Fresno State had some high-test players on its defense last season in safety Derron Smith and nose guard Tyeler Davison, both this month going through the NFL combine. But the Bulldogs had a difficult time putting together a good mix, playing well in some games and playing poorly in others.
Inexperience hurt, particularly at the cornerback position where the Bulldogs started five players, with Bryan Harper, Charles Washington, Malcolm Washington and Jamal Ellis getting at least one start on one side and Curtis Riley, Ellis and Charles Washington getting at least one start on the other side.
And, the big play again was a problem in the passing game. They gave up 54 pass plays of 20 or more yards and 78 overall, ranking 10th of 12 in the Mountain West Conference in both categories.
Fresno State also was ninth in the conference in scoring defense at 32.4 points per game and 10th in total defense in allowing 456.0 yards per game.
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Coach Tim DeRuyter, defensive coordinator Nick Toth and the Bulldogs get a start turning that around on Monday, when they open the first of their 15 spring practices.
But there is a lot to do, and a lot of questions to answer in finding replacements for Smith and Davison as well as outside linebacker Donavon Lewis and Mike linebacker Karl Mickelsen and tweaking the defense to fit the personnel that will line up in the fall.
Toth previewed what is ahead in this Q&A with the Bee.
The Bee: It seems that with some of the guys that have moved on, Derron Smith, Tyeler Davison, Donavon Lewis, Karl Mickelsen, those guys, that even with some guys coming back you lost more than ...
Toth: We did. We lost some important guys. Tyeler is going to be hard to replace.
Why don’t we start there? You are moving Nate (Madsen) inside from end.
We’re going to try Nate inside. He has the skill set for it. His weight is getting where we want him to be. The weight room has been really good for him and I think with his movement and his agility he can be a guy that can be really good in there. Ryan Steele, he’s progressing. He has had a good offseason so far. His body is looking the way we want it to, and right now in a lot of the competitive stuff were doing he’s flashing so I’m really encouraged by him.
And we have to see schematically how we attack it, because we’re not going to be the same defense. We’re not going to play the nose guard position the same. We fit that position the last three years to that guy (Davison). It’s going to evolve. It’s going to be a different deal. We’re not going to ask that guy to do the same things that Tyeler did. I’m going to fit it more to Nate and Ryan and hopefully Tyler Puccio can be healthy here at some point. I don’t think it’s going to be until the fall at the earliest, but I think he’s a guy that we’re still excited about evaluating in his career. And I’m not certain that we’re done with recruiting. There are still some pieces to that puzzle at nose guard that I don’t think are with us right now. And that’s not including even the freshmen.
Jaleel Carter is going to come in and he fits that mold. He’s going to be a 300-pound guy that’s real quick. But, being a true freshman, I don’t have the expectation that he’s going to be that guy. I’d love him to be that guy. He has the potential to be that guy. But I’m not going to put that on him, that he’s going to be the guy to replace Tyeler right away.
So, it’s probably going to be a little bit by committee unless one of those guys grabs it and I think Nate certainly could and Ryan certainly is going to give him a fight for it.
What changed with Ryan?
That’s a great question. It’s probably a similar question to Claudell Louis when he started changing and becoming a guy that can play for us. Brandon Hughes, he had that moment where he turned the corner and has become a much better football player for us.
I think the first thing is (strength and conditioning coach Joey Boese) and our strength program really started changing Ryan’s body. He had a bunch of bad high school weight on him when he came in and he didn’t play real well and it kind of all jumped on his back, so his confidence kind of got beat up, too. But he’s taken some time and he has gotten right physically, and then he had a little bit of success. He started to have some success toward the end of the year when we do our developmental stuff and during bowl practice. Ryan had some scrimmage reps that were pretty impressive, playing like the guy we thought he was going to be. So I think the confidence came back from some of that and that’s good.
Those guys they shift back. They play high school and they’re going. They’re the guy on their team. Then they get here and they start redshirting and they don’t know how to deal with that. They don’t intentionally do it, but they gear back. They focus on the time in the weight room, they focus on body development and academics and there are guys that kind of concede that they’re not ready to play and so the fire just isn’t there. Sometimes, you have to restart it. I think that’s what has happened with Ryan.
Now, it’s far from being done. He’ll tell you — he hasn’t arrived. But he’s much closer to being in our picture right now than he ever has been.
Like you said, though, he came in as a freshman as a 300-pound guy and then last fall he had dropped a lot of weight, probably too much weight for the position. So he has done some work.
