The Bulldogs are going to be young again, but that youth has experience after taking its lumps a year ago and the unit has much more upside with a strong nose guard in Malik Forrester and better play on the outside at the cornerback positions.
Key player – Malik Forrester. The JC transfer is a difference-maker at nose guard – powerful, quick and he can move. When the Bulldogs worked live periods in camp, Forrester often chased down plays to the sidelines and in conference play he will be very tough on opponents.
This season – The Bulldogs’ defensive line depth took a hit when they had to move Jaleel Carter and Nick Aibuedefe across the line of scrimmage to plug some holes, so finding a top seven or eight to travel isn’t going to be all that difficult. Defensive line coach Pete Germano is working with only eight scholarship players while end Kyle Hendrickson makes his way back from knee surgery. Forrester and Patrick Belony at nose guard make it a much better group than a year ago when end Nate Madsen was playing out of position inside. In camp, Forrester has been a force and Madsen has been very productive in live periods. Nick Kristofors plays the other end spot and Germano is developing some interesting options with end Austin Vaimili, a JC transfer, senior Wyatt McBee and freshman Elijah Piper. Vaimili is likely to be used as a third-down pass-rusher and Piper has flashed since the start of camp and provides some flexibility at 6 feet 3 inches and 308 pounds – he can play at end or in a pinch line up at nose guard.
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Key player – Robert Stanley. The Bulldogs have some questions at the Mike linebacker with Nela Otukolo and Trent Soechting missing a large chunk of camp due to injury. Stanley has the versatility to play the Mike and the Will inside positions and has been on a steady climb within the program.
This season – The injuries to Otukolo, Soechting and Jeff Camilli gave freshman Jeffrey Allison a lot of reps in fall camp and he responded very well. Fresno State has played a true freshman at an inside linebacker position each of the past three seasons and Allison could be the most productive of the group – Camilli in 2013 made four tackles, Xavier Ulutu and Michael Lazarus in 2014 were in on 20 and seven, respectively, and Otukolo last season was credited with 25 in eight games. Inside linebackers coach Nick Toth said early in camp (before the injuries) that Allison would see the field. Camilli got his annual hamstring issue out of the way early this year and he figures to have another solid year. In 2015, he had four games with 10 or more tackles including three in a row and finished with 76, second on the team. He also had two interceptions, second among linebackers in the Mountain West.
Key player – James Bailey. He played in all 12 games and made three starts last season as a true freshman and at no point did any of it appear too big for him. He was in on 47 tackles including 2.0 for loss, the most by a true freshman at Fresno State since linebacker Kevin Adams had 47 in 1995.
This season – The Bulldogs are not particularly deep at the outside linebacker positions, but Bailey and Brandon Hughes with the No. 1 defense have a chance to be very productive players this season. Bailey has a high ceiling and Hughes seems to have added a gear coming off the edge and rushing the passer. He was very disruptive in team periods in fall camp and will have to be this season at an action spot in the 3-4 defense. Hughes last season played in eight games, losing one to suspension and three to injury, and was in on 25 tackles, including 3.5 for loss. With a healthy senior season, those numbers will improve. Ejiro Ederaine led the Bulldogs in tackles for loss the past three seasons and Tristan Okpalaugo was second to Phillip Thomas in 2012, so the potential is there to make a lot of plays. Tobenna Okeke was slowed in fall camp by a lower leg injury, but figures to be in the mix behind Hughes. Behind Bailey, Justin Green and freshman Josh Hokit are competing for playing time.
Key player – Jamal Ellis. The fifth-year senior started all 12 games a year ago, ranking fifth in the Mountain West with eight pass breakups, and built on that with a strong fall camp.
This season – The Bulldogs have had a lot of footballs go sailing over their heads the past two seasons. In 2015, they allowed 37 explosive pass plays of 20 or more yards including touchdown passes of 73, 50, 49 and three of 44 yards – and that was an improvement. In 2014, they gave up 54 pass plays of 20 or more yards, ranking 10th of 12 in the Mountain West. Tyquwan Glass and Ellis played a part in the improvement, starting the last eight games of 2015 including matchups against the second-, fourth-, fifth and sixth-best passing offenses in the conference. They come into their senior seasons with more experience and more confidence. If the Bulldogs can generate a rush – they had 28 sacks last season, fewest in four seasons under coach Tim DeRuyter – the pass defense should improve. The depth at the corner spots is young and lacks experience, but Juju Hughes, the freshman from Hanford, had a solid first camp and redshirt freshman Mike Bell after an inconsistent first year in the program has moved well forward.
Key player – DeShawn Potts has dropped strong hints he has the playmaking ability that has made Fresno State safeties famous. He started the final two games a year ago, racking up eight tackles and one pass breakup in the finale against Colorado State. The eight stops matched the season-high by any Bulldogs safety.
This season – Fresno State needs playmakers to develop alongside Potts, whether it’s seniors Stratton Brown, Dalen Jones or Alan Wright or perhaps redshirt freshman Jalen Smith, who was making a late run at a spot in the two-deep in fall camp. Last season Bulldogs safeties had only 3.5 tackles for loss as a group – Ellis, playing corner, had 4.5 by himself and looking at the history of the position group that is well off the 12.0 that Phillip Thomas had in 2012 when leading the team or the 8.0 Derron Smith had the following season. There are not a lot of returning starts in the group, but Jones is in his fifth season at Fresno State, Brown in his third and Wright in his second. There should be some consistency in there. New defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward, who also coaches the secondary, has trimmed a lot from the playbook in an effort to get the defense to play faster, to fly around and make plays.
Key player – Blake Cusik. Disquieting to list a punter, perhaps, but DeRuyter and the Bulldogs have had a solid line working with Andrew Shapiro followed by Garrett Swanson. Cusik has the leg and kicked well when put into pressure situations in camp.
This season – In the kicking game, Jimmy Camacho and Kody Kroening were inconsistent in fall camp, but both have legs to hit a field goal from 50 yards out. Consistency will be a key there, and the snaps appear to be well covered by senior Justin Verrell. The kick and punt return and cover teams are now under special teams coordinator Dave Ungerer, who doubles as the running backs coach. Fresno State has struggled, most glaringly with its kickoff return and punt cover teams, despite having a good group of athletes to put on the field. They were last in the Mountain West a year ago in averaging 20.3 yards on 50 kickoff returns and have been in the bottom half of the conference every year under DeRuyter. The punt cover last season was 11th of 12 in the conference in allowing 13.5 yards on 17 returns and the Bulldogs were one of only three teams in the nation that allowed three returns to go for touchdowns.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada