When Fresno State hired Tim DeRuyter in 2011, the Bulldogs were coming off a 4-9 season with a defense that had ranked deep in just about every statistical category. In chunk plays allowed, 120th of 120 deep, and in giving up 86 plays of 20 or more yards, they were 10 behind any team in the nation. The Bulldogs also were tied for 119th and last in turnovers gained, 106th in scoring defense, 100th in total defense.
They were changing schemes, installing a 3-4 after years as a 4-3 team, and changing conferences in moving up to the Mountain West from the Western Athletic Conference.
But after one spring and one fall camp, the Bulldogs went out and won a share of that conference title, their first in 14 years, and they did it taking a huge leap forward defensively.
Fresno State moved up to 22nd from 100th in total defense, to ninth from 75th in sacks, to fifth from a tie for 119th in turnovers gained, to 36th from 106th in scoring defense.
Last season, Fresno State had 30 players on its roster play in their first career game in a Bulldog uniform and 21 made their first career start. This year, Fresno State enters spring ball with 28 players who have started a game, totaling 191 combined starts (138 of those came last season).
There was some talent hidden by the 4-9 in 2011 – most notably strong safety Phillip Thomas, who had missed that season after suffering a severe leg injury just before the opener against Cal, and came back to lead the nation in interceptions and become the first unanimous All-American in school history.
Nose guard Tyeler Davison and free safety Derron Smith were sophomores and the meaty part of the roster included some veterans who took to new roles and the new scheme, including ends Nikko Motta and Andy Jennings, and linebackers Travis Brown, Tristan Okpalaugo and Shawn Plummer.
But the Bulldogs this spring will be trying to recapture some of that under new defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward, who comes to Fresno State with a Power Five pedigree after spending the past seven years as the coordinator at South Carolina.
“I think there’s a similarity in that when we first came here, there were some players and some young players that probably had to play too early, didn’t have success, that were eager to listen to a different voice and work their tails off to come together and accomplish something,” DeRuyter said.
“I think we’re right in the same spot. We had some guys that were embarrassed by how we played last year and quite frankly played a bunch of them too young. They weren’t ready to compete, but this offseason has been really good. Guys are more invested. They understand what it takes to compete at this level, and I just sense the energy is just very different.”
There will be tweaks to the defense the Bulldogs have run the past four seasons, new technique and old technique taught differently. The goal, Ward said, is to simplify the scheme to allow the defense to play faster, as it did in 2012 when first installed by DeRuyter and then-defensive coordinator Nick Toth.
Cut down on the explosive plays. Increase the number of turnovers. Find the right players to hit the right pressure points to opposing offenses this fall.
How they fare will be determined on 12 Saturdays in the fall, but this spring the learning curve will not be anywhere near as steep was it was five years ago.
Question: You had a thing on Twitter the other day – life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain. That fits what you’re undertaking here, given the past few years.
Answer: That’s life. You’re going to have storms in life. If that’s what you’re concentrating on, the negative, the bad parts of it, then you’re not going to get through it. You have to learn to find something good within that storm. That’s why dancing in the rain.
Is that something you feel that is missing?
No, I started this about two years ago. I tried to send out a message. I’d send it to my recruits, I’d send it to friends that I know. Just motivational stuff, because life is tough. I’d like to think that I’m just more than a coach.
Do you get the sense that relates specifically to Fresno State? To the players here?
No, not at all. It’s not directly related to anything going on here, just related to life in general.
That was a big part in coming here, wasn’t it? Just being able to work with these kids, to be, I guess as you said, more than a coach.
Totally. Like I told you when I met you at the basketball game: I came here for a reason and that’s to help develop young men not only become a better player but better people.
What have your impressions been? You’ve had a chance to see what you have in the Red Dawn, how they work, how they compete.
I feel good about the guys. We’re doing Red Dawn this week. The first day wasn’t very good and we had some heart-to-hearts, especially with the defensive side of the ball, but I thought the next day was encouraging.
Would you have expected more that first day?
Well, I think as coaches you understand what Red Dawn is about. A lot of the young men don’t understand what it’s about. They’re coming off a weekend and not knowing what to expect. I think that had a lot to do with it. But I’d never tell them that.
I’d think coming off a 3-9 season with a lot of new coaches, all new coaches on offense and a new coordinator on defense, that effort of a competitiveness really wouldn’t be a problem. You have a fresh start, new coaches to impress.
I think there’s a lot of motivation here. They know the season that they had is not acceptable. You could see leaders being developed and leadership is going on. Even the guys that didn’t do well in the drills on Monday, the players didn’t give up on them. They were encouraging them, and that’s a positive that you want to see. We understand that we’re not there, but we have, to me, to get there.
As a coach, how do you deal with that?
