Fresno State Football: One Year Later, Jeff Tedford Has Made Me Look Dumb
Jeff Tedford and Fresno State just finished one of the largest turnarounds in college football history. So much for the “dumbest hire ever”.
The Bulldogs established themselves as contenders in 2017.
I have to start with a story.
Last November, Fresno State held a press conference to officially introduce Jeff Tedford as the Bulldogs’ new head coach. I sat quietly, taking notes, as both Dr. Joseph Castro, the university’s president, and Jim Bartko, the former athletic director, laid out their excitement at the program’s new direction. At the end of the press conference, when the formalities has shifted to schmoozing among the crowd, I felt obligated to ask at least one question of Tedford and company but, before I could, Paul Ladwig greeted me.
“So… dumbest move ever, huh?”
It caught me off-guard, but it was clear that the Senior Associate AD for External Relations was not happy with what I’d written several days earlier (I won’t link to it here, but trust me, it’s pretty easy to find these days). At the time, though, my feelings were deep-seated and it would not have been accurate, from where I stood, to simply say it felt like a risk. It felt foolhardy, dumb.
And if you’ve read my work over the last several years, you know I rarely go to 11 about anything. A visceral response demanded some real talk, and I knew the headline would be divisive. I’ve had time to reflect on what Ladwig reminded me of in that moment, that readers can hang onto the wrong message if you’re not careful and, boy, did they ever.
I can’t blame them, though, because Jeff Tedford made me look dumb in just one season.
As it became more clear just how off the mark my thoughts were, I’ve been called a dumbass and a jackass and #fakenews and too many other things to recall by those who have felt the need to crow. That’s fine. It comes with the territory of Hot Take Champion of the Central Valley, Now and Forever, but if you read past the headline to the very first thing I said in that infamous article last year, you already know how I feel now that the 2017 season has come to a close.
I’m glad I was wrong. But what exactly was I wrong about?
To answer that question more thoroughly, I went back and re-examined the arguments I made before the hire became official last fall, fitting them as best as I could through the lens of everything that happened in 2017. Consider this a mea culpa and a season in review wrapped up in one.
This one’s for you, Paul.
Marcus McMaryion was Tedford’s best QB since Aaron Rodgers
At a minimum, you have to go back to 2006 to find a quarterback who played as well as the Dinuba native did after assuming the starting role in late September. That he did this in spite of the mixed recent track record among quarterback transfers in the Mountain West, and with approximately six weeks to learn the offense, is a monumental achievement.
This is also a credit to offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer, who started with a better foundation of talent than he had at Eastern Michigan in 2014 and turned an abysmal passing attack into an above-average one without too many frills beyond, well, weaning yourself off the bubble screen to attack downfield more often: Chason Virgil and Zach Kline combined for just 19 plays of 20-plus yards in 246 attempts during Mountain West play a year ago, a 7.6% rate, while McMaryion had 33 such plays on 254 passes (13%).
They lose Da’mari Scott to graduation, but every other skill position player returns. You can quibble with his splits, but with an entire off-season ahead of him, McMaryion should be in the conversation for first-team all-conference honors next July. Even if he’s not a first-round pick playing on Sundays in a couple of years, the kind of legacy he could leave behind with another twelve months in the Valley is enough to restore some luster to Tedford’s “quarterback guru” bonafides.
Ryan Grubb, miracle worker
Perhaps there’s room for debate but, in my opinion, no coach on the Tedford’s staff did a better job this year than the offensive line coach Grubb, who came with DeBoer from EMU and somehow turned a woeful unit into a strength that made everything else better.
After finishing 2016 as one of the worst run blocking units in the country, this year’s line this fall should be remembered for the fact that they rarely got pushed backwards. Only Army and Missouri allowed fewer tackles for loss per game than Fresno State did in 2017 (and the ‘Dogs had to play one more game than both the Black Knights and the Tigers), and though they actually created fewer plays of 20-plus yards on the ground than in 2016, they improved by a yard on a per-play basis.
Furthermore, after finishing last fall with middling numbers in pass protection, they allowed Mountain West opponents to sack McMaryion just six times, one-third of what they allowed a year ago. It was the kind of balanced performance we hadn’t seen since the last years of Pat Hill’s tenure, and it makes you confident in the next wave of Bulldogs linemen, as the team will have to replace four starters there.
