Fresno State already has five true freshman playing on its defense, and with a bye before returning to Mountain West Conference play there is a premium this week on ramping up the competition at a number of positions.
Those players — inside linebackers Xavier Ulutu and Michael Lazarus, outside linebackers Tobenna Okeke and Justin Green and cornerback Malcolm Washington — might not take starting jobs away from older teammates, but they certainly can cut into the number of snaps they get on game days over the final four games of the regular season.
"It’s real," defensive coordinator Nick Toth said of the competition. "The good thing is, at almost every positon, there is somebody else that can play. You feel like you've got a good group of inside and outside linebackers in terms of depth, so if a guy is ready to play there, if he produces, then he can play. I don't know that (free safety Derron Smith) is necessarily getting pushed for a job, but Charles (Washington) certainly is. Guys have got to play. I don't know that Tyeler (Davison) is necessarily getting pushed for a job at nose, but there certainly are a couple of ends that can play.
"The numbers are real — there is competition there at about eight of the 11 jobs. And for me, I love all my guys, but that has nothing to do with who plays. We owe it to them and they owe it to us to play productive guys and play the guys that are producing. If a guy is earning playing time and he's finishing, then he deserves to play football. That's where it's at."
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In losses the past two weeks at UNLV and at Boise State, assignment busts played a part in big plays that led to scores or kept alive drives. The Rebels converted eight third-down plays and one fourth into first downs. Against the Broncos, it was nine and two.
The production needs to improve, and the Bulldogs are pushing reps in practice to make sure there are ready answers if it slips during games as it has the past two weeks.
"We’re always looking at the competition," coach Tim DeRuyter said. "We've been playing a lot of the younger guys and we have a lot of talent in those classes, but they have to be consistent as well. At the end of the day, you have to look at who is getting it done and if older guys aren't getting it done we're going to keep looking, but we still have to have confidence that on Saturdays the young guy is going to be consistent enough. But we keep getting them reps, and we're going to get them more reps.
"That last game we had a problem finishing plays and when an older guy is not finishing plays he better hurry up and figure it out because we can’t continue to invest in a guy two-thirds of the way through the season who’s not finishing. They know that, and they’re working at it. It’s not a question of a lack of effort. It’s about focus and finish.’’
"I’m not worried about senior or freshmen," Toth said. "They're all working. Seniors always get the respect they're due, but everyone has got to play. Everyone has to make plays when they're on the field. There is no free pass given to someone because of age, or a lack of age. When we put our freshmen on the field, they're not a freshman. I understand that things are going to happen, I understand the reasons why things go wrong. That doesn't mean you tolerate it going wrong. Whether it's a freshman making that mistake or a senior, I want to put the guy on the field that can down the ball.
"And, simultaneously, they have to expect that their coaches are going to do a good job. We have to prepare them the right way. We have to make sure the defenses we're calling are correct. It's not just them. It's not just the players not making plays, it's all around."
• Fresno State picked up a $500,000 bonus through the Mountain West Conference television package when its Nov. 1 game against Wyoming was picked up for a national television broadcast on ESPN2. The Bulldogs' game at Nevada on Nov. 22 also could be selected, triggering another bonus.
• The Bulldogs also are doing some live tackling this week and next week, and that likely will continue into the prep for the game against the Cowboys. "If we would have had the consistency from Southern Utah to New Mexico to San Diego State, if that would have carried over, then you pull back on some of those things," Toth said. "But we're not finishing plays well. The only way I know to get that better is to finish it more in practice. They have to down the ball. That's the only way we know to get it better."
• Outside receivers coach Ron Antoine and secondary coaches Jordan Peterson and Marcus Woodson left practice midway through to catch flights to Texas to hit the recruiting trail.
• The Bulldogs have forced 10 turnovers in eight games — six fumbles recoveries and four interceptions. They had 35 turnovers gained in 2012 and 23 last season. …