Fresno State football has Jake Haener back, high hopes in Jeff Tedford’s return

Jeff Tedford is back — back again. Fresno State’s new coach is also the old coach. Administrative changes don’t come much easier than this.

After Kalen DeBoer took the Washington job, Tedford returned to coaching at his alma mater for a second stint leading the Bulldogs. This time, he takes over a much better situation, and that could mean big things in 2022.

When Tedford arrived in 2017, he inherited a team coming off a 1-11 season. The Bulldogs went 10-4 and reached the Mountain West championship game, one of the biggest single-season win improvements in college football history. Then Fresno State won the Mountain West the following year.

The Bulldogs slipped to 4-8 in 2019, and Tedford stepped away due to health issues. He needed a heart procedure. DeBoer, the former offensive coordinator under Tedford, was hired after one year away at Indiana. Eventually, the health issues were taken care of, and Tedford looked to return to coaching last fall. When the Fresno State job opened again, he stepped in to replace the man who replaced him.

“After I recovered, after that first year, it became pretty evident I wasn’t at the point where I wanted to do other things, just play golf all the time,” Tedford, 60, said. “I was going to do something in football, and then this happened and Kalen got the opportunity to go to Washington. I was still living here. It came up at just the right time.”

He’s not inheriting a 1-11 team this time. He’s instead inheriting a 10-win team with one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Jake Haener. The foundation he built in the first stint remains, down to the practice schedule in some situations, and many of the players on the team already played for or were recruited by Tedford. He estimates that number is as high as 75 percent. He also hired a staff full of previous Fresno State ties, a group that knows what it takes to win there.

“They’ve had success and they know what it looks like,” Tedford said. “But we also feel we haven’t reached our full potential. There’s a lot more. There’s enough experience on this team to lead and guide in the right direction.”

Fresno State was consistently among the best non-power conference teams for a long time, willing to take on anyone, anywhere, at any time. Tedford wants his alma mater to get back to that status and get needed facility renovations.

With nonconference games against Oregon State and USC and playing in a deep Mountain West, including a trip to Boise State, the path is difficult again. But with the foundation that’s in place, this can be a championship-contending team.


Jalen Cropper finished third in the Mountain West with 85 catches. (Troy Babbitt / USA Today)

Offense

Haener is as strong a foundational piece to inherit as a coach could possibly find. In his second season after transferring in from Washington, he threw for 4,096 yards with 36 total touchdowns and nine interceptions, earning second-team All-Mountain West honors. He did much of that while banged up with injuries throughout the season. He famously led a game-winning drive at UCLA with a badly injured hip. Fresno State finished 26th nationally in scoring and 29th in yards per pass, and it had 12 plays of at least 50 yards in 13 games. If he’s healthy, Haener could be one of the best quarterbacks in the country.

“He takes better notes than anyone on this team, always asking questions, talking about situations,” said offensive coordinator Kirby Moore, who will call the plays this season. “He works his tail off and he’s able to play faster and with great anticipation.”

At one point, it looked like Haener might not be back. When DeBoer left for Washington, Haener entered the transfer portal, and many believed he would follow DeBoer back to the Huskies. When Haener originally transferred from Washington to Fresno State in fall 2019, it was to play for Tedford. But when Tedford stepped down, Haener considered transferring again. Tedford told him to trust DeBoer, and it worked out. Now the reverse happened, and Haener ultimately chose to stay again and later issued an apology to Bulldogs fans.

“I think he got kind of a bad rap for that,” Tedford said. “If you put yourself in his situation and you have one more year to play and you don’t know who the next coach is going to be, they could run a totally different offense. He was going to follow the offense he knew to Washington. But when (I came back) and he knew the offense would stay the same, the familiarity with the coordinator, with more information he gathered, he felt this was the best place for him. He wanted to be here.”

