Outside linebacker Stephen Van Hook spent his first two seasons at Fresno State on the scout team and last season fell behind freshmen Justin Green and Tobenna Okeke, who were given opportunities to spice up the Bulldogs’ pass rush.
But this spring the third-year sophomore is starting to flash. In the scrimmage on Monday, Van Hook made a strong stop on running back Chris Moliga for no gain on a first-and-10 play, a tackle for a loss of 2 yards on Moliga on a third-and-2 and a would-be sack on Kilton Anderson (quarterbacks are not live) on a third-and-11.
“He’s giving us another guy that maybe is outperforming what our expectations were for him, which is good,” defensive coordinator Nick Toth said.
Van Hook was not available to comment; players at Fresno State are not allowed media interviews until they have played in a game. But while there is no question Van Hook has taken steps forward, there still is a lot of ground to cover. So, where is he at the moment?
“That’s a really good question,” Toth said. “By far he is playing the best football that he has played since he’s been here, and still is inconsistent. If he played that way more often, he’d be right there in the mix. He is showing a little bit better edge fit on the tight end. He’s more consistent. He’s not jumping around with his feet. He’s showing the power that he has, his upper-body strength. His coverage has gotten better. But then he still will, when he’s supposed to be rushing the quarterback he’s dropping into the flat for no reason other than, ‘Oh, I just messed it up.’ But he has taken huge steps forward and if he continues to take those steps he’ll play football for us this fall.”
The competition appears to have pushed Van Hook forward, though.
“That is huge,” Toth said. “Seeing a guy that is a true freshman play behind you, he comes in and plays over you, you better go because then you’re reading the writing on the wall, right? You better start playing better, or what’s going to keep the next freshman from playing over you, too?
“I like the way he has responded, and he has responded for six to nine months, from the middle part of the season last year when those other guys started playing instead of him. We’ve been saying this for a while, so I’m really excited about what he is doing. We have to keep coaching him and get him more consistent, but I like where he is going. I think he’s close to turning the corner, I really do. He has had a good seven or eight practices.”
• Wide out Darrell Fuery, like Van Hook a redshirt sophomore, is trying to play his way up the depth chart this spring. “He’s getting better each day in the spring,” outside receivers coach Joe Wade said. “We’re trying to stay on him to see himself on film and make sure every play is what he wants to put on film. He’s a good kid and I think he has more ability than even he knows and it’s just being able to put your finger on him on every play. Now, are we to that point? Absolutely not. But it’s better. He is being pressed into duty because we don’t have a lot of depth and in a lot of ways that’s good for him. You’re expected to get back out there and go, and then play a certain way. I think each day he’s seeing himself and he’s doing a little more and I think with all of them, the more success you experience then it’s onto the next step. That doesn’t mean you’re there, but he’s coming along.”
• An emphasis on blocking this spring by the receivers on the outside has had benefits for the cornerbacks as well. As a group they had difficulty getting off blocks a year ago, but they are in it every practice now. “You’re seeing guys now, Tank Kelly and Malcolm Washington, they’re getting in those fights a lot now with those long receivers and it’s really good for them,” Toth said. “I mean, you look at Aaron Peck, those are some long-levered guys. That’s a big, thick kid. So it has been great. The competition has been great out there and we’re coaching the heck out of the fundamentals of it, the fit off of it. And, at the same time, we’re getting the safeties to fit off those corners while they’re doing that, which we didn’t do well last year. We didn’t track the ball real well from the safety position fitting off of blocks in front of them. They have some physical guys out there that have been blocking pretty well, so that’s been helping those young corners.”
• The defense and special teams turned in some solid plays Monday, including a scoop and score fumble return by safety Dalen Jones and a blocked field goal return for a touchdown by linebacker George Helmuth (Clovis North).