Fresno State football spring scrimmage notes: Northern opens up another position battle on O-line

Head coach Tim DeRuyter, top, talks to his team following Fresno State football team’s Spring Game held at Bulldog Stadium on Saturday, March 23, 2013. (ERIC PAUL ZAMORA/THE FRESNO BEE)

The interior offensive line is fluid, but it was expected to be at this point. Fresno State, looking to replace starting center Richard Helepiko and left guard Matt Hunt, had some options to explore this spring with more coming in this fall and line coach Cameron Norcross is making concessions to make sure he gets a look at those bigger, longer, linemen, most notably guard Sean Rubalcava from Cerritos College.

A proponent of finding his five best linemen and putting them to work, developing continuity and a confidence across the line, Norcross in the fall will get Rubalcava some reps right away with the No. 1 group to get a gauge where he is coming in and how quickly he can assimilate the Bulldogs’ schemes and calls up front. ‘’He’s a guy that we’re going to have to do that for,’’ he said.

But exiting spring practice, the right tackle spot also is wide open, which was not expected. Justin Northern, a 6-foot-5, 280-pound redshirt sophomore, made it that way. And that would be the case whether or not returning starter Alex Fifita had not missed the last week-plus with a hamstring injury.

‘’Alex coming (into the spring) was a clear-cut favorite, but it didn’t finish that way,’’ Norcross said. ‘’They’re going to finish head-to-head or Justin may be a little head because Alex has been hurt and Justin took the opportunity he got and ran with it.

‘’He didn’t back down and step away and concede to Alex. He said, ‘No, I’m going to take this opportunity, I’m going to take this starting job’ and I love that attitude. I was proud of him that way.’’

Northern didn’t have the best spring in the position group, but Norcross said he had made the most improvement coming off a solid offseason.

‘’I’ve seen it since I got here – he’s had the potential, but things haven’t processed, the speed,’’ Norcross said. ‘’But he’s starting to pick it up. That comes with a guy going into his third year in the program. As coaches, we forget sometimes that he’s a freshman still, so even though his body looked like a guy, you just say, ‘I don’t know if he can do it.’ But he’s a freshman, a guy you have to stick with.

‘’He did a good job over the winter of not just sitting around. He changed his body. He had been in the weight room, he’d been working, and he had a good spring camp.’’

Northern will go into the fall at right tackle, with Fifita. But if he continues to progress, he would give Norcross and the Bulldogs options they didn’t have a year ago when winning a share of the Mountain West Conference, their first league title since 1999.

‘’I feel a lot better about this unit than I did last year at this time, just as far as possibilities and combinations and overall numbers and not feeling handcuffed and trapped,’’ Norcross said. ‘’Right now I know I have guys that have had some game experience that I can pick and choose and move guys around a little bit.’’


Inside linebacker Patrick Su’a on his spring: ‘’It was horrible.’’

The senior did not get on the field, coming back from knee surgery. But he is expected to be cleared to go through all of the Bulldogs’ off-season programs and ready for fall camp.

‘’After spring break I’m going to be out running with the team,’’ he said. ‘’To me, honestly, I feel 100 percent, but the trainers know, they’ve been through many players with this injury. I just have to be patient, listen and get ready for the fall.’’

Su’a was able to stay up with the playbook, the difficult part come the fall will be physical, which might be a tad surprising given Su’a and his proclivity for crushing hits.

‘’It’s the techniques. The hitting part, I’m pretty sure that comes naturally,’’ he said. ‘’But the technique, with the stutter steps and the drops, that’s what I’ll need to work on.’’


Running back Robbie Rouse and safety Phillip Thomas took in the spring scrimmage.

Thomas had returned to Fresno from a meeting/interview with the Carolina Panthers on Friday night and had worked out Saturday morning for the Philadelphia Eagles. He also has meetings or workouts set up with the Atlanta Falcons, Pittsburgh Steelers, Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys at this point.

‘’it’s going to be a busy couple of weeks for me, but I like it that way,’’ he said.


Northern on his progress this spring: ‘’Coach Norcross, he said I just kept on banging my head against the wall and finally broke through a little bit.’’


Quarterback Derek Carr had a fairly light spring – he didn’t do any live work. But he kept busy, already taking a peek at Rutgers and the Scarlet Knights’ defense.

‘’They don’t know how we got the tape or anything, but I’ve already been watching them and telling my guys about stuff that they to do,’’ he said. ‘’The personnel is going to be a little bit different for them, we know that. Just getting ready for that.’’


Coach Tim DeRuyter on the play of backup quarterbacks Marcus McDade and Myles Carr in the scrimmage: ‘’They were a little like popcorn – they pop and things are good and then things are not so good. You see flashes of the athleticism. They made some good throws. But they have to do a much better job making decisions and taking care of the football. I was disappointed in what they did with that.

‘’I think grade-wise, to be fair, you have to look at the tape and pour over what was the assignment, what was the defense? When you just see it, you don’t know the whole situation, so we’ll reserve the grade, but not good enough to play for us at the level we need them to play at and they know that. They need to improve.’’


The Bulldogs started the live portion of their scrimmage with a minus-1 situation, the offense needing to make a first down starting in the shadow of their goal posts.

On the first play, running back Malique Micenheimer busted his way through the defense for a first down. On the next series, the offense again made a first down on two runs by T.J. Thomas.

‘’I liked how Malique Micenheimer ran the ball,’’ DeRuyter said. ‘’He’s had a really good spring and maybe the surprise of spring as far as guy that we weren’t really counting on as a tailback, more of a fullback, but he made some very effective runs. I thought T.J. Thomas ran the ball hard today and ran physical. I like where we’re at with our running back situation.

‘’Josh Quezada didn’t play today, but he’s had a great spring. Marteze Waller probably came in ahead of all those guys based on last year, got dinged up a little bit, but he wants to compete. I think we’ve got some really good depth at the running back position.’’