Fresno State football coach Kalen DeBoer kicked off his first game week at the helm of the Bulldogs’ program by going with fourth-year junior and Washington transfer Jake Haener as his starting quarterback.
“Right now we feel like Jake gives us the best chance for us to reach our full potential as a football team and as an offense,” DeBoer said, in a Monday Zoom meeting.
“That’s a hard deal because a guy like (Ben) Wooldridge has put a lot into this program and will continue to do so. He has carried himself in a very first-class way and I know he’s going to be there to support Jake. But we’ve had three good practices in preparation (for Hawaii) and Jake has been taking all of those snaps.”
Haener and Wooldridge have been competing since the end of the 2019 season, through a winter strength and conditioning program, a spring practice that was canceled by the coronavirus, a summer full of video meetings but void of organized player-run practices while campus was closed due to COVID-19 and the past three weeks in an abbreviated fall camp.
Haener emerged with the job and will take the first snap on Saturday when the Bulldogs open an eight-game 2020 football season against Hawaii (4:30 p.m., KSEE24, no fans allowed).
It will be the fifth career game and first career college start for Haener, who played in four games at Washington in 2018 behind starter Jake Browning with somewhat mixed results.
He sliced up FCS North Dakota in a 45-3 victory, completing 7 of 7 passes for 110 yards and one touchdown. But he also was just 1 of 4 for 11 yards and one interception in a 12-10 loss at Cal and 1 of 2 for minus-14 yards at the end of a 42-23 rout of Oregon State.
Haener played in a 35-7 victory over BYU, but did not attempt a pass.
Hawaii defense vulnerable in 2019
Hawaii returns only seven of its top 14 tacklers from a year ago, and struggled against the run. It was 11th in the Mountain West Conference in rushing defense and in a three-way tie for eighth in scoring defense with San Jose State and Nevada, allowing 202.8 yards and 31.9 points per game.
The Rainbow Warriors’ pass rush also was lacking — they were only 11th in the conference with 17.0 sacks in 15 games. And, despite allowing opposing quarterbacks to hit only 59.1% of their passes, they allowed 157 passing first downs, the most in the MW and tied for 123rd in the nation. Opponents averaged 12.0 yards per completion.
All of that could help open a pass game for Haener and the Bulldogs, an area they are loaded with receivers including Keric Wheatfall, Jalen Cropper, Chris Coleman and Emoryie Edwards.
Bulldogs’ first-time starters
Haener does have some dubious history to overcome, though. Only two of the Bulldogs’ past 10 quarterbacks have won their first starts, and one of those victories was against an FCS opponent.
Wooldridge will be the Bulldogs’ No. 2, with JC transfer Braden Wingle and freshmen Logan Fife and Jalan Early also in the quarterback’s room.
“The day before I even officially talked to them about the decision I went through every practice and maybe felt the direction I was going in was going to be Jake, maybe the last day or so,” DeBoer said. “But I wanted to make sure that I was doing my due diligence and watched every throw, everything you can find on film — the demeanor of a guy, the body language, the communication that happens on the field, the big throws, all those things that you have to have in place with your starting quarterback.
“I think the hard part of it is when we talk about the things we saw in Jake it naturally comes across like the other quarterback, in this case Ben, doesn’t do those things and that’s not the case at all. We have two great choices at quarterback, two great guys that are exceptional young men that are ready for this opportunity, and I think Jake just is the guy right now that makes us what we want to be at a very high level and we’re expecting big things from right out of the chute.”
Kuwada writes for the Fresno Bee