The Fresno State Bulldogs will hold the first of their 15 spring practices bright and early on Monday morning, and the Mountain West co-champions have more than a few questions to answer.
Many are up front on the offensive line, which lost senior starters Richard Helepiko and Matt Hunt and do not have much ready-depth at any of the five positions coming back. There are no candidates to step up and slot in at the center or left guard – not without a lot of work, anyway.
That will make for some interesting sessions for offensive line coach Cameron Norcross, who still is stinging from the Hawaii Bowl loss to Southern Methodist.
The players, Norcross said, should be, too.
The line coach answers a few questions about the line and the expectations he has for the position group through the spring as well as scouting reports on the junior college players who could have an impact this season.
Bee: Your group had a pretty good season last year, but now you lose Richard Helepiko and Matt Hunt and that has to be a concern – one thing that wasn’t there was competition within the group or a lot of depth, and you have two starters to replace …
Norcross: “There was one thing we didn’t have enough of last year, and that was depth. The biggest thing this spring is not who are the five guys that are going to start, but it’s who is going to make the group better, because then you’ve got continual competition. We didn’t have that. We would have our five starters, our five to seven guys that are going to play, and there was no one else who stepped up. That’s what we have to have this spring. We’ve got to be able to find 10 guys that are going to be able to step up and compete day in and day out for jobs. I didn’t think we were as good as we could have been last year just because our level of competition in practice wasn’t there.”
How close did you feel by the end of the year from having a legitimate competition at some of those positions?
“I didn’t feel we had competition at any position. When Matt Hunt went down in practice right before the bowl game, it was hard to define who was going to be there because no one was wanting to step up and take the job. He played the first half, and he was hurt. He didn’t practice a whole bunch. We had a guy play that didn’t practice a whole bunch, but none of the other guys stepped up and, you know, Alex Fifita, he struggled all day with (SMU defensive end Margus Hunt) and for me to make some changes I needed some guys that I feel comfortable could compete and they just weren’t there. It’s not that the kids don’t have ability to compete more. That has been our whole emphasis this offseason. Who is going to compete? Who is going to step up and take a job?”
Some of the guys in with the twos and threes last year, they have a way to go physically before they can really be counted on to compete at that level …
“Yeah, there are some guys that have a way to go physically. At the start of this winter, whenever I wasn’t on the road recruiting, if I was in the office, as soon as school started I was out there watching them jump rope every day. We have to get quicker feet and we have to be able to move better, we have to make sure we’re knocking weight off right now instead of in the summer when we should be fine-tuning our bodies. Having (strength and conditioning coach Joey Boese) for a full year now is helping these guys out a lot. He’s able to take these guys and mold these guys. Mike Saenz is a junior college transfer, James Le’au, they didn’t have any of the spring, they got thrown in during the fall and this spring is great for them to be able to change their bodies some.
“A guy like Justin Northern, I see his body changing. Now we just need to get him mentally going. He’s starting to change physically. He’s starting to work in the weight room. He’s never been a kid who is afraid of hard work, but we need to change his mindset and get him to be that competitor. But there are still guys – even Alex Fifita, who started the last five games for us, he still needs to get in the weight room. He’s never been in a weight room. He’s never had that explosive movement that the weight room, that the plyometrics stuff that we do out on the field, the stuff that’s going to bring him so when he has to play against a guy that he played against in that bowl game it’s not a shock to him. I mean, he’s as athletic and quick as anyone, but we can make him more explosive.’’
Let’s start with Alex. He started the last five games for you, but that bowl game, that was rough. I’m sure you talked to him after that game. How does he bounce back?
“I did, and the thing with Alex is, people don’t realize the level of football he played in high school. He comes in as a true freshman, he missed most of fall camp, and he’s able to start as a true freshman. That says a lot right there. But the level of football he played in high school wasn’t at the De La Salle High level, it wasn’t at the Servite High level down in L.A. It was a lower-level of football in Northern California. He was just real raw and the coach that is there now was only there for a year, so I think he had three coaches in four years and he hadn’t had anyone coaching him for a consistent amount of time. He’s just a big block of clay that needs to be molded, and in the bowl game when things went bad he got big-eyed and didn’t know how to react to it. That’s what we’re working on now in some of our 6 a.m. conditioning periods. How are you going to react to adversity? Are you going to go into a shell and let one mistake become two? Or are you going to stand up and fight? I think that’s something with him that we have to continue to push.”
How have you liked or not liked his response since that game?
“I’ve liked his response. I’m not a guy who sugarcoats anything. I don’t hide anything from the guys. I’m not trying to save any feelings, because they need to know about it. In the real world, your boss doesn’t sugarcoat anything, and that’s what I am to them. I’m going to tell them how it is. I’m going to continually talk about it. It’s not something where we’re ostrich’s burying our heads in the sand. We’re going to continue to progress and keep bringing that up and keep hammering that home. Those are the types of things that he has to be better at this coming year than he was last year.”
The other guys you have coming back, Cody Wichmann …
“Cody, he started every game. He started seven games at tackle, and he was starting out of position and once we moved him in to guard you could just see him grow. The first game he was a little lost, but after that every game he built confidence. He’s a guard at heart and he has the ability to be an all-conference guard. He has a lot of football left in him playing guard, because that’s what he is – playing in a phone booth, mauling guys and not having to have speed-rushers in space and things like that. When we were able to move him, we were able to play to his abilities a little bit.’’
Physically, he was a work in progress at this point a year ago. How has he progressed?
“Last year, when I got in here, two guys were over 340 pounds (Matt Hunt and Wichmann) and one was over 330 (Austin Wentworth). Austin got down to 290 and it showed. He turned into an all-conference guy. He was able to move. He turned into an athletic guy. Cody we still need to bring down. He is still a little heavy right now. But he is such a big man. You don’t realize how tall he is until you stand right up against him, because he is so wide and big. But if we knock him down to about 300 we’ll be able to get him back up to 315 good pounds and he’ll be able to carry that easy. But it’s about changing the type of weight that he is carrying.”
Austin, he obviously had a very good year for a first-year left tackle …
“He’s a kid that is playing out of position a little bit, too, because in the program we’re short on tackles. But one thing about him, he’s such a smart football player. He’s smart. He’s big. He’s physical. He’s nasty, which I really like. He’s athletic. He’s not as athletic as I would like at left tackle, but he makes up for it with how intelligent he is. He can put his body in position to be where it needs to be, plus he plays with a little bit of an edge. He’s the type of guy that I really like playing for me – he and Cody both. Cody plays with an edge, too. You see those guys down field and as big as Cody was last year, he and Austin, they’re chasing the football, they’re playing with an edge, they’re cutting guys down field, and that’s what we need to get the group doing. I thought as a whole we did that pretty well last year, but we need to take another step this year.”
Like you said, Austin is playing out of position a little and you did recruit some tackle types that are coming in this fall. Do you look to do something different this spring with him, look at him inside or on the other side, or is he anchored in at that left tackle spot?
“At this point in time, he’s an anchor. But if a couple of the guys that we’re bringing in can come in and show that they can play and they can hold down that left tackle spot, he’d make us really good if we were able to move him in to that left guard spot. That makes us really solid inside. But right now as we sit he’ll be our starter at left tackle.’’
James Le’au, he got in there briefly last year. Where do you see him right now?
“Le’au, Mike Saenz, those two guys, Bo Bonnheim … Le’au and Mike Saenz will compete for the left guard spot as well as a couple of the new guys that we’re bringing in. They have to continue to progress and this offseason for James Le’au and Mike Saenz, they’re kind of in the same boat, they’re going to be big offseasons. How well are they going to compete? Every time that ball is snapped are they going to try to beat the man across from there? Are they going to be a true competitor? And that’s what we’re looking for. You know, at the junior college level it’s a little different and so we’re trying to break some of those habits still. But James Le’au, he has had a good conditioning period. When we’re out there at 6 a.m., he’s done a good job every day. He needs to lose a little weight still, but he knows that and he’s progressing every day.
Saenz, physically he’s pretty close now, isn’t he?
“He needs to get stronger. He’s a good athlete and he’s got the length. He’s what we want in there at guard. But he’s also got to be a little more of a competitor and he’s got to realize that it’s not OK to be beat. At the JC level, it’s one of those things, you understand what you’re getting. The biggest thing is they have to understand that it’s not OK to be beat. It can’t happen again. It has got to burn you deep down inside. That’s what we’re working on with him right now.”
You mentioned strength with him. Do you have a baseline for guys with their lifts, whether it’s a squat or a bench, that you want them at by certain points?
“There are numbers that you look at, but, you know, I had a tackle before that couldn’t bench over 300 pounds and he couldn’t squat much more than 450. When you look at the numbers on paper you think, ‘This kid can’t play for you.’ But he’s an all-conference tackle and he goes on and plays for six years in the NFL. He just played strong. I’ve also had guy that when you put their numbers down on paper you think, ‘This guy should be a heck of a football player. He’s benching over 450, he’s squatting 700. This guy has got all the tools. He should be able to do it.’ But then he doesn’t transfer it to the field. You’ve got to have a happy medium with guys. It has to be field strength and that’s what we’re working on with him now. It all starts in the core.”
I’d imagine some of the younger guys that you had to work with last year, they would fall into that category as well. You mentioned Justin Northern …
“Justin, he has the ability and he’s just going to be a redshirt sophomore. He has all the athletic ability. He’s a smart kid. We just need to get him processing things on the football field faster and we’ll get a lot of game reps out of him. He plays fairly strong now. But it’s the speed of the game, getting a lot of reps out of him, and understanding the work that goes into it.”
Of all those guys, he has a pretty good tackle frame to fill out …
“And he’s changed his body. You know, I go down and I’m recruiting some JC guys and some kids down in Southern California and about three of them said, ‘Hey, I’ve been working out with Justin Northern.’ He would go out on his own over winter break and when he came back you could see he hadn’t just been sitting around. He tried to change his body. He’s bigger than he was when he left after the bowl game. He’s starting to put in the work and see that, hey, if I can be a contributor at left tackle, they can move Austin and he sees that daylight there. I tell all the kids, I’m going to play my best five. I’m not going to play my two best tackles and my two best guards. My best five, if four of them are tackles and one of them is a guard, or three of them are tackles and two of them are centers, I’m going to move a center to guard just like we did last year with Richard Helepiko. I’m going to put the best five on the football field.”
Travis Harvey, he’s another guy in there. He was trying to shed some weight all last year …
“He still is. But he’s another kid, I think he came back 17 pounds lighter than he was when he left us. So he did some work in the offseason. He has a lot of want-to in him. It’s just a question, as a redshirt freshman, we have to see how far he progresses because as big as he is, he has good feet and he’s an intelligent guy. He’s a pretty smart football player. He wants to be a great football player. I think he’s willing to put in the work – he’s in the weight room extra and things like that. We’ll just see how it translates onto the football field, because I think he has a big upside once we get him knocked down and bring him to our standards. Once he gets there, I think he’ll be just fine.”
What do you need to see from him in the spring?
“I need to see that he’s going to compete. You know, with all of those young kids, that’s the biggest thing you want to see in the spring, that they’re going to compete and they’re starting to get a general feel for the offense. Most of these other guys have been through a spring practice, being a freshman, grasping the offense and being able to compete is the thing and seeing how things are going to slow down because he hasn’t played any meaningful snaps since high school. The game is still fast for him, especially practicing against our defense where they move every single snap. At first the movements are going to be really fast for him. It has to slow down in his mind. He has to continue to get that weight off, compete and then the speed of the game has to adjust for him.”
You have two JC guys that are enrolled in school already – Patrick Kim and Josh Tremblay. What did you like about them that you saw on tape?
“Patrick, he’s played at a high level. He was at USC as a walk-on freshman. Nothing we do is going to be a surprise to him, and he’s come in and competed his tail off in our winter stuff. He’s done a really good job. I’ve been impressed by him through these winter workouts and what he’s been able to do. We need to see what he can do on the field now, but just from a competition standpoint, he’s got the mental makeup to do it. But I see him on film, I see him being aggressive, I see him being physical. Both he and Josh have a good amount of hip snap. That’s one of the things I look for when I’m recruiting guys – what kind of hip snap do they have? They might not be strong in the weight room, they might not have all the numbers you want, but if they roll their hips and they’re strong through their core then they’re going to be good offensive linemen.”
Josh is still a bit on the lighter side, isn’t he? He’s 270, something like that?
“He is and we need to build him up. In reality, when you’re recruiting to Fresno State, whether it was when I was at Nevada or now at Fresno State, there are not a lot of times you’re going to get ready-made offensive linemen. The JC guys are a little different, but there’s something you’re going to have to do whether it’s put 15 pounds on him or take 15 pounds off of him. We’ve got to put some weight on him. He’s a kid that’s never been a part of an intense workout program. He’s never been a part of a program that has a good nutrition program like we do. He’ll really benefit. Since we had him up on his recruiting trip, he’s already out on 18 pounds. I don’t think he’ll have any problems doing that, and he’s long, he’s athletic, he’s runs well. He’s got all those tools that you look for, now it’s just getting him stronger and putting some weight on him.’’
What is the expectation for him through this spring?
“It’s kind of the same thing with Travis Harvey. I want to see if he’s going to compete. I want to see where he’s going to be at as far as just picking up the offense and being able to process it fast enough and get the speed of the game to where everything that happens isn’t shocking to him.”
Same thing with the two JC guys you have coming in this fall – Kolby Drew and Sean Rubalcava?
“It’s the same thing, but their learning is going to be little accelerated. We’ll have 29 practices with them as opposed to the 15 in the spring, but that’s why you look to sign these mid-year guys because they have 15 and 29, so they’ll have 44 practices before the first game plus the winter workouts, plus the summer. These other JC guys coming in, they’ll have the summer. That’s where the leadership of the group from guys like Austin and Cody are going to need to come in and help us out by leading guys through the summer and making sure they know what’s expected of them when I can’t physically be out there with them.
“When they get in, it will be trial by fire. They’re going to be thrown in there and we’ll see how they compete and see where they’re at and we’re going to make a decision. Some of these JC guys that we brought in have redshirt years left and whether we redshirt any of them or all of them, that’s all dictated by what they do. We’ll probably redshirt one or two of them, but the other one will have to come in and play. If all four come in and they’re the best guys, they’ll play. That’s kind of where Kolby is at. He’s the kind of guy I would recruit every single year. He’s all-state. He’s 6-foot-6. He’s 300 pounds. He’s long and he’s got arms, they’re extremely long. He’s a tackle body. Now, the weight room part of it is a question, and you’ve got to get it out of him now. I know he can do it on tape, now I have to get it out of him when he gets here.”
Is it realistic to think by the end of the spring you will be, maybe not 10 deep, but seven deep or eight deep?
“I think so. Some of the progress that I’ve seen from the younger kids, you think now, ‘They’re going to have a shot’ or ‘He’s a little bit different than when we left in the fall.’ Some of these guys might say, ‘Well, I’m just a freshman or I’m just a sophomore,’ but now they’re upperclassmen and they see that more is going to be demanded of them and they’re not content with being where they are at, so they step up a little bit and their amount of work and their sense of urgency improves.”