Right. And he had lost the weight, but had not gained the strength. Now he has done that. He has gained the strength and is getting the better body weight that goes with it and he’s able to run. This is not a league, we’re not a single A-gap playing plugger league. That guy has to move for us, and so he is getting to where we want him to be and he’s worked hard at it. And he has that competitiveness back to him, too. We probably wanted to see that a little bit more throughout camp last year and he had probably shifted back too much. I think he’s learning that.
Physically, though, he’s at a point where he can provide some legitimate competition there?
Absolutely. And from now until August, he’ll be even better. We’re not anywhere near — now, a month from now, three months from now — we’re not going to be where we want to be. We’re going to be where we want to be when we get going in August. We know there are gains that have got to happen. What did we play, five or six true freshmen last year? And there are going to be more young guys that are going to play. This thing in the near future is not going be where we want it to be until we start getting a lot more reps under us. I think it will end up where we want to be. I think Ryan is going to end up where we want. But there’s a lot of growth that has to happen.
I’m patient with them. I’m not patient when I’m with them and I’m not asking them to be patient trying to get there, but it is a process. There’s a reason that your first year you play one freshman and your second year you play one freshman and then all of a sudden in your third year you have to play five freshmen. There are reasons for that. It doesn’t mean we can’t win. We’re fighting through those things right now. But our depth chart is getting where we want it to be. It really is. If we can keep these guys going, I think we’ll be OK.
There was some thought to maybe moving one of the O-line guys over at some point.
You know, we recruited a couple of those guys as both sides of the ball and I don’t know that it will happen immediately. It may or may not. When I watched a couple of those guys play when we were recruiting them, I wanted them. They were guys that I thought would be good defensive ends, good interior defensive linemen 3-technique type bodies.
But you have to make sure you’re pulling someone away. I don’t want to bring them over and play them as a two or a three, but he’s going to be repping with the twos and the ones. You have to have that balance. And then like you said, I don’t want to bring a guy over that I can out-recruit in six months, either. You don’t want to do a Band-Aid thing unless you really have to. I don’t know that it’s time for a Band-Aid. I think we have a good solution in place. I still think we’re finding answers here.
I feel better about our D-line situation right now than I did that first year, when we felt like we had a lot of concerns. Now, obviously, we had Tyeler, but we didn’t know anything about those other guys going into the spring. I think we have some guys that will be all right, we’re just going to be young and a little green. But you have to find a playmaker in there. You have to find somebody that’s going to replace those plays that Tyeler made and that’s not easy to do. I’m not afraid of it, but it is what it is.
What are your expectations for your outside guys in putting that front together, Todd Hunt and Claudell Louis?
Well, both those guys, they need to pick up the slack. They have to be the immediate answer to some of the playmaking deal. There is a lot of reps invested in Todd Hunt. He has played a lot of game reps, he has played against big people, he has played in championship games. Claudell now has grown into that. So there are a couple of things there — there are a lot of invested reps, and there also is a sense of leadership that has been earned through their investment.
What we lose in Tyeler, we have two guys coming back that have played a bunch. That are right there in the core I expect that to rub off. I expect them to have an impact on the guy that’s lined up in between them. I expect them to be more flexible with how we play them and where we play them and what we do schematically. I expect them to handle that more. And I expect them to be leaders in that locker room. Where you had Tyeler, who was a leader, mostly by ability and playing on the field. These two guys, especially Todd, can be a leader vocally. He has that in him. That’s the expectation for them. I expect them to be guys. Both of those guys have to be guys that play for us and we have a hard time taking them off the field and they’re fighting to be on there and all these young guys that want to play are sitting there saying, ‘I’m banging my head up against these two upperclassmen.’ That’s what I want. Now, is that realistic? I think it is for at least one of them. Claudell, he still has got to make some steps, make some strides. But I think Todd is close to where we want him.
Who provides the push this spring?
The good thing is you’ve got Kyle Hendrickson there and you have Gabe Newman and Gabe is a lot like Stratton Brown and even Claudell, where we got the chance to not play him for that (first) year. Gabe came in and we didn’t have to force-feed him, we didn’t have to get him beat up. We took him because he has three more seasons left — he’s a four for three guy. Those have been our best junior college guys. So, the thing with Gabe, I can’t wait a year to have that learning curve that Claudell had. I need that thing to start happening now. I think that’s good for him. I think it’s more likely that it happens because he is repping with the twos right now. He is going right now. The amount of reps he is going to get ... he is not a three like Claudell was. Like, Claudell ended up being a three and occasionally he would get reps as a two. Gabe is going to be a two and he’s going to go.
