When Claudell Louis arrived at Fresno State, he was 6 feet, 4 inches and 290 pounds of potential who looked every bit a finished product as a defensive end. Then and now, he stands out.
"Every NFL scout that comes in says, 'Who's 90?' " coach Tim DeRuyter said.
That part, Louis had down.
But growing up in Haiti, the gravitational pull was toward soccer and that's what he lived. After moving to the U.S. in 2001, Louis played one year of high school football as a freshman before returning to the sport he grew up with. Eventually, he had to give up the game — he simply got too big. But that led him back to football, and a friend led him to College of the Sequoias, where he played 11 games as a freshman and four as a sophomore, relying on his size and strength to outmuscle opponents.
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The techniques, the game itself, were not natural. But Louis is starting to grow into the potential that DeRuyter and the Bulldogs' defensive staff saw two years ago, and this week he is challenging Todd Hunt for a starting spot against San Jose State.
"He's always been a highly conscientious kid. He wants to do the right thing," DeRuyter said. "Football was not real natural to him, but he's starting to develop into a guy who is really coming off the ball well. His redirect is getting better. He's starting to get some flexibility going, and that's what he needs. When he comes off the bus, you think this guy is a guy and he's starting to live up to that potential."
Getting here from there took a lot of work, both physically and in learning the Bulldogs' defense.
Louis, who came in with three years to play two seasons of four-year college football, was redshirted last season. He reworked his body, gaining flexibility, improving his lower body strength. He is much more fluid than last season.
"He's worked very hard at his ability to sink and settle and get out of a cut," strength and conditioning coach Joey Boese said. "He has done a nice job. He has worked hard. It's important to him and I expect him only to get better here over the next couple of weeks."
But the biggest difference has been on the field, understanding the defense and the techniques, and the confidence that he has gained from that.
Coming out of fall camp, Louis was the fifth or sixth defensive lineman in the playing rotation. Now, he is fourth or fifth and, DeRuyter said, could crack the starting lineup if not this week against the Spartans then perhaps Nov. 22 at Nevada or in the regular-season finale Nov. 29 against Hawaii.
"It's confidence, realizing that he has these skills and that he can use them," defensive line coach Pete Germano said. "Also, reacting and playing fast, not thinking. He sees a certain scheme, a certain thing happening to him, he knows how to react to it. He still has in some regards a way to go in that, but the game is slowing down for him so he can play faster. The understanding of what's going on, getting more comfortable and getting more confidence. I think that's huge."
For Louis, that has been the biggest part of the puzzle.
"The biggest challenge to me was the playbook," he said. "When I first got in, I didn't understand the playbook and I didn't know where to go, but in the offseason talking to Todd, Tyeler (Davison) and the whole D-line, we'd go out on the field on our own and then we'd have a D-line workout where we work on our footwork, we'd go over the reads and the plays and stuff like that, and that's where I felt my development came a long way. I'm understanding the big picture and where everybody is supposed to fit. I understand what I'm supposed to be doing.
"It's coming along pretty good, but I don't want to jump ahead. I just want to keep learning, keep learning, keep learning, trying to pick Tyeler's brain and Todd's brain, because they have more experience than me, and see where I can go from there."
The end result could be imposing.
"He can be a really good football player," Germano said. "The game is slowing down for him and he's getting some confidence in his abilities. At times he's unsure. Sometimes he's not quite sure and he takes it hard. But last week he had a good week of practice so he was the first guy off the bench and he deserved that and the plan is to continue playing him.
"He has really made a nice jump. Claudell is a good kid. He cares. He cares about the team. He cares about winning. He cares about getting better. And that's part of it. It's a breath of fresh air to see him improve. It makes you smile, because you know where he was and you know where he's going. It also makes you smile that he has another year."
• Davison was named to the 32-player midseason watch list for the Ted Hendricks Award, which goes annually to a player whose primary position is defensive end. On-field performance, leadership, contributions to school and community, and academic preparedness are some of the criteria used, with the field to be narrowed further ahead of the Dec. 10 announcement of the winner. Davison has 40 tackles, five for loss, and three sacks.
FRESNO STATE VS. SAN JOSE STATE
Vitals: 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Bulldog Stadium
Records: Bulldogs 3-6, 2-3 Mountain West; Spartans 3-5, 2-2
TV: CBS Sports Network (cable)
Radio: KFIG (AM 940); KGST (AM 1600)