With quarterback Derek Carr, running back Robbie Rouse and Davante Adams, Fresno State did a lot of good things on offense last season in winning a share of the Mountain West Conference football title — the Bulldogs were 12th in the bowl subdivision in passing offense, 16th in total offense and 17th in scoring.
But there were some things that definitely needed improvement, the things offensive coordinator Dave Schramm said cost the Bulldogs possessions and games.
On third downs, in the red zone and with turnovers, the Bulldogs had some rough stretches. Though running better than 77 plays per game, Schramm also said the Bulldogs need to play at a better tempo.
So there will be an emphasis for the Bulldogs this spring on clean up, perhaps just as much as finding replacements for Rouse, starting center Richard Helepiko, starting left guard Matt Hunt and wide out Rashad Evans, along with developing depth in the line and at the receiver positions.
There is a lot of work to do in the 15 spring practices, which start Monday morning. Schramm discussed some of what is ahead for the Bulldogs and his expectations.
Question: You guys got a lot of stuff done last year, put up a lot of points, even with some depth issues on the line and at the receiver positions. For the first year in the system, I’d have to think you’re pretty happy with at least some of the aspects of that …
Schramm: It’s a good start. We did a lot of good things. We’ve got a lot of things to improve on, but I’m certainly happy with the start we had in the first year and looking forward to building on that.
Obviously you showed a lot with some of the trick plays. But, in that first year, how deep did you get into the offensive playbook. How much is still there?
A lot of what we do is personnel-based, and I’ve said it since the day I got here: It’s a player’s offense. It isn’t about the plays, it’s about the players and what we can and can’t do and what we believe our strengths are. We try to always play to our players’ strengths, and at the same time don’t ask them to do stuff that we don’t think they’re good at. When you start to do that, and you start to get stubborn about the scheme … you know, the scheme isn’t any good if the players can’t do it.
In our spring last year, and even into fall camp, the thing we had to decide was: What do we think these guys can do, what can they handle? When we ran into some deals, especially at the receiver position, where we had some guys chipped up, and we ended up playing a bunch of different guys there, we weren’t able to play as fast as I think we need to play. We’ve still got a ways to go in terms of being able to change tempo in the middle of drives and things like that, and I think all that will come in the second year of the offense. We need to continue to do the things that we do well, but the major points of emphasis for us going into spring is we have to be better at the things that lose us games.
We gave up too many sacks, especially in this offense. We turned the ball over way too many times. We have to be better on third down. We have to score more touchdowns in the red zone. All those things, I know, are things that we can improve on. I don’t think we need to run a whole bunch of different plays to do that. As we were going through our cut-ups from this past year, we just have to be more consistent and do things better. Our big emphasis going into this spring, like last spring, is who are we going to be able to count on? Who are our guys? We have a lot more answers to those questions in our second year than we did last year.
But we have to find a running back. We have to find someone to replace Robbie (Rouse). Who is that going to be? We have some pretty good candidates, but they have to prove that. We have to shore up our offensive line. We have to find a center. We have to find a left guard. Our question marks are fewer than they were last year at this time, but on top of that we have to continue to get better at the things that we do on game day. That’s kind of our emphasis going into spring.
The running back is going to be an interesting position to watch. Robbie, obviously, handled the majority of the plays there. You have Marteze (Waller) back, you have Josh (Quezada). You have a couple of other guys. Do you look for one of them to carry the same type of load that Robbie did, or do you prefer to mix it up with a couple of different guys?
Well, you know, to me it depends on them. Our situation a year ago, we felt Robbie being on the field we were a whole lot better with him on the field than without him on the field. There was, we felt, a big drop off when he wasn’t out there. That will depend on the position. In this offense I’ve played with two backs a lot of times. In my time at Utah, we played with Matt Asiata and Eddie Wide and before that with Darrell Mack and in my time at San Diego State we played with two backs. So, you can do it with two backs and there are positives to that, because you keep them healthy.
We’re able to do it either way, and you keep them fresh with two guys in there. But if one guy is showing himself to be that much better and that much further ahead, then that guy is going to play. If he’s in there and he’s playing well and the guys behind him aren’t, we feel, up to speed, then we’re going to leave that guy in there. We’ll see how it plays out, but I feel pretty good about the pool of guys that we have to choose from.
The backup quarterback situation, I don’t know how good you might feel about some of the guys there. But what is that competition going to be like, with Brian Burrell coming into that mix? I’d imagine that all of those guys are going to get a lot of chances.
They will. (Derek Carr) isn’t going to do a whole bunch this spring in terms of scrimmaging. In fact, he won’t scrimmage at all. We have to answer that question: Who is the backup guy going to be? We want to at least have an idea, but we won’t make that decision I don’t think by the end of spring ball unless it just grossly separates itself.
We could have a pretty good idea going into fall camp because, with Derek being healthy going into the fall, he’s going to get the majority the reps, and so you have to be smart about how you allocate the rest of those reps. The hard thing about being a backup quarterback, when you’re the second guy you get about 20% (of the reps), when you’re the third guy you get zero, when you’re the fourth guy you get zero. That will be a fierce competition this spring and, kind of like the running back spot, they will play themselves into or out of what their slot is going to be going into fall camp.
Given the lack of reps in fall camp, though, I would think you’d want that settled so you know who is going to get that 20% …
You’d like to, but if two of the three are playing at a high level or all three are playing at a high level, it might not present itself. Plus, we feel we have a pretty good guy coming in that’s a high school guy (Zack Greenlee). He’ll be a true freshman, but if he’s better than the other guys, we have to find that out fast as well. In spring ball, a lot of times it’s not going to truly set the depth chart, but it’s going to give us a pretty good feeling with those open positions going into fall camp.
I think the quarterback spot, you hit the nail on the head, they will get a boat load of reps so they will show what they can do or can’t do as spring ball goes on. And I have to be smart. I’m certainly not going to expect them to be able to do the same things that Derek can do, but they have to demonstrate that they can function in the base part of the offense and handle taking care of the football, No. 1, and then lead and drive the team. That’s what this offense does. It’s a very quarterback-friendly offense if you’re smart enough to handle it.
You know, we give our quarterback a lot, which I think attracts guys that want to come here. Zack Greenlee wants to come to Fresno State because he knows that we’re going to prepare him somewhat for the next level in terms of recognizing defenses, checking protections, checking certain plays, doing some things that are going to allow him to compete at a high level here and hopefully at the next level when he’s done here. So, we’ll see. It is a question mark for us, but I’m really not as concerned about who the backup quarterback is going to be as I am about who the starting center, left guard and running back are going to be.
Obviously, you’ve seen a lot of Marcus McDade and Myles Carr last year. What stood out with Burrell, watching him on tape? What do you think he will be able to do this spring?
Well, we’ll see. On tape he played at a very high level at a very good junior college. They were very successful. He demonstrated a lot of things on game film that I think will fit in well in this offense. He’s a very accurate thrower. He runs better than you think for a big guy. The thing I like about him is that, No. 1, he’s highly competitive. And, No. 2, he’s repetitively accurate when he throws the ball. The guy hits what he’s throwing at. And, again, Bakersfield College, they’re as good as there is in JC football in this country and the guy was able to play at a pretty high level. I’m anxious to see how that translates to here. I know the other two guys have a head start because they know the terminology and they know the offense a little bit, so I think it’s going to be a pretty good competition.
The center and left guard, obviously the line is not a spot you guys had real legitimate competition last year. You had a one-deep and plus one or maybe two. … Finding those starters and, maybe even more so, developing some depth there, is that the No. 1 priority this spring?
No question. Everything we do starts up front and we have to be more physical than we were a year ago. It’s just a mind-set that we have to continue to develop, and I think a lot of times, you know, there’s a misnomer in the spread offense that it’s not physical and all that stuff. Well, it is physical and it should be physical. We just have to continue to gain depth in that spot up front so we’re not getting pushed around like we did at times during the season.
Is that fixable in one spring and one summer?
No, it’s an on-going process. I think it started last spring when we got here, when we identified that as a major need for us just in terms of numbers of guys that we think had the size and the mentality that we feel they have to play at. We develop that. And I see it, I see it in our winter conditioning, the difference in some guys and the jumps that they’ve made from last year to this year. It’s not something that happens overnight. It’s not something that you can fix right away. It takes time. And I know between (offensive line coach Cameron Norcross) and (strength and conditioning coach Joey Boese), they’ve done a good job to this point. But it’s a constant deal and it’s always going to be a constant deal as we build depth in those guys so we can find, instead of nine guys we can play with, we need to get that number up to at least 12.
The outside guys, too. I think the feeling last year was there always good depth there. But there really wasn’t, with Rashad Evans missing games and Josh Harper missing games and Victor Dean going down with the broken leg. … How do you see some of the younger guys there coming into the spring?
You know, I feel good about them. I think we have some guys that can play. I’m not sure we have enough. We need to continue to develop guys. (Justin Johnson) won’t go this spring because of his (elbow) surgery, but he’s a guy in fall camp that has to continue to get better. Aaron Peck has had an outstanding winter to this point — he needs to carry that over into spring ball. We just need to continue to find guys that we can count on, along with Harp and Davante (Adams) and (Isaiah Burse), and continue to develop those guys so we can play in games with more guys, so guys don’t get worn out and we can play faster at times, so we’re not gassing guys.
