Fresno State last season put freshman outside linebackers Tobenna Okeke and Justin Green on the field to try to add some spice to a pass rush that was underperforming, with sacks falling to 30 from 40 in 2013 — 2.14 per game from 3.08 the previous season.
This spring, Okeke and Green already are getting immersed in more of the defense as coach Tim DeRuyter and defensive coordinator Nick Toth go about restructuring a unit that lost a bunch in nose guard Tyeler Davison, free safety Derron Smith and linebackers Donavon Lewis and Karl Mickelsen but welcomes back interesting pieces and versatility in the outside and inside linebacker groups.
“There are a whole bunch of different things we can do there,” Toth said, as the Bulldogs on Friday went through day 3 of 15 spring practices. “You know, we’ve always had Donavon Lewis, who is very powerful and I feel like we’ve got that in a couple of guys now. We’re not going to replace Donavon. But another version of that, I think we’ve got that. When we had (Shawn) Plummer and Tristan Okpalaugo that first year, those were different types of guys. And then that second year, when (Ejiro) Ederaine came in, that was different. And now we’ve kind of got the same thing again. You’re putting Justin Green and Brandon Hughes out there, you’ve got Ederaine, who is another piece. We’ve got a lot of guys out there that kind of give you a lot of tools. At the outside and inside linebacker spots, you’re looking at some different skill sets.
“We’re already lining up differently than we have the past three years, put linebackers in some different spots because what we think that can be for us. Install is real slow throughout the spring. Probably about practice 10 you’re going to see us really change and get into maybe the next evolution of what we think we’re going to be. But those outside guys, and the inside guys, there are just a bunch of different types of guys that can play there and I look around that table, I looked around the meeting room (this morning), there are seven guys at inside linebacker that I think can play. And, shoot, if you’re missing defensive linemen, you have to figure out different ways to do it right? I think we have some good D-linemen, but we have more numbers in the linebacker corps.”
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Okeke and Green are part of that equation, along with fourth-year junior Hughes and senior Kyrian Obidiegwu, who was moved to outside linebacker from strong safety this spring. Third-year sophomore Stephen Van Hook also is getting reps with the twos. Ederaine, a senior, is out this spring after surgeries on his shoulders but is expected back in the fall.
“It’s bigger than last year, now that I’m accountable for more things,” said Okeke, up to 240 pounds from the 210 he played at as a freshman. “Knowing the playbook, sitting back last year and watching the older guys play, just studying under them, gave me a boost this year.
“I’m confident in everything. I know all the plays from last year. I feel like now, with a year under my belt, I’m more comfortable in the system and can do everything the coaches ask me to do.”
The aim obviously is to bump up the production from the action spots in their 3-4 defense, and they continue to tinker with ways to get that done. In 2012, outside linebackers racked up 11 sacks and 26.5 tackles for loss. In 2013, it was 16 sacks and 27.5 tackles for loss. Last season, 10.5 and 26.5.
“I think you can do some things situationally with who is on the field, having more pass rushers on the field,” Toth said. “I think when you’re playing heavier run sets, there are different ways of covering up tight ends and stuff with big-bodied linebackers that we haven’t used here that we can now, the Jeff Camillis and those guys, putting him on top of a tight end and still having an outside linebacker there. We can have different combinations that we haven’t showed at all. We’re going to do that.”
Okeke and Green, after pressing into games last season, have to be a larger part of the equation.
“Our outside linebackers, they do everything, and for a freshman to be able to do it all on a lot of reps, that’s very unrealistic,” Toth said. “But they had a skill set, so we pared it down to get them to do what we thought they could help us to win and now we’re asking them to do the whole thing.
“It has been great for them … just the knowledge. We didn’t ask them to learn it and now they’re learning it and they’re like, ‘Wow that’s why I was doing that.’ They’re both smart kids. Obviously, Tobenna’s physical stature puts him a little ahead of Justin, but Justin has got him probably on burst and get-off up the field.”
Third and a long way to go
The Bulldogs introduced some third down in the meat of their practice, quarterbacks Zack Greenlee, Kilton Anderson and Chason Virgil making some plays and missing on others.
“For the first time, it was OK,” DeRuyter said. “When you start it the first day we’re in pads, we knew it wasn’t going to be real clean and we don’t have our third-down package on defense. It’s just the emphasis of knowing there the sticks are and seeing how we execute.
“We have to get better at it and we will. There were some flashes, but from a consistency standpoint we aren’t close to where we need to be. I just like the fact that guys know we’re not practicing just to practice, we’re practicing with a purpose and understanding, ‘Hey, if we have to get 5 yards (for a first down), where are the sticks? Let’s run the route the right way.’ ”
The quarterbacks alternated reps in the third-down 7 on 7s and took six reps at a time when in the third-down team periods.
The highlight of the team period was provided by Greenlee, the redshirt sophomore and most experienced of the three competing for the starting job. He made a nice throw on the right sideline to Aaron Peck in between the cornerback and safety.