Fresno State has had freshman inside linebackers play early, pushed and prodded and developed quickly at a position where the transition is not easy physically or mentally in the multiple 3-4 defense.
Inside linebackers coach Nick Toth has had Jeff Camilli get to the field in 2013, Xavier Ulutu and Michael Lazarus play some in ’14, and Nela Otukolo play a lot last year before his season was derailed after eight games by a knee injury.
Looking for positives in the Bulldogs’ current 1-8 season that spiraled away very quickly? On defense, there is a young, aggressive corner in Juju Hughes and the development of redshirt freshman safety Mike Bell. And there is Jeffrey Allison, the latest in that line of freshman inside linebackers to play their way onto the field.
His football IQ and his ability to process as well as he is now is not normal.
Fresno State inside linebackers coach Nick Toth, on Jeffrey Allison
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Allison has had his reps in the defense cut back as the position group has gotten healthier, but he still is playing on special teams and has had an impact, having come in ahead of the curve.
“It’s a huge speed change, and if you don’t come from a school that teaches you a lot of football, it’s definitely more of a struggle learning it, but Jeff Allison came here and he is light years ahead of where I ever was my freshman or sophomore years,” said Camilli, who got into seven games as a freshman and now as a senior is tied for the team lead with 81 tackles. “I commend that guy, coming in here and balling out and doing a really good job. It’s a hard thing to do, but he’s doing it great. It’s cool to see.
“He’s real confident in his ability to make plays. He’s not afraid to shoot a gap. He knows what he has to do, where he has to be. He knows the playbook really well, and that’s huge. When you know the playbook, you play fast. When you don’t know the playbook, you play slow. Obviously he plays fast, and for a freshman, that’s huge.”
Allison, recruited by first-year defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward out of Langston Hughes High in Fairburn, Ga., did what he could to be prepared.
“I came in with the mindset of trying to get on the field and playing,” he said. “Before I got out here, I was working hard and making sure I knew how to study film and stuff like that, so things would come natural and I could come in and help the team out.”
Fresno State has had five freshman inside linebackers play over the past four seasons. Jeffrey Allison ranks second on that list in tackles per game with 2.2. Nela Otukolo averaged 3.1 last season.
The speed of the game wasn’t a problem. Learning and executing the Bulldogs’ defense was no issue, and he has been in on 20 tackles in limited action.
“He came in and learned it quick,” Camilli said. “That was my problem, but he came in here and learned it like it was nothing.”
Toth cites Allison’s intangibles.
“His football IQ and his ability to process as well as he is now is not normal,” Toth said. “At that position, you try to recruit a really fast guy and strong guy and physical guy and good tacklers, and all of that stuff is augmented by being able to process very quickly and react. He’s not memorizing anything; it’s reaction and instinct.
“He has that, and he just plays faster than he is. He has done a really good job of catching on to what we’re trying to do. He picks up opposing offenses pretty well. I think the kid has a bright future.”
Award season – Kody Kroening, who has made his past 13 field-goal attempts, is among 20 semifinalists for the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top kicker. The Bulldogs sophomore has made five kicks in his streak from 40 or more yards, including a career-long 49-yarder at Utah State.
Quarterbacks Chason Virgil and Zach Kline split reps almost evenly in practice Thursday, and interim coach Eric Kiesau said he had not decided who will start at Colorado State. Virgil, a redshirt freshman, has started all nine of the Bulldogs’ games.
Three finalists will be announced Nov. 22 and the winner on Dec. 5.
▪ Offensive lineman Jacob Vazquez was selected to the Academic All-District 8 team by the College Sports Information Directors of America. Vazquez, one of 156 semifinalists for the William V. Campbell Trophy as the nation’s top scholar-athlete, advances to the CoSIDA All-Academic team ballot.
Peck update – Bulldogs wideout Aaron Peck returned from an ankle injury to play a few reps last week against Air Force, catching one pass for 16 yards, and expected to be a full-go Saturday at Colorado State. He had a minor setback in practice Wednesday, but interim coach Eric Kiesau said he expects the senior to play.
“We rested him (Thursday) because he was a little sore, but he’s playing, for sure,” Kiesau said. “His mindset is he knows he has three games left, so he wants to give it everything he can and play and enjoy it. I respect that, and I told him as long as it doesn’t hurt the team, where you’re running too slow or can’t get out of breaks, he’ll be out there. I’m going to let him go because it’s important to him and he’s a good player and he can help us win this game and he wants to win. He’s in my ear about it.”
At Utah State and against Air Force, when Peck was out or limited, junior Delvon Hardaway got most of those plays. Hardaway was targeted 19 times by quarterback Chason Virgil in those two games and had six receptions for 77 yards.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE AT COLORADO STATE
- Saturday: 12:30 p.m. at Sonny Lubick Field at Hughes Stadium (34,400) in Fort Collins, Colo.
- Records: Bulldogs 1-8, 0-5 Mountain West; Rams 4-4, 2-2
- Online/radio: MWN/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)