The first two days of fall camp the Fresno State Bulldogs practiced in helmets and shorts, the next two days helmets, shoulder pads and shorts. On Monday, they will go in full pads for the first time and get a better idea if any of those young running backs that have been zipping through drills and catching passes out of the backfield in 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 periods can play the position.
There is a pass protection period in the practice plan for the Bulldogs’ backs, who come in all shapes and sizes from the 6-foot and 225-pound Dontel James to the 5-6 and 169-pound Dejonte O’Neal with 5-11 and 187-pound Saevion Johnson, 5-11 and 170-pound Deonte Perry and 5-8 and 165-pound Treyvon Green in between.
“That’s usually the key indicator for young guys,” Coach Tim DeRuyter said. “A lot of guys can play early if they don’t have to think about it, they just run the football.
“But it’s pass protection and understanding defenses, the pressures and overload looks where you really can differentiate who is ready to play and who is still maybe a year away.”
“It is,” James said, “the most important thing we do.”
James and O’Neal got a lot of experience with it in spring football and there was a lot of work done in meetings this summer with the protections schemes.
But it will be a bigger test for a group that lacks experience – James and O’Neal have played for the Bulldogs, but have not had a ton of game reps.
They also in the one-on-one drill could have a 262-pound Jeff Camilli, a 255-pound Jeffrey Allison or a 247-pound Nela Otukolo barreling toward them with bad intentions.
“We’ll do a lot of one on one work pass pro-wise with the linebackers,” running backs coach Dave Ungerer said. “We did a lot of it in the spring, a lot, but that was my first point in my meeting (before camp). Most of these guys were stars at their high school and they didn’t have to pass pro and now they’re in an offense where you do have to pass pro and not only do you have to pass pro but you have to know who to block.
“The protection scheme is about 20 times harder than it was in high school – there are dual reads, scan protection, all kinds of things that these guys are like, ‘What?’ It’s knowing who to block and then executing that. It’s not easy. That’s definitely the hardest part.”
One drill won’t make or break anyone in the position group, but there’s no understating its importance.
“It’s going to be great,” Ungerer said. “That’s going to be fun. It’ll be a good day.”
Hughes pushing ceiling higher – Senior cornerback Tyquwan Glass got what DeRuyter called a maintenance day off, which allowed Juju Hughes, the freshman from Hanford High, to rep with the No. 1 defense.
Hughes put together another strong practice, which included an interception of No. 1 quarterback Chason Virgil, the first he has thrown in fall camp.
“He has come along,” said Sean Alston, the graduate assistant who assists defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward in coaching the secondary and a former Fresno State cornerback.
“He picks up the defense well, which is surprising. You expect young guys to come in and learn slow, but he has picked it up really well. Obviously, the plays that he has been making shows that. We install every day. We’ve thrown a lot at him and he has picked it up well.”
Said DeRuyter: “He doesn’t act like he’s a young guy. He acts like he has been here. Those are the guys – especially at those positions, you have to have a lot of confidence to play corner – gives you a chance. He and Jaron (Bryant) both have impressed us. But he has had a chance to come out here and make plays and I think his confidence level goes up every time he does.”
Tight end talent there – Running a spread system the past four seasons there were games the Bulldogs’ tight ends knew going into game week there wouldn’t be a lot of footballs headed in their general direction, just from the defense that they would be facing and what they run.
San Diego State is one of those teams – from 2012 to ’15 the Bulldogs played their Mountain West rival four times, attempted 165 passes and competed 103 and not one was caught by a tight end.
That’s 41.3 pass plays and 25.8 completions per game.
But that’s changing this season, the role of the tight end expanding significantly in the new offense installed by coordinator Eric Kiesau, both in the run game and the pass game. And, for a team that didn’t have a lot of tight ends just a few years ago, the talent is there.
Junior Chad Olsen is the most experienced player in a group that includes Kyle Riddering, Jared Rice, David Tangipa and freshmen Johnny Rojas and Donte Coleman, and it is has had a presence early in camp.
“We’re involved just as much, but I feel like we’re open a lot more and the quarterbacks are really starting to see that,” said Olsen, who has 32 receptions in 25 career games. “They’re starting to really recognize us as a much more viable option, which is nice.
“We aren’t just stuck in this one mold of a traditional tight end or the tight end I used to be in that old spread system. We’re really becoming that ultimately well-rounded tight end. We’re doing a little bit of everything, which is what I love to do. It’s a lot of fun.”
Moving toward health – Freshman outside linebacker Lukas McKenzie, who tweaked a knee during summer conditioning workouts, was able to do some running and agility work on the side.
“We feel a lot better,” DeRuyter. “Initially, the prognosis could have been six to eight weeks. We’re hoping it will be closer to two to three. It’s going to be non-surgical, which is really good.”
McKenzie, with a return to health, could be a key depth piece for the Bulldogs. Sophomore James Bailey, senior Brandon Hughes and junior Tobenna Okeke have played a lot of football, but they are pushing competition for the fourth and fifth spots in fall camp.
Justin Green is in there, as is Stephen Van Hook.
Van Hook had one of three interceptions made by the defense in the Sunday practice, an in the right place at the right time pick. Cornerback Jamal Ellis closed and contested a pass with a receiver, deflecting the football into the air and Van Hook was able to pull it down.
Et cetera – Left tackle Logan Hughes, the JC transfer who didn’t join the team until report day and was thrust into action with the No. 2 offense, is making quick progress. He had a block in a team period toward the end of practice that had teammates giving him high fives all the way to the sideline.
“I’ve really been pleased with him,” DeRuyter said. “Obviously, it was a need area for us and so it’s great to see him. He has some grit about him and it was great to see him step up.”
▪ Defensive end Kyle Hendrickson, who is coming back from a knee injury suffered against Colorado State in the final game of the 2015 season, is participating in individual drills. He is coming up on the nine-month mark from his surgery and could be cleared for contact soon.
▪ The third pick by the defense was made by Jackson Finch, who made a nice break on a ball over the middle. Finch, who played at Modesto Central Catholic and Contra Costa College, is competing to get into the mix at safety.
“Anytime we sign guys that are junior college transfers, we expect them to compete, to be in the two-deep and go attack it,” DeRuyter said. “He’s still in a learning mode – he was not here in the spring time – so it’s tough for him and (cornerback Jerrell Sykes) both. Those guys have to learn what to do, but both those guys have the potential to be in the two-deep.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada