Can Hill Continue The Magic?

Coach Pat Hill and Fresno State have been knocking on the door of the BCS for several seasons now. They will start the 2006 season with a new quarterback for the first time in three years. What are Fresno's prospects this season?

Fresno State nearly shocking #1 USC and downing archrival Boise State, they collapsesd. They feature a power running game with a big-play passing attack. The key to this offense is an outstanding offensive line; they have sent ?? to the National Football League. Center Kyle Young was an All-Western Athletic Conference performer last year, while right tackle Chris Denman has started 33 straight games. The guards are Cole Popovich and Ryan Wendell. The line paved the way for a 45 yards per carry average last season--it's tough to lose when you can do that. Wendell Mathis and Bryson Sumlin, who combined for 1,849 of 2,140 rushing yards last season, are both gone. The Bulldogs will be fine if Dwayne Wright can regain the form that he displayed in 2003. Wright suffered a knee injury in just the second game of the 2004 season and hasn't played since. Clifton Smith, who was hurt early last year, and Shannon Borsey will be there if Wright falters. Big Roshon Verchow (%-11, 245, Sr.) returns at fullback.

To Brandstater right now is the favorite to replace four-yeaer starter Paul Pinegar. He's only attempted 13 passes in his career. Sophomore Sean Norton (5-11, 175) is Brandstater's closest competition, and is a former Parade magazine All-American. Brandstater bings a more vertical game while Norton is a fiery leader with a quick release.

The receiving corps will make things easier for whomever pulls the trigger for Coach Hill. Paul Williams (6-2, 210) returns for his senior campaign hoping to give the Bulldogs another All-WAC performance at wide receiver. Williams accumulated 729 yards on 43 catches with seven touchdowns in 2005 Williams led the league with a 17.0 yards per catch average, including a 98-yard reception against Boise State in a key conference battle last season.

Fellow senior Joe Fernandez (46 receptions for 561 yards) has good hands and runs crisp routes. That precision is key to his eight touchdowns i the red zone. Jaron Fairman will see plenty of action in three-receiver sets, while freshan Chastin West (6-1, 195) is an emerging star. Expect new Offensive Coordinator Steve Hagen to utilize the tight ends in his pass patters, a marked change from past Bulldog teams. Returning starter Bear Pascoe could not be happer.

The offensive line has been an area of supreme talent for Coach Hill for years. All-WAC center Kyle Young (6-5, 335), who posesses both size and quickness, leads the group into battle this fall. Young has started 39 consecutive gaes and is on the Rimington Award Watch List for the fourth straight year. Ryan Wedell was WAC Co-Freshman of the Year two years ago, while fellow guard Cole Popovich was a freshman All-American last season. Senior Chris Denman has a streak of 32 consecutive starts at right tackle; the running game will go behind Denman most of the time. Sophomore Bobby Lepori and junior college transfer James Paulk will fight it out for the open left tackle position.

Defensive Coordinator Dan Brown loses talented All-WAC performers Garrett McIntyre and Richard Marshall. These are two of the biggest losses in the WAC. Fresno is solid at tackle, with both Louis Leonard and Jason Shirley returning. Both are excellent at plugging holes and stopping the running game to the Bulldog interior.

One of the key areas to wath this season will be Fresno State's ability to mount a pass rush. This will be crucial in games against Nevada and Hawai'i. Williams (second on the team with 71 tackles, including 7.5 for loss) was a stalwart i providing this crucial element, but opted for the NFL. Marlon Brisco and Tyler Clutts are listed as starters at defensive end, but JC transfer Mike Stuart, who originally signed with USC, and Washington State transfer Jason Roberts could unseat those two.

The linebacking unit is talented but lacks good speed. Seniors Dwayne Andrews and Alan Goodwin return with good reputations as tacklers, their weaknesses are in pass coverage. Junior Marcus Riley hasn't played since early November of last year after going out with a knee injury. Junior Ahijah Lane is waiting if Riley isn't back to form.

When McIntyre left Fresno State for the NFL, it left Coach Hill in a quandary, made more serious by the loss of highly touted junior Damon Jenkins in the spring due to injury. Marcus McCauley (6-1, 205, Sr.) is the team's top cornerback--he was selected to the WAC second team last year. McCauley made 45 stops last year, including 10 in the near-upset of USC, broke up seven passes, forced two fumbles, and made a key interception vs. Boise State that resulted in a touchdown.

With McCauley's talent, why would the opposition throw to his side? Senior Elgin Simmons must step up to avoid being exploited, as teams will not throw towards McCauley unless Simmons makes the plays. It's possible that Hill may turn to freshmen Damion Owens and A.J. Jefferson. Seniors Josh Sherley and Vincent Mays will start at safety. Mays is a converted tailback.

Clint Stitser was still hampered this spring by a nagging hip injury, but right now he's the Bulldog's placekicker. Mike Ligua gives Fresno excellent hang time at punter, with only 40 punt return yards for the opposition all season long. Superstar Adam Jennings was a threat to take it to the house any time he touched the ball, and that's yet another key loss to this team. Fernandez moves into position as both the Bulldog punt returner and key kickoff return man this season.

Fresno once again challenges the world this season. In most years, that is admirable; this year, it's insane. With the unproven starters at key positions, the Bulldogs open their season with an all or nothing game against co-WAC defending champion Nevada, followed by a game against Oregon, and at Washington. The Bulldogs also have a home date against tough Colorado State and at heavyweight LSU. In the WAC, Fresno must travel to Boise State, Utah State, San Jose State and Louisiana Tech, always a tough game on the road. Meanwhile, Hawai'i, Idaho and New Mexico State also visit Fresno in addition to the matchup against Nevada.

How does EA Sports simulations predict the Bulldog season? After all, they have the 24th toughest non-conference schedule in the country. EA projects losses in three of the non-conference battles--Oregon, LSU and Colorado State. In the WAC, Fresno's is barely favored over Hawai'i, while the Bulldogs are forecast to defeat San Jose State, Utah State, New Mexico State, Idaho and Louisiana Tech. They are pedicted to lose to Nevada and Boise State. Thus, Pat Hill's club is forecast to have a 6-2 league mark and 7-5 overall.

Although 16 starters return, it's the space between that matters. Those lost to graduation and the pros were leaders in key positions and were a major reason Fresno was ranked in the Top 25 for 13 weeks last season. Still, Coach Hill is too good of a leader to allow too much of a dropoff, and one would never want to bet against him. He gets his group ready to play. The Bulldogs will once again be in the hunt for an eighth straight bowl berth.

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