Kyle is kind of the same thing. Kyle physically can do a lot of the things we want — he’s a big dude, he’s up to almost 270 now and I think he’s going to be even bigger than that. I think he’s exactly what we want at that position, we’re just going to have to rep the heck out of him, coach the heck out of him. But he has a great motor. He has the motor of a Nikko Motta. He’s going to be a bigger dude than that, but he reminds me of that. We need that again. We need that type of guy. He might not be a 4.7 (40-yard dash), but whatever that 40 is, it’s going to run sideline to sideline.
The first two years here, that kind of anchored our defensive line. We had awesome Tyeler inside, and then you had a little bit of crazy edge to you on the outside. I’m expecting Kyle to be that.
And then you have Suli Faletuipapai, and I’ve practiced really hard on saying that name, Suli is in the mix there. We’ll see how that goes. Mason Bradley is going to come in as a freshman and he’s a lot like Kyle except more developed than Kyle was. Kyle was probably 227 on his official visit here. So we knew it was going to be a process. Mason is going to come in and he’s going to be bigger. He’s going to come in and be around 250 and a lot stronger, but you expect him to be an immediate guy … I don’t know.
We’re going to have to do some different things there, like we did those other years, where we slid Donavon Lewis in there and pulled him out. We’re going to do that with a couple of guys, I think. Were going to have to, if the offenses let us.
You mentioned the leadership with Todd. When you look back at last year when you had Tyeler and Derron (Smith) and Karl and some pretty strong seniors, did the play on the field just not match up to where those players were? Could they not pull the defense along with them? You look at Derron after games, everything was on the field.
Good question. I think that we left a lot of plays on the field that should have been made. I think that we probably didn’t recognize our deficiencies on the roster, on the defensive depth chart, overcame some of our strengths because the guys that were starting were not able to impact the plays that we were hit the most. And then I think we had some guys press because they wanted to do more. Guys like Derron, Tyeler and Karl, they get outside of the scheme a little bit because they feel like they have got to make an impact on the game. So, we probably should have fit the scheme to the kids from a coaching point of view, and the guys probably have got to accept the scheme and play a little more and play within the confines of what we’re trying to do.
As we evaluate last season’s stuff, there are a lot of times we’re breaking away from the fundamentals of the defense individually. It doesn’t matter who it is, if you’re breaking away and playing outside of the concept and the goal of the call then you’re going to be in trouble. And then you have to identify why that is happening. Is it because it’s a new guy or a young guy that doesn’t understand what’s happening? Is it not enough reps? Does he not have the confidence to do it? Does he not have the ability to do it? Is he trying to do too much? Should we be doing something else? Does that scheme that was called even fit those guys?
All of those things are bullet points that we’re attacking. I think that the product that we put on the field was just really inconsistent and it was a product of all of those things. You look at a portion of the year we started playing better, some of that had to do with confidence. I think you come out of the first part of that year, no matter how good your players are, you get beat up three times when they haven’t been beat up in our three years here, I think scheduling hurt us from a defensive mindset. We had to go through some growth after that we had not had to go through before, and you had to go through it with some younger guys that were mixed in there with some guys that were expecting to have more success.
There was a lot of dynamics there that I think led to less playmaking. We should certainly have done a better job coaching them. I think that’s why you got the output that you did, just really inconsistent. To beat the heck out of San Diego State and San Jose State and Hawaii like that and even Nevada, and then to play poorly really against Wyoming and play extremely inconsistent at UNLV, that’s what you got. You got a lot of inconsistency from all those factors, I think. It’s as much the coaches as it is the players. There are factors and reasons, not excuses. We should have done a better job coaching them.
The dynamic there obviously is going to be different in that regard, when you have a lot of guys out there that are going to be learning on the job, focused on what they have to do.
Here’s the thing that didn’t happen a year ago. You talk about positions up for grabs and competition, the attrition we had in the secondary led to almost no competition. The attrition we had at the outside linebacker position, injuries a little bit, they led to a lack of competition. When there’s a lack of competition it’s hard to get guys on and off the field that you just can’t replace.
The other thing it does is you try to wrap the scheme around your roster and when your roster gets depleted your scheme gets kind of vanilla. So, I think that this spring is going to be different than it has in the past, especially in the fall, in that our first 22 on defense, we truly feel that every single one of them is competing for a job, which was not the case a year ago. It was not the case last spring, it was not the case in the fall. There were not 11 positions that were really open. That wasn’t the case, because we didn’t have guys necessarily behind them that could take that job. I’m looking at it and save for one spot, 10 of those jobs are truly open.
