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Fresno State ready to fight back

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a series of articles previewing Western Athletic Conference football teams. Today, the Appeal takes a look at Fresno State.

BY DARRELL MOODY

Appeal Sports Writer

When Pat Hill showed up for the recent WAC Media Day, he was fitter than he’s been in a while and extremely excited about his program.

The Bulldogs were 4-8 in 2006, the worst win-loss record in Hill’s career at Fresno State. Included in those eight losses was an embarrassing 13-12 setback at Utah State.

“We did not play the type of football Fresno State has been known to play,” Hill said. “We did not play with the effort level we need to play with. We never made excuses. Last year was a blip on the radar screen, and people across the nation know that. We’re looking ahead to 2007.

“Fight or take flight. This team is going to fight. Sometimes you take things for granted. Anytime you are going through a rough stretch, you have to hit rock bottom. We went through some tough times.”

Center Ryan Wendell has noticed the difference in Hill, and he believes the Bulldogs will be a better team.

“He (Hill) is energized and excited,” Wendell said. “Nobody liked what happened last year. It was frustrating. We were a better team than that.”

The Bulldogs return 47 lettermen, including 15 of 22 starters. Hill said that there will be a lot of young players on the field, including young running backs Lonyae Miller and Anthony Harding, who will attempt to replace the talented Anthony Wright.

Wright, who gained 1,462 yards became the Bulldogs’ primary offensive weapon last year to the point that the team became one-dimensional.

“Our offense was pretty one-dimensional,” Hill said. “It was hard to win football games (that way). On defense, I don’t think we intercepted a pass until the eighth game. We just weren’t making plays. We really struggled. A lot of the kids were used to winning.”

The Bulldogs want to be more balanced, and that will depend a lot on the play of quarterback Tom Brandstater, who lost his job to Sean Norton for a couple of weeks midway through the season.

Brandstater threw for 1,490 yards and 13 scores, but he also was intercepted 14 times. It’s those mistakes that Hill would like to see cut down this year.

“I had a 90-minute meeting with nearly every player during the off-season,” Hill said. “We went through a lot of things. Tom went through some bad times last year, and he is a better player for it.”

Brandstater had two miserable games last year, throwing four interceptions in a 24-14 loss to San Jose State, and tossing three picks in a 35-23 loss to Colorado State.

Redshirt freshman Ryan Colburn backs up Brandstater. Norton transferred after the 2006 season.

At running back, the Bulldogs have a number of players. Besides Miller and Harding, senior Clifton Smith appears to be fully back from a serious injury two years ago, and the Bulldogs have Ryan Matthews, the leading rusher in the nation last season (3,300 yards, 44 TDs), and Bryson Hodges, a second-team all-state selection.

“We have a lot of them,” Hill said. “All the running backs are true freshmen or sophomores. Miller is an outstanding back and very physical. Clifton is back at full speed.

“We have some players with potential. We have some gifted young players. I think Lonyae could play anywhere in the country.”

Roshon Vercher, a four-year starter at fullback, is gone. Nate Adams and Reynard Camp are the leading candidates to replace the all-world blocker.

The Bulldogs are young at wide receiver now that Joe Fernandez and Paul Williams have graduated. Sophomore Chastin West (33 catches, 365 yards, 3 TDs) is back. So are fellow sophs Seyi Ajirotutu (4-34-0), Jason Crowley (3-23-0) and Marlon Moore (4-105-1).

Bear Pascoe, who caught 22 balls for 307 yards and two scores, returns. The 260-pounder has made himself one of the top tight ends in the nation after playing quarterback in high school. Jesus Tapia, who had one catch last season, backs up Pascoe.

The offensive line played well last year, but lost three key players in center Kyle Young and tackles Dartangon Shack and Chris Denman. The group allowed just 12 sacks. Ryan Wendell, who stepped in when Young was suspended for academic difficulties, anchors the line at center. Bobby Lepori, former Bishop Manogue star, Cole Popovich, Adam McDowell and Kenny Avon all started games last season. The depth here will be provided by four red-shirt freshmen and junior Pierce Masse.

The Bulldogs return six starters on defense, including defensive end Tyler Clutts (37 tackles, 5 sacks) and tackles Charles Tolbert (16 tackles, 2 sacks) and Jason Shirley (20 tackles, 2 sacks). Damon Jenkins, who had three interceptions and 32 tackles, linebacker Ahijah Lane (64 tackles) and safety Marvin Haynes (16 tackles) also are back.

Jon Monga (17 tackles), Ikenna Ike (31 tackles) and Jason Roberts (10 tackles) are coming off productive seasons up front.

Lane heads a group of linebackers that make this group the strength of the team.

A key for the defense is the return of Marcus Riley, who was injured in the first half of the USC game in 2005. His injury limited him to just four games last season.

“We really had to adjust on defense (without him),” Hill said.

Trevor Shamblee (21 tackles) and Quaadir Brown, who redshirted last season due to an injury, are expected to start alongside Riley and Lane.

Moses Harris (9 tackles) is No. 1 at strong safety, and Damion Owens and A.J. Jefferson are battling for the cornerback slot opposite Jenkins.

The Bulldogs’ specialists – ex-McQueen star Clint Stitser (11-for-16 on FGs) and Kyle Zimmerman (37.8) return.