Despite a pair of 9-5 seasons capped by bowl victories over BCS-conference teams, the post-David Carr era has been bumpy for Fresno State and coach Pat Hill. The reason? For all their victories, the Bulldogs haven't sniffed a Western Athletic Conference title in five years, finishing 6-2 in league play four straight seasons.
The return of 17 starters (and both kickers), backed by a number of experienced players at key positions, gives Hill hope that Fresno State can snatch the WAC crown from Boise State and once again make noise on the national scene.
"This is no longer a young team," Hill said. "Even though we still don't have many seniors, it's a mature group. They've been in a lot of hard-fought games. We're getting bigger. We're getting stronger. We're getting into another cycle of young men who have been with us for three or four years. That's what you need."
OffenseMuch depends on the right arm of Paul Pinegar, whose performance dipped last season following a torn chest muscle suffered in the preseason. The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder returned to start the final eight games, but his passes just didn't have the same zip. Pinegar's arm appeared stronger in the spring, though it fatigued more easily than normal. Hill is confident his junior signal-caller, who got stronger and leaner thanks to a vigorous conditioning program, will be 100 percent when practice begins in August.
Dwayne Wright and Bryson Sumlin are the primary 1-2 punch at tailback and complement each other well. Wright has excellent quickness and acceleration through the hole. Sumlin is a more physical, straight-ahead runner with good instincts on short yardage.
The receiving corps is young but promising. Jermaine Jamison and Adam Jennings were thrown to the wolves as freshmen; now they're expected to take over as juniors with help from Joe Fernandez, a possession receiver blessed with extra-sticky hands.
Logan Mankins' expected return from knee surgery fills a void at left tackle and allows Dartagnon Shack to slide over to right guard, his more natural position. Center Kyle Young, a load at 6-5, 320, was a freshman All-American last fall.
DefenseWhen the NCAA granted Brian Morris a sixth season of eligibility, it ensured Fresno State would return the league's best pass-rushing combo in Morris and Garrett McIntyre, who had a combined 19 sacks last season.
Inside, the Bulldogs have a meaty rotation featuring Donyell Booker, Louis Leonard, Fai Satele and Dwayne Ruffin. When McIntyre moves to tackle on passing downs, it makes room for edge rushers Claude Sanders and Marlon Brisco.
Fresno State is young at linebacker, with Todd Garcia the only returning starter. Dwayne Andrews and Manuel Sanchez earned their stripes in part-time duty. Andrews is a better athlete than Fresno State is used to at the position, but he must resist the temptation to freelance.
Defensive coordinator Dan Brown has labored for many years assembling a stable of cornerbacks capable of suffocating WAC receivers. He may finally have one in Ray Washington, Richard Marshall, Awan Diles, Marcus McCauley and Therrian Fontenot. Strong safety James Sanders led the Bulldogs with 93 stops last fall and took his game to new levels in the spring.
SpecialistsBrett Visintainer, a clutch performer in 2003 who hit game-winning field goals against Oregon State and Rice, expects to resume kicking in July following ankle surgery.
With two punt return touchdowns on his résumé, Jennings inherits the role or returner full-time.
Final AnalysisThough fans have gotten a little weary of Hill's smash-mouth brand of football, that strategy this fall will be tough to dispute. Offensive line and running back are the unquestioned strengths of this team.
Defensively, Fresno State is loaded up front, and the Sanders-led secondary is deep and talented. Provided the young linebackers don't screw up too often, opponents will have a difficult time doing much of anything.
But for the Bulldogs to take it a step further, Pinegar needs to be his old self, and a new group of receivers must develop into front-line starters.