We’re going to try to play with four guys, so the thing we have to do is continue to develop our depth and make sure that we’re playing with guys that, when the starter goes out, that No. 2 isn’t so far behind that people start disregarding the passing game and start loading up against the run game, and I think we’re getting there. We’re not there yet, but I think we’re getting there.
With Justin and Aaron, I don’t know if they hit a wall or what. They both had real good fall camps and on through the first part of the season, and then they leveled off or maybe even regressed …
Yeah, and I think that is something that is normal for a true freshman. You know, the season is long, the practices are different, it’s a lot more physical on game day. To me, I think it’s one of the real positives about not redshirting: You get an opportunity to see what it’s like. And I know those two guys will be a lot more productive from a numbers standpoint this fall than they were last year. And, again, you know, they know the system, they understand how to play hard, they understand who to block, which is critical in this offense when you play receiver. Having game day experience is going to help them immensely.
With Aaron, obviously he has some very good tools to work with. But is there one area that you think he needs to work on or improve this spring?
It’s just experience and being more consistent on a play-by-play basis. You know: Not assuming that I’m not catching the ball, not assuming that the ball isn’t coming my way.
I think he got better as the year went on, but I think he needs to continue to learn how to finish. When you play at this level when you’re a true freshman, like I said, it’s different. You’re playing against guys that have played a lot of college football, and you’ve got to be able to finish everything you do. He’s grown up a lot. He still has a long way to go, but he works extremely hard at it. I’m excited about the way he’s looked in our winter conditioning and I’m looking forward to seeing him in spring ball. He’ll get a boat load of reps.
Does Victor Dean get anything this spring? I know he’s doing some stuff, but has some work to do yet …
He still has some rehab to do. He’s out there running around right now surprisingly, and I’m amazed at what he’s able to do right now for a guy that broke his femur in half. He’s a tough guy and he’s showing that toughness right now. You know, he’s fighting through a lot of things with his rehab. It’s different — all of a sudden the guy has a metal rod in his leg. But he’s out there and he’s doing the drills. … He’ll be limited. I’m not sure we can tackle him yet, but he’ll be out there running around and he seems to have a good attitude and hopefully through the spring and rest of the summer we can get him ready to go for fall camp.
Aside from Justin and Victor, will anyone else be limited or out this spring?
You know, we’ll take it easy on Harp a little bit, but he’ll go. We’ll give him as much as we think he can handle coming off his deal. Derek won’t do any of the team stuff. He could, if we need him to, but I don’t think we need to right now. And, you know, a lot of that is there is only one ball for the quarterbacks, so we have to find out who our backup is going to be or at least have some kind of an idea coming out of spring ball.
For the group, the skill guys, it should be a lot smoother than it was last year …
I feel a whole lot better coming into this spring than I did last spring, just in terms of what our players know. You know, and, again, now we can build on it and continue to get better. Our emphasis going through spring, it’s not so much trying to win this drill or win this scrimmage. That’s really not our point of emphasis, our point of emphasis is let’s try to develop the guys that are going to help us win this fall against Rutgers. That’s what we’re point to.
The tempo, how much do you think that was impacted by having to make so many changes at the receiver positions?
I think it did a lot. There’s no question. You know, you’re playing a receiver at one spot and then the next week or even in the middle of a game all of a sudden you have to go play another spot. Well, now all of a sudden you have to slow down a bit and think. I think that slowed us down quite a bit. Our guys did great; they did a great job. But as a play-caller and the guy to run the offense, we can go run around as fast as we can, but if nobody knows what they’re doing that’s not going to be any good.
We have to execute at a high level. If that means slowing down a little bit so we can do that, then we’re going to do that. At the end of the day it’s about putting up points. You don’t get any points for playing fast. You get points for scoring touchdowns. Now, we think playing fast can help us score touchdowns. But we’re not going to play fast just to say we play fast. I think we ended up averaging 77 plays a game, which isn’t nearly enough, but I think there were four games we played where our No. 1 offense wasn’t on the field in the second half. That kind of skews that number, as well.
We need to play faster, there’s no question. I think there were times where we played pretty fast and we played at a pretty high level. But like I said at the start of the conversation, we need to fix the things that lose us games. We need to get better at not taking sacks — you know, a lot of that was at the quarterback spot and we need to be better. We need to be better at not turning the ball over. We need to be better at scoring touchdowns in the red zone and we certainly need to be better on third down. We need to be better. You know, we had far too many missed opportunities on third down that we didn’t take advantage of, so those are all things to build on and we’re looking forward to getting going.