That has to breed something. That has to breed growth. That has to breed competition. That has to breed a better 22. We believe that’s going to be the thing that helps us turn the corner, and we have to keep infusing new guys into the scheme, too, guys that aren’t here.
The back end, with Charles Washington moving to corner, he’ll be limited in the spring, but having him there full-time definitely helps there.
It does. Having Charles there and committing to having him be that guy is ... it’s going to help him, too. You saw an inconsistent Charles Washington because we were inconsistent with how we played him. We had to, we didn’t have a choice. What did we have, six starting corners last year? When you do that, it is what it is. You’re trying to win games on a week to week basis, right? But keeping Charles there for a time now, he’s going to get better, a lot better.
Do you think he sees himself as a cornerback now?
You know, he didn’t at first and partially because we’ve got this string of NFL safeties coming through here and he saw himself as potentially the next one and you can’t blame him for it. But I think now he’s at the point where he understands what his speed means at that position, the impact he can have on the game at our level and then what that can mean to him if he wants to go play at the next level, if he gets the opportunity to do that.
He is not a huge guy, which could keep him from being an inside guy, a safety, at the next level. But where he is at physically at corner probably is not an issue at all in the NFL. I want guys thinking about the NFL, I do. I want Charles thinking he has to play his way into the NFL right now, because he didn’t have a great junior year. At times he was phenomenal. At times he was below average. He sees it, and he needs to play his way there. He wants to win a championship and play his way there to the NFL. That’s a great thing for us. That’s what Phillip Thomas did. That’s exactly what Phillip Thomas did.
Well, you think about some of the bigger receivers out there today, Charles is a pretty good matchup as a corner.
Yeah, Charles, he’s going to give them everything they want. When he’s ready to go, when he’s done being a senior and we’ve had a chance to win another championship, he’s going to be what they’re looking for because he’s going to clock a time, he’s going to change direction, he’s going to jump and he’s going to throw numbers up there with his strength. And he’s not afraid to hit. He’s not a cover corner. He’s a corner who can do it all when he’s going. He’ll be good for somebody. He’ll be good for us, hopefully, first, and then he’ll go and be good for somebody else.
And, he’s a senior cornerback and we haven’t had the blessing of having a senior cornerback that has played his way through the year. Our first year, (Sean Alston) and L.J. (Jones) were both underclassmen. The next year, S.A. gets hurt and doesn’t make it to the season. L.J. gets hurt five or six games into it. It will be good if we can have a senior leader there on the outside and have him got through the campaign and have an impact on those younger guys that are with him.
How about Malcolm (Washington) on the other side? How did he come through that?
Malcolm, it was a shame we had to play him. It really was. It was a shame that we were to that point that we had to take his redshirt off. He kind of earned it, but at the same time he kind of didn’t. He knows that. All of that sacrifice and investment that you have to have, he kind of had it but it was learning as a true freshman throughout the summer time and all of a sudden he’s lined up and playing against Utah in Week 2. You look at the overall evaluation, there are so many things that he got better at throughout the year. He has a lot of potential.
The approach to the game is going to be the biggest thing for him, the thing that we’ve been coaching him in the offseason. Hey, you have to invest and you have to approach it like that’s the deal, because he got it for free. When they get it for free, you have to make sure that they understand that it’s not just going to be given to them again. The biggest thing with that, Anthoula Kelly is here, Tank Kelly is here, and he is a really good football player and so there’s going to be nothing for free there. Nobody is going to be walking on that field at corner next year that isn’t a fighter out there right now. It’s so much different than it was last August once we lost Corey (Ferguson) and those things started happening.
I think that you’re going to have some guys that have earned that job. A.J (Greeley) gets here, and you have Mike Bell that’s coming in and there still might be a little of other transition at corner. There’s going to be a good mix of guys between Malcolm and Tank and you still have Jamal Ellis and he played decently and did some things that were good and he’s a senior that’s hungry for that job.
The safety spots, losing Derron and with Charles moving outside, those also are wide open. What do you see there?