Haener will have three of his top four receivers back as well. The group is led by senior Jalen Cropper, who had 85 catches for 899 yards and 11 touchdowns a year ago and earned second-team All-MWC. Four of those TDs came in a single game against UNLV. Also back are honorable mention All-MWC junior Josh Kelly (52 catches, 778 yards, three TDs) and returning senior Zane Pope (25 catches, 471 yards, four touchdowns). New to the group is Cal graduate transfer Nikko Remigio, the Golden Bears’ leading receiver in 2019 and a team captain last year. Altogether, the Bulldogs might have the best crop of receivers in the Mountain West.

“We can draw up a lot of plays on the board,” Moore said of the receivers’ freedom. “There are very few guys that can take a catch at 6 yards and go 80, and (Cropper) is one of those guys, his big-play ability, whether it’s running by someone or catching the ball and getting yards after the catch.”

The top two tight ends return in sophomore Tre Watson (10 catches, 134 yards) and returning senior Raymond Pauwels Jr. (17 catches, 126 yards, two TDs).

At running back, returning senior Jordan Mims is the clear No. 1 after splitting time with Ronnie Rivers, who totaled nearly 5,000 yards from scrimmage over the past five seasons. Mims had 710 yards (5.59 per rush) and six touchdowns. He shined last season with 134 yards against Nevada, 186 yards against a stout San Diego State defense and 165 yards in the bowl win against UTEP.

“It’s Jordan’s job,” Tedford said. “We’re excited about where he is. He’s been here a long time, he’s matured. We’re going to depend on him a lot.”



Jordan Mims shared carries with Ronnie Rivers last season. (Cary Edmondson / USA Today)

The rest of the carries will be distributed in a committee. Expect sophomore Malik Sherrod and senior Jevon Bigelow to be in the mix for the No. 2 spot, along with Missouri transfer Simi Bakare. Jordan Wilmore, the team’s No. 3 rusher last year who took second-string reps in spring, is no longer with the program, Tedford confirmed.

The offensive line returns four of six players who started at least six games in 2021. From left to right, that includes returning senior left tackle Dontae Bull, sophomore left guard Braylen Nelson, senior center Bula Schmidt and junior right guard Mose Vavao. The right tackle spot is up for grabs, and names expected to be in the mix include Michigan State transfer Jacob Isaia and junior college additions Anthony LaFrance and Nate Maier.

“The experience is huge,” Moore said of the group. “There’s a lot of people we play with a lot of different looks. Having some guys who played a lot of ball, that helps with checks and things up front.”

The offensive scheme is expected to be similar to what’s been run over the past five years, whether Tedford or DeBoer was in charge. It’s been working, and with Haener leading the unit, there’s no need to overhaul.

“I’m sure there’s a couple tweaks, but for the most part, things went well here, so we want to have a similar format, and we’ve kept that pretty consistent,” Moore said.

Key stat to know: Haener’s seven completions of at least 60 yards last season were second most nationally, the same number as Alabama’s Bryce Young and Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe.

Bulldogs’ returning production

Category Percent returning Top returner

Passing yards

100

Haener, 4,096

Rushing yards

51

Mims, 710

Receiving yards

74

Cropper, 899

OL starts

67

Two with 13

Tackles

67

Williams, 92

Tackles for loss

57

Perales, 13.5

Sacks

46

Perales, 7

Interceptions

81

Williams, 3

Defense

Haener and the Fresno State offense got most of the attention last season, but the defense made a huge leap from 2020. The Bulldogs finished in the top 30 nationally in almost every major defensive category: scoring, yards per rush, tackles for loss, third downs, red zone touchdown percentage and takeaways.

New defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle is in this role for the second time, having previously run the defense from 1997 to 2000. Fresno State largely used a 4-2-5 defensive formation last season, though Coyle would only use the cliche that the Bulldogs will be multiple up front.

“We always try to give the opponent different looks, but it comes down to the style that you play against,” he said.

In that front, two starters are back in returning senior defensive end David Perales and senior defensive tackle Leonard Payne Jr. Perales’ 13.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks last year lead all returning players and earned him second-team All-MWC honors. To fill the other defensive end spot, seniors Da’Marcus Johnson and Isaiah Johnson are expected to be in the mix. Inside, Stanford transfer Joshua Pakola could be in the rotation at defensive tackle, along with junior Evan Bennett and senior Matt Lawson, the latter two of whom were in the two-deep last year. Coyle said Bennett might have been the most improved player of the spring.

