Fresno State’s first two seasons running a 3-4 defense featured high production at outside linebacker, no more so than in 2013 when then-sophomore Ejiro Ederaine slammed, slithered or somehow always managed to sneak his way off the edge and past much bigger players put there to stop him.
Ederaine got into the backfield, a lot, racking up 16.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks, ranking third in the Mountain West Conference in both categories. The Bulldogs as a unit had 108 tackles for loss and 40 sacks, second and first of 12 in the conference and fourth and sixth of 125 in the nation.
Those numbers fell considerably a year ago, in large part because Ederaine was playing with badly damaged shoulders that would pop out and limited his ability to do what he does best.
“It was, ‘What side is he on? Is he going to be able to use an arm? Is he not going to be able to use an arm?’ And then toward the end of the year both arms were injured, so it got to a point where it was extremely limited for him,” said Jordan Peterson, who this season is coaching the Bulldogs’ outside linebackers after spending the past two working with the secondary.
“He’s a good character kid that was like, ‘Look, I’m going to do everything I can when I can.’ But his pass rush was limited because he couldn’t use his hands to get the offensive lineman’s hands off of him.’’
Looking back, Ederaine said the injuries hurt mentally as well as physically.
“It was hard to know what I could and couldn’t do. It was not like, OK, if I put my arm like this it was going to slip out,” he said. “I did things I thought I could do, and it would slip out. I’d do things that I didn’t think I could do, and it’d be fine. It was really tough.
“My worst thing was this, though … my worst fear was having them running the outside zone and I’m trying to get off a block, my shoulder comes out and I can’t get off a block and he goes to the house because I’m trying to play through this injury. … I become a liability and I never want to be a liability to my team. That was the toughest thing.”
Feeling fit now after surgeries to repair both shoulders, Ederaine said it will take more than good health to elevate those defensive numbers. But the Bulldogs are well equipped to try to make it work.
“I think it’s a mixture of being heathy and also just seizing opportunities,” he said. “Even though I was hurt last year — I watch that film all the time — there were some opportunities that we missed, myself and Donavon (Lewis) and the guys in our room. We missed some opportunities last year, and the great teams and the great outside linebackers that have a lot of production, they don’t miss opportunities.
“I feel like we’ve got to hit home this year and the outside linebacker room, we have to capitalize on those opportunities. We have to know the playbook. We have to just be on our P’s and Q’s, mentally step our game up so we’re not thinking and stuff, we’re just out there playing. When you’re on the edge, you have to just let it loose. A millisecond or something like that can be the difference between getting a sack, or not. You can’t be thinking out there, you just have to go.”
Ederaine will be a key piece in that equation and in cashing in opportunities when presented as the Bulldogs try to rebound from a season in which they have up far too many big plays whether measured by yards allowed or significance — in its eight losses Fresno State allowed opponents to convert 45.8% of their third downs and in its six victories only 31.2%.
And while they lost Lewis, who finished his career with 31.5 tackles for loss, there is a diverse mix that could bump production.
Fourth-year junior Brandon Hughes returns. Redshirt sophomore Stephen Van Hook could get onto the field in nickel situations. Sophomores Tobenna Okeke and Justin Green got reps last season, pushed onto the field as freshman to try to put some surge into the pass rush.
Defensive coordinator Nick Toth said that freshman James Bailey is a player who could see the field early in his career, as well.
“We have with a really good group at outside linebacker and obviously with Dro back from his surgeries, he’s as strong as ever and I see him being as productive as ever,” Peterson said.
QB Childress gets some work
Ford Childress, among the four quarterbacks vying for the starting job, was in practice Friday and took part in some drills. The junior transfer did not take any snaps in 7-on-7 or team periods — third-year sophomore Zack Greenlee, redshirt freshman Kilton Anderson and freshman Chason Virgil again split those reps.
“This is really his first day out here so we didn’t think it was fair to put him in any kind of scrimmage situations,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “We’ll see where he is mentally. We’re installing every day, and it’s going to be a difficult transition for him. We’d like to get to the point where we can get him some reps, but he has to earn those reps.”
Childress does have some catch-up to do with the Bulldogs’ offense, setting and changing protections. But unresolved eligibility questions may at some point impact the number of reps that he gets, particularly once the team starts to pare the competition at the position and as game prep approaches for the Sept. 3 opener against Abilene Christian.
He may have to pass another class before meeting NCAA requirements and might not become eligible until the first week in September.
“We’re going to try to get him up to speed as quickly as possible,” DeRuyter said. “He’s a guy that has played in a similar system, but the terminology is a totally different language for him. We put some things on him protection-wise that maybe he didn’t have to do before. There’s a pretty steep learning curve and he’s willing to put the work in, but he’s got some academic stuff he still has to take care of so it’s going to be a balance there and we’ll just see how he competes.”
Inside a position battle
There is some interesting competition brewing at inside linebacker behind No. 1 Mike Kyrie Wilson and No. 1 Will Jeff Camilli.
Redshirt sophomore Robert Stanley has taken to a challenge and inserted himself into the equation in what is a big year for him in the program.
Stanley redshirted his first season at Fresno State after his arrival from Bishop Gorman High-Las Vegas and did not get on the field in 2014 as a second-year freshman. That could be expected, Toth said, considering he turned 17 just before he enrolled at Fresno State.
“He really should have grayshirted and then redshirted,” Toth said. “He was that type of dude and so he is growing into it right now. I think the game is coming a lot slower to him. He is understanding it better. He has worked hard. It’s important to him right now and I’m expecting that guy to play reps for us.”
On Friday, Stanley was taking reps with the No. 2 defense along with freshman Nela Otukolo. Jaamal Rose, Michael Lazarus and George Helmuth worked with the threes.
We knew he was a good athlete, but we also knew he was going to be a pup. Potential means you haven’t done it yet, it’s down the road, but he’s realizing his potential.
Fresno State defensive coordinator Nick Toth on the growth of redshirt sophomore inside linebacker Robert Stanley
Toth still wants Stanley to continue to improve, including being more vocal on the field.
But fitting better into his 6-foot-3 frame (he weighed 218 pounds when he signed, 234 this fall), the redshirt sophomore could make an impact this season.
“We had to be patient with him and understand where his development was going to go, but he was a really good sign for us,” Toth said. “It’s always hard to be patient, with all of those guys. But he is even different because we took him knowing it wasn’t just a redshirt, it was a redshirt and another year. You talk about a redshirt, you expect them to come in and then maybe start seeing something.
“We knew Robert was young. But he has a brother who starts at Notre Dame and is maybe the best tackle in the country. His younger sister is one of the best high school basketball players in the country. We knew he was a good athlete, but we also knew he was going to be a pup. Potential means you haven’t done it yet, it’s down the road, but he’s realizing his potential.”
Program’s offensive line project paying off
Fresno State has had to rebuild numbers and balance between classes on its offensive line, and has had success while doing so.
Left tackle Austin Wentworth developed into a two-time All-Mountain West selection, right guard Cody Wichmann was selected by St. Louis in the sixth round of the NFL Draft in May, and left tackle Alex Fifita is a preseason all-conference selection this season.
The Bulldogs also have had a 1,000-yard rusher in two of the past three seasons. In the other, Josh Quezada and Marteze Waller split reps throughout 2013 but combined to rush for 1,453 yards — with both averaging 5.2 yards on 155 and 124 plays.
Line coach Cameron Norcross said in the spring that the Bulldogs were still one class away, but a 2015 cast of recruits that included Isaiah Trevino, Donnie Green, Zack Kinninger and Ben Northup is providing some solid hints that the position group is nearing a healthy point.
9 returning scholarship offensive linemen in coach Tim DeRuyter’s first season with Bulldogs
14 linemen in camp this year after aggressive recruiting push to create balance in position group
In the staff’s first season, DeRuyter and Norcross had only nine returning scholarship offensive linemen and had to bring in junior college players just to manufacture some depth.
This fall, the Bulldogs have 14 in camp and Trevino came in at 6-5 and 357 pounds, Green is 6-2 and 283, Kinninger is 6-5 and 299 and Northup is 6-5 and 337.
“There’s always a sense of urgency there, but there’s probably less of a sense of urgency that we’re going to have to go out and sign three or four JC offensive line guys,” DeRuyter said. “The big difference that I’ve seen between this league and, say, the Big 12, is typically in the offensive and defensive lines. It’s just difficult. There are not enough quality size guys that are out there for everybody so you’ve got to develop your own guys. We have to do a good job of identifying those guys, getting them in early, getting guys with length and athleticism. You’d like to not have to play those guys until their redshirt sophomore years when they’ve got a good couple of years in out weight program, but unfortunately we didn’t have that luxury the first couple of years.
“Now that we’re able to develop more of our own, I like our direction. We’re a lot further ahead, as a starting point, when they come in and 6-4, 6-5, 6-6 and 300 pounds. Those guys, the ceiling for them is very high because they’re not coming in at 260 pounds, they’re already men. They need to be refined, but we have a good hunk of clay that we’re dealing with as opposed to a smaller hunk of clay.”
▪ The Bulldogs do not have a punt returner back from last season, one of the few special teams’ areas that remain a question. On Friday, they had redshirt freshman wideouts Jamire Jordan, KeeSean Johnson and Keyan Williams fielding punts from Garrett Swanson and backup Blake Cusick.
▪ Senior receiver Aaron Peck has had a strong first two days in camp, making a highly contested catch against cornerback Charles Washington in each session.
▪ Redshirt freshman Micah St. Andrew, who came in as a walk-on last year and is working with the No. 1 offense at right guard, is now on scholarship.
▪ DeRuyter on Stanley: “We let him know that you’ve got to start earning your position on this team as far as, are you going to be a guy who is just going to be a scout teamer or are you going to be a guy that fights to be on the bus, to be on special teams and to be in in the mix as an every-down player. I think he has taken that challenge and he has really improved himself.”
▪ Saturday’s practice is open to season ticket holders. The Bulldogs are scheduled to be on the field from 8:25 a.m. to 11 a.m., practicing in helmets and shoulder pads for the first time in camp.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada