It’s all games and fun right now for Fresno State safety Mike Bell, and why not?
The Bulldogs (4-2) are 3-0 in the Mountain West and headed into a matchup Saturday at San Diego State (6-1, 2-1) that likely will determine the West champion and the division’s representative in the conference championship game.
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They lead the league in scoring defense, no small feat for any team with games in back-to-back weeks at No. 1 Alabama and then-No. 6 Washington. They have forced nine turnovers in conference play, most in the Mountain West, 11 over the past four games and 13 on the season, which is four more than all of last season.
“It’s a blast,” Bell said. “I love where our defense is right now.”
Bell, a redshirt sophomore, has been right there in the middle of a tight defense that has been playing its assignments but not yet to its full potential.
In four games he has averaged 7.3 tackles, second on the team behind Mike linebacker Jeffrey Allison’s eight. He has 1.5 tackles for loss and in a 38-0 victory last week over New Mexico picked off a pass, busted up another and recovered a fumble.
It hasn’t always been that way for the Bulldogs nor for Bell, who entered the program as a cornerback and at 6 feet, 3 inches and 205 pounds had the physicality, athleticism and ability to make an impact. He was a redshirt his first year in the program and last season played primarily on special teams, earning his first start against San Jose State in the final game of the year.
The coaching change didn’t immediately trigger a definitive step forward.
“It has been a process,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “It was kind of expectations and standards, holding him accountable. I think he has turned a corner with that, with the way he does things. He’s understanding how important it is not to take shortcuts and how much potential he really has if he were to just completely buy in to what’s going on and trust himself and have confidence in who he is and what he’s doing.
“I think he has made a transition, because he is a physical player and has a lot of ability. He has kind of found a spot and bought into the standards, he has done a good job.”
But that only makes the defense and each part to it more intriguing as coordinator Orlondo Steinauer and the rest of the defensive staff continue to fasten pieces together.
Bell, and many on that defense, are in development.
In the secondary, safety Juju Hughes in a sophomore as is cornerback Jaron Bryant and Allison.
Up front, Fresno State is senior heavy with Nate Madsen, Malik Forrester, Robert Stanley and Tobenna Okeke, but in a deep rotation sophomores Jasad Haynes, Kwami Jones and Keiti Iakopo and redshirt freshman Kevin Atkins all are logging reps.
“I still have a young crew,” defensive backs coach J.D. Williams said. “They’re all young. For a lot of them, it’s their first time playing a significant amount of time. They have expectations. Now, they’re expected to be good players. They’re expected to learn. They’re expected to be in the right place at the right time and do the right things.
“Mike, it’s a little different than the past few years because, obviously, he redshirted and then he was not a starter so he didn’t have that same pressure. Now he has that pressure and he has to live up to those expectations.”
We all know our assignment, we all know what we need to do, and we’re just locked in on that. When everybody is locked in, the shine goes to everybody.
Fresno State safety Mike Bell
The more they practice and play to a standard, the more can be added to a multiple scheme that already has played havoc with quarterbacks and offenses in the Mountain West; in 43 drives over 12 quarters of football, Fresno State has allowed four touchdowns and one field goal.
For Bell, there is a lot still in front of him.
“He’s still learning how to work hard and everything, leaning how to take every play seriously,” Williams said. “It’s paying attention to details, not letting any reps out here slip away. I believe Mike has embraced that and you could see it in his play.”
But to Bell, that means only one thing as the Bulldogs continue to progress in this defense. More fun.
“Everyone knows what their assignment is on the defensive end and we’ve just been playing assignment football, knowing exactly what we need to do,” Bell said.
“Coach O, man, his play-calling, his mindset is just amazing. It’s fun to see how he thinks, how he operates. He always breaks it down so we know what everybody on the field is doing and when you know your assignments and you know where your help is and everyone is filling in, it’s fun to play.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE AT SAN DIEGO STATE
- Saturday: 7:30 p.m. at SDCCU Stadium (54,000)
- Records: Bulldogs 4-2, 3-0 Mountain West; Aztecs 6-1, 2-1
- TV/radio: CBS Sports Network/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: Aztecs lost at home to Boise State on Saturday 31-14, falling into second behind the Bulldogs in the West Division. The Broncos shut down running back Rashaad Penny, a four-time Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week this season. Penny gained 53 yards on 21 plays and the two-time defending conference champions had 323 total yards, 83 on the ground. The Aztecs lead the conference in total defense (311.4 yards per game).