2001 Season Outlook
When a transformation takes place in college athletics, there is a learning curve and there are peaks and valleys. In his four seasons, Fresno State head coach Pat Hill has captured the learning curve quickly and his Bulldogs have avoided the peaks and valleys, instead making steady progress.
A testament to his success has been the past two seasons, which culminated in one conference championship and a pair of bowl game appearances. In that span, the Bulldogs have had amazing success. They have not only become one of the winningest programs on the West Coast, but have done so with an attitude that comes from the head man himself. Hill's philosophy of playing the best possible competition has prepared his team for the conference season. In addition, the Bulldogs' tough-minded, hard-nosed style of play, also a trademark of their head coach, has led to an impressive 19-11 record over the last 30 games. Only two other schools in the west - Air Force and Oregon - have won more games in that span.
That attitude is carried over every Saturday in Bulldog Stadium, where Fresno State has won 15 consecutive games, the third longest home winning streak in the nation.
The success of the last two seasons, combined with the Bulldogs' exciting style of play, has brought fans to the stadium in record numbers. Last season, the Bulldogs played in front of the four largest crowds in school history in the first four home games of the season, as Fresno State shattered its average attendance with an average of 41,369 fans, more than 300 fans over Bulldog Stadium's capacity of 41,031. That ranked second on the West Coast and 22nd in the nation in percent of capacity filled. Fresno State also shattered its season ticket sales with more than 30,000, making Fresno State football tickets a hot commodity in the Central Valley. That frenzied atmosphere is expected to continue in 2001, with the Bulldogs opening the home season Sept. 1 against Fiesta Bowl champion Oregon State, which could be a Top 5 team in the preseason polls.
But there's more to Bulldog football than attitude. There's also substance. The 2001 squad will return 48 letterwinners and 15 starters from a team that finished 7-5 and 6-2 in the WAC. Of those 15 starters, most have been starting for at least two seasons. Simply put, this will be Hill's most talented and experienced team.
On offense, the Bulldogs will have some of the top skilled players in the conference. Senior quarterback David Carr is coming off an outstanding season in which he earned second-team All-WAC honors and threw for 23 touchdowns and nearly 2,800 yards. His rare combination of toughness and talent will make him one of the top signal callers in the nation this season. Despite playing most of the season without several key weapons due to injuries, Carr battled adversity and led Fresno State to seven wins. A sample of what he can do with his entire arsenal came in the Silicon Valley Football Classic, when Carr threw for 391 yards and five touchdowns. The Bakersfield, Calif., native is a prototypical NFL quarterback with good size and a rocket right arm, plus is extremely strong and runs well. His toughness was unmatched on the team during the season, as he took some vicious hits in the pocket but time after time delivered the ball.
Also back on offense are three starting offensive linemen, led by two-year starting center Rodney Michael and junior tackle Joe Schey. Senior Russell Harding and sophomore Fitu Tu'ua will be back as starting guards. Michael, an honorable mention All-WAC selection last season, could be one of the best centers in the league this season. He may however, end up playing either guard or tackle with the return of senior Mike Stovall. Stovall, who graduated in May, did not go through spring drills and was not expected to return to the team. However, he had a change of heart and will join the team in the fall and begin work on a master's degree. He is a veteran who has played for the last three seasons at both center and guard. Schey, who was an academic all-district selection, is quickly becoming one of the most ferocious offensive linemen in the WAC. One of the team's strongest players, Harding is a veteran who will be counted on for his leadership and stability. Tu'ua is a young player who has played just one season of college football and will get better as time goes on.
There is an outstanding corps of receivers returning, led by second-team All-WAC performers Bernard Berrian and Charles Smith. Rodney Wright, a 1999 first-team All-WAC selection who spent most of last season injured, could regain a fifth-year of eligibility if he completes the necessary academic requirements. Sophomore tight end Jeremy Johnson, a second-team All-WAC selection last season behind UTEP All-American Brian Natkin, was selected a Freshman All-American by two publications. Johnson is a versatile target who runs great routes and creates mismatches with his speed against linebackers. Sophomore Alec Greco is also a pass catching threat from the H-back position.
Berrian and Smith are different types of receivers who compliment each other perfectly. Berrian is a tall, rangy receiver with breakaway speed. He had five games with more than 100 yards receiving and led the team in receptions and yardage. Smith is a speedy and shifty receiver who caught six touchdowns last season and is has been one of the most productive players in school history. He has great quickness and is Carr's favorite target for the deep ball. Wright, who ranks among the top 10 receivers in school history, is a playmaker who can break a game open.
An area that needs to be productive in 2001 for the Bulldogs is at running back. While the top three rushers all return, this was an area that was not as productive as expected in 2000 and an area that Hill will continue to address.
"We will be able to run the football," Hill said. "We had some injuries last season at the running back position that hindered our ability to run. We have to get some consistency."
Paris Gaines spent a lot of time on the shelf rehabilitating reconstructive knee surgery. Josh Levi, the smallest back of the bunch, has explosiveness. Despite not having the physique to be an every down kind of back, he led the team in rushing. Talented newcomer Therrian Fontenot could make an impact. After sitting out last season to concentrate on academics, Fontenot will join the team in the fall. He has explosive potential and at times during his senior year in high school had the fastest time in California in the 100 meters.
On defense, the Bulldogs will rely on an outstanding secondary and a tough and aggressive line to compensate for a lack of experience at linebacker.
Fresno State will have three safeties who are All-WAC caliber, including returning first-team All-WAC strong safety Vernon Fox and 1999 first-team all-conference selection Anthony Limbrick. The third of the three potential All-WAC safeties is Bryce McGill. A superstar in the making and a ferocious hitter, McGill finished among the conference leaders in quarterback sacks last season.
Cornerback Tierre Sams, Fresno State's fastest player with a 4.34 40-yard dash time, will start at one cornerback and converted starting safety Devon Banks is expected to start at the other corner position. Both players are experienced seniors.
There won't be many better defensive linemen in college football than Alan Harper. A two-time first-team All-WAC selection, Harper is already making noise during the preseason as a selection on the Lombardi Award watch list. A strong, physical defender, Harper's cat-like quickness has made him on the WAC's most feared defensive players. Ends Nick Burley and Jake Probst also return, as does tackle Jason Stewart, who could be the starting nose tackle. All three players are of the same mold in the way they play the game with outstanding zeal.
No matter who wins the starting positions after fall camp, the three starting linebackers for Fresno State have never started a college game at that position. The most talented and experienced player of the group, senior Justin Johnson, did not play last season due to an injury. Johnson was a starting defensive end in 1999 and led the Bulldogs in sacks. He is expected to replace two-time All-WAC player Orlando Huff, who was a fourth-round NFL draft pick. Although not as physical, Johnson has the tools to be an impact player of Huff's caliber as a pass rushing linebacker.
The special teams are one of Fresno State's strengths. The Bulldog cover and return teams have become legendary in four years under Hill and special teams coach John Baxter. The Bulldogs have blocked 27 kicks over the last four years, including seven last season.
The punting chores are in the capable hands of junior Jason Simpson, who averaged 38.0 yards per punt last season. He downed 18 of his season total of 67 punts inside the 20-yard line with just one touchback.
Kickers Asen Asparuhov and Brett Visintainer both return and are talented young kickers who will be keys to the team's success. Asparuhov led the team in scoring and converted 36-of-37 PATs and made 9-of-16 field goals. Visintainer has a strong leg and handled the kickoff duties last season.
Fresno State's schedule got better with the addition of Colorado, which FS will play August 26 in the Jim Thorpe Association Football Classic in Boulder, Colo. The Bulldogs, who have 13 regular season games on the schedule, open the home schedule taking on Oregon State, which ended last year ranked No. 4 in the nation. Fresno State completes a tough three-game stretch, traveling to Wisconsin on Sept. 8. Included in Fresno State's home schedule are games with Utah State, Louisiana Tech, Boise State, Rice and San Jose State.
With the return of David Carr, the Bulldogs have an NFL caliber player with superstar potential directing the offense. Under his watch, Fresno State could be one of the most powerful offenses in the nation. Carr's physical ability and leadership -- he is a returning captain -- give Fresno State the premier player at the position in the league and a leading contender for WAC Offensive Player of the Year honors. Carr will be backed up by junior Jeff Grady and redshirt freshman Nathan Ray.
Senior receivers Rodney Wright and Charles Smith were the top receiving duo in the WAC last season before an injury to Wright after the fourth game and an ankle sprain by Smith in the Rice game left the Bulldogs without their top two weapons. Wright was ranked fourth nationally in receptions per game before the injury, which cost him six games. He still finished as the team's third leading receiver with 466 yards and two touchdowns. Smith missed one game but had 36 receptions for 560 yards and a team-high six touchdowns. Junior Bernard Berrian emerged in Wright's absence and caught 43 passes for 705 yards and six touchdowns. He led the team in yards per catch at 16.4 and was selected second-team All-WAC. All three players are also talented return men on special teams.
Tight end Jeremy Johnson was a Freshman All-American after catching 27 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns.
Talented sophomore Marque Davis was an emerging player last season who had four receptions and one touchdown in the first two games before an abdominal injury cost him the rest of the season, for which he received a medical redshirt. Had it not been for the injury, Davis would have likely replaced the injured Rodney Wright instead of Berrian.