Back in early February 2012, Tim DeRuyter announced his very first recruiting class on the heels of his hiring to be Fresno State’s head coach on Dec. 14, 2011. DeRuyter and his staff, which was not completely on board until just after New Year’s Day, had a shortened period to assemble that first recruiting class.
In that class was 14 high school signees, plus one junior college addition in offensive lineman in Mike Saenz. DeRuyter added another important piece before his first year with the late signing of Alex Fifita, who went on to garner All-Mountain West accolades in 2014 and 2015 and is now in training camp with the Atlanta Falcons.
Also in the first recruiting class was Marteze Waller, who finished his career last season as the fourth-leading rusher in school history with 3,108 yards. There was also defensive back Shannon Edwards, out of Bakersfield, and he is in training camp with the Kansas City Chiefs right now.
But still on the roster are four Bulldogs from that first class, now in their fifth seasons with the program. Jamal Ellis, Brandon Hughes, Dalen Jones and Aaron Peck have all been key cogs for Fresno State over the last four years when the team won two Mountain West titles, was the West Division champion in 2014 to reach the MW title game, but also on last season’s team that finished 3-9.
“They have kind of come full circle,” DeRuyter said of that group. “They came here coming off a nine-loss season to a brand-new staff and bought in and won a couple championships. They saw the height of what we can do here and then saw a struggling year. Now it is their opportunity to be the leaders and I really like how those four guys have stepped up to it.”
Ellis has played in 35 career games with 20 starts — the most of any player on this team. Hughes has also seen the field in 35 games. Jones has 36 games under his belt with 12 starts. Those three all redshirted in 2012 coming in as freshman.
Peck played right away and even started two games his freshman season, but missed the 2015 season due to injury. He has played in 35 games with 14 career starts.
“We’ve been through the good times and the bad times,” Ellis said, who started four games at cornerback during the 2013 season when the `Dogs were ranked as high as No. 13 nationally. “Like coach DeRuyter always keep talking about his first year when he brought us in, the season before that they had four wins and that is how we are looking this year. We went 3-9 last year and are looking to turn that around just like we did in 2012. Of course we were there for the two championships and the one division championship, so we know what we have to do to get there and we want to pass that down to the young guys and the rest of the team to get a championship again.”
The mindset of these four seniors is now to be the leaders to a young team that has 68 of its 105 players on the camp roster who are freshmen or sophomores.
“This summer we have been teaching everybody all the stuff we learned as freshman, so that is our mentality now and we are on the right page,” Jones said.
The group was very fortunate to come in at a prime time of Bulldog football. They were able to learn from a talented group of playmakers before them, and from some elite-level leaders as well. There were guys like Phillip Thomas and Davante Adams, All-Americans, and then there were the Derek Carr’s and Derron Smith’s who were team leaders and great ballplayers.
“Those guys led by example,” Peck said. “Guys like Derek and even Davante, even though he wasn’t a fifth-year, they led by example. That’s what I am trying to do and coach [Burl] Toler is putting me in position to really lead the wide receives specifically, but the offense as a whole. With Jamal Ellis, Dalen and Brandon on the defensive side, we are just getting these guys motivated to come out every day and work and embrace the grind. The biggest thing though is to lead by example.”
And coming off the toughest season of their careers, they are motivated to go out the way they started in as champions.
“We have that chip on our shoulder,” Peck said. “Everybody is counting us out already and the season hasn’t even started. The media says what they have to say. Coming off a 3-9 year we have the desire to get better, have the drive. We showed that through the summer, just battling and we have that drive and sense of urgency to be great.”
“You look at Jamal Ellis, he’s played a lot for us and has been around,” DeRuyter said. “He’s playing his best football right now. Dalen Jones, we anticipate the same thing with him. Brandon Hughes coming off the edge has been impressive so far and Aaron Peck, he’s got a new life after hurting his foot last year. I think he’s really come in to his own and has a chance to be really one of the better receivers in our league because when it is taken away from you there is a little bit different emphasis on getting back and he has really worked hard to get back.”