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COLLEGE FOOTBALL ’86 : PCAA Preview : Looks Like Another Banner Season for Fresno’s Sweeney & Son

Times Staff Writer

Fresno State Coach Jim Sweeney has this theory. Well, the fact is, he has several. A half-hour conversation with Sweeney can cover everything from what makes for great football to what made men such as Joe Louis and Chuck Yeager great.

And then there are the theories. There is Sweeney’s Theory of Spaced Repetitions, which serves to explain why he was putting his team through three -a-day workouts during some of the dog days of August.

There’s his Lead With The Pass Theory, which he plans to have his son, Kevin, put into action each week this fall.

And there’s the Theory of Transference, which Sweeney can’t claim as his own but is not ashamed of applying and using as if it were. In Sweeney’s case, this theory concerns confidence, and how to instill it in his players.

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“I think players can sense a feeling of a coach,” he said. “If you transfer anxiety to them, it’ll show up in their performance. If a coach is shaky or doesn’t have confidence, it transfers to the players.”

So how does Sweeney plan to keep that from happening to this year’s Fresno State Bulldogs?

“I tell them this is the greatest football team I’ve ever had the privilege to coach,” he said.

That ought to do it. There will be no negative vibrations or bad karma flowing from the coach of the team most are picking to win the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. for a second straight season. Sweeney is thinking only good thoughts, and he’s not the least bit hesitant to share them with anyone who will listen.

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Going public with such unabashed praise is a little unusual among coaches at this time of year. This is generally the time for practicing the art of downplay. For saying a team has too much of this or not enough of that to be favored. Instead, Sweeney has chosen to welcome the role of the heavy, even if it means providing a little bulletin board inspiration for Fresno’s opponents.

“I know they’re all going to play better against us,” Sweeney said. “I’m not afraid of that.”

It ain’t bragging if you can back it up, and Sweeney seems to think the Bulldogs can. None of his coaching counterparts in the PCAA can blame him.

Last year, the Bulldogs were the only Division I-A team in the nation to go unbeaten (11-0-1). They also led the nation in scoring (39.1 points per game), but all it got them was a No. 16 ranking in United Press International’s final top 20 poll.

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But there are 13 starters returning from that team, and all are anxious to see Fresno move up in the national polls. Among them is Kevin Sweeney, the coach’s son and the quarterback who is a big reason for all the optimism. Sweeney, entering his fourth season as the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback, needs 2,320 yards to break Doug Flutie’s NCAA career passing yardage record of 10,579 yards. Barring injury, the record seems inevitable.

“I think we’d be foolish to make that our No. 1 goal,” Jim Sweeney said. “But to gain 2,300 yards passing is not anything that he hasn’t already done.”

There will be some new looks--in the form of new coaches--to some of the teams chasing Fresno in the PCAA race this season. Wayne Nunnely has taken over the troubled Nevada Las Vegas program; Mike Knoll, who lost out in his bid to become the head coach at New Mexico State in 1982, was hired to revive the Aggies the second time around; and former Drake Coach Chuck Shelton is now at Utah State.

The new blood has tenured conference coaches talking about a change of football fortunes at all three schools. Said Cal State Fullerton Coach Gene Murphy: “Sometimes change for change’s sake can be the greatest thing in the world.”

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A closer look at the conference:

CAL STATE FULLERTON 1985 RECORDS--6-5 overall, 5-2 in PCAA

1985 CONFERENCE FINISH--Second

Meet the happy wanderers of the PCAA. No team in the conference will run up bigger travel bills than the Titans, who will play 9 of 12 games on the road, including six of the first seven. The tour began last Saturday with a 49-3 loss at Nevada Reno. The defense that Murphy felt would be his team’s strength gave up 592 yards in total offense, 404 in passing. Faced with such alarming numbers, Murphy didn’t seem ready to panic. “I still don’t know how good we’re going to be,” he said. “If this game is a true indication, we’re gonna be in for a long season. But I doubt if that will be the case.” Although he has plenty of cause to doubt an inexperienced secondary, Murphy still has faith in his linebackers and defensive line. Senior outside linebacker Sean Foy, who led the Titans with 92 tackles last season, returns. Defensive tackle Ron McLean is back after missing most of last season with a knee injury. Sophomore Tony Dill, who threw nine touchdown passes to help the Titans win their last four games in 1985, will have the starting quarterback job unless he plays his way out of it. He will operate behind an offensive line led by guard Mark Stephenson, who Murphy considers a pro prospect. Rick Calhoun had a team-high 747 yards rushing last season but will need to carry more of a load in order for Fullerton to have the ball-control offense Murphy desires.

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CAL STATE LONG BEACH 1985 RECORDS--6-6 overall, 4-3 in PCAA

1985 CONFERENCE FINISH--Fourth

Third-year Coach Mike Sheppard is replacing departed quarterback Doug Gaynor, who led the nation in completion percentage (.712) and was third in passing yardage (3,563) last season, with Jeff Graham, a third-year sophomore who has attempted all of four passes in his collegiate career. But Sheppard, whose offense is designed with quarterbacks in mind, believes Graham is ready. “He has potentially the best physical tools of any drop-back quarterback I’ve worked with,” Sheppard said. “Our commitment to him is very strong.” Sheppard said much will depend on how well the players around Graham perform. Some performed quite well around Gaynor. Wide receiver Charles Lockett had 69 receptions for 949 yards and 10 touchdowns. That gave him seven more catches than Mark Templeton, the 49ers’ starting fullback in Sheppard’s pass-crazy offense. Templeton had 62 receptions last season, compared with 28 carries. Tight end Greg Locy, who has 83 receptions in the past three seasons, also returns. Sheppard and his staff are switching to a 3-4 defense that he hopes will be less predictable and more productive. Defensive back Roger Beavers, who led the 49ers with 90 tackles in ’85, returns and should make the transition easier.

FRESNO STATE 1985 RECORDS--11-0-1 overall, 7-0 in PCAA

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1985 CONFERENCE FINISH--First

There is much more to this team than Sweeney and Sweeney. Jim Sweeney thinks he has legitimate pro prospects in linebackers Cliff Hannemann, David Grayson and Anthony Nunn, and defensive end Greg Ramsey. Nunn inexplicably left the team and missed several preseason practices but returned and is expected to start at one inside linebacker spot. If Kevin Sweeney does surpass Flutie’s mark, Stephen Baker and Gene Taylor will be two of the reasons. Baker averaged more than 29 yards per catch last season, and Taylor led the Bulldogs with five touchdown receptions. Said Jim Sweeney: “They’re as good or better as a combination than Henry Ellard and Stephone Paige were for us.” Tailback James Williams, who rushed for 1,017 yards in ’85, returns to give the Bulldogs offensive balance. Fresno enters the season with an eight-game winning streak, including a 51-7 victory over Bowling Green in the California Bowl.

NEVADA LAS VEGAS 1985 RECORDS--5-5-1 overall, 4-2-1 in PCAA

1985 CONFERENCE FINISH--Third

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Nunnely, formerly the Rebels’ running back coach, is understandably excited about making his debut as a head coach, but he’s not too crazy about the circumstances that led to his promotion. Harvey Hyde’s rather stormy, four-year tenure as the Rebels’ coach ended with his firing last April. That came in the wake of a series of incidents in which seven UNLV players were in trouble with the law, with charges that ranged from stealing credit cards to assaulting a highway patrolman. Nunnely’s first task appeared to be restoring law and order. “I’ve set the ground rules,” he said. “We can no longer have any incidents that will embarrass our program. That’s the bottom line.” On the field, Nunnely is hoping running back Kirk Jones will have the kind of season he had as a sophomore in 1984, and rebound from an ’85 campaign that was below expectations. Jones rushed for 1,090 yards in 163 carries in ’84. Last year, on only seven fewer carries, he finished with 790. The Rebels led the conference in total defense last season and were one of two PCAA teams to allow less than 200 yards passing per game. Alvin Horn and David Hollis return to give UNLV another strong secondary.

