Ryan Grubb, the Fresno State offensive coordinator and line coach, first met Tyrone Sampson at a football camp in downtown Detroit. Sampson was a high school sophomore and an intriguing prospect. Good feet, good athleticism, bright. He was strong, physical. Devontae Dobbs, who was one of the top offensive line prospects in the nation in 2019 and signed with Michigan State, also was in that camp and without question the pair stood out.
“It was like, ‘Whoa, who are these guys?’” Grubb said.
By the time Sampson was a senior at East English Village Prep, he was ranked as the No. 4 center prospect in the nation in the Class of 2018, the No. 6 overall prospect in Michigan and a U.S. Army All-American selection. He had a collection of Power Five scholarship offers – Nebraska, Arizona State, Indiana, Minnesota, Kentucky, Mississippi.
From time to time over the past year-plus, Grubb kept looking for that guy.
Sampson had committed to Fresno State after national letter of intent signing day had come and gone, but he was never quite there yet. There were some injuries that set him back and some weight issues, all while getting used to crushing the daily grind at a requisite level for a group that had the past two seasons been one of the best in the Mountain West Conference.
But when the Bulldogs most needed him, Sampson stepped front at center.
Handoff from Smith to Sampson
Matt Smith, a former non-scholarship walk-on who worked his way into the role of starting center and a team captain, went down late in the first half in a 41-38 victory at Hawaii with a broken fibula, the seventh Fresno State lineman to be lost for the season going back to the spring.
In a season the Bulldogs have had four starters at left guard and three at left tackle, Sampson was next up inside.
He went to Smith on the sideline, and needed only a few words.
“I told him that I had him,” Sampson said. “I had his back. I wasn’t going to let him down …”
In the second half the Bulldogs churned out 317 yards, the most they have had this season in any half of football.
They averaged 7.7 yards per play – 7.9 on 22 rushing plays and 7.5 on 19 pass plays. They had 16 first downs in the half after averaging 16.7 in their first three Mountain West Conference games.
They converted 4 of 6 third-down plays, moving the sticks on a third-and-14 pass from quarterback Jorge Reyna to Jalen Cropper, a third-and-6 pass to tight end Jared Rice, a third-and-7 on a run by Reyna and a third-and-10 run by Ronnie Rivers.
Fresno State this season had converted on only 30 of 85 third-down plays, 35.3%.
‘He showed up’
“He showed up,” Grubb said of Sampson.
“Tyrone did a great job,” Reyna said. “He focused in. He appreciated the moment and he attacked it.”
Smith, back on the sideline in the second half, kept giving Sampson tips, encouragement, instruction.
“Those two,” Reyna said, “have a brothership that not a lot of people have.”
That last third-down play set up a winning 37-yard field goal by Cesar Silva as time expired and was well executed up front.
Rivers shot through a gaping hole up the middle created by guards Quireo Woodley and Jace Fuamatu and Sampson, who passed off defensive tackle Azia Se’ei to Woodley and took Hawaii linebacker Paul Scott out of the play.
“We did our job,” Sampson said. “We went out there in the second half, executed as a whole offense, came out with the win.
“I really want to give a big shout-out to Matt Smith because he prepared me for that. He got me ready to just go in and act like nothing has changed at all.”
‘Crazy first punch’
That ability to take on and take out defenders is not a surprise, said defensive tackle Keiti Iakopo, who has lined up countless times against Sampson in one-on-one drills.
“Tyrone is a dog,” Iakopo said. “He didn’t have those stars for no reason. He’s a very talented kid. He’s strong, too. He has a crazy first punch. If he gets his hands on you with that first punch, it’s kind of over for you. He’s one of those type of guys. He’s young, too. The more time he has and develops as a player, it’s going to be crazy to see.”
And as that line depth dwindles, the redshirt freshman gives the Bulldogs a chance to build on that half of football at Hawaii down the stretch. Fresno State, 4-4 and 2-2 in the Mountain West, controls its fate in the West Division race with a game on Saturday at home against Utah State followed by a Friday night matchup at San Diego State that likely determines whether the Bulldogs play for a conference title for a third year in a row.
Fresno State finishes with divisional games against Nevada and at San Jose State.
“It was nice to see him respond the way that he did,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “The offensive line coaches do a nice job through the week of practice making sure they get enough reps and trading guys in and things like that, but you still have to stay attentive and focused on the details with what’s going on, especially at that position when you’re kind of the quarterback of the line.
“He gets a lot of reps in practice, but it’s obvious that he pays attention in meetings and the coaches are doing a nice job with him.”