Fresno State Football

Fresno State football: Younger players press for time on besieged defense

Fresno State's overall defense has been atrocious for three straight weeks, but there have been a few individual signs of hope.

Improved play by some of the younger players might even push veteran starters to step up their performance. Fresno State (0-3) hosts FBS school Southern Utah (0-3) at 7 p.m. Saturday.

"It's been really tough overall," said defensive coordinator Nick Toth, who along with his position groups and the team as a whole have suffered through losses of 52-13 at USC, 59-27 at Utah and 55-19 in last week's home opener against Nebraska.

"We're tired of inconsistency," Toth added. "But there are things to draw out of there. Some guys made some progress and that's good to see."

Among the Bulldogs who have started to develop: recently anointed starting safety Shannon Edwards, reserve inside linebacker Jeff Camilli, defensive linemen Nate Madsen and Claudell Louis, and backup linebackers Brandon Hughes and Tobenna Okeke.

Edwards, who earned his first start last weekend, tied for a team high with seven tackles against the Cornhuskers and also recorded a pass breakup.

A 5-foot-11, 191-pound true junior, Edwards has 12 tackles on the season. His play has allowed Fresno State to keep junior Charles Washington at cornerback after he began the year at strong safety.

"Edwards showed some physicality in his first college start against a big opponent," Toth said. "We're going to gain something from that. That's big."

Camilli, a 6-foot-3, 263-pound true sophomore, ranks fourth on the team overall and is second among all linebackers with 18 tackles. He also has one of just two sacks from the defense on the year and made 2½ sacks behind the line of scrimmage.

"That's two weeks in a row he's made a lot of tackles," Toth said of Camilli. "It's good to see an individual develop, make strides against some really good teams."

Madsen, a 6-foot-4, 275-pound redshirt freshman, made his first start Saturday against Nebraska and was applauded for his physical play. He was limited to one tackle and didn't play in the second half because of dehydration, which required an IV.

"Before he got pulled, Nate played really well against a really good Big Ten line, had a good first half," Toth said. "He was fitting his gap really well, he was rushing the passer twice, one of which he won.

"We challenged him after the Utah game because we didn't think he played as well as he should. And he showed he could step up to the challenge."

The steady development of Louis, a 6-foot-4, 292-pound junior who redshirted last year after two seasons at College of the Sequoias, also has added to the depth on the defensive line and allowed position coach Pete Germano to rotate his players more to keep fresh bodies in the game.

"Claudell is growing into it," Toth said. "His get-off has been good. He's been playing with more power. He's understanding the defense. They've given us more depth there. We feel comfortable playing both guys."

Top defensive lineman Tyeler Davison, meanwhile, has been able to play more nose guard — where he started the past two years — thanks to the depth at defensive end.

Davison, however, still is expected to move to defensive end at times to help take advantage of favorable matchups that likely will be more common against the likes of Southern Utah and some Mountain West Conference teams — unlike the first three games against Power 5 conference opponents.

The play of backup linebackers Hughes and Okeke could start putting some pressure on the starters there, too.

Hughes, a 6-foot-3, 216-pound redshirt sophomore, has 10 tackles this season and had a second-half fumble recovery against Nebraska.

Okeke, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound true freshman, has two tackles, including one for a loss, on the season.

"You watch a guy like Tobenna Okeke go out and do some things against Nebraska that was pretty impressive, and you watch Brandon Hughes rush the passer and rush the quarterback a bit," Toth said. "There were individual things we could draw.

"Collectively, though, we're just tired of making the mistakes, the critical error by one or two guys. Whether we got to coach it better or play it better, we've got to figure out now. But we've developed more depth against three really good teams and developed guys who can play."