Yesterday’s news that offensive line coach Cameron Norcross would be leaving for the same position at Vanderbilt came as a surprise to many people. After parting ways with offensive coordinator Dave Schramm, Fresno State’s offense is now two coaches lighter and that had really been the selling point of the program so far. Beyond that, yesterday’s news is a troublesome indicator of where things are at within the program and just how critical this offseason will be for head coach Tim DeRuyter.
One of the biggest problems with yesterday’s news is the fact that Fresno State signed three linemen as early enrollees on Wednesday and then news leaks Sunday that Norcross would be taking the Vanderbilt job. When BarkBoard contacted one of those linemen, we were informed that Norcross didn’t mention anything when they were on their official visit the weekend before signing. Norcross has a strong relationship with his recruits and is the type of coach that players will miss when they leave. The sudden nature of his departure could have had ripple effects if word had gotten out before one or two of those players made their decision that Norcross was shopping around for new jobs.
The biggest issue would be if Norcross began contact with Vanderbilt prior to bringing several high-value line targets on their official visit at Fresno. If Norcross knew he had more than a puncher’s chance of landing the gig at Vanderbilt, or anywhere else, and didn’t tell these commits, that’s a bad look for him. At least one recruit said the first they’d ever heard of it was when BarkBoard retweeted Football Scoop’s original story that Norcross would be going to Vanderbilt. That recruit was a Norcross recruit who signed during the early enrollment period, so that doesn’t bode well, but the question then becomes “why?”
There is certainly the possibility that Vanderbilt decided on Thursday that they would be flying him out for an immediate interview and then offered him the job on the spot, but the fact that Norcross would agree to the position without even contacting his players or letting them know what he was doing until after it had been reported in the media suggests he was highly motivated to leave town quickly, either by choice or by force. If it was by choice, it’s hard to blame him given the sinking ship around DeRuyter. If it was by force, it’s curious that the Bulldogs would choose to make this move after signing three JUCO offensive linemen. It’s troublesome for Fresno either way.
Early conversations with sources indicate that Norcross wasn’t going to wait around and find out if the new offensive coordinator would retain his services. We are told that he was proactive in the job market. This means he was recruiting for Fresno without informing the recruits he would not be sticking around to see out their time together and that the staff either didn’t know he was leaving or felt fine withholding that information. We were told that Norcross had grown concerned with the stability of his job and that Vanderbilt offered him a fresh start in an SEC program. With tonight’s announcement that Nick Toth had been demoted, it’s not hard to see why some of these coaches may be shopping around for other opportunities.
Why does it matters if they are? This has already happened once during the DeRuyter administration and it played out the same way during recruiting. When wide receivers coach Joe Wade was moved off of running backs following a 6-8 season in 2014, the move was made just after signing day. It was an internal move and was still never relayed to the recruits. In fact, sources told us that Wade didn’t even find out until he walked into work and he wasn’t happy about the move when it was made. Either way, the players found out through social media and recruits were not informed of a major decision right before a signing period.
In his first six seasons at Fresno State, Wade coached two of the greatest tailbacks in Fresno State history in his role as running backs coach. Now for 2015, Wade is moving over to coach the Bulldog outside receivers.
Wade joined the Bulldog coaching staff on Feb. 24, 2009 and in his first season he led running back Ryan Mathews to the NCAA rushing crown. Mathews set Fresno State single-season records with 1,808 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns en route to earning All-America honors and first-team All-WAC accolades. He went on to be drafted No. 12 overall by the San Diego Chargers in the 2010 NFL Draft.
Then following up Mathews was Robbie Rouse, who went on to become Fresno State's all-time leading rusher in 2012 and finished his career with 4,647 rushing yards. That is one of 10 school records that Rouse broke during his career playing under Wade.
In 2012, Rouse was a first-team All-Mountain West honoree after ranking 16th nationally in rushing at 114.6 yards per game. He was selected to play in the Senior Bowl following his senior season, becoming the second Bulldog tailback under Wade (joining Lonyae Miller in 2010) to be selected to play in the prestigious All-Star game.
Rouse is the only running back in school history that has rushed for over 1,000 yards in three separate seasons.
After Rouse's departure to graduation, Wade guided a pair of Bulldog tailbacks in 2013 that combined to match Rouse's 2012 production. Josh Quezada and Marteze Waller combined to rush for 1,453 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2013. Additionally, the duo combined to catch 74 passes for 463 yards and one TD.
Waller broke though in 2014 with a big season that saw him earn second-team All-Mountain West accolades. He rushed for 1,368 yards -- the seventh most in Fresno State single-season history -- 11 touchdowns and averaged 6.1 yards per carry, which ranked No. 12 in the FBS for any player with 200 or more carries.
