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.

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Fresno State O-line coach Cameron Norcross has high expectations for spring practices

Offensive line coach Cameron Norcross demonstrates technique to Bulldogs players during fall camp in August 2012. (ERIC PAUL ZAMORA/THE FRESNO BEE)

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.”

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Miscommunication led to penalties on ‘Dogs offensive line

Fresno State was penalized eight times for 85 yards in its victory over Hawaii last Saturday, three of those calls illegal chop blocks that, offensive line coach Cameron Norcross said, stemmed from miscommunication that will have to be cleaned up this week in practice.

”They were legitimate calls,” Norcross said. ”They were things that we can’t have happen. Those things 90 percent of the time are going to cost us drives. You know, they’re 15-yard penalties and that one put us from 2nd-and-2 to 1st-and-25. That’s hard to overcome. There are not many calls in the playbook for 1st-and-25. On 2nd-and-2, you’ve got the everything wide open.

”Those are things we’ve got too really work to clean up and part of it is some of the moving parts we’ve had the last couple weeks and they were all on that right side with a kid that was playing his second game veer in college (freshman Alex Fifita) and a kid that’s playing his second game ever at guard (Cody Wichmann).  Those are things that are going to happen, and the other one that happened was with our second-team in there and they didn’t communicate.

”You get guys like (left guard Matt Hunt and left tackle Austin Wentworth) who have played a ton of football together, they’re not having those communication issues. But when you put two new guys in there, that’s stuff that we’re working through and making sure it doesn’t happen again.”