Fresno State football: QB Haener key in building on 2020

Fresno State ended its spring with its offense ripping through a final scrimmage on Friday night in Bulldog Stadium, scoring touchdown after touchdown, 11 of them in all, making the three digits and a decimal point on a whiteboard in the office of offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb look like an understatement.

On that board he has written 41.3, a goal for points per game in 2021, which likely would put the Bulldogs in the top 10 in the nation, some years in the top 5.

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Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener throws against Colorado State during the Bulldogs’ Mountain West Conference game at Bulldog Stadium on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. CRAIG KOHLRUSS [email protected]

“We can do that if we put the work in and are consistent not only in our preparation, but in how we execute in practice and things like that,” Grubb said. “I think that’s the level of skill that we have and the potential.

“But potential has never scored one touchdown, yet, that I know of. There’s still a lot of work to do, but that may be my favorite part about these guys. They’re not scared of the work. They just aren’t. That’s going to be the special part. If they’re not scared of the work and the preparation is good, I think good things will happen.”

But with that work, there are several reasons why a Bulldogs’ offense that led the Mountain West Conference in total offense and was second in scoring offense could be better in 2021.

That list starts with quarterback Jake Haener, who worked the scout team in 2018 after transferring in from Washington, then had no spring practices and no summer with the offense before going out and hitting 64.7% of his passes and averaging 338.6 yards per game with 14 touchdowns and five interceptions.

Can they get to 41.3? Here are four reasons why they can …

Haener and seat time behind the wheel

The next time Fresno State takes the field, Jake Haener will have had six games, a spring and a summer and he obviously did not last season when he got off to arguably the best six-game start of any Bulldogs’ quarterback going back to 2000 and eventual No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick David Carr.

With a depth and base of knowledge now in the offense and with an improving arsenal of firepower around him, Haener very likely takes a step forward not only in but out of the pocket, making plays with a developing knack for off-platform throws from a variety of arm angles.

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Fresno State running back Ronnie Rivers, right, celebrates with teammate Jalen Cropper after scoring a touchdown in a 38-17 victory over Colorado State at Bulldog Stadium on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. CRAIG KOHLRUSS [email protected]

After Super Bowl LV, coach Kalen DeBoer sent Grubb a photo of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes making that mind-blowing throw when on the run, got tripped up and was falling down, essentially parallel to the ground. DeBoer asked Grubb to come up with some drills for Haener to work on that throw. He was joking, but that ability to make plays outside of the X’s and O’s and a more experienced set of wideouts only adds to the explosiveness of an offense that last season put up 32.8 points per game.

But, no question, Haener is well ahead of where he was at this time a year ago.

“He’s processing really fast and when you get a guy who is processing fast and has high arm speed, high accuracy and good receivers then good things can happen,” Grubb said.

They have more and better answers

Injuries happen, but the Bulldogs are much better equipped to deal with them, whether long- or short-term.

Think about those wideout spots. They opened the season a year ago with Keric Wheatfall and Jamal Glaspie at the X. They had Jalen Cropper and Eric Brooks at the H. They had Chris Coleman and Josh Kelly at the Z.

Those six wideouts had just 14 starts (no one had more than five) and 49 receptions between them (no one had more than 17), which obviously is not the case headed into 2021.

But it also extends to the offensive line, a spot the Bulldogs have struggled to develop depth and with injuries the past two seasons – in 2019 they started four players at left guard and three at left tackle, center and right guard, and last season injuries and coronavirus safety protocols took a toll on their depth.

“I feel like we’ve finally recruited to a point where now we can have some better answers when things do go wrong,” Grubb said.

Success rushing the football

The Bulldogs’ offense ripped off big play after big play in the scrimmage to close out the spring, but there were some plays that might have escaped notice: a 7-yard run on third-and-3 against the No. 1 defense, a 3-yard run on fourth-and-1, a touchdown run on first-and-goal from inside the 5, again, against the ones.

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Fresno State wideout Keric Wheatfall, right, comes down with the football in the end zone in front of Colorado State’s Rashad Ajayi, but had stepped out of bounds before the catch. Fresno State beat the Rams 38-17 and Wheatfall finished with five receptions for 87 yards at Bulldog Stadium on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. CRAIG KOHLRUSS [email protected]

Even down some key players along the offensive line and the top four running backs including senior Ronnie Rivers sitting out, the Bulldogs showed some confidence in an area they have struggled, rushing the football when they most need to have success rushing the ball.

Fresno State figures to be ahead going into the fourth quarter quite a bit in 2021, but last season its ability to put down a game was a big question.

The Bulldogs averaged only 2.5 yards per rush in the second half of its six games and 2.8 yards per rush in the fourth quarter, ranking 11th and ninth in the Mountain West Conference.

They also averaged just 2.2 yards per rush in the red zone and a minus-1.4 yards per rush on fourth-down plays.

Ball dominance

The Bulldogs’ wideouts are more experienced with their routes and how they attack them, but the one thing that stood out in the spring was a badly needed adjustment to attacking the ball in the air.

They have lost games there in the past, most notably Minnesota in 2019.

The return of Emoryie Edwards this season will help there, as will the addition of 6-foot-4 Washington transfer Ty Jones, who committed to the Bulldogs back in January and caught a touchdown pass from Haener in a 2017 victory over North Dakota.

“One of our goals is ball dominance and when we say ball dominance it’s not just fumbling the ball, but literally when the ball is in the air it’s ours,” Grubb said. “It has been an area of emphasis, for sure. I think some of it comes down to confidence, too. When you see Josh and Jalen, not only with their physical skills, but how they operate within the offensive system, they have confidence in what they’re doing.

“Now it’s not they’re thinking about where do I align and where do I go? It’s like, ‘I’m in motion and I’m looking at the leverage of the nickel and how I’m going to attack this route.’ They’re jumping to that next level.”

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