He made the Texas recruiting gambit work
Tedford’s first two recruiting classes ended up above average in the Mountain West (more on this in a bit), but another thing that stood out in 2017 was the way in which he made Tim DeRuyter’s recruiting legacy, what I call the “Texas gambit”, work out better than anyone could’ve imagined.
It had achieved mixed results, at best, in the last years of the DeRuyter era — for every James Bailey, there was a Malcolm Washington — but no fewer than four Texas athletes made significant impacts on the 2017 Bulldogs defense: Bailey continued to be a key contributor. Cornerbacks Jaron Bryant and Anthoula Kelly combined for 12 pass breakups and four interceptions. Tobenna Okeke led the team with six sacks.
You could logically throw Jeffrey Allison into this conversation, too, even though he’s from Georgia, because the sophomore considered a transfer before Tedford convinced him to stay and become one of the conference’s breakout stars.
In 2016, the defense had been saddled with a bad offense and still managed to finish around the national average on a per play basis, but Orlondo Steinauer’s new 4-3 scheme lowered that average in 2017 by nearly a full yard, from 5.72 to 4.86. They improved from 4.95 yards per carry allowed to 3.43 (and faced 137 fewer carries in the process), and improved their opponents’ quarterback rating from 143.28 to 118.61. That’s like going from 2016 James Butler to 2017 Trey Woods, and from 2016 Josh Allen to 2017 Montel Aaron.
Among these athletes, only Okeke graduates, so imagine how tough it could be to move the ball against this unit next fall. Even though the recruiting emphasis has changed to focus more upon local products, you can’t overlook how #TexasStrong will continue to matter for Tedford’s Bulldogs.
The kids are alright
It came as a surprise when true freshman Ronnie Rivers earned the starting nod at running back in the opener against Incarnate Word, but it proved to be a harbinger of things to come. Of the 22 listed starters in the Hawaii Bowl victory, seven were freshmen and sophomores.
The staff placed a tremendous amount of faith in the team’s youth all over the field and it’s hard to find a place where that didn’t pay dividends. The trio of Rivers, Jordan Mims and Josh Hokit, for instance, combined for 1,690 yards and a modest 4.45 yards per carry, which may not seem like much next to the likes of Rashaad Penny but still represents a huge leap forward for a running game that was one of the nation’s worst last fall.
The secondary underwent a massive overhaul, too, with three sophomores — Bryant, Juju Hughes and Mike Bell — playing substantial roles in a turnaround we probably haven’t talked about enough.
Guard Netane Muti earned raves as a punishing run blocker and emerged as one of the best linemen in the conference, while tight end Jared Rice emerged as a key weapon down the stretch. Kevin Atkins and Jasad Haynes stepped up in the defensive tackle rotation when Nathan Madsen went down with injury. Even Blake Cusick improved both his raw punting average and his net punting average.
Oh, and despite working with a new signing period for the Class of 2018, Tedford’s staff has also brought in ten three-star recruits, which is tied for the third-most of any Mountain West team. Even with significant losses along both the offensive and defensive line, they’ve set themselves up to be one of the deepest teams in the conference going forward.
Better to be lucky and good
There are some things which suggest the turnaround might be due for some regression next fall, but it isn’t universal. On one hand, for instance, the Bulldogs recovered 12-of-17 fumbles in 2017 after recovering 4-of-14 the year before. They also went 3-1 in one-score games after going 0-4 in 2016. and played the best third-down defense of any team in the Mountain West, allowing a first down just 34.8% of the time.
On the other hand, examining the production they return on both sides of the ball through advanced metrics hints that 2018 might have the potential to be truly special. As SB Nation’s Bill Connelly noted in the 2017 offseason, “Continuity in the passing game matters a hell of a lot… [and] disruption and continuity in the secondary are key.”
Fresno State will possess both.
The road ahead
The Bulldogs under Tedford are already much closer to reaching their ceiling than I guessed they ever would be, but one thing I should have made more clear a year ago, something to which I think many Fresno State fans would agree after this year’s successes, is that I’ve always believed Fresno State’s ceiling is not simply ten wins a year. Snapping the bowl win drought is nice and a conference championship or two would be nice, but I still believe the community expects a New Year’s Day bowl at some point in the next several years.
Some people believed all along that Jeff Tedford could be the guy to get this program to that promised land. I might be late to the party, but I’m a believer now, too. Fresno State hasn’t had this much promise in a long time and it’s exciting to think about what will come next.