Stratton Brown had come to Fresno State last spring as a cornerback and something of a prize, a four-for-three junior college transfer with speed, length and athleticism to develop.
But once into the season, with the Bulldogs looking to fix a struggling secondary, Brown moved around a lot, from cornerback to nickel to corner to safety. Playing three positions, he never had the opportunity to really get a strong hold on one.
This spring, though, Brown is a free safety and will stay there, and through two days of practice that and some good added weight and strength clearly have made a difference. The Bulldogs don’t put full pads on until Friday, but in 7-on-7’s the junior has put himself in position to make plays. He hasn’t always finished those plays with a takeaway, but one has to come before the other and his progress has encouraged the defensive staff.
“Last year, we saw the athleticism and he has a body type that can fit all three of those (positions) so we were trying to find what’s the best spot to get him on the field and what that sometimes does with a young player, it hurts them,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “Mentally, it doesn’t give them a chance to just invest in one and hopefully now that he has had a chance to dabble at all those, settling in at a safety position will help him learn and just play natural football.”
Brown, who saw most of his action on special teams in 12 games last season after being recruited out of Snow Community College in Ephraim, Utah, definitely is more comfortable.
“It has helped a lot,” he said. “Last year, I really was lost. I was at nickel, then I was at corner. I didn’t have both of them down, so that was hard.”
And an improved body, getting up to 190 pounds this spring from the 164 when he enrolled last spring, also will work well for Brown and the Bulldogs.
“His speed is getting better. His lower body athleticism is getting better. His change of direction is getting better. It’s getting better because he’s stronger,” defensive coordinator Nick Toth said.
“You can see that frame, he still has a way to go, too. There are 15 more good pounds that want to jump on his body and when he’s done he’s going to look like one of the McDonald boys (T.J. and Tevin, sons of NFL All-Pro Tim McDonald) because he has length. He’s going to end up being thick. And as long as he can keep his speed and his change of direction he’ll be all right.”
By the end of the spring, the expectation is that he will have a good base of knowledge in the defense. By fall camp, the expectation is the Bulldogs will have an answer at free safety, following the loss to graduation of star Derron Smith, with Brown and senior Shannon Edwards in that mix.
“I think he came here about 165 pounds last year and he has gained about 30 pounds,” DeRuyter said. “With that you get confidence. With that and having the experience of going through the year he is playing faster. Now, he has to continue to makes strides. But I like the progress that he has made.
“The first year guys that transfer in, anything you get out of them has been a bonus and he did some good things special-teams wise, but just learning our base defense there is a process that took him a little bit. But he is much better and I think he has a chance to be a pretty good safety.”
It is where he fits.
“His skill set is free safety. He’s long. He has long speed, he can get to a half,” Toth said. “He wants to be physical, so when he supports the weak side he can do those things. There are a thousand things about that position that Derron Smith had grown into, so we have to make sure that what we’re playing fits the experience level of the kid just from a complexity point of view. Some of it is on him, some of it is on us to make sure we’re not pushing it too hard.
“We’re not trying to make him be what we’ve been in the past. Whatever he does well, we have to fit it more toward that, so it’s kind of double-edged. He has to continue growing in terms of his knowledge of what we’re doing. We have to see how he does with the pads on, because all of a sudden all your progressions, all your eye discipline, when you start banging people you have a tendency to go into self-preservation mode instead of playing within the scheme. So we have to make sure we’re coaching that.”