The board was never static. Fresno State defensive line coach Pete Germano kept digging, kept scouring areas for players. A name would come off the board, and he would find a capable replacement. Options were important.
The Bulldogs needed reinforcements, so the names on that recruiting board were constantly updated. Some were known commodities, such as freshman Kevin Atkins and junior college end Austin Vaimili. Others took some looking and some luck to come up with, including Malik Forrester.
Freshman Elijah Piper, who is from Curtis Senior High in University Place, Wash., outside the Bulldogs’ usual recruiting territory, was one that Germano didn’t find and start recruiting until the fall.
But all four are Bulldogs now, and Saturday coach Tim DeRuyter and staff got a very good look at what is possible this season. They ended the third practice of preseason camp with an end-of-half period – 1:30 on the clock, a first down for the offense, some ground to cover to get a field goal and some more to get a touchdown.
They never got close, and the defensive line played a big role.
I’ve noticed Coach Germano has a lot bigger smile on his face than he did at this time a year ago.
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter on a Bulldogs defensive line bolstered by incoming junior college and freshmen recruits
In the span of nine plays, Forrester had a sack, and Piper also had a sack and teamed for another with outside linebacker Tobenna Okeke. Outside linebacker Brandon Hughes added a sack of his own.
“I’ve noticed Coach Germano has a lot bigger smile on his face than he did at this time a year ago,” DeRuyter said, cracking a smile.
All four defensive linemen had some ground to cover coming into fall camp. Forrester had been through spring practices but still was gaining a comfort level in the defense; Vaimili had not enrolled until the first summer session in July; and Atkins and Piper were freshmen and though they arrived in the summer were new to just about everything.
But they’re ahead of what conservatively might be expected, giving the Bulldogs a much sturdier look up front with ends Nate Madsen and Nick Kristofors and nose guards Patrick Belony and Jaleel Carter.
Germano cautioned that there still is a long way to go before the Sept. 3 opener at Nebraska, but ahead is not a bad place to start.
“I’m pretty excited about where they are now in terms of me getting my mitts on them, and my expectations are high for them,” Germano said. “Where I’m getting them right now, I thought they’d be a little further behind, and they’re not, and that’s exciting. I do really like this group.”
Madsen and Kristofors are known commodities, having played a lot of football a year ago. Belony and Carter were in the program, taking redshirt years. End Kyle Hendrickson is working his way back from a knee injury and is expected to add some depth at some point this season.
▪ Germano on Atkins and Piper: “I’m not worried about strength. I’m not worried about weight. They’re there. They have some size to them, they have some strength to them, and they can move their bodies. It’s one thing to be big and strong; it’s another to be able to play with it.
“You look at Pipe, you look at his legs, and you don’t think that kid can move. He can move his body. He gets off the ball. I like him a lot. And Kevin, he can be like that. Kevin is a little more of a thinker right now, while Elijah is just letting it fly and living with the results. But I love their demeanors. I love the way they’re asking questions and learning.”
▪ On Vaimili: “Austin has an athletic ability that we didn’t have. He’s a different cat now. He’s a longer-armed kid, a little thinner and more of an athletic speed guy. He has been coached a little more in terms of some techniques that he naturally understands just because he came from a junior college.
“There’s not as much (ground to make up) as I thought, but he was here in the summer. Legally, I was able to meet with those guys, so that helped. And you know what, when you’re athletic you can make up for some of the flaws that you might have in other things like the reads or the techniques and his long arms, those long arms are a weapon.”
▪ On Forrester: “Just the fact that Malik had a whole summer and a whole spring, he’s so much farther ahead from where he was in understanding the defense. He’s going to be pretty good. He’s not quite as athletic as (alumnus) Tyeler (Davison), but Tyeler is in the first huddle with the New Orleans Saints. But he is strong, and he’ll fight you, which is what we need.”
Green playing base – When outside linebacker Justin Green was a freshman, the Bulldogs took him out of a potential redshirt year to see if he could bring some life to the pass rush with his burst and speed off an edge.
He played for the first time in Week 7 at UNLV, made a few plays, and that was the role he settled into, playing on third downs as a pass-rush specialist.