“We came out of spring feeling that our edge players are quality players,” Coyle said, “and the interior guys are getting better every day.”

At linebacker, senior Levelle Bailey did it all last season, racking up 56 tackles, eight TFLs, 3.5 sacks and two interceptions, earning honorable mention All-MWC. Malachi Langley started just two games but recorded 61 tackles and will move into a starting spot as well, Coyle said. Coyle also pointed to USC transfer Raymond Scott as someone who will start or be in the regular rotation. Scott had a career-high 27 tackles last year and has two years of eligibility remaining.

The secondary is the most experienced unit on the defense. Strong safety Evan Williams is one of the top leaders of the team. His 92 tackles and three interceptions led all Bulldogs and earned him first-team All-MWC honors.

“He’s an outstanding leader, a real instinctive guy,” Coyle said. “He can do it all.”



Evan Williams had 31 more tackles than any other Fresno State player last year. (Cary Edmondson / USA Today)

Returning senior Elijah Gates started nine games alongside Williams at strong safety last season, with 38 tackles and six passes broken up. On the outside, junior cornerback Bralyn Lux is back after starting eight games last year and all six as a freshman the year before. Sophomore Cale Sanders Jr. started a few games late in the season and had a strong spring. He’s expected to take the other starting spot. Hawaii transfer Cameron Lockridge will be in the rotation at corner as well, and the Bulldogs also return Justin Houston — who played the “husky” role as a linebacker/safety/nickel back hybrid in the previous defense — making for a deep group across the board for the new defensive staff.

“There’s quite a few guys going into the spring we weren’t exactly sure with depth,” Coyle said. “But guys really stepped up, and I think we have a good nucleus coming back.”

The defense has more questions than the offense, especially on the line and at cornerback, but with experienced players filling in starting roles, this group could be stout again if it can adapt to the new scheme.

“While the offense stayed the same as far as terminology and philosophy, the defense was the one on the learning curve,” Tedford said. “They did a nice job adapting to that. The staff did a nice job setting the expectations, and the guys have a productive spring with that.”

Key stat to know: The 2021 defense improved 82 spots nationally in rushing defense, going from 108th in yards per carry allowed in 2020 (5.22) to 26th last year (3.57).

Special teams

The Bulldogs need a new kicker after the departure of Cesar Silva. Sophomores Andre Meono and Abraham Montano are the returning options. Starting punter Carson King returns as a senior. He averaged 42.1 yards on 56 punts, with 14 going longer than 50 yards, 22 were downed inside the 20 and only three went for touchbacks.

Mims was the team’s punt returner, He could stay in that role or move out if the team wants to save him from some hits. A new kick returner is needed as well. The Bulldogs were 127th nationally in punt return average last season and 90th in kick return average, something that will need improvement in 2022.

Opposing scouting report

A Mountain West defensive coordinator was effusive in his praise of Haener and understands that the Fresno State program rides with him right now.

“I think the absolute world of Jake Haener,” the coach said. “He is one of the best quarterbacks on the West Coast. He’s an elite competitor. Playing through injury, tough. I’ve met him. He is the absolute driving force of that offense. His guys love him. He’ll keep swinging. You can hit him — we hit him — and he got up and kept swinging. I have the ultimate respect for him. I think he’s elite.”

The coach said DeBoer’s offense was masterful at using plays to set up future plays later in the game. It was always a chess match. It’s yet to be seen how Moore will direct the offense. As for Tedford’s return, the coach was impressed with Tedford’s immediate turnaround in the first stint and expects that to continue.

“When you can go in and not only change the culture, but get guys competing at a high level quickly, that was extremely impressive,” he said. “It catapulted them to getting Fresno State back, and he did it at a high level. Him coming back, I know his guys play hard and disciplined and they’re always ready. Every single game, his teams are ready to roll.”

