Can Bulldogs’ defense take another step forward?
Fresno State lost a lot of star power from its 12-2 football team that won the Mountain West Conference championship and the Las Vegas Bowl.
Quarterback Marcus McMaryion, linebacker Jeff Allison, wideout KeeSean Johnson, all have moved on. Safety Mike Bell, like Allison, opted to forgo his senior season to enter the NFL Draft. The Bulldogs have to replace four offensive line starters, three tight ends and a majority of their production from the receivers group.
Cornerback Tank Kelly, who returned two of his four interceptions for touchdowns last season including a 70-yard score in the Las Vegas Bowl victory over Arizona State, also must be replaced.
Total, 27 seniors are gone from that 2018 team.
But when the Bulldogs open spring practices on Monday morning, the most pressing questions for coach Jeff Tedford and staff will be up the middle on both sides of the football: the center position, quarterback and Mike linebacker.
On defense at least there is an intriguing option with Mykal Walker, who decided to return to Fresno State for his senior season after exploring his NFL options.
Fresno State has a ready answer in replacing Allison, the Mountain West defensive player of the year last season and a two-time first-team all-conference selection.
Walker moves in from defensive end in what was a very multiple defense, and brings more speed and athleticism to a position that Allison racked up 126 and 132 total tackles in 2017 and ‘18. Walker was arguably the Bulldogs’ most dynamic player a year ago, leading the team with 14.0 tackles for loss and second in sacks with 4.5.
“One of the things that was great about last year is we were able to play him on and off the ball and his experience being able to do both of those things, that gives us a lot of options with him,” defensive coordinator Bert Watts said.
“As we went into the season last year, after spring, we knew we really liked our three linebackers, but we really like this Mykal Walker kid so how do we get him on the field? With those guys having the experience that they had, it’s tough to take any of them off the field, so we found a way to get Mykal on there as a D-end. But his more natural position is to be off the ball because he’s such a high-impact player. He has the ability to run sideline to sideline, great length and really has the mindset that you want as an inside guy where he wants to make every play.”
If there are questions, they are minimal.
Walker played last season around 220 pounds, small for a defensive end or a Mike linebacker. But he is closer to 230 entering the spring and the only really challenge will be getting reacquainted with the position.
He played linebacker at Azusa Pacific before transferring to Fresno State and got work outside last fall before the Bulldogs moved him back to defensive end to get on the field along with starting linebackers Allison, George Helmuth and James Bailey.
“The toughest thing is really going to be the vision and the pictures that you see,” Watts said. “When you’re on the line of scrimmage things happen a lot faster, but you also have multiple layers of defense behind you that can fix things. You don’t have to be as perfect. At linebacker, you still have a layer behind you. You have some protection. But you have to be a little more exact in where you’re supposed to be than you do up front.
“There’s one less layer, so just being able to see those pictures and read and be in the right spots, that will be the biggest challenge to get used to again.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada