Jamal Ellis had been on the field before - a play or two here or there when it mattered, more of them when the Fresno State Bulldogs had a big lead. In that limited time, working his first game reps, the redshirt freshman cornerback felt it, played a bit tight.
But on Saturday, when senior L.J. Jones went down in the first quarter at San Diego State with a knee injury and with a whole lot of snaps in front of him, Ellis knew there was no time for any of that.
"With all that was on the line, the winning streak and being a big rivalry game, I had to have confidence being out there," he said. "There was no room not to be confident. L.J. went down, so I had to go out and do my thing."
Ellis did that, 60-plus plays against the Aztecs as the Bulldogs' pulled out an overtime victory. Some were good, some not so good. The biggest thing, defensive coordinator Nick Toth said, is that he competed. He had a look in his eye. "He was going to go now," Toth said. And that has set him up well going forward and replacing one of the best cornerbacks in the Mountain West in Jones, who ranks second in the conference and 26th in the nation in passes defended.
Had Jones been injured in the fourth quarter instead of the first, it might be different.
"It was different being out there for the whole game," Ellis said. "I usually go out there for one or two plays and L.J. or Curtis (Riley) go right back in, but being in for the whole game was a good experience.
"It toughened me up a little bit, given the situation. It was a close game, it went to overtime. I felt like it built my confidence a little bit. It was good. I feel like I'm always a confident guy, but I was confident without playing 60-plus plays in a Division I football game."
That, as much as anything, could carry Eliis the next few weeks with the Bulldogs set to face some of the better offenses in the conference in Nevada on Saturday, then Wyoming and after the option offense of New Mexico a game at San Jose State.
"The guy has a lot of intelligence in the game, for him I just think it's more of him getting his confidence up and that's what I tell him every day, like, 'Man, you know what you're doing, just go out and play your game,' " said Jones, who is expected to be out three to four weeks.
"We talk about it all the time, even before L.J. had his injury," cornerbacks coach Jordan Peterson said. "You have to prepare like you're the No. 1 because you're always one play away. He's always had that mindset. He's always come out and competed. Obviously, it became reality for him in the first quarter of the San Diego State game. He ended up getting a lot of snaps, which I think is good experience for him.
"I think he's handled it well. He has that mentality that you want with a corner - he's ready to go and compete with anybody. Mindset-wise, coupled with the scheme and understanding what we want to do and what we want to get done, whether it's base down or third down, he has it all. He knows our scheme - this is his second year in it. I don't worry about him struggling with understanding what we're trying to get done. Now it's just going to be putting it all together and performing on Saturday."