NCF Nation: Zack Greenlee

When Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter met with his football team for the first time this year in mid-January, he didn’t have to remind his returning players who wasn’t in the locker room.

The Bulldogs could look around and see that record-setting quarterback Derek Carr and receiver Davante Adams were no longer there.

“We’re not the Fighting Derek Carrs,” DeRuyter told his team. “We’re the Fresno State Bulldogs.”

[+] EnlargeTim DeRuyter
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesFresno State has to replace Derek Carr and Devante Adams, but coach Tim DeRuyter and the Bulldogs are up for the challenge.
Carr and Adams formed one of college football’s most prolific recent passing duos, helping the Bulldogs go 20-6 over the past two seasons and ending a 13-year title drought by winning back-to-back Mountain West Conference championships. Last season, Carr threw for 5,082 yards with 50 touchdowns, while Adams caught 131 passes for 1,718 yards with 24 touchdowns.

“Derek cast a big shadow,” DeRuyter said. “Davante cast a big shadow. But those guys have moved on. When we got here, nobody knew who Devante Adams was. He was a redshirt freshman who hadn’t played much. We’re excited about what our young guys can do with opportunities.”

Fresno State isn’t the only team from outside the Big Five conferences who will be trying to replace a boatload of star power when spring practice begins later this month. Northern Illinois must replace record-setting quarterback Jordan Lynch, a 2013 Heisman Trophy finalist, and Boise State has to move on without former coach Chris Petersen, who guided the Broncos to a 92-12 record in eight seasons before leaving for Washington in early December.

“The great thing about coaching in college is the kids have short memories,” Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey said.

The Huskies probably won’t forget about Lynch anytime soon. In two seasons as a starter, Lynch led the Huskies to a 24-4 record, including an appearance in the Discover Orange Bowl after the 2012 season. He passed for 6,209 yards with 51 touchdowns and ran for 4,343 yards with 48 touchdowns during his NIU career, the bulk of it during the last two seasons alone.

“We had to go through this when we lost [former quarterback Chandler Harnish],” NIU coach Rod Carey said. “Obviously, it’s a little different this time. There’s a little recall with our older guys that we’ve been through this before. I’ve told our older guys, ‘Jordan didn’t do everything. He only almost did everything.’”

[+] EnlargeRod Carey
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesNIU loses Heisman finalist QB Jordan Lynch, but coach Rod Carey has the bulk of his offensive starters returning.
When the Huskies open spring practice on March 18, three players will battle for the unenviable task of replacing Lynch under center this season. Junior Matt McIntosh and sophomore Drew Hare combined to throw 11 passes as backups last season, and Western Michigan transfer Anthony Maddie will be eligible this fall after sitting out last season under NCAA rules.

“I’ve told them that the quarterback who can throw it the best is going be the guy,” Carey said. “If you can’t throw it, you can’t run it for very long.”

Besides losing Lynch, the Huskies will bring back most of their offensive starters from last season’s team, which started 12-0 before losing to Bowling Green 47-27 in the MAC championship game and Utah State 21-14 in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl. NIU also will have to replace four starting defensive linemen, as well as star safety Jimmie Ward.

“It will be different than when we broke in Jordan,” Carey said. “We knew we had the quarterback then, but we didn’t know if we had the supporting cast. Now, we know we have the supporting cast, but we have to find the quarterback -- and we have three of them.”

Fresno State’s quarterback competition this spring also figures to be tight. Junior Brian Burrell, who attempted 12 passes as Carr’s backup in 2013, might have a slight edge over two younger competitors heading into spring practice, according to DeRuyter. A transfer from Bakersfield (Calif.) College, Burrell still has two years of eligibility remaining at Fresno State. Redshirt freshman Zack Greenlee, a former Elite 11 prospect from Stockton, Calif., and sophomore Myles Carr (no relation to the former starter) of Arcadia, Calif., also will compete for the job.

“I’m comfortable with what we have, but I also realize that Derek Carr threw for 50 touchdowns and more than 5,000 yards last year,” DeRuyter said. “I don’t know anybody in the country, let alone on our roster, who is going to be able to do that. I love the guys we have on our roster, and our coaches are excited to find out who is going to be the quarterback this fall.”

[+] EnlargeBryan Harsin
Brian Losness/USA TODAY SportsBryan Harsin, who helped the Broncos win two BCS bowl games as offensive coordinator, returns to Boise State as the head coach and hopes to improve on last year's 8-5 mark.
Spring practice will also look different at Boise State, where Petersen won’t be running the show for the first time since 2006. Former Broncos assistant Bryan Harsin, who had a 7-5 record as Arkansas State’s coach in 2013, was hired to replace his former boss. In Harsin’s five years as Boise State’s offensive coordinator from 2006 to 2010, it went 61-5 and won two BCS bowl games.

“A lot of what we do will be new,” Harsin said. “Some of our structure and philosophies have remained the same, but a lot of the language and other things are different. I think it’s going to be change in a good way. I think it’s fresh and a different perspective.”

The Broncos might be looking for a fresh start after slipping to 8-5 last season. The Broncos had won 10 games or more in each of Petersen’s first seven seasons.

“Sometimes you have success in a program, and guys just think it’s going to happen,” Harsin said. “Being a young team, I think the hunger is here. But I think understanding what it takes to be a championship team is more important. I think they’re hungry, but I don’t know if they understand what it takes yet.”

Harsin and other coaches around the country will begin to learn how far their teams have to go during the next several weeks.

Fresno State season preview

August, 20, 2013
Today we're looking at Fresno State, which earned a share of Mountain West Conference crown in its first year in the league.

Fresno State Bulldogs

Coach: Tim DeRuyter (10-4 overall, 9-4 at Fresno State)

2012 record: 9-4 (7-1 MWC)

Key losses: RB Robbie Rouse, LG Matt Hunt, RG/C Richard Helepiko, LB Travis Brown, LB Tristan Okpalaugo, LB Shawn Plummer, S Phillip Thomas

[+] EnlargeDerek Carr
Marco Garcia/USA TODAY SportsDerek Carr returns to head up a potent Mountain West Conference offense.
Key returnees: QB Derek Carr, WR Davante Adams, WR Isaiah Burse, LT Austin Wentworth, NG Tyeler Davison, FS Derron Smith

Newcomer to watch: QB Zack Greenlee. OK, so you might not get to see much of him this season with Carr running the show. But Greenlee is an elite pick-up at the position, as he was an ESPN300 prospect and the nation's No. 10 overall signal-caller. He threw for 1,953 yards with 22 touchdowns and two picks as a senior at Lincoln (Calif.) High, and he earned MVP honors at the Las Vegas Elite 11 Regionals. Greenlee is also an Under Armour All-American.

Biggest games in 2013: Aug. 29 versus Rutgers, Sept. 14 at Colorado, Sept. 20 versus Boise State, Oct. 26 at San Diego State, Nov. 2 versus Nevada, Nov. 29 at San Jose State

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Fresno State needs to keep Carr upright and give him time to lock in with what is an outstanding group of receivers. The Bulldogs lose two starters from their offensive line and have some work to do in the ground game to make up for losing Robbie Rouse. Still, this is an offense that returns many of its key pieces from a 2012 team that led the MWC in scoring. The defense returns even more pieces after finishing second in the league in scoring, even if it must replace all-time great Phillip Thomas.

Forecast: Tim DeRuyter was a huge success in his first year at Fresno State, going 9-4 and building plenty of belief inside the program throughout its inaugural season in the Mountain West Conference. Now he's hoping to build off that success, as the Bulldogs take aim at league powerhouse Boise State and perhaps even at a BCS bowl game.

The Bulldogs bring back 15 starters from last season, led by quarterback Carr. The younger brother of former No. 1 overall pick David Carr, he enters his redshirt senior season needing 3,048 yards to break the school record for career passing yards. The MWC's offensive player of the year in 2012 completed better than 67 percent of his passes last season for 4,104 yards with 37 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Fresno State brings back the league's best receiving corps and three starters up front, so a repeat campaign in 2013 could be in the cards for Carr.

While the defense says goodbye to All-American Thomas on defense, the unit still returns eight starters and has plenty of depth among its front-seven.

The Bulldogs didn't like the way last season ended, as they were upset by SMU fairly handily in a 43-10 Hawaii Bowl loss. The defeat should add some fuel to a team that did most everything else right in its first year under DeRuyter. And the squad will get a great early test in a Week 1 Thursday night opener against visiting Rutgers.

With Carr back for one more season with plenty of weapons at his disposal, it is no stretch to think that Boise State should continue to make some room atop the conference, so long as Fresno State continues progressing in Year 2 under DeRuyter.