Fresno State had Charles Washington at strong safety Friday for a crucial Mountain West Conference matchup against San Diego State, using his skills there rather than at cornerback. And until the Bulldogs solidify their play outside, it will continue that way, with each week's starting assignment determined by the strengths of the team on the opposite sideline.
Nevada-Las Vegas next week will present a different challenge than did the Aztecs with a downhill run game, and Boise State on Oct. 17 will be different than UNLV.
But after a slow start in fall camp and into the season, Jamal Ellis is looking to add some stability to the secondary as he did a year ago when he was pushed into the lineup when L.J. Jones went down with a knee injury at San Diego State.
Ellis made his second start of the season against the Aztecs on Friday night and is playing with more confidence now than he was early in the season. San Diego State took a shot at the redshirt sophomore on the first play of the game, trying to get a deep ball to Jemond Hazely. The pass fell incomplete.
"I feel pretty good with where I am now," Ellis said before the game. "It kind of took a little while to get going, but I feel like I'm really prepared. That New Mexico game, I felt comfortable out there. I got a lot of my swag back. I felt like I was out there playing with no swag, for the lack of a better word. But I feel more comfortable out there being on the field and things are coming a lot easier for me.
"That plays a major role in it. Corner is a position -- we talk about it all the time -- you have to go out there with a chip on your shoulder and you have to have that extra swag. I found that over the last two weeks. I found it in myself to go out there with some confidence, smile, and have fun with it."
New Mexico with its triple-option offense did not present much of a challenge, as the Lobos attempted only eight passes. But Ellis played well enough to secure a starting assignment against the Aztecs after getting in on five tackles, including one behind the line of scrimmage.
"Jamal played really well last week against New Mexico -- obviously they weren't as pass happy as San Diego State can be at times," said Jordan Petersen, who coaches Fresno State's secondary along with Marcus Woodson. "But Jamal has stepped up his game. Now, they know that everybody is going to get in the game depending on game flow and how the game is going, but I think that he's doing everything he needs to do to prepare himself."
The Bulldogs need that to continue as they pursue a third consecutive Mountain West Conference championship. Washington is their best strong safety, moving outside only because the cornerbacks struggled early in the season with technique and tackling in the open field. The staff is hoping Ellis and freshman Malcolm Washington can sort it out in games and the practice field -- they were splitting series through the first half against the Aztecs.
"It's going to be an open competition until one guys seizes that job," coach Tim DeRuyter said. "You have to step up. You know, he (Ellis) didn't play perfect last year, but he helped us win that football game and hopefully it is starting to get him confident. He's a guy that has talent. He needs to continue to work on the physicality of the game and consistency in his technique, but he has the tools to do it."
Fresno State faced much more of a challenge in the passing game against San Diego State than it had the previous week, but Ellis said he is ready for more.
"Sometimes it comes to you a little late," he said. "I just stayed with it, kept grinding and didn't get down on myself. I had the people around me like my mom, my family, supporting me, the other corners. It just came back to me. Sometimes it's like that.
"The same thing happened last year. L.J. went down and I had to step up. I feel like that's the role I have to take on right now. I'm doing a pretty good job of it."