That first pick, it came right to Wylan Free, the Fresno State cornerback. In man coverage against Idaho, Free was right there off the line of scrimmage, step for step. No matter whether the receiver broke the wrong way or the quarterback made the wrong read, Free was ready and the pass hit right in the No. 8 on his chest.
He had to figure college football wasn’t always going to be that easy, but the redshirt freshman cornerback said that he has had a lot of help making it at least appear that way.
That’s the Bulldogs’ coaches, the Bulldogs’ corners and safeties and even the Bulldogs’ veteran receivers, notably seniors KeeSean Johnson and Jamire Jordan, who have thrown at Free all of their tricks to gain separation and make plays in one-on-one matchups on the practice field.
“I give credit to them, absolutely, because without them … I don’t know,” Free said. “KeeSean and Jamire definitely helped a lot, especially last year in my redshirt year, having to line up against them every day.
“Jamire, he goes with the speed – you have to keep up with him. KeeSean, he’ll grab your hand or something slight, not too noticeable by a referee, so you have to defend against that. There are a lot of hand battles down the field.”
That one-on-one period with the wideouts and defensive backs usually is fairly competitive, and a learning lab.
Delvon Hardaway, a sixth-year senior who missed last season with a knee injury, provided a similar lesson to one of the Bulldogs’ young defensive backs in fall camp. Running a deep route with the corner stuck to his side, Hardaway slipped an arm up and inside the defender in coverage and with that somehow blasted away, gaining separation in a matter of footsteps. He caught the ball well clear, touchdown.
“I think that’s always helpful, for guys to coach each other and give each other pointers about techniques and certain things like that and practicing at speed,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “I think that’s always really important. If you can practice against really good guys every day then that’s going to make you improve.
“I think the guys are really open to helping each other as far as tips about the fundamentals, stance, whatever it may be, being able to talk to them, ‘Hey, what are you trying to get done here?’ That’s always really helpful, especially for young guys.”
Johnson, who has caught at least one pass in 38 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the nation, said Free stood out from the start. He wanted to help test him, push him, get him to the point of his potential.
“He has great size and he can play,” Johnson said.“He had great ball skills. The first day he came in he had two picks ... and it was just off his talent. He had no experience at the college level and how fast we were moving around.
“Once I saw that, I just wanted to work with him. If it was one-on-ones, I just wanted him to keep going with me. If I won or if he won, it didn’t matter. I just wanted to make sure his potential could be the best that it can.”
Johnson said he throws everything at Free and he has a lot in the arsenal – the Bulldogs’ senior is one of the top receeivers in the nation, on the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award for a second year in a row. In those matchups he uses his hands, uses his body, slows down, speeds up, leans this way or that.
“I’d run different routes on him and just be patient, have more patience on him so he can learn how to be patient,” Johnson said. “The patience thing is pretty big. You can’t just bail out of there and get out of there. I would use some tempo some times, but it was little things, the little things that are going to help him be a better player.”
Free, who was pressed onto the field in the Bulldogs’ loss at Minnesota when starting cornerback Jaron Bryant went down with an injury, has learned those lessons well enough to work his way onto the field in a backup role.
“They definitely use all of the tools that they have and sometimes they bring new tools to the table, especially for us,” Free said. “We haven’t seen everybody. We’ve only been going against our receivers, except the past two games.
“They definitely bring a lot of tools that we can learn off of and that they’re working on. If receivers in the future eventually use it, we’ll definitely be prepared.”