We’ve got a bunch of really good targets back there with Dalen (Jones) and Shannon (Edwards), who obviously is not going to go through spring (shoulder). But I think you’ve got some really good experience and some really good reps there, guys who gave made plays in games. And then you have a bunch of youth that I think has a lot of potential. You’ve got DeShawn Potts, who has got a really good skill set, but redshirted. You’ve got Stratton Brown, who has got a phenomenal skill set and still could end up being a corner, but I think free safety is something that fits him really well and he potentially could be a nickel back as well. He’s rangy. He’s a physical guy. He has a lot of pluses to him. You’ve got Allen Wright, who we brought in and who has flashed a ton and has got to get the weight room, the Boese stuff, going a little bit. He’s been awesome and he’s mature. He gives you a sense of an older guy there — we lost a lot of that with Derron. But there’s a calming force with Allen that’s really cool. You have Jalen Smith coming in who is a really good player. I think he fits exactly what we’re looking for down the road. I don’t know that physically he’ll be ready to go right away. But they all run. Every one of those guys can run. You’ve got Kyrian Obidiegwu, who is coming off being banged up, who is kind of a slugger and a slammer there at strong safety and we’re going to do some things schematically to move a couple of those guys down closer to the ball so it will fit our guys a little differently than the last couple of years.
But the competition is there between Dalen and DeShawn and Allen Wright and Stratton Brown and Kyrian and then the guys that we move in. I think those are all guys that can do what we need them to do. Dalen is the one who is in a street fight. He played a bunch of reps and now he’s saying, ‘There’s a guy behind me that can run and a guy that has watched me and learned the defense,’ so Dalen has to rely on, ‘Hey, I’m the old man and I can keep growing from here’ and you’re going to see a guy behind him who wants to take his job every day.
You look at Karl (Mickelsen). Karl’s reps went down and he started playing better. His reps went down because he was pushed for that thing — he was getting beat out. It lit that fire. The same thing is going to happen with Dalen and those guys. They’re going to earn it. If they don’t earn it, that means we’re playing someone that beat them out for it. Coaches get fired up about that. Coaches get fired up about youth. Not necessarily playing a freshman or a sophomore but if that guy ends up playing that means he beat out a guy that I think is pretty good in front of him.
I look at our first 11 and I’m excited about our first 11. Shoot, there are 1,000 question marks about them. But if somebody is beating those guys out then that means there has been a pretty good fist fight for that job. It means that I might have two guys that I might feel good about playing. It sounds like coach-speak a little bit, but it’s really true. If I didn’t feel like we were where need to be with this roster, other things would have happened. We’d be doing other things. We’d be moving offensive linemen. We’d be doing those things right now. So, I’m excited about those safeties and where they’re going to be.
With as much as you have to get done, where do you need to be coming out of the spring? What’s realistic with the group right now?
Shoot, we need to be the best defense in the league coming out of spring. We have to get better at tackling. We have to make sure that we’re chasing the ball better than we did. I think that lacked. I think our identity wasn’t consistent and that’s what you got. We didn’t consistently get after that ball the way we wanted. We weren’t consistently physical enough. We didn’t consistently down the ball enough. I didn’t let those guys play, I didn’t trust them to play the defense enough. So, we have to stay within that identity and take the scheme and fit it to these guys a little more.
We’ve done that more now than we’ve ever done it. We’re going into spring ball editing things by personnel more than we ever have, because guys are better at some things and some guys are not as good at some things. Shoot, we’re playing Kyrie Wilson at Mike linebacker. That’s a dynamic Mike linebacker. That changes it a little bit. As athletic as Karl was, Kyrie has been the fastest linebacker here since I’ve been here. Kyrie has been the most athletic linebacker here since I’ve been here. Kyrie has been the best tackling linebacker other than Patrick Su’a since I’ve been here. So now you have that at Mike, and it’s going let us do some things that are different.
We didn’t talk about inside guys, but you have Robert Stanley who slid inside and he had a really good bowl practice. I mean, I was ready to play him in that bowl game and he had only played there for two weeks because we had some guys get in trouble. We’ve got some guys in there that we’re editing technique for, because they’re able to do some things. And we’re editing technique at other places because those guys aren’t like the ones we had before — that isn’t Tyeler Davison, so I have to edit this. We’re doing that more now than we ever have, so that’s kind of cool. It’s kind of fun to watch this thing. We’re changing this defense to fit what we’ve got.
As far as expectations, I expect them to run around like a bunch of crazy guys. This group now has been running around, hooting and hollering and having more fun ... it’s really reminiscent of our first spring here for me. We had a bunch of guys that didn’t know what was going on and they just kind of went nuts and ran around and I think this is like that because we have old guys that feel like they have a point to prove and you have a bunch of young guys that are kind of doing it for the first time. The attitude is really reminiscent of that right now for us on defense.
That’s how we’re going to coach it. There is going to be a heck of a lot of jumping around and teaching, understanding that patience is part of the deal.