Fresno State Football

Fresno State football: Linebacker Karl Mickelsen thriving after learning new tricks from old 'Dogs

Karl Mickelsen had his starting job dangled in front of him in that week after Fresno State got drilled at home by Wyoming, when the Bulldogs were at their lowest.

And yes, that most definitely has had something to do with his improved play at his inside (Mike) linebacker spot over the past three games.

There are some big plays in there, victories all.

Mickelsen had a huge sack at Nevada, dropping Cody Fajardo on a fourth-down play when the Wolf Pack was trying pushing toward a tying score in the second quarter. Later, he picked off a red-zone pass on the first play after Nevada had closed within 21-20 and the Bulldogs had fumbled away the ensuing kickoff at their 21-yard line.

Last week against Hawaii, he picked off a pass on the Rainbow Warriors' first play from scrimmage, setting up the Bulldogs' first score as they clinched the West Division title in the Mountain West Conference.

But along with that competitive push on the practice field, Mickelsen reached back to Bulldogs of the past, and they reached back to him, helping him find his way back to fun, to playing freely and running around and making plays, focused on the next one rather than fretting about the ones that got away

Travis Brown, who had played Mike linebacker for the Bulldogs in his senior season, was there.

Mike Hodges, who had played the inside linebacker positions for Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter and defensive coordinator Nick Toth when they were at Texas A&M and the past two seasons was a graduate assistant coach on the Bulldogs staff, was there.

"It was just simple reminders, just to focus on things that he can control and to have fun," said Hodges, who this season is coaching the linebackers at Eastern Illinois. "As everybody who has ever watched a Fresno State football game knows, that kid has a lot of fun. He's fun to be around."

Mickelsen had lost some of that, pressing on the field, and his production was uneven game to game. "He was not playing well and he'd readily admit it," DeRuyter said.

"My problem was I kept on thinking about my mistakes and past plays and I had to just tell myself to forget it and keep moving on," Mickelsen said.

"I talked to Travis Brown all the time. He was telling me, it's your senior year, you just have to go after it. I talked a lot to our old GA, Coach Hodges, me and him are really close, we still talk as good friends every day, I'll text him or he'll text me. He always gives me pep talks about football because he played in this defense, he was one of the coaches for us and I felt really comfortable with him. He just told me, just put the ball down like Coach Toth always says and just play the next play.

"I just looked at myself in the mirror and told myself, 'I have to go and just forget about what happened in the past and just keep on moving forward and try to help my team as much as possible.' We're coming down to the end of the season and I'm a senior, this is where it all counts."

Mickelsen has done that.

When the Bulldogs got back on the practice field to prepare for San Jose State, he embraced what was in front of him.

"He accepted that challenge" Toth said. "He has not gone the wrong way with it. It wasn’t a negative influence. It was really good for him.

"He always takes things seriously. He always works hard. But that threat for your job is a serious, serious deal. It threatens me. It threatens our players. It threatens you. I need to eat. And for these guys, playing is eating. They work so hard for nine months and then they get three months to play and when that job is threatened, it hones you in."

The Bulldogs went out and beat San Jose State to snap A three-game losing streak, then won at Nevada and against Hawaii, the defense improving week to week.

After giving up 694 yards to Wyoming, Fresno State allowed 436 to the Spartans, 353 to the Wolf Pack and 353 to the Rainbow Warriors, the average yards per play dropping from 9.77 to 6.51 to 5.69 to 4.15.

"Sometimes I think guys get to be seniors and they feel like they have to do more than what they have to and they let their mind affect how they're playing," DeRuyter said. "Maybe it was a consequence of that. But I just like the fact that he was able to get that baggage off of him and just be Karl Mickelsen and play and he's made some key plays the last couple of games.’’

He just had to set things down and focus on the next play; put the ball down, Toth is fond of saying. That was the gist of the messages he got from Hodges, who said he was just another ear for Mickelsen. 

"He was so worried about not screwing up rather than doing good, and when you have that mindset it can paralyze you. Everybody thinks they have to do extra, and they don't," Hodges said.

"Kind of get Karl back to who he is, and that will make sense to anybody who knows Karl because Karl is a unique human being. Karl is a special dude. If he is being himself, the plays will come."