Editor's note: This is the fifth in a series of articles previewing Western Athletic Conference football teams. Today, the Appeal takes a look at Fresno State University.
By DARRELL MOODY
Appeal Sports Writer
Nineteen starters back from a team that ended the year with five straight victories by an average margin of 32 points, including a 37-34 overtime win over Virginia in the MPC Computers Bowl.
Can you say ... "High expectations?"
That's OK with Fresno State head coach Pat Hill. As usual, he welcomes the challenge and the pressure that comes with lofty expectations.
"There is nothing wrong with having high expectations," Hill said. "We like the fact that people think we're going to be good. It has taken some time for us to get to the level where people think we are going to be good year in and year out. That's a sign that the program is reaching a level we want.
"We have some good players coming back and some good leaders, too. I feel really good about this team. They showed a lot of maturity and stability during spring drills and I expect that to continue at camp. We had a great season last year. I'm looking forward to this year."
Hill is entering his ninth year at the helm, and he's only had one losing season (5-6 in 1998). He's coming off three straight nine-win seasons, yet that isn't always enough to satisfy the Fresno fans, who crave a win over arch-rival Boise State.
So does Hill. He says matter-of-factly that winning the WAC is bigger than some of the impressive nonconference wins the Bulldogs have garnered in recent years. He admits he's looking forward to the Week 10 battle with Boise State.
Paul Pinegar, a starter since his redshirt freshman season, has thrown for 6,801 yards and 54 TDs despite missing three games in 2003 because of a torn pectoral muscle. Last year, he threw for 2,099 yards and a career-best 23 TDs.
Pinegar is only the seventh player in NCAA history to quarterback a team to three straight bowl wins, and if Fresno State wins a bowl game this year, he would be the first player to quarterback a team to four straight.
"He's a proven winner," Hill said of the 6-foot-4, 230-pound QB from Woodland, Calif. "He will the key for us this season, no doubt about it. He has won a lot of big games for us."
Redshirt freshman Tom Brandstater and Jordan Christensen are Pinegar's backups.
When he talks about running backs, Hill can't help it if he gets a little giddy. He has a stable of talented runners, including 5-10 210-pound Bryson Sumlin (1,102 yards rushing, 12 TDs), 5-9 185-pound Wendell Mathis (995 yards, 12 TDs) and 6-1 220-pound Dwayne Wright, who redshirted last year after injuring his knee early in the year. Two years ago, he rushed for 1,038 yards.
Clifton Smith is also in the mix after moving over from the defense, because the coaching staff is unsure whether Wright will be ready this year. Roshon Vercher will be the starter at fullback, and his role will mainly be to block.
"I don't think we'll have Dwayne until mid-year," Hill said. "If he's not ready, we'll get him back next year.
"I think we have one of the best groups in Fresno State history, and I think one of the best in the nation. As a group, we have a lot of speed and power, and I think we have some toughness. Running the ball will be key for us."
At wide receiver, the Bulldogs return Jermaine Jamison (24-284-3), Joe Fernandez (38-546-4), Adam Jennings (22-280-5), Paul Williams (5-70-0) and Jaron Fairman (8-123-3), all of whom Hill considers starters. It's a deep, talented group.
The tight end spot was hit hard by graduation, as both Duncan Reid and Stephen Spach signed NFL free-agent contracts. Devyn McDonald (4-48-0) is back, but missed spring ball, leaving Jesus Tapia, Drew Lubinsky and Cameron Harris battling for the job.
The 'Dogs offensive line might be the strength of the team. The only loss was Logan Mankins, who was a first-round draft pick of the New England Patriots.
Dartagnon Shack (6-2, 280) moves over from right guard to take Mankins' spot. Kyle Young (6-5, 320), who is ranked as the country's sixth-best center by the Sporting News, was a second-team all-WAC selection. Chris Denman (6-6, 285) returns at right tackle and Ryan Wendell (6-2, 260) is at right guard. The newcomer at left guard is Cole Popovich (6-2, 275), who redshirted last year.
"This is a good group," Hill said. "Kyle is as good a center as I've ever been around."
Hill said he's changed his philosophy about the offensive line. He started this year recruiting smaller, lighter players along the lines of the 49ers and Broncos. He watched a lot of Broncos film, and liked what line coach Alex Gibbs did with his linemen.
On defense, Hill geared his group to lean and athletic. He wants thoroughbreds not quarterhorses on the field, ala Florida State.
The linebacking group returns intact. Dwayne Andrews (6-0, 240), Marcus Riley (6-0, 220) and Alan Goodwin (6-2,220). Andrews led the team with 66 tackles, Riley 38 and Goodwin 36. Behind this group are Emanuel Sanchez (6-1, 215), Kyle Goodman (6-0, 220), who had 29 tackles last year and Ahijah Lane (6-1,225), who had 17 stops.
"We have guys that can run, hit and play the game with a lot of passion," Hill said. "We are very solid at linebacker."
The secondary lost just one player, albeit Ben Sanders was a huge loss at strong safety. Josh Sherley (6-0, 195), who had 17 stops last season, replaces Sanders. The free safety will be Tyrone Culver (6-1, 195), who had a second-best 65 tackles last year. At cornerback are Richard Marshall (5-11, 190), who finished with 61 tackles and three interceptions and Marcus McCauley (6-1, 195), who had 31 tackles and three interceptions.
"I think we have the best group of corners we've ever had," Hill said. "You can never have enough quality cornerbacks in the WAC with the way everybody throws the ball."
The Bulldogs lost two starters on the defensive line, but return ex-South Tahoe star Garrett McIntyre (6-3, 250), who finished with 46 tackles, including seven sacks. McIntyre has been moved outside to end. Marlon Brisco (6-3, 250) had 18 tackles last year and will start opposite McIntyre. Jason Shirley (6-5, 315) and Louis Leonard (6-4, 315) start at the tackle slots.
"Moving him (McIntyre) to end means he's going to get a lot of attention which should help the big guys inside," Hill said. "I like my chances with any of those guys on the front."
Clint Stitser, a product of McQueen High in Reno, is expected to be the place kicker and Mike Lingua is the punter. Lingua averaged less than 37 yards a punt last year.
Darrell Moody can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling 881-1281