Fresno State moved Charles Washington back to strong safety Friday night when up against New Mexico and its run-heavy triple-option offense, and the impacts of that shift cannot be discounted.
Washington, who has started this season at strong safety, nickel and against Nebraska and Southern Utah at cornerback, was in on six tackles in the 35-24 victory over the Lobos including a team-high two behind the line of scrimmage.
The biggest stop turned the game for the Bulldogs — he dropped quarterback Lamar Jordan for a 1-yard loss on a fourth-and-1 play at the Fresno State 18. Trailing 24-21 there with 4-plus minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Bulldogs were able to avoid going down by two scores and went on to take a lead on its ensuing drive.
But with the Bulldogs set to face a more conventional offense in San Diego State on Friday, do they move their best strong safety back to cornerback, where he becomes their best corner?
"Well, I'll tell you this," coach Tim DeRuyter said, "Charles will start."
That decision was in the works Saturday, as the Bulldogs' staff delved deeper into preparations for the Aztecs (2-2), who on Saturday beat UNLV 34-17.
Washington was unavailable — Saturday was the mandatory day off for the Bulldogs' players. But there are several factors that play into the decision and in getting the best 11 on the field against the Aztecs, picked second behind Fresno State in the West Division of the Mountain West Conference in the preseason with just two fewer points than the Bulldogs.
Injuries come into play. Shannon Edwards, who started at free safety when Washington was at nickel and at corner, did not make the trip to New Mexico after suffering a shoulder injury against Southern Utah. His status will be evaluated during the week.
The depth at safety comes into play. If Edwards is unable to go, Dalen Jones is next up and can slide into the strong safety spot -- he started there last season in the Mountain West champ ionship game victory over Utah State when Washington was first moved to cornerback.
Cornerback evaluation comes into play. Against New Mexico and a limited passing game (the Lobos attempted only eight passes), the Bulldogs had freshman cornerback Malcolm Washington make his first career start on one side and Jamal Ellis his first of the season on the other.
San Diego State had lost back-to-back road games at No. 21 North Carolina and at Oregon State going into its conference opener against the Rebels and had not been spectacularly dynamic.
The Aztecs passed for an average of 217.3 yards in their first three games and ranked eighth in the conference in yards per play (6.9) and ninth in efficiency rating (111.02). Against UNLV, they passed for 209 and ran for 257.
San Diego State had put the football into the air an average of 31 times a game, enough to challenge the Bulldogs' struggling pass defense.
Malcolm Washington and Ellis played well at New Mexico, but didn't get much of a test in coverage. Consistency in coverage and when tackling is a question, as it is for the others who have lined up at corner for the Bulldogs this season: Curtis Riley, Stratton Brown and Bryan Harper.
"For a true freshman, he did some good things," DeRuyter said of Malcolm Washington. "He's still got a way to go. He's learning. He did a great job of saving four points chasing the guy down when they creased us on the inside run. He's always been a good effort player and it was probably a good team to get his first start against because they really don't throw as much as other teams do.
"I'd really like to see him tackle better and get off blocks — part of that is he's still young and he's not as strong as he needs to be. But for his first start, I was happy with his play."
Where Charles Washington will line up will come down to answering the question of who is the Bulldogs' next best safety and next best cornerback, and how best they line up against San Diego State. It's an equation that could be revisited again next week.
"We're going to look and see who is practicing well and who needs to be where," DeRuyter said.
"This is a team that is going to try to pound the rock and take vertical shots, so we've got to have corners who can play man coverage and hold up in the vertical game, and we have to figure out who can play safety for us and be the eighth guy in the box at times."