NEW MEXICO STATE 1985 RECORDS--1-10 overall, 0-7 in PCAA

1985 CONFERENCE FINISH--Eighth

The Aggies haven’t won a PCAA game since they joined the conference in 1984. Last season, they were outscored, 369-190. Knoll, the new coach, reviewed the ’85 game films and concluded that New Mexico State was “the worst tackling team in NCAA history.” So, Knoll began cleaning a house that can charitably be described as a “fixer-upper.” He’s scrapped the run-and-shoot offense in favor of a pro-set, he’s instituted 5:30 a.m. running workouts for players who aren’t making the grades in the classroom (“We call them Triple A’s--Aggie Attitude Adjusters,”) and he’s decided not to renew the scholarship of running back Joe Rowley, who led the conference in all-purpose running last season. “Yes, our football team will probably miss Joe Rowley,” he said. “But I’m not sure Joe had the desire or ambition it takes to be part of our football team.” Quarterback Jim Miller, third in the PCAA in total offense last season, is back to find out what effect all this shaking up will have on the Aggies. It didn’t seem to do much good in their season opener. New Mexico State lost, 20-14. to Angelo State, an NCAA Division II team.

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SAN JOSE STATE 1985 RECORDS--2-8-1 overall, 2-4-1 in PCAA

1985 CONFERENCE FINISH--Sixth

Coach Claude Gilbert likened last season to a train wreck. “It was one of those years that allowed us to build some character,” he said, searching for a bright spot. The Spartans gave up an average of more than 30 points per game, and defense was thought to be their strength entering the season. Gilbert has made rebuilding that defense his top priority, and he’s hired a new defensive coordinator--former LA Express assistant Sam Gruneisen--to help. He’s also decided to move K.C. Clark back to the secondary after injuries prompted Clark to convert to running back at midseason last year. In six games, Clark rushed for 429 yards and 5 touchdowns for San Jose State, but Gilbert believes his talents can be put to better use at free safety this fall. “He may disagree,” Gilbert said, “but that’s OK.” The arrival of Kenny Jackson, who rushed for 1,111 yards at College of San Mateo last season, made that decision easier. Gilbert expects an experienced offensive line to be his team’s strength.

UNIVERSITY OF THE PACIFIC 1985 RECORDS--5-7 overall, 2-5 in PCAA

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1985 CONFERENCE FINISH--Seventh

Tiger Coach Bob Cope, who served as an assistant to Lou Holtz at Arkansas for four seasons, knew what he was in for last fall when he went to a wishbone offense in Stockton. “There were times when some of the media questioned whether it was more ‘wish’ than ‘bone,’ ” Cope said. But the Tigers finished third in the conference in scoring offense, so Cope remains convinced that the bone is more than wishful thinking. Quarterback Hue Jackson and running back James Mackey, who combined for 891 yards rushing last season, return. Cope likes the looks of his offensive line, although two of his best linemen have established reputations for themselves at the same position. Steve Clower moved from tackle to center last fall after Robert Zolg suffered a knee injury in the preseason. Zolg is healthy now, but Clower ended up as an honorable mention All-PCAA selection in ’85. What to do? “We’re gonna go to the double-center offense,” Cope said. “Now, if they’ll let us use two footballs, we’re gonna have a heckuva offense.” The likely solution is that Zolg will be moved to guard.

UTAH STATE 1985 RECORDS--3-8 overall, 3-4 in PCAA

1985 CONFERENCE FINISH--Fifth

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After nine seasons at Drake, Shelton was left looking for work after administrators there decided to eliminate the football program for one year. It will return--at the Division III level--in 1987, but Shelton hopes to be firmly settled in Logan, Utah, by then. He figures to be quite busy in the meantime. The Aggies are 4-18 over the last two seasons and haven’t finished above the .500 mark since 1980. Shelton brought Wade Hardman with him from Drake to join Al Smith at linebacker and form the heart of the Aggie defense. Smith had a school-record 138 tackles in ’85. The Aggies figure to have problems moving the ball, but they may not have to move it far to score. Dene Garner is perhaps the conference’s best placekicker. His 58-yard field goal last season against San Jose State was the longest in PCAA history, and one of a conference-record five field goals he kicked against the Spartans. Shelton’s biggest problem may be a lack of depth. “To be very candid, there are nine second-unit kids who could end up starting for us,” he said.


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