With Mike Bell Jr. gone, enter Fresno State sophomore Wylan Free at safety
Fresno State will hold the last of its 15 spring practices on Saturday with many questions still to be answered for a football team that lost a ton to graduation.
That list includes starting quarterback Marcus McMaryion, all-time leading receiver KeeSean Johnson, four offensive line starters, a key piece at corner in Tank Kelly and all three starting linebackers including Jeff Allison, who along with safety Mike Bell opted to forgo a senior season to be eligible for the NFL Draft.
On defense, some questions are simply: How will the new guy fit?
Mykal Walker is now the middle linebacker, taking the place of Allison after a run as one of the most productive players in the Mountain West Conference as a defensive end.
Justin Rice and Arron Mosby are at the outside linebacker spots and at the safety vacated by Bell, sophomore Wylan Free has grabbed everything from opportunity to the No. 4 jersey that Bell wore last season while gaining second-team all-conference.
Most importantly, he said he talked with Bell and got his blessing. Any conditions on taking No. 8?
“He just told me hold it down,” Free said.
Free has done that this spring, building on where he ended 2018.
“He’s long, covers a lot of ground,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “He can play man coverage. He’s physical in the run game. He can play (cornerback or safety), but it’s good to have him in there at safety.”
While Bell prepares for his shot at the next level, there has not been much of a drop-off this spring in the Bulldogs’ secondary, which returns a starter at safety with Juju Hughes and at cornerback with Jaron Bryant. Free started his transition to safety from corner toward the end of last season when Bell was playing through some bumps and bruises and Mosby was moved to linebacker from safety.
Defensive backs coach J.D. Williams said moving Free to safety was supposed to be temporary, “but he took off and started excelling at the position.”
For Free, it’s a better fit.
“I get to roam around a lot more. It gave me a better picture. I can see the whole defense, and it helped me learn our defense, too. …
“I like coming up to be able to be the enforcer, run fits and things like that and have the ability to punish opposing players. It’s pretty fun.”
Free is a key piece in a secondary that could be just as productive as the Bulldogs were a year ago when leading the Mountain West and tied for seventh in the nation in passes defended per game, especially if a more experienced line can generate more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
“Last year, I’m thinking I have two safeties that could compete for that starting position and then Mike ended up leaving and Wylan ended up being the guy,” Williams said.
“He’s getting a lot better. He’s a smart player. He can run and he can cover like a corner. Basically, what we’re doing, it’s like we have four corners out there and he’s big enough to be physical and play the safety position. He’s going to bring a lot to the table.”
Muti moving forward
A good sign for Fresno State: left tackle Netane Muti, coming back from an Achilles’ injury suffered at Minnesota in the second game of the season, did his rehab work and some individual drills in football gear on Wednesday.
The 308-pound Muti gained honorable mention All-Mountain West after starting 14 games as a redshirt freshman and went into last season as one of 50 players and 12 offensive linemen on the watch list for the Polynesian College Football player of the year award. He is expected to stay at left tackle this season, but gives offensive coordinator and line coach Ryan Grubb some options when putting together a playing rotation with the top seven, eight or nine linemen.
“He’ll be ready to go,” Tedford said. “He has been doing a lot of different things. He takes all the mental reps and things. He’s really a hard worker.”
Oglesby moving to defense
The Bulldogs’ defense had more than a few interceptions in 7 on 7 and in team periods, making some nice plays on the football.
One of the best was made by safety Bryson Oglesby, a converted running back. He cut under a route against the sideline and made a diving catch as he rolled out of bounds.
“Good things happen when your eyes are in the right spot,” Williams said of Oglesby. “He’s coming along. He has played running back his whole life and everything has been basically on the board upside down for him.
“He’s learning. He’s eager to learn and he’s in there every day trying to do something extra.”
The Bulldogs will have a light practice on Friday and their Spring Preview on Saturday will basically be a practice with little to no live work, cutting down the risk of incurring any injuries..
The Spring Preview, which is open and free to the public, starts at 10:30 a.m. at Bulldog Stadium. The athletic department will hold a sale of old and surplus gear and equipment in the blue parking lot at the south end of the stadium starting at 8 a.m.