At some point in fall camp, the Fresno State Bulldogs’ young inside linebackers were going to get pushed out onto the practice field to get a good dose of defensive schemes; all part of the camp plan. With Nela Otukolo and Trent Soechting, the No. 1 and No. 2 Mike linebackers, down with lower leg injuries, that youth push started Tuesday – on one hand maybe ahead of schedule, but on the other hand there’s no time like now.
Through both ends of a double-day session, the Bulldogs’ first in fall camp, freshman Jeffrey Allison ran with the No. 1 defense at Mike and there was a mix and match behind him and at the Will with sophomore George Helmuth and freshmen Josh Hokit, Tanner Rice and Dallas Ruth moving up and getting reps.
“Our timeline is accelerated a little bit right now,” inside linebackers coach Nick Toth said. “But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think it’s really a good thing, forcing my hand and developing that depth maybe a little earlier than I wanted to.”
Allison had been taking some No. 2 reps through the first four days of camp and was becoming a known commodity on the practice field – Toth last week said Allison no doubt would be the fourth true freshman to play at an inside linebacker position in four years.
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But Hokit and Rice, walk-ons from Clovis High, took advantage of their opportunities, no doubt.
“You know what, he is a football-playing dude,” Toth said of Hokit. “He ain’t worried about a whole lot other than playing ball. Tanner Rice is the same way. They show up. They aren’t worried about what sleeves they’re wearing. They’re not worried about what color their cleats are. They’re not worried about scholarship or no scholarship.”
All of them will continue to get reps for at least a few more days – Otukolo and Soechting are expected to be out for perhaps a week, though Otukolo is likely to be miss more time.
Cornerback Juju Hughes, a freshman from Hanford High, has intercepted a pass in each of the Bulldogs’ past four practices.
And by the time Otukolo and Soechting are back on the practice field, the Bulldogs will have a better idea what they have with their freshman linebackers.
“We’ve brought in some talented guys,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “A guy like Jeffrey Allison is getting a chance to run with the ones. (Cornerback) Juju Hughes is getting a chance to run with the ones and twos and they’re flashing right now. That’s the fun about training camp.
“You can never totally project a freshman because they all come in with different mindsets. Some guys don’t see it in themselves yet and maturity-wise they’re not ready. But other guys, and both of those guys are good examples, feel they’re ready to compete and both are doing it.”
Four for Four – Hughes for the fourth day in a row intercepted a pass in a 7-on-7 or 11-on-11 period, making a nice play on a poor-decision throw from freshman James Quentin Davis and returning it for a score in a live third-down period at the end of the morning practice.
But the day was not all picks and PBUs (pass breakups) for the freshman.
Earlier, Hughes got beat on a deep ball to junior Darrell Fuery.
“We have to get him more consistent because right now he’s a little bit of a band player – either our band is playing or their band is playing,” DeRuyter joked. “He picked one and took it to the house and our band is playing. He also gave up some big plays and their band is playing. We just have to get him more consistent, but I like the fact that he has got the ability, the raw natural ability, to make plays.”
Run drill – The Bulldogs’ run drill in the morning produced some big gains by the offense, with Treyvon Green, Deonte Perry and Dejonte O’Neal breezing through some spacious holes in the front seven.
“We were running some blitz stuff and guys got cut out of gaps,” DeRuyter said. “That’s the danger when you’re moving your front. If guys get cut off, you get creased. In the spring time, our offensive line wasn’t doing a great job of picking up those blitzes. Now they’re doing a much better job, so for one side it’s fun to see, but on the defensive side we have to get that cleaned up.”
Hokit can hit – The Bulldogs in the afternoon practiced in helmets and shoulder pads and didn’t do anything live. The plays in team periods were supposed to end with a solid thud tackle.
Hokit with solid pops each time still took three players to the ground in a red-zone period.
“He likes to wrestle. He likes to play football. Sometimes, he likes to do both when it’s supposed to be non-tackling. But I really like Josh. He’s a throwback kind of football player,” DeRuyter said.
“He’s getting thrown into it right now with the injuries we have there ... so he’s going to get that sip out of the fire hydrant. It’s going to come at him pretty quick, but I like how he has responded.”
Et cetera – Safety Jackson Finch, the JC transfer from Contra Costa College who was competing for time in the two-deep, will miss some time with a lower leg injury.
▪ The energy level of the Bulldogs’ second practice was up there and the offense in particular was sharp when running through some interesting red-zone calls.
“These guys have surprised me all camp,” DeRuyter said. “I think they’ve come back with a great attitude; they’re dialed in. I think our coaches have been doing a really nice job of teaching the detail of what we want to get done and our players are doing a good job executing.
“That was good to see. They knew we weren’t going to be out here for two hours, but we challenged them, ‘Hey, let’s be dialed in. We’re going to go fast’ and our guys did. I like the work ethic of this team. I think we have really good leadership and they like to pay football. They had fun out here.”
▪ Freshman outside linebacker Lukas McKenzie, who is coming back from a knee injury suffered during summer conditioning workouts, has started to take part in individual drills.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada