Fresno State Football

Bulldogs defense, at a ‘Ph.D. level,’ could take another big jump this season

Bulldogs disguising a top-10 defense

With seven returning starters, Fresno State is taking the next step with a defense that ranked 10th in the FBS in scoring defense. Safety Mike Bell breaks down the advantages to disguising defenses and the freedom the they have on the field.
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With seven returning starters, Fresno State is taking the next step with a defense that ranked 10th in the FBS in scoring defense. Safety Mike Bell breaks down the advantages to disguising defenses and the freedom the they have on the field.

Continuity was critical, because Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford liked what he had in the defensive staff room last season.

The collaboration. The creativity. The connection. The confidence the players took from the practice field into games.

It was an essential piece, all of them rolled into one.

So when defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer rocketed back to the Canadian Football League after one highly-successful season coordinating and calling the Bulldogs defense, Tedford quickly promoted linebackers coach Bert Watts and hired Kenwick Thompson to work alongside defensive line coach Jamar Cain and defensive backs coach J.D. Williams — and they have been motoring right along since.

Fresno State defensive coordinator Bert Watts, left, directs linebacker James Bailey in a practice. The Bulldogs’ starting linebackers last season – Jeff Allison, George Helmuth and Bailey – all return and last season ranked first, second and fifth on the team in tackles. Kiel Maddox FRESNO STATE ATHLETICS

In season, Tedford expects it all to jell just as it has as the Bulldogs dived into game prep for Saturday’s opener against Idaho.

They will break down tape of the next opponent, each with a to-do list: runs from different personnel groups, formations, shifts and motions.

Then, on Sunday night after a Saturday game day, they will get together in the defensive staff room and kick around their best ideas in putting together a plan.

That’s four coaches, all former coordinators at different levels. Watts was a defensive coordinator at UC Davis before Fresno State, Thompson ran the defense at East Carolina, Williams at UNLV. Cain got his intro as a defensive coordinator in 2013 at Wyoming when the Cowboys made a change eight weeks into the season.

His first game: Fresno State. It was a Friday night, national TV.

Fresno State safety Juju Hughes takes down Boise State receiver CT Thomas during the Bulldogs’ 28-17 victory over the Broncos on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2017 in Fresno. Hughes last season was tied for fourth on the team in tackles with 71 and had one interception. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA

“Derek Carr is laughing because he’s just picking you apart and you can’t stop Davante Adams and then Marteze (Waller) is rolling,” Cain joked.

The keyword in there for the current Bulldogs group is ownership. “I think it definitely came from O’s (Steinauer) leadership in the sense that whenever you give your staff freedom to think for themselves and come up with good ideas, then everybody has dome ownership of it,” Watts said.

“It’s easier to collaborate and work together when everybody owns a piece of it. If you are kind of a dictator and just tell everybody what to do and how to do it, then they don’t have as much freedom and I think you lose some of that collaboration.”

With Watts coordinating that plan and calling plays, procedurally, nothing will be different for the Bulldogs this season from last when they shot up the national rankings, finishing 10th in scoring defense, 11th against the run and 15th in total defense.

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Fresno State linebacker George Helmuth (34) didn’t have plans to watch the first CFP rankings come out on television. Instead, it was going to be film of UNLV, the Bulldogs’ next opponent. “It’s exciting, but if you lose to UNLV it doesn’t really matter,” he said. Eugene Tanner ASSOCIATED PRESS

On the field production, though, that could be much different.

It could be better because that ownership Tedford and Watts see as a critical piece with the assistant coaches and staff extends also to Jeff Allison, Juju Hughes, George Helmuth and James Bailey to Mike Bell, Jaron Bryant and Tank Kelly.

“Any time you can get to the next level of learning for the guys, you can start to do more,” Watts said. “In the beginning it’s about learning your job — I’m this position, I’ve got to learn this job and make sure I know what I’m doing, read my keys, get my alignment and execute my assignment. Once you get beyond that, it’s let me learn about what everyone else is doing around me, how my job effects them, how their job affects me and how it all works together. Now, once you figure all that out, it’s ‘OK, how can I effect the offense? How can I do things to make them see things that maybe aren’t there?’ “

Many of the Bulldogs, Watts said, are at that point and they will get more freedom this season to impact disguise, to bait that quarterback into bad plays.

“It’s, ‘I’m so secure in what my alignment is that I can show a different alignment and still get to the alignment that I need to get to eventually because I know what I’m doing,’ “ Watts said. “That’s really the Ph.D. of the defense. That’s when you get the guys that have been there and have done it, and they start to think that way.

“They know when they can and can’t do it. They know what situations it makes sense and what situations it doesn’t. We’re going to have a lot of abilities to do some fun things.”

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Fresno State’s Mike Bell, right, nearly picks off a pass intended for New Mexico’s Chris Davis, Jr., left, in second half of the Bulldogs’ 38-0 victory over the Lobos Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017 in Fresno.

That would be another keyword: fun.

“We can play around with our alignment, the different looks we’re giving people, a lot of different things,” said Hughes, a safety. “Last year we were kind of lining up and playing. Now we can play around. We know where we supposed to be and when we’re supposed to be there. It lets us play more games with people.”

“We can show this or this or this, which,” linebacker Bailey said, “is really nice.”

“It’s fun,” Hughes said. “It gets better as you see the quarterback start to get frustrated more. You only want to do it more and more.”

Making a quarterback see something that isn’t there, or not see something that is right in front of his face, is the big prize. And in the first four games of the season, Fresno State will be playing teams with relatively inexperienced quarterbacks.

Idaho has Mason Petrino and Colton Richardson, without a start between them; Minnesota will go into the season with a true freshman at quarterback; UCLA is replacing Josh Rosen, a first-round NFL draft pick; Toledo is replacing Logan Woodside, a seventh-round pick.

Very likely, the Bulldogs will show them something they haven’t seen before.

“The defense is very complex and we have a lot of different ways we can line up to get to the quarterback or make it look one way and be another way,” Bailey said.

“That’s when you know things are running smoothly,” Helmuth said. “Coming free on a blitz. No one touches me. That’s my favorite.”

And with a defense loaded with experience Watts will not be shy calling plays. Those are the early returns, anyway, through two scrimmages in fall camp.

“Aggressive, maybe a little more aggressive (than Steinauer),” Helmuth said. “We have new blitzes and the way we’re attacking things we definitely want to get after the quarterback.”

Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada