Fresno State Football

Bulldogs’ defensive strength starts with tackles who give stars more room to shine

Fresno State defensive line coach Will Plemmons is encouraged about Ricky McCoy

Fresno State senior defensive lineman Ricky McCoy enters his final season after transferring from Washington early 2018.
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Fresno State senior defensive lineman Ricky McCoy enters his final season after transferring from Washington early 2018.

The Fresno State Bulldogs keep hinting, almost insisting, that their defense can be as productive – if not more – than it was a year ago when it was third in the nation in allowing just 14.1 points per game.

They’re bold despite losing some productive players. Jeff Allison is one, a two-time All-Mountain West player and last season the conference’s defensive player of the year.

Replacing Allison at middle linebacker is Mykal Walker, also a first-team all-conference selection (at defensive end).

Walker and defensive backs Juju Hughes and Jaron Bryant have made the preseason national award watch lists. But they’ll have a luxury not afforded Allison: playing behind a deep and experienced group of tackles who display good technique, a strong base in the defense, strength, quickness and athleticism.

“All the D-linemen, especially the defensive tackles, they take on a lot of double-teams and the longer you have to stay with a double-team the more time the Mike (middle) ‘backer has to scrape and do his thing,” coach Jeff Tedford said.

“Mykal is so fast and so quick he can put a lot of pressure on people, and if they don’t spend a lot of time in the double-team then hopefully the inside guys are effective in what they’re doing.”

That’s Jasad Haynes, who was one of the most productive interior defensive linemen in the Mountain West last season before injuries took a toll and finally ended his season. Despite playing in only 10 games, Haynes was tied for fifth on the team with 4.5 tackles for loss.

That’s Keiti Iakopo, who started to put together all of the pieces late last season when he had 23 tackles over the final five games, nine coming in the Mountain West Conference championship victory at Boise State. Iakopo led the Bulldogs’ interior defensive linemen with 37 total tackles.

Fresno State defensive tackle Keiti Iakopo, center, appears to be held while pursuing San Diego State quarterback Ryan Agnew in the Bulldogs’ 23-14 victory over the Aztecs at Bulldog Stadium in Fresno on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

That’s Ricky McCoy, the Roosevelt High Rough Rider and Washington transfer, who played in 13 games last season for the Bulldogs, producing two tackles three times including the conference title game when defensive tackles combined for 15 stops and 2.5 tackles for loss.

That’s Kevin Atkins, who has played in 28 games in his first two seasons at Fresno State with 14 starts, and a year ago was in on 28 tackles and had 4.5 tackles for loss.

That’s three seniors and a junior, all with a wealth of experience. And if defensive line coach Will Plemons wants or needs to add to that rotation he has young talent in redshirt freshmen Leonard Payne, Alex Dumais and Matt Lawson. The Bulldogs could also have Arizona transfer Kurtis Brown available.

“It’s nice to know you have a strength there,” defensive coordinator Bert Watts said. ”Anytime we know we have a strength somewhere, we know we can take advantage of that because with experience comes the ability to do a little bit more.

“When you have some veterans in there that are so clued into your defense, they can start cluing in to what the offense is doing and you can start talking to them about how to take advantage of some of those clues. It just allows you to do more.”

And, that’s a good bet for the Bulldogs, who on Wednesday went through their fifth fall camp practice and will scrimmage for the first time on Saturday.

“Our defensive line is the backbone of our defense and I’m not just saying that because I played there,” Walker said. “Those guys, they go night and day. They’re always in the weight room. They’re always getting extra work in.

“Playing middle linebacker behind those guys, it’s like, ‘I got you, you got me.’ It’s almost like the little brother to those guys. Those guys are going to protect me up front and I’m going to protect them in the back half. I love those guys.”

Boise St Fresno St Football (1)
Fresno State defensive tackle Kevin Atkins is waiting as linebacker Jeff Allison chases down Boise State quarterback Brett Rypien in the Bulldogs’ 28-17 victory over the Broncos in Fresno, Saturday, Nov. 25 2017. Atkins is a critical piece for the Bulldogs this season as they replace five seniors on their defensive line. ASSOCIATED PRESS

If the Bulldogs can put together the three levels of defense and continue to communicate at a high level, they again could have a stellar defense.

Watts “does a great job keeping guys moving,” Plemons said. “Our strength is our ability to move. We can play a four-down front, we can go to a three-man front. We’re pretty dynamic, and our kids are so eager to learn. We have a really good chemistry with the coaching and the players we’re working with.”

In the Mountain West, that means something.

But it starts up front, with the Bulldogs’ uncommon depth and a singular focus.

“One thing about the D-line, we don’t care about stats,” Haynes said. “As long as we do our job, somebody is going to be shining. That means that we’re doing our job. If Mykal is the talk, just like last year when Jeff was the talk, if Juju (Hughes), J.B. (Jaron Bryant) is the talk, that means were doing our job. As long as we’re doing our job, that’s all that matters to us.”

“This is all new to us, too,” Iakopo said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been on a team with veteran guys in the ones and twos and solid threes. It’s kind of fun.

“The linebackers are set. The DBs are set. The front is set. When everybody plays with a confidence like that, it’s just a special thing. I’m just excited to see how it turns out.”

Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada