Countdown to Kickoff: 20 Days
Aug. 12, 2008
FRESNO, Calif. - The biggest reasons most media members have penciled Fresno State into their preseason Top 25 polls is because of the returning talent on offense. A look at the offense line proves that to be the case, where four starters return and a core group of six Bulldogs have started multiple games in their careers.
With a tradition of excellent offensive line play that dates back to the hiring of Pat Hill, an All-America center in college, the Dogs have produced three NFL linemen in recent years.
In 2004 Bulldog tackle Logan Mankins was a second-team All-American who was a first round pick of the New England Patriots. He's started every game of his NFL career and was selected to the Pro Bowl in just his third season in the league.
In 2006, right tackle Chris Denman was selected first-team All-WAC and drafted by the Tampa Bay Bucs. He enters his second season with that team.
Last year, center Ryan Wendell was a first-team All-WAC pick and the only senior linemen. He signed a free agent contract with the Patriots.
Popovich, a guard, enters his fourth season as a starter. He is a former Freshman All-American, who has battled injuries in his career, but his toughness and agility on the line are in line with other former All-WAC Bulldogs.
Lepori enters his third season as the starter at left tackle, where he's done an excellent job protecting Brandstater's blind side. He's received preseason All-WAC honors.
Avon, a former defensive linemen, is a durable two-year starter at right tackle.
Sophomore Andrew Jackson is a star in the making according to Hill.
After starting most of last season at right guard, Jackson emerged as one of the best at his position in the WAC by the end of the season.
"In those four returning starters, we have physical players who play with an attitude," said Hill. "That's a group that has played well together and really gelled at the end of the season."
The center position is vital of the success and replacing All-WAC center Ryan Wendell won't be easy. After spring drills, this was a position that had not been settled, which was a concern for Hill.
Sophomore Joe Bernardi appeared he would have a strangle hold on the position for four years before he suffered an injury last season. He missed the spring and is expected to return in the fall.
Former starting guard Adam McDowell, also an injury casualty in 2007, learned the position in the spring and shared time with junior Richard Pacheco. McDowell has been hampered by minor fall camp injuries while Pacheco is called Fresno State's most improved player by Hill.
"Richard is doing a good job," Hill said. "He's really developing and I think has a chance to win the job. Joe (Bernardi) has had a good camp after missing the spring with an injury. I feel that we have a couple guys in there who can play the position, we just need to flush out who's going to be starting."
Look for giant Devan Cunningham (6-6, 350) to continue to develop at offensive tackle.
Hill is expecting Kenny Wiggins to emerge as the "swing" tackle, meaning he could play either side if needed. Wiggins is a monster at 6-7, 310 pounds, and has worked hard in the weight room and should be a star of the future.
Charley Robbins (6-2, 300) has played well at guard and, like Wiggins, has a bright future in the program.
Hill has also been pleased with some large true freshmen who are still learning their way around a Division I college football campus. They are all likely to be redshirted this season.
Coming Wednesday: A.J. Jefferson, the 2007 NCAA kickoff return leader, exploded on the scene last season. Learn more about this Valley native in a special feature.
"Join the State - Fresno State!" - The first Big Ten team will travel to the Valley as the `Dogs take on Wisconsin in the home opener on Saturday, September 13 at 7:30 p.m. The game can be seen nationally on ESPN2. Be sure to reserve your seat for the Wisconsin game by purchasing a season ticket, family plan or 3-game mini plan for just $99. In the month of August, get your official Wisconsin game day t-shirt at the Bulldog Shop for only $10 with any purchase. To purchase tickets, click on the tickets icon at the top of this page, call the Bulldog Ticket Office at (559) 278-DOGS, or stop by the Bulldog Ticket Office.