The reason for moving Wade off the running backs were never made clear outside of wanting to challenge the staff to grow and develop, At the very least, DeRuyter said that the changes were going to bring about new energy and ideas. Below you can find a list of Wade's "ideas" before being moved to make room for Ron Antoine in 2015. They are directly from his school bio, but they serve the purpose beautifully.
The first section below is sure to have one to two people asking some questions. The first two sentences read less like a biography and more like an explanation for what went wrong. At the very minimum, it raises questions as to how the school's longest-tenured coach could be reassigned without notice and while still doing an amazing job with the current running back.
Let's check in the fresh ideas brought to the running back unit by Antoine. Waller had 1,368 yards in '14, but he came up with about 33% fewer yards. That stat doesn't mean much by itself, but that doesn't add in the number of attempts on those carries. Waller's 1,368 yard season came on 225 carries, for an average of 6.08 yards per carry. This year, Waller carried the ball 228 times and only came up with 920 yards, an average of 4.04 a game.
In 2014, Waller only had two games of 20 or more carries, both of them came at home and much later in the season -- San Jose State was played in early November and Hawaii was played at the very end of November. In 2015, Waller had five games of 20 or more carries. Given that Fresno was coming off a 6-8 during which the coaches were criticized for bailing on the run too early, it makes sense that Waller would see more carries.
What that story doesn't tell you is the complete context in which he was used. One of those games was the first game of the season against Abilene Christian. Waller had 22 carries that night, but then followed that up with a career high 28 carries against Ole Miss. No big deal? Fresno lost the game 73-21 and was running Waller until the very end of the third quarter. The Bulldogs also ran Waller 26 times against a team that beat them 56-14. They ran him nine times in the fourth quarter of a game they were losing 43-7.
It’s completely unfair to expect a coach to stick around when things around him are falling apart. It’s also a tricky proposition to tell the recruits because they have a relationship with multiple coaches and the information may be sensitive. Interviews happen out of thin air, but they also happen because people put out feelers and indicate a willingness to move on. In either case, the players are almost always the ones who lose and they seem to be losing a lot the last couple of years under this administration.
Of course, Norcross has his part in Fresno’s struggles and that may be part of the reason he left town or was concerned with the new offensive coordinator keeping him around. Norcross’ offensive lines surrendered 2.17 sacks a game in 2015. You could say that’s an improvement from Vanderbilt’s 2.33, but it doesn’t seem like the greatest of improvements. This is also coming off the heels of a 2014 where Fresno State gave up 40 sacks, an average of 2.86 a game. He certainly had a reason to be concerned about his job from based on his lines’ on-the-field performances.
Norcross’ track record of development at Fresno is also sketchy, at best. Out of the last fourteen scholarshipped lineman, only two of them -- Sean Rubalcava and Aaron Mitchell -- have seen anything close to meaningful playing time. Considering that Norcross had been given more recruitment slots than any other position coach, his production output left a lot to be desired. Norcross’ finest years happened with offensive linemen recruiting during the Pat Hill era, only adding to the conspiracy theory that this coaching staff won with Hill’s players and have been exposed in the light of day.
It’s unfair to mention Norcross’ struggles without highlighting the fact that Schramm’s play-calling was bordering on elementary. There are only so many times an offensive line can block a defense that’s prepared for what’s coming and Schramm’s refusal to attempt anything close to innovation is the reason he was shown the door. It also doesn’t help Norcross' units when quarterback confidence levels are incredibly low because Schramm’s methods of teaching often included public humiliations on national television and verbal tirades in practice. A quarterback with low confidence is less likely to make the correct throw or hang on to the ball too long, resulting in a sack.
It was ultimately Schramm’s refusal to change things up that led to his undoing and brought a lot of unwanted attention to the program vis-a-vis transfers and departures, most notably Brian Burrell’s sudden departure following his junior season. It wasn’t so much that Burrell walked away from the sport, but more how he did it. Burrell left suddenly and disappeared into the night, refusing to talk to the press about why he left. Nobody has to tell the press why they do things, but stay around this business long enough and the warning signs are pretty clear.
As things began to unravel further, it became apparent that change was going to be needed on the coaching front. DeRuyter just signed a lengthy extension and buying out the guarantees left on that deal would cost the school north of $4.5 million dollars. That’s an expensive first decision for Athletic Director Jim Bartko, fairly new to the job himself. With California Faculty Association authorizing a strike by the teachers, any CSU spending that kind of money would raise eyebrows. It doesn't matter where the money comes from, the story is what will generate the publicity. California school systems are broke enough that these kind of expenses highlight administration putting an emphasis on sport over learning. Since the coordinators were on year-to-year contracts, changes in that department seemed forthcoming.
