Hill says Bulldogs might be his best team | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Hill says Bulldogs might be his best team

Darrell Moody

Fresno State football coach Pat Hill doesn’t pull any punches when he talks about his team.

“This could be as good as any team I’ve had, but a lot of things have to happen,” said Hill, who has guided the Bulldogs to a 55-35 record in seven seasons. “We have to get off to a great start. Four of our first six games are on the road, so we’ll find out what early what kind of team we are.”

The Bulldogs, who return 52 players from last year’s squad that won the Silicon Valley Classic, open at Washington and Kansas State. Both are extremely difficult places to play, but you won’t see Hill backing down.

“Those are the type of games you have to play,” he said at the recent WAC Media Day in Reno. “I look forward to that type of schedule. We’re used to it. It gives us an opportunity for great exposure. We’ve played in hostile environments before and our players won’t be intimidated.”

Two reasons for Hill’s optimism are the returns of junior quarterback Paul Pinegar and left tackle Logan Mankins.

Pinegar missed the first half of last season with an injury and the Bulldogs were 3-3. Hill is obviously hoping his quarterback can revert back to his Freshman of the Year form that saw him pass for 2,929 yards and 20 scores.

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“Every offense starts with the quarterback and you don’t see many teams that have a quality quarterback,” Hill said in a recent interview in Fresno.

Mankins missed the entire 2003 season after suffering a torn ACL during preseason practice.

“It was a devastating loss,” said Hill. “I’ve coached offensive line all my life and he’s the best I’ve been associated with.”

Pinegar will be backed up by redshirt freshman Tom Brandstater and sophomore Jordan Christensen, who are dead even going into fall practice.

The Bulldogs have plenty of talent at running back, including starting tailback Dwayne Wright (190 carries, 1,038 yards, three TDs). Bryson Sumlin (123-509-9), UCLA transfer Wendell Mathis (18-50-0), redshirt freshman Shannon Dorsey and Robbie Dubois (1-2-0) will battle for the top reserve role behind Wright.

“I’d like to find an every down back,” Hill said. “It’s not just running the ball. It’s running routes and protecting the quarterback. I’d like to find a guy that can carry the ball 25-30 times a game (and do the other things).”

Graduation cost the Bulldogs both starting wideouts – Bernard Berrian and Marque Davis, who combined for more than 100 catches and 1,100 yards.

Back are two juniors that played a lot as freshmen – Adam Jennings (11-118-0) and Jermaine Jamison (23-210-0). Jennings, also a dangerous return specialist, caught 34 balls his freshman season, and Jamison pulled in 39. Joe Fernandez, son of ex-NFL star Mervyn Fernandez, will see plenty of action after he caught 22 balls for 165 yards last season.

Two seniors – Steven Spach (13-127-0) and Mark Wood (5-66-2) – return at tight end. Junior Duncan Reid (5-50-0) also is back.

Mankins leads a young, yet battle-tested offensive line. Sophomore Chris Denman (6-6, 260) starts opposite Mankins at right tackle. Junior Dartagnon Shack (6-2, 300), who filled in for Mankins last year, is back at right guard. At left guard will be senior Noa Pouono (6-3,290), junior Sean Finnerty (6-3, 285) or senior Kawika Edwards (6-4, 300). Sophomore Kyle Young (6-5, 320) starts in the middle.

“From an offensive standpoint, I’m excited about our team,” Hill said. “Last year, we had one hand behind our back (because of Pinegar’s injury). We’re going to work on what we need to do to be balanced.”

On defense, the Bulldogs return eight starters.

“We’re starting to come together really good and we have bunch talent all the way across the board, so the defense should be really good,” said junior tackle Garrett McIntyre of South Lake Tahoe.

The front four is led by senior defensive ends Brian Morris (6-2, 250), Claude Sanders (6-3, 240) and McIntyre (6-3, 250, second-team All-WAC). All three are excellent pass rushers. Morris had 15 stops behind the line, including 11 sacks. Of McIntyre’s 39 stops, eight were sacks. Sanders had 44 tackles and five sacks.

“They expect more lot of us, even though a lot of us aren’t seniors and have one or two years’ playing experience,” McIntyre said.

McIntyre’s younger brother, Justin, will likely be redshirted. Justin, a walk-on like his brother was two years ago, has been learning the Sam position on defense.

Senior Donyell Booker (6-2, 305) and Fai Satele (6-1, 290) are the inside starters. Sophomore Louis Leonard (6-2, 305) and senior Dwayne Ruffin (6-1, 260) are the key reserves.

“Depth is critical in the defensive line,” Hill said. “We have some unproven talent. Leonard could be a dominating player. We are young on the defensive line, but I think we can be very good.”

Hill has focused on quickness, especially at the linebacking position.

Three-year starter Marc Daley and first-team WAC selection Bryce McGill graduated.

Senior Todd Garcia (5-11, 230) is the only starter back, and he only started the last five or six games. Garcia had 33 tackles and four stops behind the line of scrimmage. Sophomore Manuel Sanchez (6-1, 215) and sophomore Dwayne Andrews (6-0, 240) are the other starters. Sanchez had 38 stops and four interceptions a year ago, and Andrews finished with 37 stops, including two behind the line.

The reserves – redshirt freshman Marcus Riley (6-0, 190), sophomore Alan Goodwin (6-2, 220) and junior Kyle Goodman (6-0, 230) – are all untested.

“There’s not much game experience there, but we have a lot more speed than we have had in the past,” Hill said. “They still have to be strong and physical enough to stop the run.”

Hill said the secondary is the strength of the defense, calling it the best group he’s had at Fresno.

Junior Raymond Washington (6-0, 190), sophomore Richard Marshall (5-11, 170), Therrian Fontenot (5-11, 190) and junior Awan Diles (5-9, 180) return at cornerback. Diles ended with 63 stops and two picks last season, Marshall added 37 tackles and three interceptions and Washington had 36 stops and two interceptions.

Junior James Sanders (5-11, 205) and junior Tyrone Culver (6-1, 200) return at the safety spots. Sanders has a nose for the ball, piling up a team-leading 93 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions, four pass deflections and two blocked kicks. Culver had 45 stops, sixth-best last year. Senior Nate Ray (6-0, 205) and sophomore Josh Sherley are the backups.

The Bulldogs return all their specialists. Punter Mike Lingua averaged only 38.3 yards, but placekicker Brett Visintainer hit on 14 of 21 field-goal attempts from 30 yards and out.

– Tribune Sports Editor Steve Yingling contributed to this story.

The Hill File

Age: 52

Birthplace: Los Angeles, Calif.

Education: UC Riverside, 1973

Years at Fresno State: Starting 8th season

Record at Fresno State: 55-35

Bowl Games: 5 (2-3)

Notable: Hill has had just one losing season, going 5-6 in 1998. He’s won nine or more games in each of the last three seasons, and the Bulldogs have won the Silicon Valley Classic each of those years.

Contact Darrell Moody at dmoody@nevadaappeal.com or call (775) 881-1281.