The dynamic has been in play since Fresno State opened fall camp.
On one side of the field, there is a group of inside and outside receivers that needs to be more physical when coming off the line of scrimmage, to battle to stay on their routes and be stronger at the football.
On the other side, there is a group of cornerbacks and safeties that needs to be more physical in disrupting receivers at the line of scrimmage, more consistent in bullying them off their routes and stronger at the football.
It is important for both groups to improve, but the focus is more so on a defensive backfield that yielded 54 pass plays of 20 or more yards last season and 31 pass plays of 30 or more yards.
Fresno State last season had four players start at right cornerback just in the first six weeks of the season. The Bulldogs had three players start at left cornerback over the course of a 6-8 season and three at strong safety. The only fixture in the defensive backfield was free safety Derron Smith, who started all 14 games there.
That is a lot – only seven teams in the nation allowed more explosive pass plays.
But if a lively and skirmish-filled Monday morning practice with the Bulldogs in full pads for the first time in camp is any indication, the corners and safeties are improving with their techniques and tenacity.
They pulled five interceptions during 7-on-7 and team periods, with four of those plays made by defensive backs Jamal Ellis, Dalen Jones, Eric Wilson and Daquawn Brown and the fifth by outside linebacker Ejiro Ederaine. They also had a number of pass breakups and played with an improved physicality during those periods.
“You have to play physical in this game,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “As opposed to the National Football League, we can get our hands on receivers as long as the ball is not in the air, so you have to do that to knock timing off and disrupt receivers – and we’re getting better at doing that. We’re playing more physically and it has resulted in playing better.
“It’s still a work in progress, but I like the progress of a Jamal Ellis. I think Malcolm Washington is growing up. It’s good to see him competing. Anthoula Kelly has been competing the past couple of days. It’s fun to see Tyquwan (Glass) out here. I mean, he has jumped in with two feet. At the corner position when you’re on an island all the time, you have to be able to step up, and those guys are competing.”
Defensive backs coach Marcus Woodson, along with defensive graduate assistant Ricky Manning, are pushing that aggressiveness every day and figure they have a better chance to find it than a year ago, when a young and unsettled group gave up far too many plays.
We want to be the most physical secondary in the country.
Bulldogs defensive backs coach Marcus Woodson
Fresno State last season had four players start at right cornerback just in the first six weeks of the season. The Bulldogs had three players start at left cornerback over the course of a 6-8 season and three at strong safety. The only fixture in the defensive backfield was free safety Derron Smith, who started all 14 games there. They dealt with injury, ineffective play. Bryan Harper, who started the first two games at cornerback, left the team after two poor performances. Charles Washington started at strong safety, nickel, right cornerback and left cornerback.
The Bulldogs, with their youth and inexperience, ended up playing a lot of off coverage, giving receivers an easy release off the line of scrimmage. There’s a different target this season.
“We want to be the most physical secondary in the country and if you’re not physical, if you’re not playing fanatical, then you’re not going to play,” Woodson said.
“The mindset is to be the most physical and to have the most takeaways in the conference, and I’m encouraged walking off the field today with where we’re at. But the key is building off of it, not regressing but progressing, and as long as we continue to do that, were going to be fine.”
In fall camp, the improvement has been evident and legitimate. The defensive backs are working against a young but talented group of receivers that includes some length and physicality in senior Aaron Peck (6-foot-3, 217 pounds), junior transfer Josiah Blandin (6-4, 214) and freshman L.J. Reed (6-3, 240), some flat speed in redshirt freshmen Jamire Jordan, Keyan Williams and KeeSean Johnson and some veteran savvy in Justin Johnson and Da’Mari Scott.
I think our DB room, in the summertime we just established that we were going to be a tough group. We’re not going to take anything from anybody.
Fresno State defensive back Jamal Ellis
They are playing with more confidence in their technique, more confidence in themselves. The addition of Washington State transfer Brown and community college transfer Glass have helped the group develop an edge that was missing and needed.
“I think our DB room, in the summertime we just established that we were going to be a tough group,” said Ellis, a fourth-year junior who started four games last season. “We’re not going to take anything from anybody. We kind of shied away from that at times, but this summer we kind of sat down, looked each other in the eye … .
“In the film room, when we’re watching reps, if we see somebody let a receiver get an extra nudge on them or not being aggressive at the line or not being aggressive to the point of attack, we just straight up tell them, ‘Hey, man, we’re not going to have that. We’re trying to win a championship and that’s not going to help us get another ring this year.’”
’Dogs in camp
Camp highlights leading up to the Sept. 3 season opener against Abilene Christian at Bulldog Stadium:
- Thursday, Aug. 13: Practice No. 10, 6-8 p.m. (scrimmage No. 1; only practice open to the public)
- Thursday, Aug. 20: Practice No. 18 (scrimmage No. 2)
- Monday, Aug. 24: Practice No. 21 (scrimmage No. 3)
- Wednesday, Sept. 2: Practice No. 29 (pregame walkthrough)