Last Thanksgiving, George Helmuth was a fairly anonymous special teams guy on a Fresno State team playing out a 1-11 turkey season.
On this one, Helmuth is a starting linebacker, second-leading tackler and owner of a new nickname (“The Hammer,” courtesy of coach-turned-radio color commentator Pat Hill) for the 8-3 Bulldogs, with the main course (a two-week tussle with Boise State) and dessert (a bowl game) still to come.
Does the current Mountain West defensive player of the week comprehend how big a leap that is, both for himself and the program?
“It’s a huge leap, but things are moving so fast during the season it’s hard to sit back and look at it,” Helmuth said. “I remember what it felt like last year. This is just so much better being 8-3 and in a position to win the Mountain West.”
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Helmuth – who grew up in Kerman, attended high school in north Fresno and came to Fresno State as a walk-on – might be the player who best personifies the rapid reversal under first-year coach Jeff Tedford.
The coaching change afforded every player a fresh start, a chance to make a positive first impression. Few, if any, seized upon it with more verve than Helmuth did with Tedford and linebackers coach Bert Watts.
“From Day 1 George was one of those guys that immediately bought in, which is how you make change fast,” Watts said. “Right from the start. There was no sell for him. It was immediately, ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘No, sir.’ And ‘I’m in.’ ”
“He has really good instincts,” Tedford said, “and that’s what kept popping up in practice. You know? He should be blocked, but he’s not.”
There are guys who have instincts for the game, and he has them.
Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford, on junior linebacker George Helmuth
Helmuth began the season as a backup. His performance in the second half of a 48-16 loss to Washington, specifically a sack and forced fumble on backup quarterback K.J. Carta-Samuels, jostled the coaches into elevating the 6-1, 220-pounder to starting Will linebacker while switching James Bailey to the Sam position.
That move, combined with middle linebacker Jeffrey Allison’s standout play, made the pieces fit for a Fresno State defense ranked No. 1 in the MW and No. 12 in FBS in points allowed and yards allowed.
“When George got the sack fumble on the (Washington) quarterback, that was the play that solidified his spot and his role,” Watts said. “That was the play when it was like, ‘OK, this is our group.’ ”
Turns out it was also the play that solidified how Helmuth viewed himself.
“Plays give you confidence as a player,” he said. “Ever since then I’ve just told myself, ‘I can do this. I can play with anybody on this field.’ ”
Which he has. In racking up 70 total tackles, second on the Bulldogs to Allison’s 99, Helmuth has made plays of every stripe: sacking the quarterback on fourth-down blitzes; shooting the gap for tackles on short-yardage runs; dropping into coverage to break up passes.
Not to mention recovering a fumble on a muffed punt return to set up his team’s only touchdown, as Helmuth did during Saturday’s 13-7 victory in frigid Wyoming.
Earlier in the game, after stopping quarterback Nick Smith for no gain on fourth-and-1, Helmuth celebrated by rubbing his hands together over a pretend campfire.
“I figured we were in cold temperatures, so I’d warm up my hands,” Helmuth said with a grin. “Or we were just getting warm. However you want to take it.”
The outward celebration was a rare deviation from a personality Tedford called “quiet” and “pretty businesslike,” Allison called “humble and loving” and tight end Kyle Riddering called “blue-collar and low key.”
“Everybody respects George,” said Riddering, who was in the same graduating class at Clovis North High.
“He’s one of those guys who shows up with his lunch pail and goes to work. He’s not flashy. Doesn’t want or seek the credit. He just does it because he loves football and enjoys working hard.”
Those qualities have made Helmuth very popular among his teammates, as noticed by the head coach.
“I know everybody loves him, for sure,” Tedford said. “When we show plays, whether it be a highlight tape on Friday night or something like that, a lot of the team chants his name of ‘Muuuth!’ They love him.”
Helmuth is the son and grandson (also named George) of grape and almond farmers. Younger brother Jason already works on the family farm outside Kerman, and George III will “probably” join him after he’s done playing football and gets his degree in ag business.
Because Helmuth’s grandmother and her sister both married men with the same last name, there are plenty of Helmuths in the area. More than a dozen will be at Bulldog Stadium on Saturday afternoon for the season’s final home game.
“Aunts, uncles, cousins, they all sit up in the red seats. Got their own little section,” Helmuth said. “My family is great, always cheering me on. They were here last year even when we were losing.”
The Bulldogs are no longer losing, just as Helmuth is no longer a special-teams guy. Likely not a coincidence.
FOOTBALL: BOISE STATE AT FRESNO STATE
- Saturday: 12:30 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium (41,031)
- Records: Bulldogs 8-3, 6-1 Mountain West; Broncos 9-2, 7-0
- TV/radio: CBS Sports Network/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: Fresno State announced Wednesday that there will be flyover at approximately 12:17 p.m. by two Air Force F-15C Eagles flown by Fresno State alumni Lt. Col. Rob “Tigger” Swertfager and 1st Lt. Skylar “Voodoo” Bautista. Fresno State will honor the Fresno-based California Air National Guard 144th Fighter Wing during the game. … Saturday marks the 38th anniversary of the first game played at Bulldog Stadium, a 21-14 Fresno State win over Montana State on Nov. 25, 1980. … Boise State has won seven in a row after beating Air Force on Saturday 44-19. Over the past four games, they are averaging 46.3 points per game. Brett Rypien has thrown for 12 TDs and just one interception in that stretch. … Boise State has 14 seniors and that group is the 15th in 16 years to win 40 or more career games. With a victory, the Broncos also would go undefeated in conference play for the first time since 2009 when they were in the Western Athletic Conference. … The Broncos last week were No. 25 in the College Football Playoff rankings, part of the reason they have a large lead on the Bulldogs in determining the host for the Dec. 2 conference final. Even a head-to-head win might not be enough to get Fresno State a home game – the host is determined by teams’ standing in the CFP or composite of four computer rankings.