There were a few things Fresno State safety Wylan Free wanted to work on this past offseason – improving his transition out of breaks, his eye discipline.
Speed was not at the top of the list, but it was on it and strength and conditioning coach Andy Ward said the redshirt sophomore was one of the main beneficiaries in a subtle shift in the Bulldogs’ offseason program and training to improve speed and explosiveness.
“Definitely, I see the difference,” said Free, who moved to safety from corner midway through last season. “Playing safety, sometimes the players you’re guarding are a little faster or not even necessarily faster, but quicker. They’re a lot quicker. That’s definitely something I wanted to improve on – my speed.
“I was used to playing the bigger wideouts when I was at corner. I had to elevate my game in order to stay in position with them, somebody like (slot receiver Eric Brooks) or Chris Coleman.”
The emphasis on speed work this offseason, Ward said, is evident with a lot of the Bulldogs. It’s a combination of a deeper understanding and comfort level with the playbook, and just being more explosive.
“It’s something I thought would be a big emphasis for us, just kind of who we are and our style of play on offense and defense,” Ward said. “We’re not a big grind-it-out, physical, power team. We rely on our speed, We rely on our explosiveness. It’s something I wanted to do, to train our guys too be better prepared for our offense and our defense.
“With Wylan, when you increase strength, you need to have running mechanics, you need to get stronger so you have more force to put into the ground, you need to have better rate of force development so you can put that force into the ground really quickly and he did a great job this offseason of developing all of those variables that go into speed. He did get quite a bit faster.”
Injury update: Ronnie Rivers
Running back Ronnie Rivers, who tweaked a hamstring just before camp and has been doing mostly rehab work to this point, could be back in team practice this week.
“We want to make sure we’re safe with that, but he’s getting really close,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “I’d say within the next few days we see him get back in team action.”
While Rivers has been working on the side, Romello Harris, Saevion Johnson, freshman Peyton Dixon and Khai Williams have been getting the running back reps.
Zion Echols was in the group but has been slowed by a leg injury.
Rivers last season rushed for 743 yards and 5.6 yards per play and scored 10 touchdowns, his biggest game the Las Vegas Bowl victory over Arizona State.
In that game, the junior churned out a career-high 212 yards and scored two times.
Tulare Western product joins secondary
The Bulldogs have added to the roster defensive back L.J. Early, who played at Tulare Western High and Bakersfield College.
At Bakersfield last season Early played in 10 games with 47 total tackles, two sacks and four interceptions, tied for the team lead.
Early will go through the NCAA acclimatization process, practicing two days in helmet and shorts and progressing to helmet and shoulder pads and to full pads.
“We’ll see how fast he picks things up,” Tedford said. “He just got eligible because he was taking a summer school class, so he just got admitted to school.
“You have to see what kind of shape he’s in first. These guys obviously have been going a long time, all summer and this and that, so we have to see what level of fitness he has and then he has to learn what’s going on. But we’ll see …”
Fresno State returns safety Juju Hughes and cornerback Jaron Bryant, all-conference caliber players. It has Free at the other safety spot and Chris Gaston playing opposite Bryant. But the twos and threes are relatively young.
If Early can get up to speed quickly, he will add some experience to the young talent working with defensive backs coach J.D. Williams. Corners Deshawn Ruffin, Randy Jordan and Myles Martin and safeties Deven Jarvis and Reggie Strong are all freshmen, though Ruffin was with the Bulldogs in the spring.