It’s early, two practices into spring ball. Fresno State doesn’t even have its defense grouped as ones, twos and threes or first, second or third team. For now, they’re just A’s, B’s and C’s.
Asked about that after practice Wednesday morning, first-year coach Jeff Tedford just kind of chuckled. Clearly, a player’s place on the depth chart has to be earned. But the Bulldogs do at least have some credible answers to explore where there are questions, including at cornerback.
They lost seniors Jamal Ellis and Tyquwan Glass, who started 32 and 19 games, respectively, in their careers.
But the position group entered camp in better shape than most on that side of the ball. Former Hanford High standout Juju Hughes and Jaron Bryant are at the top of that list; intriguing prospects, athletic and competitive, and both saw the field last season as true freshmen.
The Bulldogs’ returning cornerbacks and safeties do not have a single career interception between them. Fresno State last season had only five - two by Jamal Ellis and Tyquwan Glass and one by Stratton Brown.
The Bulldogs also have Tank Kelly and Ka’Lonn Milton, another Valley product from Buchanan High and Fresno City College, who is back from injury. They added a transfer in Matt Boateng and have a redshirt freshman in Kenny Gagnon.
The A’s, B’s and C’s, for now anyway.
“So far, for what it’s worth, some of them are looking athletic. They have pretty good ball skills and they’ve come up with a lot of balls for the first two days,” Tedford said. “They’re being coached really well by (defensive backs coach J.D. Williams and defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer). They’re in position to do things – little techniques and fundamentals are helping them I think and they’re paying attention to it.
“But they’re able to jump routes – they have like three routes coming at them. There’s not a lot coming at them, but I am pleased by the way they’re competing.”
The Bulldogs will practice again Friday and put full pads on for the first time this spring on Saturday, when they will have a chance to make an imprint on practice periods and a few of the Bulldogs’ wideouts.
You can be a great intramural player, but when you're out there and you have to put it together you have to have savvy about what you're doing and you have to be able to tackle and you have to be disciplined about certain things.
Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford
They will have to gain ground quickly, because opponents are likely to attack much more than a year ago given their youth at the positions.
Fresno State with Ellis and Glass starting ranked second in the Mountain West Conference in passing defense, allowing 167.7 yards per game. That is a tad misleading, given trouble stopping the run.
The Bulldogs faced only 22.6 pass plays per game and ranked eighth in the conference in completion percentage (59.0) and passing efficiency rating (143.28) allowed and in a three-way tie for last with Nevada and UNLV with five interceptions.
Hughes and Bryant at least have a head start in their second years in the program. Kelly is a fourth-year junior. Boateng is in his first season, but has made some plays in 7 on 7 and in team periods in the first two spring practices.
“The older guys last year, they taught me a lot,” said Hughes, who lit up his first fall camp a year ago with what seemed like an interception in 7 on 7 or a team period every day. “I got to sit behind them, I got to play a little bit, so that was great for me.
7.4 Fresno State last season allowed 7.4 yards per pass play, its lowest since leading the Mountain West at 5.7 in 2012.
“There are a lot of different aspects to the game, so there’s nothing I’d single out more than anything else, but you really have to adjust to the game speed. The game speed from high school to college is a big difference, but it’s just your workout. You want to be going as hard as possible – that’s what I tried to do. I was thinking, every drill, every workout, if I go as hard as all the older guys I’m going to get up to their speed quicker.”
Williams, a former Bulldogs cornerback and one of five NFL first-round draft picks in school history, is “just waiting to see, but I’m excited because there is some talent here.”
“There is some talent available in the secondary and it’s about getting them in the right spots. We’ll see who separates themselves. Right now it’s all about competition,” Willliams said.
“Players make plays. That’s the key right there. If you make plays in practice, you’ll probably make them in the games. You have to try to keep a keen eye out for playmakers, who is going to make plays for us and who is playing with confidence and who’s not.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
- Saturday, April 1: Spring practice No. 4: 10:35 a.m.-12:50 p.m., open to Quarterback Club members
- Saturday, April 22: Spring practice No. 11: 10:35 a.m.-12:50 p.m., open to the public
- Saturday, April 29: Spring Preview, 10:30 a.m.
- Saturday, Sept. 2: Home/season opener vs. Incarnate Word, kickoff tbd
- Saturday, Sept. 9: Game at Alabama, kickoff tbd
- Saturday, Sept. 30: Mountain West opener vs. Nevada, kickoff tbd