Fresno State linebacker Jaamal Rose busted up his right knee in 2013, then the left one in 2014, both times his season ending with surgery to repair the damage.
Now a senior, he is working his way back onto the field in his final spring and if there was any question of whether he would make it back, one play is very telling. In a recent red-zone drill , his first 7-on-7 work of the spring, he went hurtling inside out to the sideline and made a crushing hit to put down a play.
“I saw it and you know what, I haven’t been in that situation in a really long time so I said you know what, I’m going to go full speed and go as hard as I can and let the play talk for itself,” he said.
Now, it was not a live period and that was a bit of an issue. But Rose, ticketed to line up at inside linebacker and on special teams, made it known he was ready to let it go a bit.
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“I love the fact that he’s a real competitive guy and it’s important to him, but we weren’t in a full-tackle drill,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “I told him, I know it’s been a while, but …”
The Bulldogs won’t see any more of that for a few months. Rose, who hurt knee in a loss at Utah in the second game of the 2014 season on a kickoff, hasn’t been cleared for full contact as Fresno State wraps up spring ball. But he is getting close, expected to be fully cleared by the start of fall camp in August.
“To be honest about it, last fall we were concerned whether or not he’d even have a chance to play,” DeRuyter said. “But he has really busted his tail. It’s important to the guy. I like seniors, they realize that, hey, this is their final call. They have to be ready and do everything they can for their last season. He has certainly done that and he’s champing at the bit getting out here. The fact that he’s out there and competing just six months out of surgery is encouraging.
“Having his energy out there is great. He’s been around for a long time, I think a lot of the kids look up to him. He’s a great guy in the locker room. For him to get out here and compete and show these guys how important it is, I think it’s really good. He sets a great tone especially for the young guys to say, ‘Hey, that’s what we have to do, we have to compete like Jaamal does.’ “
Over the final week of the spring, the goal is to get him more reps, to test the injury. And then to see where he is physically and where he can fit on the field in the fall.
“I’ve got to find out in the next few practices about some coverage stuff,” defensive coordinator Nick Toth said. “He’s not going to be involved in contact, but I want to see him in some change of direction stuff and see how that’s going, let him get used to the speed a little bit. He is allowed to thud a little it, so we’ll see how that works. I want to see him just compete. I know he’s hungry.”
“We probably have to tire him out a little more. I have to get him to where he’s tired and has to play because, think about that, he hasn’t played tired in … I don’t know when. So, one play is OK. I want to see him after four or five plays in a row and see what he’s doing. He also has to test his injury. The first rep isn’t going to test it. But he’s real passionate right now, really energetic about doing it and he’s really driven. A guy who has had two injuries like that doesn’t do it like he is right now if he’s not driven. I’m excited about watching him. The hard thing is he’s stacked in a room that has a bunch of guys that can play and we have a couple coming in that are pretty good, too. But we’ll see if he can earn it. We’ll see if he can earn it on special teams, too.”
Nose guard was one of the Bulldogs’ most pressing questions coming into the spring, having lost three-year starter and all-conference performer Tyeler Davison. But redshirt sophomores Nate Madsen and Ryan Steele have played very well through the first 12 practices and Saturday, Steele had one of the more eye-opening plays during the live portions of practice.
On a third-and-2, the Kingsburg High grad won a one-on-one matchup, busted left down the line of scrimmage and tracked down running back DeJonte O’Neal for a loss.
“I knew he was quick,” Toth said. “He was quick in high school when we recruited him. When he flashed last year especially in bowl practices he was fast. He has traded some bad weight and is still inconsistent. But that dude in a 6-yard box, he’s pretty quick and it’s a pretty compact package right there. I mean, he gets it going. He’s not leaving anything behind.”
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Zack Greenlee had a solid day working live periods with the No. 1 line, first a series of third-down plays and at the end a 4-minute drill where the offense is trying to move the chains and burn clock with a lead while the defense is trying to get a stop to set up a score.
The first play of the third-down period, Greenlee hit tight end Kyle Riddering sliding off the line and wide open for a nice gain. Four of the first five plays resulted in first downs.
“We’ll go through the film and watch it,” offensive coordinator Dave Schramm said. “The thing that he’s doing a nice thing of is getting protected, making sure that he’s protected. Now we have to make sure his eyes are right in the route structure of what we’re trying to accomplish. That’s just the next step. You saw how he was when he was a true freshman and how he was last year and it takes time. It’s not just something where you can roll out of bed and play quarterback, especially against what we do on defense. There’s a reason why they disguise and they put a lot of pressure on offenses.
“But I think he did a nice job today. I think Kilton (Anderson) did a nice job and Chason (Virgil) for a guy right out of high school, he’s a pretty poised guy, so it has been good.”
All three quarterbacks have handled the competition — a positive given their inexperience with Greenlee the only one to have taken a snap in a college game.
“It has been better,” Schramm said. “And for Chason and Kilton, even though Kilton was here all last year, he wasn’t really playing against our defense like he is right now. He’s seeing it a lot different than he was in the fall. They are learning. They’re working to get better. Again, what do you do when it all breaks down and you’re holding the football? What do you do? I tell them all the time, there are worse things than punting. I mean, every play in our playbook is designed to score. If everybody does exactly what they’re supposed to do it’s designed to score. Well, how often does that happen? Not very often. “So we have to take care of the football. But if you’re just whipping to down the field because you’re not sure what’s going on, then we’ve got a problem.”
• In the live third-down period, James Noble III busted a long touchdown run on third-and-2. He eluded two potential tackles getting through the line and once through that was gone. His blocker 40 yards downfield — Greenlee —was looking for someone to block.
• There were a number of brawls during practice, though DeRuyter said he would use another word. “I wouldn’t call them brawls. We had some scruffs,” he said. Scruffs? Scrapes, scuffles, whatever. “I like the fact that these guys have an edge about them,” DeRuyter said. “They have a little chip on their shoulder. I want that. I think you have to play football with that. Now, we have to be smart and be able to control our temper and use that aggression during the play and not after it and that’s something we have to coach up. But this time of year, when you’re going 1 practices now against the same guy, some guys get on your nerves, so sometimes it spills over. ”
• The Bulldogs’ offensive-line recruits from 2014 have showed well, with Aaron Mitchell running with the No. 1 offense at left guard and Bobby Johnson at left tackle, Jacob Hicks at left guard and Ben Simonds at center with the No. 2 offense. Micah St. Andrew, a walk-on in that class, is working with the No. 2 offense at right guard and has taken some reps with the first offense. Art Gomez is practicing at left tackle behind Johnson. “With (starting center Bo Bonnheim) having class (during the week), we’re getting some of those guys to get some reps with the ones so they get mixed in at different spots,” offensive line coach Cameron Norcross said. “They’re having to think and process all the stuff that we’re doing. We put a lot of stuff in, now we’ve pulled back and we’re trying to rep it and there’s some progression there. … The guys that have been here a while, their reps start to diminish and its mostly getting those guys that haven’t had a ton of game reps, getting them a ton of practice reps in game-like situations to where they can feel more comfortable with making the right calls in a timely manner.”
• Also in the live third-down period, Virgil would have taken a bad sack by outside linebacker Tobenna Okeke, but they played it out and Virgil and redshirt freshman inside receiver Justin Allen teamed up on a nice play. Allen made a hotly contested catch on the sideline, tumbling out of bounds.