The defending champion of the reigning Mountain West soccer world champions has a lot to do as he embarks on a quest to defend his title.

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Big questions abound.

The Fresno State Bulldogs began their spring training season today, the first steps on their path to a second straight conference crown next fall.

Jeff Tedford’s team looks very different now from the one that wrapped up a nine-game winning streak in 2022, but don’t underestimate his ability to figure things out. The trick, at least for now, will be to try to figure out a few more things than usual.

Who will replace Jake Haener at quarterback?

The Red Wave got a glimpse of life after Haener last fall when he was out for a month through injury and Logan Fife played in his place. The backup was accurate, posting a 70% completion rate at a respectable 7.4 yards per attempt, but Fife struggled to protect the football: Pro Football Focus gave it a 4.6% turnover worthy play rate, the Haeners doubled 2.2%, more along the line with the likes of Utah State’s Cooper Legas (4.7%), Nevada’s Nate Cox (4.3%) and New Mexico’s Miles Kendrick (4.9%).

With the arrival of UCF’s Mikey Keene, the fight should be wide open. Despite assisting John Rhys Plumlee in 2022, Keene posted a PFF pass grade of 81.8 and, for comparison, had a TWP% of 3.3% on 83 attempts. Co-ed Jaylen Henderson may also get another extended audition, but whoever turns out to be a serious contender will likely have to fight all fall to claim the starting job, too.

Where will all the goals of the last year go?

Jalen Moreno-Cropper, Nikko Remigio and Zane Pope have all moved on, taking their 270 combined goals into the NFL ranks. Josh Kelly is also gone after being posted to Washington State. Erik Brooks, who had 37 catches and three touchdowns last year, is the team’s best returning passcatcher, but the field to replace all of the Impact athletes behind him is wide open.

Brooks, Mac Dalena and tight end Tre Watson lead the veteran contingent on the team’s spring roster, but newer faces could step up and make an impact. Artis Cole, for example, joins the Bulldogs after scoring 18 touchdowns in 19 games at Glendale Community College over the past two seasons, while Tim Grear Jr. was the team’s top recruit in 2023 after starring at Ventura College . Redshirt freshmen Jalen Moss and Nathan Acevedo saw no action in 2022, but both came into the program with plenty of enthusiasm a year ago. Whatever happens, this contest will be just as fascinating to watch as the one below the middle.

Can the defensive line disrupt without David Perales?

The Bulldogs finished in the top 50 nationally for team sack rate and stuff rate and about the national average for power success rate, but there’s no question that Perales fueled much of that production: His 16 tackles for loss have everyone other defenders more than doubled on last year’s list, while his 11.5 sacks accounted for more than a third of the unit’s total.

Needless to say, in Kevin Coyle’s second year as defensive coordinator, there’s plenty to do to somehow bridge that production gap. The upside is that a number of last year’s key contributors, from veterans like Isaiah Johnson and Devo Bridges to up-and-coming players like Gavriel Lightfoot, who played 11 games as a true freshman, and Johnny Hudson Jr., who played five tackles had for the loss after moving out of the junior college ranks. The Bulldogs may not need another all-conference performance to succeed, but they do need more from the returning group to combat the likely degree of regression on offense.

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Story originally appeared on Mountain West Wire

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