I think you deal with each player individually. We all are different. We’re all made differently. We all come from different backgrounds, and you have to find out what makes that particular guy click. That’s the learning curve that I have to develop being new here and figuring out what is needed to motivate these young men.
Curious then what your impressions are of the position groups, watching film of what went on last season. There are some players returning, but also key places that are going to be very young.
I thought they had some talented players. Did they execute correctly a lot of times? No, not at all. But I think we could have helped them as coaches.
Helped them by …
I think schematically and putting them into a particular class that I think would have given them a better chance to be successful.
Have any of your guys stood out to you in Red Dawn?
Well, again, I think they’re just learning. I saw guys get better. You can see some growth from one day to the next, and that’s what you want to see. We’re not getting ready to play Nebraska tomorrow. We’re working on Fresno State and we have to improve Fresno State before we even think about playing Nebraska. So we have to improve every day.
Looking at it this spring, there are some groups that are lacking depth, lacking experience. Watching the film, was there one in particular that you thought, “We need a lot of work there?”
I thought we need a lot of work at all spots. I think they were young, a lot of young players on the team. You look at it like this is a young football team. We need a lot of work in all phases. That’s why the slate is clean. We’ll go out there on Monday with a particular group that’ll say they’re starters, but we don’t have any starters yet. Every job is up for consideration. I think when young men understand that they have a chance to win a job, then you get more out of them. You see what I’m saying? “OK, I have Superstar Bill in front of me. I know I’m not going to beat him out, so I’m just going to wait my turn.” I don’t see that with this team.
Not a lot of Superstar Bills right now. But how do you go about simplifying the packages for them?
I think the package will be very similar. What we’ll do is try to simply the adjustments and get them to play fast. I think sometimes as coaches you have a tendency to do too much and it’s not what you know as a coach – it’s what the kids understand and know and what they can do. If you can make it simpler, they will play faster for you.
How obvious was that on tape, the mental gears grinding away?
I’ll be more apt to answer that question as soon as we get out to practice and stuff. But we’ve talked to them as an entire defense and told them we’re going to simplify things. We’re going to look at some different ways to do things they’ve done in the past that hopefully will simplify it for them to where they can just line up and play.
The explosive plays, it actually got better last season, but there have been a lot of them here the past few years. Do you see that as a result of that? There were 61 plays of 20 or more yards last season, 78 of them in 2014, 75 of them in ’13.
It comes from a combination of it all. You never want to give up big plays. If we can make teams take the ball 80 yards and score and it takes them 15 or 16 plays – we don’t want that to happen, but that gives us 15 or 16 opportunities to take the ball away from them.
That’s something that we’ll stress from Day One: We want to create turnovers. The quickest way to stop an offense that’s moving the ball is to take the ball away from them.
Mentally, the thing that’s hardest on an offense is when they feel like they’re having success, you take the ball away from them. It gets to them. That’s the mentality that you want to create. They’re all on scholarship, we’re on scholarships, so they’re going to move the football. But the bottom line is if we play our technique and we’re fundamentally sound and doing what the defense requires us to do, we’ll have our opportunities to take the ball from them and create that mentality in them.
That’s something South Carolina had some problems with last season also – 63 chunk plays.
I just think anytime there’s a chunk play, someone didn’t fit the run right, someone didn’t have the proper leverage. Chunk plays happen when people don’t do their assignments. That’s why you simplify the system. That’s why you get them playing fast. And when you get them playing fast, even if someone messes up, you clean it up and there’s not a chunk play.
So, starting spring ball, there might be some baggage to get rid of along the way, but what needs to get done over those 15 practices?
What they did last year was last year. Obviously, there have been some changes here. The head coach felt like that needed to be changed. There’s a clean slate. There’s a clean slate for every coach in that defensive room even though they might have been here with these young men. And we’ll try to get them and instruct them the techniques and fundamentals that we want from each particular defense, give them the rhyme or reason why we’re calling that particular defense at that time and give them an understanding of the game.
If we can come out of spring ball and have a better understanding of what each defensive call is used for – there are defenses that we’re going to call that are strictly to stop the run; defenses that we’re going to call that are more heavy pass protection concepts – when they learn those situations and you teach them when those situations are called, I think you make them a better player.
I think that’s part of the reason they had a lot of busts. When you have busts, you give up big plays, and that’s why we want to simplify the system. The teaching of the system might be different than what they were taught last year and some of the technique is going to be taught differently. When it’s all boiled down, all across the country everybody does the same things, but people teach it differently.
We want to teach them concepts. When you teach them the concepts of what we want to do on defense, I think there’s carryover from one defense to another.
That bigger picture, do you have a feel for where they are?
