Bulldogs D-line coach on emergence of Leevel Tatum III
Fresno State defensive end Leevel Tatum III is in his third year in the Bulldogs’ program, playing football close to where he grew up and went to high school, playing where his father did back when. And, finally, he appears to be home.
The former Edison Tiger, defensive line coach Will Plemons said, “has made as much progress as anyone since the spring. He has really stepped up his game.”
Tatum is playing much faster, more confidently. He is back in Fresno, but from a football perspective he also is where he needs and wants to be.
“I’m back there in that quarterback’s face,” he said, laughing.
Tatum spent his first season in the program on the scout team, sitting out as a transfer from UNLV; when Fresno State was preparing for the Hawaii Bowl, he played the part of Houston All-American Ed Oliver in practice against the Bulldogs offense.
He got into 10 games last season, playing snaps up front through the softer part of the schedule, but not toward the end as Fresno State tightened the rotation against Boise State, San Diego State and in the Las Vegas Bowl against Arizona State.
Tatum always showed tantalizing speed and strength, but something was missing.
In the spring and into the summer Tatum took a deep dive into the playbook, put in the extra time to know it inside and out.
“Leevel has always had a tremendous amount of passion for the game and that passion has driven him throughout his life. He’s a warrior, for sure,” defensive coordinator Bert Watts said. “But I think for him to now be in a system and be with our staff for a few years now, it has allowed him to start to get comfortable and understand how to direct that passion and energy in the right way, in the right direction.
“That’s showing up with his technique. He’s always somebody who plays incredibly hard and through the reps and the consistency, getting things locked down, he’s competing, which is awesome. It’s showing up in his ability to come out here and make plays. His pass rush has gotten a lot better.”
The difference, Tatum said, is that playbook.
“It was hard, because before I was just trying to get it off the meetings and not putting in the extra work and trying to understand it,” he said. “I was more into the training my body than getting the plays down. I had to reevaluate myself, my game plan and I said, ‘Let me get the plays down, then train hard.’ I was trying to make the plays the little thing and fix the big thing. But the big thing was the plays.
“I took this offseason really seriously, physically, but mostly mentally. Once you know what you’re doing, you play fast. That’s what is happening now.”
Tatum’s speed off the edge at 250 pounds will be a tough matchup for opponents as the Bulldogs try to build on a 2018 season in which they allowed only 14.1 points per game, ranking third in the nation.
In camp Tatum has taken reps with the No. 1 and No. 2 defense, and with as much as the Bulldogs rotate within their defensive front to keep fresh players on the field he is expected to see a lot more snaps this season.
He is competing for reps in that defensive ends group with sophomore Isaiah Johnson, juniors Andrew Wright and David Perales, third-year sophomore Alex Cruz and freshman Colby Warkentin.
“Part of it with anybody who’s new, they have to get into the system, they have to learn what the expectations are and how to play and all those things,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “When you’re playing on defense, you have to understand the call, you have to notice certain formations. There’s a lot of different adjustments that go on and over time he has gotten to a point where he understands what we’re doing.
“He has been here long enough now, and he’s a very hard worker. He’s going to be a contributor for us.”
Tatum family ties
Leevel Tatum II played for the Bulldogs in 1982-84 and counted among his teammates current coach Jeff Tedford.
Leevel Tatum III is a nephew of the late Jack Tatum, an All-Pro for the Oakland Raiders during an NFL career that stretched from 1971-80.
Fresno State receives votes in AP preseason poll
Fresno State totaled eight points in the Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll, tied for 37th with fellow Mountain West Conference member Utah State.
Boise State of the Mountain West was 33rd after receiving 38 points.
Fresno State’s first two opponents received votes: USC got one vote, and Minnesota totaled seven points.