I think his overall football awareness has improved dramatically in the last year and a half.
Outside linebackers coach Jordan Peterson on junior Justin Green
Green, who last season played at 201 pounds, didn’t get many reps in base downs. But the Bulldogs are not the deepest at those outside linebacker spots right now, and Green is getting some time there in fall camp. He is bigger, up around 215, but that is not the only weapon in his arsenal when going against tackles and tight ends while playing the run.
“I think he understands the game a little better,” outside linebackers coach Jordan Peterson said. “It’s not just, ‘OK, go get the quarterback.’ His understanding how the backfield is set can alter his technique slightly, what kind of blocks he’s expecting from the tackle or the tight end based on the backfield set and the formation. I think his overall football awareness has improved dramatically in the last year and a half because he’s light years ahead in this camp than he was last year as far as being able to recognize what’s going on around him.
“It’s not just, ‘I’m playing this technique.’ Now he can apply the offensive formation to how he can change his technique slightly. It’s really the anticipation game – any time you can anticipate what kind of blocks you’re going to get you’re going to be that much faster in your reaction.”
Et cetera – Another day, another wideout flashing. On Saturday, it was Delvon Hardaway, who in a 7-on-7 period caught deep balls on back-to-back plays from freshman Quentin Davis and redshirt freshman Chason Virgil. And that is only half of it.
The fourth-year junior, who had knee surgery in spring 2015 but returned in time to see action in a Week 4 loss at San Jose State, is healthy. His routes, getting in and out of breaks, has improved since last season and even the spring.
I don’t think our offensive staff really has seen what he’s capable of doing, but he’s starting to look the part.
DeRuyter on junior wide receiver Delvon Hardaway, who bounced back from a torn ACL last spring to play in nine games for the Bulldogs a year ago
“It’s good to see him come out and compete,” DeRuyter said. “Coming off that knee he never was 100 percent, and even in the spring time he got banged up a little bit and wasn’t quite 100 percent, so I don’t think our offensive staff really has seen what he’s capable of doing, but he’s starting to look the part.”
▪ With running back Justin Rice – the freshman from Central Catholic-Modesto – out six to eight weeks with a broken bone in his foot, redshirt freshman wideout Treyvon Green is taking some reps at running back. Green had a nice run in one team period, spinning out of a tackle by strong safety Dalen Jones.
▪ Quarterback Zach Kline had two passes picked off in a team period, and Davis also threw an interception. This fall, with some legit competition in the group, there is a quick hook for poor mistakes. “Bad decisions,” DeRuyter said. “Throwing the ball late, throwing the ball off your back foot. Those things, it’s great to have in practice to learn from, but (offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau) is not going to tolerate so if you turn the ball over we’re going to get another quarterback in there.
“That’s the luxury of having more than one guy that can actually throw a football. The nice thing is we can go to the next guy. It’s one thing to throw a pick and to have the coach yell at you, but if you lose reps because of it you might think a little more about it.”
▪ Kline was picked off by freshman cornerback Juju Hughes and sophomore outside linebacker James Bailey; Davis was picked off by inside linebacker Nela Otukolo. Otukolo absorbed a nice shot by tight end Jared Rice – Justin Rice’s older brother – when he was returning the pick.
▪ Sophomore corner Ka’Lonn Milton, from Buchanan High and Fresno City College, made a nice recovery in 7-on-7. He lost out on a contested catch made by Jordan Washington but stayed in the play and forced a fumble by knocking the ball free from the sophomore receiver as he turned up field.
▪ The defense controlled the end-of-half period that ended practice, but that was not too surprising. The defense should be ahead at this point in camp and, really, it is playing with some bite. “We have not done a great job of taking away the football the past two years, and I think our defense is playing faster now,” DeRuyter said. “We’ve simplified some things; we’ve got veteran guys. We’re going to be a unit this year that forces takeaways, and that’s what you have to do to be a good defense.”
The past two seasons Fresno State has forced 20 turnovers, down from 23 in 2013 and from 35 in 2012 when playing the 3-4 defense installed by DeRuyter and staff.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada