below that standard, and no one brought a ton of explosiveness. The run game’s best trait was that it avoided losing ground too often; the Bulldogs were 11th in havoc rate allowed, and in open-play situations (snaps between your 10 and your opponent’s 30), they ranked fifth in average third-down distance. They didn’t move the ball forward a ton on the ground, but they didn’t go backward.
DeBoer attempted balance on standard downs (58 percent run rate on SDs, just below the national average of 60) before asking McMaryion to make a play once behind schedule. He was so good at it that it was easy to ignore how often the Bulldogs were behind schedule — they were 54th in standard-downs marginal efficiency and 14th on passing downs.
If there’s any drop-off from McMaryion to Reyna, the effects could be significant. At least, they would be if Grubb is running as much as DeBoer did, and if the Bulldogs aren’t any better at it.
That’s not to say Rivers didn’t have his moments. He’s a dynamite receiving option (he caught 26 of 31 balls for 311 yards), and he rushed 11 times for 125 yards against Hawaii and destroyed ASU for 212 yards in 24 carries in Vegas. But he averaged a paltry 4.2 yards per carry in his other nine games, and his line returns only one starter. Backup Jared Mims was even better in the passing game and even worse rushing.
Instead of a run game doing a new starting QB a favor, it’s almost as if the mobile Reyna needs to do Rivers some favors with his own legs.
Granted, Reyna can throw, too — in 2016, he passed for 3,646 yards and 39 touchdowns at West Los Angeles College. And he’s got some outstanding safety valves in Rivers/Mims, tight end Jared Rice (55 catches, 664 yards), and wideout Derrion Grim, whose plus-14 marginal efficiency was tops among Fresno State WRs. Rice had a 57 percent success rate and caught at least three passes in 13 of 14 games last year. This group could provide the efficiency security blanket the run game does not.
We’ll see where the big plays come from, though. Johnson and Jordan combined to average 14.5 yards per catch, and no other wideout averaged more than 10.6. Sophomore Zane Pope and redshirt freshman Emoryie Edwards, both former three-star prospects, appeared to stand out a bit in the spring, but they have as many career catches as you or I. And the inexperience here is the primary reason why the Bulldogs rank 127th in offensive returning production and are projected to fall from 37th to 87th in Off. S&P+. This unit will be a work in progress all fall.
Fresno State had one of the strangest defensive profiles in the country. The Bulldogs did almost everything well — they were crazy-efficient against both run (ninth in rushing marginal efficiency) and pass (14th in passing marginal efficiency), and in open-play situations, they allowed fewer big-plays than anyone (four percent big-play rate, No. 1 in FBS).
Yet they did all this without generating a ton of havoc plays. They were 53rd in havoc rate, 105th in sack rate, and 112th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line). Efficiency and disruption tend to go hand in hand, but they didn’t for Fresno.
It’s like the Bulldogs were a bend-don’t-break defense that didn’t actually bend.
To me, this says amazing things about the defensive line’s ability to keep blockers off of really good linebackers. Bulldogs fans should hope the former was as important as the latter because while the line returns mostly intact, the LB corps does not.
Technically, the most active lineman on the team is gone, but that’s just because he’s moved to inside linebacker. Azusa Pacific transfer Mykal Walker was a revelation as an undersized end, recording 14 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and seven passes defensed; he was one of the best defenders in the Group of 5 despite being fresh out of Division II. But linebacker is his natural position. Veteran tackles Keiti Iakopo, Kevin Atkins, and Jasad Haynes return up front.
Not counting Walker, no returning linebacker made more than seven tackles last year. Granted, 2.5 of Arron Mosby’s seven tackles were behind the line, and senior Justin Rice would have made more than seven tackles had he played more than four games.
Walker, Mosby, and Rice could be the starting point for a solid unit. Still, losing Allison, Helmuth, and Bailey means FS is replacing a lot of last year’s havoc production when it didn’t produce a ton of havoc to begin with.
I can’t even pretend to be worried about the secondary. With minimal pass rush, Fresno State allowed just a 52 percent completion rate (fourth in FBS), and while Tank Kelly and Mike Bell are gone, safety Juju Hughes and corner Jaron Bryant return. They are incredible.
Pro Football Focus named Hughes one of 2018’s top 101 college football players in the country. The only other G5 defenders on the list were Houston’s Ed Oliver, Utah State’s David Woodward, NIU’s Sutton Smith, ODU’s Oshane Ximines, Arkansas State’s Ronheen Binham, Georgia Southern’s Kindle Vildor, Marshall’s Malik Gant, CMU’s Mike Danna, Nevada’s Malik Reed, EMU’s Maxx Crosby, UCF’s Richie Grant, and Louisiana Tech’s Jaylon Ferguson. Good company.
JuJu Hughes was a premiere safety for Fresno State all season long and is the highest-graded from the MWC. pic.twitter.com/yOJsovRpL0— PFF College (@PFF_College) January 24, 2019
Granted, a secondary needs more than two players. Sophomores Wylan Free and Chris Gaston will play considerable roles this year, and at least one of the five three-star freshmen Tedford signed will probably need to contribute soon. Still, Hughe and Bryant are a nice starting point.
That Fresno State won 12 games with a freshman place-kicker was an accomplishment. Asa Fuller ranked just 91st in field goal efficiency and 104th in kickoff efficiency, missing five PATs, going 3-for-9 on FGs longer than 40 yards, and booting touchbacks on just 24 percent of his kickoffs. If the Bulldogs are falling back a bit, shaky kicking could matter more.
At least the Bulldogs still have Blake Cusick. The senior punter averaged 40 net yards per kick and just 3.5 yards per return and ranked fifth in punt efficiency. He should make sure Fresno’s still got a nice field position game, even if the Bulldogs are punting a hair more.
2019 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|28-Sep||at New Mexico State||121||20.9||89%|
|12-Oct||at Air Force||90||6.5||65%|
|16-Nov||at San Diego State||54||-1.9||46%|
|30-Nov||at San Jose State||117||19.2||87%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||51|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||87 / 28|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||-4.3 (87)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||93|
|2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||12 / 6.0|
|2018 TO Luck/Game||+2.2|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||38% (34%, 41%)|
|2018 Second-order wins (difference)||12.1 (-0.1)|
Doubting Tedford hasn’t gotten me very far, but it’s hard to avoid the fact that 2019 is probably going to be a reset year. The Bulldogs have some of the lowest returning production figures in the country.
The schedule both helps and hurts.
On one hand, the retooled lineup will begin at USC and at home against Minnesota. Neither game is unwinnable, but S&P+ gives the Bulldogs a 36 percent chance of starting 0-2.
The schedule also helps when it comes to the MWC West race. FS does have to travel to SDSU, but the rest of the conference road slate (Air Force, Hawaii, SJSU) is manageable, and the Bulldogs miss Boise State in cross-division play. So even if they are merely a top-60 team this year, as projected, they’re still in position to win another division title. That wouldn’t be too bad for a rebuilding year.