While changes were expected, things have not necessarily played out the way you would expect from a program functioning properly. The attrition, transfers, coaching changes, and behind-the-scenes drama happen at every school. It would be foolish to think that they don’t. It’s not even so much that these things are happening so much as how they happen when they do. The Bulldogs now have demoted their defensive coordinator and lost their offensive line coach less than two weeks after sending out an email to fans endorsing the DeRuyter plan.
As the Bulldogs continue to stagger out poorly-kept secrets a month after the fact -- BarkBoard reported Toth's demotion at the end of November -- concern from boosters and recruits mounts, transfers continue to occur, and we are told that more players could be leaving depending on the departure of certain coaches. In other words, the fallout isn’t over and Fresno have been doing their best at damage control, but demotions and departures scream of a program in trouble and public can read the tea leaves.
Now Fresno face the challenge of hiring a both coordinators and an offensive line coach against the backdrop of a head coach seemingly hanging on for dear life. When the situation first unfolded, we were told that Tim DeRuyter had been actively working with Bartko to target up-tempo/spread coaches that could bring the offense sorely missing after Derek Carr’s departure to the NFL. While names like Dennis Erickson & Scott Frost were mentioned, Frost took the job at UCF and we’re told DeRuyter has been pushing back on Erickson.
In fact, several sources have told us that there has been a push and pull going on behind the scenes with DeRuyter and Bartko over these hires. Bartko would prefer to bring in more established people with a strong national recruiting presence, but DeRuyter seems more intent on hiring an upstart from programs he knows. Texas has been mentioned to us on more than one occasion as an area DeRuyter is looking at strongly for candidates.
Names like Zac Taylor, Jeff Lebby, and Jake Spavital keep surfacing in the offensive coordinator search and it begs the question: how much further away from their California roots are the Bulldogs going to get? Are resources really being spent wisely when Fresno State is competing against the likes of Lamar and Prairie View A&M for some of these recruits? The attrition and development within the program over the last two years are some pretty damning evidence that they are not.
San Jose State have piled up the local talent, but Fresno State continue to recruit the heart of Texas. While they’ve no doubt pulled talented players from Texas, they have completely overlooked and passed on Valley talent year after year. Based on game results and recruiting, San Jose have just as much right to call themselves “the Valley’s team” as Fresno do right now. A quick glance at both team’s current commits will raise some eyebrows given the fact that Fresno has the “V” on the back of the helmet.
San Jose State happily found two recruits in the 2016 class just a short drive from the Fresno State campus. The Spartans earned commitments from Elijah Parks of Central High School in Fresno and defensive end Johnny Rojas of Clovis West High School in Fresno.
Parks earned the defensive line MVP award at The Opening elite skills camp in San Leandro among four and five star recruits. Days later, it earned a scholarship offer from SJSU. Months later it landed him a business card from Fresno State's defensive line and Central Valley recruiter Pete Germano.
Rojas is surrounded by two of the nation's top recruits at Clovis West - Caleb Kelly and Darian Owens. Rojas said that he heard sparingly from Germano and the Fresno State staff, until he committed to San Jose State that is. The local recruit grew up following the Bulldogs but felt slighted by the hometown team while SJSU was all over him.
SJSU also landed three-star corner Dehlon Preston of Central High School last year. Look one year prior and SJSU beat out the Bulldogs for Andre Chachere of Clovis West, a three-star defensive back. Chachere has already become a key part of one of the better defensive secondaries in the Mountain West.
It's not like Fresno State is losing these prospects, however. The Bulldogs reportedly didn't offer any of these recruits. And it's not just San Jose State commits.
Nevada landed Asauni Rufus, safety from Bakersfield, in the class of 2014. As a redshirt freshman this past year he led the Wolf Pack in tackles. Recruiting in Bakersfield has been nearly nonexistent. The Wolf Pack also nabbed Chad Specht, offensive lineman from Clovis West in that class.
Edison sent running back Blake Wright to Nevada's 2014 class without a Fresno State offer. 2016 Bullard running back Charles Williams committed to UNLV recently without a Fresno State offer. The Rebels also got Robert Jackson, defensive back from College of the Sequoias.
In 2015, El Diamonte quarterback JC Robles committed to Colorado State. Hayden Haupt and Noruwa Obanor of Clovis North committed to service academies.
Colorado State, with the help of former Fresno State coaches in recent years, created pipeline in the Central Valley. Nevada has kept a close eye on the Central Valley and now UNLV's new staff seems poised to do the same. Wyoming is actively recruiting the Central Valley's quarterbacks too.
Fresno State fans have complained for years that the Bulldogs could not keep high end Central Valley talent in Fresno, but now the staff appears to be turning their noses up at the underrated Central Valley recruits that the previous coaching staff used to hold in high regard.
