LAS VEGAS - Fresno State football means a lot to quarterback Derek Carr, and it has for awhile.
“As soon as Boise State beat my brother, his senior year at Bulldog Stadium. We were ranked eighth in the nation. I remember crying in the stands. From that moment on, it didn’t matter who recruited me. I wanted to come to Fresno and make a difference.”
And make a difference he has. Carr helped the Bulldogs to nine wins and a share of the Mountain West Conference championship in 2012. The Bulldogs are garnering preseason buzz. The program is reaching a level last seen in the early 2000s when Carr’s aforementioned brother, David, was a Heisman Trophy candidate for a top 10-ranked team.
A new Heisman campaign has started in the Valley, this one for Derek. He’s coming off one of the best seasons by any passer in college football. Carr threw 37 touchdowns with just seven interceptions and 4104 yards in 2012.
“[Contending for the Heisman]‘s something cool I’ll be able to tell my baby about one day,” he said. “The only reason I want to win it is for my school to say they have it, and for the community to say, ‘hey, we have a Heisman Trophy winner.”
There’s some added motivation, Carr concedes.
“No one ever thinks a kid from Fresno State can win the Heisman,” he said.
The disadvantage players from outside the BCS conferences are at for college football’s most prestigious individual honor is evident. Since 2000, there have been just five Heisman players beyond the current power structure of six conferences to finish top five in the award’s voting.
The bar is set differently for a Heisman candidate like Carr. Outstanding production and leading ones team to a great season isn’t enough. Recent precedent proves a non-BCS Heisman candidate must go undefeated and produce numbers at almost historic pace.
Both are realistic possibilities for Carr and Fresno State in 2013.
The Bulldogs’ surprise run to a share of the conference championship laid the foundation for the season to come. With Carr as its engine, the Fresno State offense put up 37.9 points per game — No. 17 in the FBS.
But the success of Fresno State’s 2012 was as much due to the 180-degree turnaround of the defense. Fresno State went from allowing 35.1 points per game in 2011, to 23.9 in 2012.
Key to the Bulldogs’ reversal was turnover creation. Fresno State’s 35 turnovers were the fifth most created in college football. Its 22 interceptions were more than any team but Oregon or Kent State.
Back leading that greedy secondary is cornerback Derron Smith, the media’s preseason pick for Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year.
“Get the ball back; that’s our main focus. As potent as our offense is, we know they’re going to put up points,” Smith said. “That’s what gets Ws.”
The sticky fingers of Bulldog defenders like Smith has helped Carr elevate his game.
“In my career, he’s picked me off more than anybody,” Carr said of Smith. “It drives me crazy, but it makes us better.”
The same is true for the defense, facing Carr and an outstanding receiving corps that includes Davante Adams on a daily basis.
Much was made during Mountain West Media Days’ Monday session of the overall quarterback depth in the league. Smith said Carr has the Bulldog defense uniquely prepared for seeing the MWC play callers each week.
“All the other quarterbacks in our conference are great in their own way, but personally in our practice, I think I’m going against the best quarterback in the nation,” Smith said.
Carr has his teammate’s endorsement as the best quarterback in college football. The next step is earning the same stamp of approval from pundits and pro scouts.
NFL franchises have started to take notice of Carr’s potential. CBS Sports currently ranks him the No. 7 pro prospect in the 2014 quarterback class, and his stock is rising. Carr said he nearly made that leap to Sundays this off-season.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t, especially with a baby on the way,” he said. “I thought a lot about that, ‘how am I going to feed him?’
“But I didn’t want to settle and not be the first quarterback taken,” he continued. “I want to get to the [NFL draft] combine and show that I’m the best guy out there.”
He’ll have both the opportunity and the necessary talent around him to make such a declaration. The Bulldog receiving corps is talented and deep, featuring Adams and Isaiah Burse.
The biggest loss from the Fresno State offense is also the smallest. Running back Robbie Rouse is gone after four seasons contributing in both the run and pass attacks.
“You don’t replace a Robbie Rouse,” Carr said. “But we have five or six running backs who can all run and all pass-protect. All five can come in and rush for 1,000 yards.”
The new Bulldog ball carriers will get tested early. Fresno State opens with a Rutgers defense that ranked No. 6 against the rush last season. Should Carr navigate his team past the Scarlet Knights in Week 1, however, a Sept. 20 date with Boise State looms.
Twelve years after he dedicated himself to Fresno State football, Carr could exact revenge for the tears he cried in the Bulldog Stadium bleachers.
That unbeaten season that eluded his brother, and an improbable Heisman Trophy, would be a fitting farewell for Carr to give a program that means so much to him.