The recruiting process can be fun for a lot of players, but for Fresno State freshman inside linebacker Nela Otukolo, it was not ... enjoyable, would be an apropos adjective.
The Bulldogs had been the first to offer a scholarship and there was an attraction there, but Boise State also was in there and then his high school coach at national powerhouse Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, Tony Sanchez, was hired at UNLV and given a shot to revive the Rebels’ struggling program – and that just made too much sense.
Otukolo would follow, surely, the first in what would become a pipeline from the Gaels’ six-time state champion program to UNLV. And, tugged at from any number of directions, he did, making a non-binding oral commitment the last week in January only to reverse course a few days before national letter of intent signing day and commit to and eventually sign with Fresno State.
So on Friday, when Fresno State (1-5, 0-3 Mountain West) plays UNLV (2-4, 1-1), Otukolo will be on the Bulldogs sideline, opposite his high school coach. Rather than dreading it, he is looking forward to it, and along with linebacker Robert Stanley, Bishop Gorman Class of 2013, there is a little extra at stake.
“It’s going to be a fun, exciting game,” Otukolo said. “But we were joking, saying, ‘Hey, man, we have to win this game. We can’t let Coach Sanchez have bragging rights for the next year.’ So we’re going out there and going to win this game.”
If the Bulldogs can snap a five-game losing streak and regain some semblance of balance to their season, Otukolo is likely to have something to do with it. As the backup Mike linebacker to senior Kyrie Wilson, the 240-pound Otukolo has continued to trend upward since the start of fall camp, recording his first career sack last week in the Bulldogs’ loss to Utah State.
“You rarely expect a freshman to do what he has done,” defensive coordinator Nick Toth said. “You can plan on a freshman being in the two-deep. It’s really hard to expect a freshman to be a consistent playmaker. It’s just not realistic very often. The program he was in (Bishop Gorman) prepared him for it. His family and the constitution he has from his family prepared him for it. And the biggest thing that has happened is he hasn’t had the freshman plateau in the fall – and that’s a tribute to him.
“I’m pleased with where he’s at. Some of the finer things in the defense that a year later you get he’s still missing. Some of the alignment things. ... He makes a play at San Diego State on third-and-1, that TFL (tackle for loss) that knocked them back, and he was misaligned by two gaps and comes back and makes the play on the opposite side of the field and that’s something that, he could have made that play for a 3-yard loss if he lines up right. That’s a good thing. The detail is something he’s still working on, but there are so many positive things he’s doing. I’m really excited for him.”
Toth and the Bulldogs were excited to get him, as well, after a high-anxiety recruiting process. With Otukolo, it was not particularly breezy for them, either.
A few days before Otukolo was to make his official visit, Toth saw on Twitter that Otukolo had made a commitment to Boise State. Toth picked up the phone, no answer. He left a message.
“I called him immediately and he doesn’t answer his phone,” Toth said. “He’s in school, right, it’s the middle of the day. I said, ‘Nela, Twitter says you’re committed to Boise.’ I’m thinking, OK, I’m going to go the next eight hours and not hear from him, or like usual, he’ll call me three days later. But, 30 seconds later, my phone rings. Caller ID says it’s Nela. I pick up and say, ‘Nela, what’s up?’ ”
Otukolo is short of breath, huffing and puffing.
“He says, ‘Coach I’m not committed to Boise,’ ” Toth said. “I’m, like, Nela, where are you? And he says, ‘Coach, I’m in the bathroom.’ I’m not allowed to be on the phone in school. I wanted to make sure that you knew, I’m not committed to Boise. I have to go back to class ... ’ and he’s gone and I’m looking around for the video camera, looking to see America’s Funniest Home Videos or something. There are about 35,000 funny things in recruiting, but that’s the one I remember most.”
With Otukolo now fully engaged at Fresno State, the Bulldogs’ expectations remain high. On national letter of intent signing day, he already was counted on to play this season.
“He’s getting better each week,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “His big thing is consistency. It’s just like playing quarterback. You have to get out there and play in order to feel comfortable. We saw his explosive ability when he scraped and got the sack on the sprint out.
“He has a ton of ability, but until you can play in the scheme and be able to handle both your run and pass assignments consistently and not just take a shot every now and then he’s not going to be the player he can be, but I like how he’s progressing.”
Et cetera – Inside receiver Keyan Williams, who has not played since the second game of the season at Ole Miss after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit in that game, has been cleared for contact. There is a chance he could play Friday against the Rebels – the Bulldogs will wait to see how he goes through the week before making that call – which would add to the depth there. “We’ve put a lot on Jamire (Jordan) the last couple of weeks,” DeRuyter said. “It’s good to have somebody with a similar skill set to take a little of the load off of him and he’s going to be a terrific player for us. It’s good to see him out here practicing.”
▪ Redshirt freshman offensive tackle Bobby Johnson, who was suspended indefinitely last week for a series of team-related issues, is not practicing or allowed to participate in any football-related activities other than access to the academic support staff.
▪ The Bulldogs have decided to keep senior Bo Bonnheim at center, after starting the season with junior Jacob Vazquez at center and Bonnheim at right guard. The No. 1 line for UNLV from the left tackle across is Alex Fifita, Aaron Mitchell, Bonnheim, Micah St. Andrew and Justin Northern. “Right now that’s the plan,” DeRuyter said. “There are always evaluations going forward. Micah is making strides, which allows us to put him there and we’ll see how it goes.”
▪ DeRuyter on Monday’s practice: “I like the energy our guys practiced with. We still have a lot of things to correct, but guys are giving great effort. I thought we had a lot of energy and good leadership. If we keep doing this, we’ll get better and the results will take care of themselves.”
▪ Last year, Fresno State pulled freshman outside linebacker Justin Green out of a redshirt season in the seventh game of the season in an attempt to add some speed to its pass rush. At the moment, there are no plans to make a similar move with any of the players in the Bulldogs’ developmental program. “You’d hope to not do it, but you can never say never because of injuries,” DeRuyter said. “We’re thin right now. We really can’t sustain many more without maybe having to dip into our freshmen guys, but hopefully we’ll stay healthy ad get some of the guys that are banged up back.”
FRESNO STATE VS. UNLV
- Friday: 7:30 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium
- Records: Bulldogs 1-5, 0-3 MW; Rebels 2-4, 1-1
- TV: ESPN2
- Radio: KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)