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Mathews leaves big hole at Fresno St.

This is the second in a series of week-long previews featuring five non-AQ teams as we head into the start of fall camp.

Up today: Fresno St.

Fresno St. coach Pat Hill put it mildly when he said his team had some holes to fill during WAC media days.

More like a gargantuan hole in the middle of the backfield.

Ryan Mathews, who led the NCAA in rushing last season, has taken his talents to the NFL, leaving sophomore Robbie Rouse as the likely starter at running back. Sophomores Mike Harris and A.J. Hill should also be in the mix.

But there are several factors that work in Rouse’s favor as he attempts to replace Mathews. For one, the entire starting offensive line returns and should be one of the greatest strengths of the team when fall camp opens Thursday.

“We’re going to need this vet group because we’re breaking in a new group of receivers and running backs,” said Hill, going into his 14th year with the Bulldogs. “I think having a veteran line is always a key.

“On offense, there are so many things that can limit you if you’re not good on the offensive line. Until our young players adjust to the speed of the game, our offensive line is going to have to be that rock for us.”

The offense should also be helped with the return of quarterback Ryan Colburn, going into his second season as a starter. Hill says Colburn is entrenched but would like to see some competition from Derek Carr, the younger brother of David Carr. Derek Carr played in five games last season in limited work and is expected to redshirt should Hill stick with Colburn.

“They both had very good offseasons,” Hill said. “Colburn is a special, special guy and I had sort of the same problem back in 1999 when I had Billy Volek and David Carr and I redshirted David. It worked out good for Billy and it worked out good for David.

“Right now, Ryan Colburn is definitely our starter. He earned the job last year and played well for us. But it all starts again in the fall. If there’s a change at the quarterback position, we’ll make it, but right now Ryan Colburn is our quarterback.”

Still, it may be hard to replace the school-record 1,808 yards and 19 TDs from Mathews, who averaged 6.55 yards a carry. Rouse, at 5-foot-7, doesn’t have the size Mathews has, but has worked in the offseason to bulk up and improve his speed.

He ran for 479 yards and four touchdowns, and averaged 5.8 yards a carry last season behind Mathews, so you can say he learned from the best.

Now it’s his turn.

“We’ll spread the ball around in different ways,” Hill said. “We’ll still have a mentality of tough, hard-nosed football when we have to be.”

Other previews: