While the quarterback who receives the snaps has been a revolving door in recent years, the Fresno State Bulldogs have also lacked a constant with the player snapping the ball.
After Bo Bonnheim handled the center duties for all of 2014, the Tim DeRuyter-led coaching staff made a switch to Jacob Vazquez in 2015 - only to scrap that plan after five games and place Bonnheim back on the ball. A new offensive line coach in 2016 led to nearly identical results as Vazquez started at center for four games and was then switched with Aaron Mitchell.
A brand new coaching staff laid its groundwork this spring, but sweeping changes did not touch the offensive line's personnel. Mitchell remained as the team’s first-team center, and team snapping issues left little room for confidence for any competition to Mitchell’s spot. In the Spring Preview, the second team gave up a safety when a snap near the goalline missed the quarterback entirely.
Fresno State’s new offensive line coach, Ryan Grubb, emphasizes the mental aspects of the game - and sees eye-to-eye with Mitchell as his center.
“Regardless of personnel, you have to learn how to play physical, through the whistle every single play, and have an incredible knowledge base for the offense,” Grubb said. “One of the things I pride myself on is that we’re going to be better prepared than the defense… If they buy into that, they’re going to have a great shot to win every week.”
Mitchell, who played most of his Bulldog career at guard, explained, “As a center, a lot of the game is mental - seeing things, getting everybody on the same page and picking up blitzes before the tackles or guards see it. I think being knowledgeable about the game and understanding that you have to know what you’re going to do before you actually do it… I still have a ways to go, but being a student of the game will help us a better offensive line.”
A new, multiple defense opposing Mitchell also helped in his development at the position.
“They are a lot more multiple on defense,” Mitchell said. “All the different looks train my eyes to see certain things. Sometime people think that centers don’t really do that much, but I see myself looking at safety alignment and if they’re over the hash.”
Fresno State fans may remember the last time a coaching change was made - Offensive linemen recruited and conditioned for power running were suddenly asked to shed weight and increase speed for a new spread offense. There has been no such overhaul under Tedford’s watch, Mitchell said.
“I wouldn’t say it’s really that much of a difference,” Mitchell said. “I’d say it’s more of a mindset, the physicality of the inside run, counter and power. It’s more of, look, we’re going to be a good running team and we’re going to have the option to throw it… It’s hard-nosed football.”
There has not been a demanding overhaul in philosophy this time around, nor has there been sweeping personnel moves. Mitchell was accompanied by three other returning starters on the first-team offensive line: Christian Cronk, David Patterson and Micah St. Andrew. Redshirt freshman Netane Muti rounded out the first team.
Said Mitchell, “The more you play together, the more cohesive you are. We’re all the same starters, four of the five of us all played together last year… It’s a pretty tight-nit group. We’re very eclectic, we’re all very different… I think the comfortability of that definitely helps with the calls and the comfortability with everything.”
Fresno State will welcome a large group of incoming offensive linemen this fall - both in size and quantity. It has been a rare occurrence at Fresno State for a true freshman to crack the starting offensive line, however. Coach Grubb’s on-field coaching talents will be put to the test, to see if he can make winners out of the returning group.