Disguise is a big piece to Fresno State’s defense when at its best — hinting at, yet hiding, malicious intentions.
But this spring the Bulldogs have been running new nickel packages without a nickel back on the football field in part because of injuries in the defensive backfield and the personnel available, fitting the pieces that they do have together and liking the shape it is taking.
“The thing that’s cool about us right now is we’re running nickel that we’ve never run before,” defensive coordinator Nick Toth said. “We’ve put a whole new part of the package in that we’ve never run before and were doing it all without a nickel back and the reason I’m doing it is it lets me experiment with that technique. I know it’s not going to look right with some of the coverage stuff, but I can look at angles, I can look at some of the blitz stuff, I can look at some of the disguise stuff and I feel like we are getting work for two-thirds of that group.”
The Bulldogs will have more nickel in their final four practice plans of the spring, looking to improve a third-down defense that was solid at 39.7%, good for fifth in the Mountain West Conference, but a bit skewed. In the Bulldogs’ six wins, they allowed opponents to convert 29 of 93 third-down plays into first downs (31.2%); in eight losses, it was 60 of 136 (44.1%).
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“What we want to do is schematically look at some different things this spring, get it on film,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “Maybe we don’t have exactly the right parts for what will actually be starting for us in the fall, but we just want to look at installing the package, because we are going to make some tweaks to things, and then go through spring ball, evaluate who we think can be in that and when we get our guys in the summer we’ll be a lot more concentrated come August as far as who those guys are.”
Free safety Shannon Edwards, who is out for the spring after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, will be in the mix. And the Bulldogs will not lack for options when healthy and a high-profile group of defensive backs in the Class of 2015 joins the mix in A.J. Greeley, Jalen Smith and Mike Bell.
“You’d love to have him. You’d gain ground if you can,” Toth said. “But first of all, we didn’t play nickel the first spring we were here. Didn’t play it. And we haven’t played the guy that is the nickel back in the spring in the fall. It seems like we’ve always played the other guy, that we didn’t know about.
“I think we’ll be OK there. One thing we’re not going to do, we’re not going to move a starting safety to that spot. We’re not going to move a starting cornerback to that spot. We’re going to change the vision for what that spot should be. We’re going to find a guy that is the fifth guy or the sixth guy — and that’s the guy. That’s going to be his role. Another question is who is going to be your nickel front, because you have a lot of options there. Right now, I have a lot of names, but I don’t know if I can do anything with them. At nickel end, we’re repping some guys there. We’re deeper there than we were a year ago. When (Ejiro Ederaine) went down, we got stuck leaving the same guys on the field on third down. That’s not going to happen this year. It’s not going to happen, which is going to make us better.
“There are a lot of questions, but I love the package. Some of the stuff we’re doing right now is so different from what we’ve done the past three years and our kids are loving it. It’s going to be fun if we ever get to play it, if we ever get somebody in second- or third-and-long.”
Ulutu at Will
Sophomore linebacker Xavier Ulutu is on the wrong side of 250 pounds right now and has some work to do on his conditioning, but the Bulldogs like what he has done sliding from the Mike linebacker position that he played all of last season to the Will on the weak side of the formation.
“We played all those reps last year at Mike and we moved him to Will and his overall knowledge of the defense is phenomenal,” Toth said. “Every day we have a running competition in our meeting room about who is the smartest guy in this room, who is looking at this thing the deepest, who is seeing it the best? Who is answering the question? Who is asking the question? He’s always right up there. So playing that other position has made him understand it better. I’m really happy with where he is mentally.
“Now, physically, he hasn’t been injured, but his cardio needs to get a little bit better. But I think that’s going to happen. I’m excited about him being a multi-tool guy, a Mike and a Will, and when we slide to our nickel and dime stuff I think he can be in some different spots inside.”
• Cornerback Charles Washington and Mike linebacker Kyrie Wilson were not in practice due to a class conflict. “We have some guys that are criminology majors and they had a class — I don’t know if you would call it a project — but they had to do a site visit to one of the prisons,” DeRuyter said. “It’s a mandatory thing. It’s part of it, but the good thing is it’s spring football so if someone is not there, someone else gets the reps. In the overall scheme we know what those guys can do, so we get the younger guys more reps.”
• Inside linebacker Jeff Camilli has been in some drills but has been slowed this spring by a bad hamstring.
• In punt return, redshirt freshmen KeeSean Johnson and Keyan Williams were the primary return men. Jamire Jordan, another redshirt freshman receiver, also could get a look on punt return.
• Redshirt freshman safety DeShawn Potts will miss the rest of the spring and perhaps the start of the season with a foot injury — he had surgery Thursday and is expected to be out for up to six months.
• The Bulldogs’ Spring Showcase to close their 15 practices is at 10:30 a.m. March 28 Gates to Bulldog Stadium will open at 9:30. The Bulldogs will run individual drills, some 7-on-7 and special teams work leading into live scrimmage periods. After the scrimmage, the players and coaches will hold a free youth clinic with stations set up for kids in the eighth grade and younger to take part in tackling blocking, running and ball security drills.”