Top 10 returning players at Fresno State are headlined by potential early NFL draft pick QB Jake Haener

The top 10 returning players for Fresno State are led by QB Jake Haener who will look to put one final exclamation mark on a great career.

The Fresno State Bulldogs are set to make waves this season with their top 10 returning players, led by QB Jake Haener. After flirting with the transfer portal, Haener is back to leave his own legacy at the QB-rich northern California school. Helping Haener reach even higher levels is a star-studded class of players both on offense and defense. Let’s count them down.

For each Mountain West team’s top returning players: Air Force | Boise State | Colorado State | Fresno State | Hawaii | Nevada | New Mexico | San Diego State | San Jose State | UNLV | Utah State | Wyoming

Top 10 returning players at Fresno State

As the countdown to the college football regular season continues, as does our top 10 returning players series. We’re counting down all the top 10 players returning to action on every team — we’ll deal with transfers later — from Air Force to Wyoming, from Miami to Hawaii, and all in between. Here are the top returning players at Fresno State.

10) Levelle Bailey, LB

A do-it-all linebacker, Levelle Bailey finished last season with two interceptions and the third-most tackles on the team. He also generated 3.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss as he showed high-level instinctual play in 2021. His athleticism is never in question, and he has plenty of length in his frame to disrupt passing and rushing lanes all the same.

9) Jordan Mims, RB

Sharing the backfield with a living legend like Ronnie Rivers will only do good things for Jordan Mims now that the Fresno State backfield is officially his. Mims averaged a higher yards per carry and scored more touchdowns than Rivers did on the ground last season. What truly separates Mims from most running backs in the country is his prowess on the receiving end of Haener’s passes. Mims averaged nearly 13.0 yards per catch last year, most of which came after the catch and from the backfield. He’s a threat to take it the distance every time he touches the ball.

8) Zane Pope, WR

The first of three receivers to crack the top 10 returning players at Fresno State, Zane Pope is the biggest of the trio. At 6’2″ and nearly 200 pounds, he is primed to eat into the vacated targets from Keric Wheatfall’s haul in 2021. He’s a threat with his size and ability to separate all along his routes, while he’s no stranger to ripping off big gains after the catch. Pope is deceptively fast and wins everywhere on the field.

7) Josh Kelly, WR

Josh Kelly — a hometown product — finished second on the team in receiving yards, averaging nearly 15.0 yards per catch in 2021. Splitting his time both at X receiver on the outside as well as on the inside from the slot, Kelly is a jack of all trades in this Fresno State offense. With another year of Haener as his quarterback, his ability to separate from coverage defenders should only pay bigger dividends.

6) Justin Houston, HUSKY

An absolutely menacing defensive back, Justin Houston plays the Fresno State “HUSKY” role to perfection. He’s sound in coverage, breaking up three passes a year ago, but even better than what box-score statistics can showcase. Houston is a constant presence in his receiver’s face with sticky coverage skills and lateral agility despite tipping the scales at 6’4″. Making his impact felt in every facet, Houston also rarely misses tackles and has stellar instincts in the run game to stymie rushing lanes from his alignment in the slot.

5) Evan Williams, DB

A year after leading the team with three interceptions and 92 total tackles, Evan Williams is back to once again patrol the middle of the field from his strong safety spot. Williams plays a much bigger brand of football than you’d expect yet has the speed and athleticism to close space in every facet. He’s rarely beaten, if ever, in coverage and is a sure tackler when it comes to it in the run game.

4) David Perales, EDGE

One part of the truly terrific pass-rushing duo from a season ago, David Perales is back to cause more havoc for the Bulldogs in 2022. Perales recorded seven sacks a year ago but his impact in the passing game is hardly measured by statistics. He was a constant presence off the edge, pushing tackles into the throwing lane with strength or causing ill-advised passes/throwaways with quick wins using his speed. He’s a tremendous pass rusher with great upside due to his athleticism.

3) Dontae Bull, OT

With 26 starts under his belt, Dontae Bull is back for one more season at Fresno State. The massive left tackle stands at 6’7″ and 326 pounds but clears lanes in the rushing attack with speed and athleticism. Bull is no slouch in pass protection, but the bread and butter of his game is his ability to pave rushing lanes at every level. He’s no stranger to highlight-reel pancake blocks as No. 72 is must-watch TV.

2) Jalen Cropper, WR

Leading the team a year ago, Jalen Cropper finished the season with 85 receptions for 899 yards and 11 touchdowns. Included in those standard box-score numbers were moments in which Cropper took over games. It was his game-winning sideline catch against UCLA that stunned the Bruins. He followed that up with a four-touchdown performance against UNLV. Cropper is a quick, shifty target from the inside that somehow dominates no matter what level of the field he’s targeted. And he’s a yards-after-the-catch monster to boot.

1) Jake Haener, QB

The list of the best players returning for Fresno State, of course, is topped by Haener. A viable candidate as a first-round draft pick if all goes to plan, Haener has it all. He can hit every level of the field with his arm strength, never sacrificing accuracy. Haener has plenty of mobility and an even better pocket presence. What separates him from the rest of the Mountain West quarterbacks is his ability to create off-script and play equally as well from any platform. Haener is a college football great who could etch his name into the illustrious Fresno State record book with another dynamic season in 2022.

Honorable mention players returning to Fresno State in 2022

  • Bula Schmidt, C
  • Leonard Payne Jr., DT
  • Bralyn Lux., CB
  • Braylen Nelson, G
  • Mose Vavao, G
  • Isaiah Johnson, EDGE
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