How the Bulldogs recruited from 2019 to 2022

Fresno State’s recruiting made a notable jump in the past two years under DeBoer with classes ranked in the top 75 nationally. The previous two classes had ranked 101st (in 2020 during a coaching change) and 86th in 2019. The collective average over the past four years is a clear No. 3 in the Mountain West, behind Boise State and slightly behind San Diego State.

It’s no surprise that the vast majority of the roster comes from California, along with players from Washington, Arizona and Nevada. The program hasn’t landed a four-star prospect since 2018 and continues to rely on development.

The 2022 class had a focus on offensive line depth, with six additions just from recruiting, along with three receivers and three-star quarterback Joshua Wood.

In the transfer portal

The portal and one-time transfer rule have been one of the biggest adjustments for Tedford returning to college football, and he points to his professional football days.

“It’s almost like in the NFL where you have a college scouting department and a pro scouting department,” he said. “Your portal guys are your pro scouting department. To fill your needs through the portal, it’s one more pool of people. There’s some positive to that for us.”

From the end of the season, Fresno State has lost double-digit players, while adding seven, with six of those coming from Power 5 schools. It ranks as the top incoming transfer class in the Mountain West in 247Sports’ transfer rankings All of them are expected to contribute, including Stanford defensive lineman Joshua Pakola, Michigan State offensive lineman Jacob Isaia, Cal receiver Nikki Remigio, USC linebacker Raymond Scott and Hawaii cornerback Cameron Lockridge.

Tedford said he likes the opportunity the transfer portal provides players to leave their own team if they want to find playing time. Though the Bulldogs have lost a handful of players, almost none of them were in the mix for playing time.

“These kids’ clocks are running, and to be able to transfer somewhere and get the experience and memories of what goes on between the lines is important,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they’re disgruntled. It means maybe they’re stuck in the depth chart and they want to be somewhere where they’re on the field.”



Jeff Tedford went 26-14 with a Mountain West title from 2017 to 2019. (Brian Losness / USA Today)

Impact of coaching changes

Only three coaches remained from the previous staff — many followed DeBoer to Washington — but there is a remarkable amount of familiarity. According to Tedford, the staff includes at least one person who was at Fresno State every year from 1977 to today. Eight of the 10 assistants have previously worked at Fresno State, and the entire defensive staff worked together under Pat Hill in the 1990s.

“When I talk about the pride and tradition of Bulldog football, it actually means something,” Tedford said. “I played the first year in this stadium in 1981. To go through it and know the people, know the community, it’s ingrained. I’ll go into Costco and somebody was at the 1982 game when we won the Cal Bowl.”

The offensive staff is made of offensive coordinator Kirby Moore, running backs coach James Montgomery, wide receivers coach Pat McCann, tight ends coach/special teams coordinator John Baxter and offensive line coach Saga Tuitele. The defensive staff includes defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, defensive line coach Jethro Franklin, linebackers coach Tim Skipper, defensive backs coach J.D. Williams and nickel backs coach Jim Nelson.

“Some of these guys I worked with a long time ago at Fresno who have close ties and great memories here,” Tedford said. “It just so happened that people were available and we were able to put it all together. We have a lot of veteran coaches, but we also have some youth.”

Schedule

Date Team Site

Sept. 1

Home

Sept. 10

Home

Sept. 17

Away

Oct. 1

Away

Oct. 8

Away

Oct. 15

Home

Oct. 22

Away

Oct. 29

Home

Nov. 5

Home

Nov. 11

Away

Nov. 19

Away

Nov. 25

Home

Final assessment

Tedford changed the expectations in his first stint, making the Mountain West championship a realistic goal again. It remains the case upon his second arrival, and the Bulldogs have the pieces to do it. If the offense continues its positive momentum and the defense can fill a couple of holes, they’ll be in the mix for a championship.

The schedule provides stumbling blocks but also opportunity, and a Pac-12 win or two to start the season could catapult Fresno State to something even bigger.

Editor’s note: This is part of a series previewing Power 5 and top Group of 5 teams for the 2022 college football season.

(Top photo of Jake Haener: Chris Williams / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Comments are closed.