As if recruiting weren't a daunting enough challenge, multiple sources tell BarkBoard that more players are seriously considering a transfer. We have been told that the stuff behind the scenes has become too much for several players and a lack support is often the biggest reason cited. We have been told many times that favoritism is a huge problem with this staff and these same comments have been relayed to us in reference to DeRuyter’s approach to coaching hires.
On several occasions, we have been relayed safety concerns. One source told us before the year started that they were legitimately concerned for the health of their quarterbacks after seeing how unprepared and organized the offensive line unit practiced all year, even in the Spring. We were told that the health of these quarterbacks was in danger and that was before any of them went down with injuries.Hindsight is easy, but the concern before the year was real.
We have also been told by sources that there is a lack of development under the current staff and several of these players are looking at schools that will offer them more development, but maybe not as much playing time. In other words, several people would rather transfer to a school where they would play less because they think they’ll become better football players. It falls back on the idea that don't matter individually, but mean a lot when combined with other problems. The names we’ve been told are likely leaving will create even more problems for Fresno to fill.
Should more players leave, the recruiting being done this offseason will be even more important because of the players who have already left. Whatever the reason for their departure, several former Bulldogs left a significant gap in major areas of weakness for the Bulldogs. The loss of Michael Lazarus, Xavier Ulutu, and Tyrell Robinson is a huge blow to the linebacker spot and that will be compounded by the lack of recruiting along the defensive line over the past couple classes.
Attrition has been a major issue for the Bulldogs and something BarkBoard has explored in-depth on several occasions. It hasn't just been the frequency of departures under the current staff, it's been the talent level of some of these players. The Bulldogs are losing higher-end prospects like Kurt Scoby, Tyrell Robinson, Xavier Ulutu, Michael Lazarus, LJ Reed, but replacing them with walk-ons and former walks-ons they've since given a scholarship.
There's also the total number of players who aren't necessarily leaving the program, but never actually contributing beyond the practice field. This is another issue BarkBoard has documented in-depth and yet Fresno shows no signs of limiting the damage in this area, in fact it seems like it may get even worse. Getting in a healthy number of players who can contribute right away is going to key to this staff's short-term and long-term success.
That brings us full circle to Norcross. The offensive line has been one of the worst offenders in both attrition and lack of development. The Bulldogs have lost Bobby Johnson, Art Gomez, Ben Simonds, Jacob Hicks, Elijah Cox, leading to an emphasis on junior college transfers and outside evaluations. It’s possible that this complicated things behind the scenes for Fresno even further.
Sources told us that Bartko recognized the need to replenish this roster and has brought in consultants to help identify the best targets possible. It has been widely acknowledged that former head coach Pat Hill has been contributing to these evaluations. How much of this had an effect on Norcross’ confidence in his future at Fresno State is unknown, but it wouldn’t be hard to imagine someone else doing his job being a reason he left for Vanderbilt.
These are the type of things that you’d ignore individually, but when they’ve been added up and repeated several times over a multiple year period, it’s more than just a red flag. It’s a glaring sign that DeRuyter’s plan has seriously derailed and is in danger. How the Bulldogs navigate these waters will impact their ability to put a winning team on the field in the future.
Tim DeRuyter has already used up several scholarships from the past class on blueshirts, and the Bulldogs are already going to be down the current transfers and the players that are looking around at leaving. It’s easy to replace one or two of those losses, but the Bulldogs continue to take them from all sides and it has shown no signs of slowing down. At some point, Fresno need to gather some positive momentum moving forward and that has been in short supply this off-season.
All the signs in Norcross’ departure point to the reality that this was something he felt he needed to do. Norcross no doubt had his struggles but he was loved by recruits and stressed being open and honest. If he didn’t tell his players he was leaving until after it happened, it’s most likely because it happened so fast he never got the chance. It is unfortunate for the kids who just signed because of coach Norcross, but it truthfully seems like the only thing Norcross did in this situation is think of his family first.
Norcross wasn’t hiding the truth as much as he knew it was in the best interest of his family that he take a new opportunity. Norcross now controls his own narrative moving forward. He is no longer tied to a coaching staff that doesn't all seem to be on the same page.
It's not a great deviation from players feeling like they need to transfer to develop. Sometimes you'd like to stick around and be the reason things get working again, but your heart is letting you know that it is time to think about your family and their future. It's less than ideal, but our read is that, in a general sense, Norcross handled this situation the best way he could have. We say general sense because different staff members would have handled that same situation differently. It's truly a no-win situation in many respects.
Whether it was because he was being prevented from doing his job or it was because he felt he would have more success in a different environment or felt like it was only a matter of time with a new offensive coordinator coming in, it’s pretty apparent that this was coming to a head. So now the question for Fresno State and Jim Bartko is simple.
How many more things must come to a head before this thing gets back on track?
Click HERE to subscribe to BarkBoard.com. Subscribers gain access to insider-only content and information provided by the Barkboard staff and Scout.com's national writers.