I don’t have that feel yet. Hopefully four or five days into spring practice we’ll have that because our installation schedule is going to be very simple. We’ll put in one defensive front and two coverages the first day. The second day, we’re putting in one defense. The third day, we’re putting in another coverage concept. But continuity and the rhyme or reason – here’s one defense, this one is very similar – to change that mentality and once you do that you’re starting to teach them the concepts of defenses and the carryover part will help them play faster.
What you put onto a young man going into a particular game, the number of defenses that you take into a particular game, I think all of that is a part of playing well or not playing so well. That’s why we want to simplify things. That’s why we want to make it to where when they line up, they know exactly what to do. When they see a formation, they can adjust and know exactly what it is.
To me, there’s no perfect defense. You make a defense perfect by the execution of it, and we have to understand that each defensive call is going to have a limitation and each defensive call is going to have a strength. We have to play to that strength and we have to try to make sure that a big play doesn’t happen in that limitation.
The installations next week, are they radically different than what these guys have had before? How much of a learning curve is there going to be early?
The installation is not radically different from what they’ve had. Some of the technique will be changed. Some of the communication will change. Some of the adjustments will change. But the overall picture is very similar to what they know.
It was up to me to come in and learn what they were doing in their 3-4 system and what they were doing coverage-wise. Purple is purple. If they called it purple last year, that’s what it’s going to be called this year. We’re just going to teach some of the techniques in the back end a little differently.
The learning came on me, learning the system. In the defensive meetings there were things that they did that, I’m not going to say they weren’t good, but I think there could be a better way to do them. There’s always a better way to do things, so we’re just going to look at it and try to do it a different way.
I think that went well. I’m a quick learner and I’ve been blessed to coach this game – I think going into my 25th or 26th season – and some of the knowledge that I’ve gained from the places I’ve been and technique that was taught I think could possibly help these young men be better players.
Where they are physically, how does that impact what you’ll be doing? Obviously, there are some position groups or players that are further along than others. Are there certain positions that you see that need to be larger, older, more experienced to make this go?
I think this entire team is that way. I think when you have a young football team, physically they have to develop and I think (strength and conditioning coach Joey Boese) has done a great job of taking care of that aspect of it. Now, mentally, we have to develop. For a lot of young guys that played last year, because the system is not changing just certain techniques and certain adjustments are changing, they’ll have a foundation and so they should be better.
I think that doing things differently when you did them and they didn’t work like you thought they should work, also gives a kid motivation that we’re not just doing the same thing over and over.
The physical part of that equation was an issue last season. Young team, obviously, but …
One of two things, you have the wrong guy playing or you need to get stronger. We have to figure out who our best 11, best 22, are to accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish on defense. After spring ball, they’ll get four more weeks before summer in the weight room and then take a little break, then come back in the summer and work on the strength part of it.
But it will be interesting to see them move and get on and off blocks and who can control their gaps and get off and make a play. Seeing that in spring ball will be a great benefit to me to see who can and who can’t do that, and if he can’t do it, why can’t he do it? Is it strength? Is it technique? Those are things we’ll have to evaluate after spring ball. The bottom line is you want to do what they can do.
You can see a guy in the weight room and tell he is strong. You can see guys in the weight room and you can tell they’re not as strong, that they need to be stronger. But then we need to go and see whether the strong guys can play technique and fundamentals and of the guys that are not so strong, who can use their athletic ability to get on and off blocks.
I have a good idea where they are strength-wise, but it’s hard to tell because you could be the strongest guy in the world, but if you don’t play with proper technique based on what defense is called, you’re not going to get off that block, either. We’ll have to see where they are when they actually go against a live body.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
Fresno State Spring Football Schedule
- Monday, Feb. 29: Practice 1, 8-10 a.m.
- Wednesday, March 2: Practice 2, 8-10 a.m.
- Friday, March 4: Practice 3, 8-10 a.m.
- Saturday, March 5: Practice 4, 8-10 a.m.
- Monday, March 7: Practice 5, 8-10 a.m.
- Wednesday, March 9: Practice 6, 8-10 a.m.
- Friday, March 11: Practice 7, 8-10 a.m.
- Saturday, March 12: Scrimmage 1, 8-10 a.m. (open to the public)
- Monday, March 14: Practice 9, 8-10 a.m.
- Wednesday, March 16: Practice 10, 8-10 a.m.
- Friday, March 18: Scrimmage 2, 8-10 a.m. (open to the public)
- Tuesday, March 29: Practice 12, 8-10 a.m.
- Thursday, March 31: Practice 13, 8-10 a.m.
- Friday, April 1: Practice 14, 8-10 a.m.
- Saturday, April 2: Spring Showcase (free admission)
Times subject to change
Practices to be held in Bulldog Stadium.
All practices open to Quarterback Club members, scrimmages open to the general public. To join the Quarterback Club, contact club president Kenny Mueller at 559-288-0991 or the Bulldog Foundation at 559-278-7160.