Fresno State had linebacker Nela Otukolo on the field Tuesday and taking part in individual drills and 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 periods as he followed Jeff Camilli back to practice while Trent Soechting continued to work his way toward full heath.
Also in that mix at the inside linebacker positions is Robert Stanley, who remains one of the more critical pieces as the Bulldogs assemble that group following some minor injuries in fall camp.
For most of the past two weeks, Stanley, a fourth-year junior, has played at the “Mike” linebacker with Otukolo out with a knee injury and Soechting sidelined by a hamstring injury. Making a very smooth transition from the “Will” position, Stanley has handled playing in much more space, to the wide side of the field. He has handled the drops in pass coverage. He has handled the different run fits, as well as making calls and adjustments.
“That versatility is huge,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “We’re always trying to find our best linebackers to get them on the field whether they’re a ‘Mike’ or a ‘Will.’ Some guys can only be one or the other, but he has a skill set that can fit both. You’ve obviously got to know the position so that you can play fast, and it’s good to see that he has been able to handle that and he’s a dependable guy.
Fresno State returns 65.1 percent of its tackles at the inside linebacker positions from 2015, led by Jeff Camilli, Nela Otukolo and Robert Stanley.
“He has been very steady and is playing as well as he has since he has been here.”
Stanley, who just turned 17 when he enrolled at Fresno State and is an A-plus projection and evaluation in recruiting for the Bulldogs’ staff, played some “Mike” in his first spring, but he was a “Will” last season and this past spring. He might have stayed there had Otukolo and Soechting not been injured.
That experience made the transition a bit easier, though the positions in the Bulldogs’ 3-4 alignment are distinct.
“They are a lot different in certain aspects,” said Stanley, who played in nine games last season with one start, recording 20 tackles and one pass breakup. “The run reads are pretty similar. But the pass drops, that’s probably the biggest difference that I had to learn right away. Playing ‘Mike’ is just covering a lot more space than I’m used to, rather than playing to the boundary at ‘Will,’ but other than that, I picked it up pretty quick I feel like. I’m comfortable with it right now.”
I don’t think it’s more one or the other. I think it’s whatever we need at that time.
Inside linebackers coach Nick Toth , on the versatility of Robert Stanley
The defensive staff is comfortable as well.
“He looks better than he has ever out in space right now,” inside linebackers coach Nick Toth said. “He has really good straight line speed. The width that he has to work for is greater at ‘Mike’ – he has a greater portion of the field he has to be involved in. He has made up for that by being really aware. His football IQ is translating to really good field awareness and situational awareness.”
Otukolo, who had surgery on his knee Aug. 12, said he expects to be fully cleared and back in time for the Sept. 3 opener at Nebraska. At the “Will,” Camilli is back after missing some time with a hamstring strain and freshman Jeffrey Allison will play this season.
Like Stanley, George Helmuth, from Clovis North High School, has taken reps at both positions, and the plan toward the end of camp is to get Camilli and Allison some reps at “Mike,” just to make sure there is depth at both positions heading into the season.
Stanley will be in the middle of the mix at both spots. “Knowing both positions is a good thing – whenever they need me I’ll always be ready no matter what position it is,” he said.
Robert Stanley just turned 17 when he enrolled at Fresno State, coming in at 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds. The fourth-year junior is up to 249 pounds and a fixture at inside linebacker, playing both the ‘Mike’ and ‘Will’ positions.
Said Toth, “I don’t think it’s more one or the other. I think it’s whatever we need at that time. I really don’t have him as, ‘Oh, he’s a “Will” playing Mike right now.’ He’s either/or. I’d feel comfortable with him starting either way.
“Hopefully, we don’t lose Jeff Camilli, but if we lost Jeff Camilli, I’d be comfortable playing Nela and Robert. If Nela or Trent aren’t ready to go and Robert has to play ‘Mike’ all the time, I know he can do that. He has the mental capacity to handle it, even by play within a series he can make that switch, so I’m not worried about it at all.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
Home games in CAPS
Sept. 3: at Nebraska, 5 p.m. (Big Ten Network)
Sept. 10: SACRAMENTO STATE, 7 p.m.
Sept. 17: at Toledo, noon (ESPN3)
Sept. 24: TULSA, 1:30 p.m. (MWN)
Oct. 1: at Nevada-Las Vegas, 7:30 p.m. (CBSSN)
Oct. 8: at Nevada, TBA (ESPN network TBD)
Oct. 14: SAN DIEGO STATE, 7 p.m. (CBSSN)
Oct. 22: at Utah State, 7:30 p.m. (CBSSN)
Oct. 28: AIR FORCE, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
Nov. 5: at Colorado State, 12:30 p.m. (ROOT SPORTS/MWN)
Nov. 12: BYE
Nov. 19: HAWAII, 4 p.m.
Nov. 26: SAN JOSE STATE, 12:30 p.m. (CBSSN)
Dec. 3: Mountain West Championship, TBA