Fresno State moved Mykal Walker from defensive end to middle linebacker last spring, filling a gaping hole in its defense and giving the senior a chance to bolster his stock at the next level.
But Walker already has moved around a bit in the defense through the Bulldogs’ first four games and in a Mountain West opener at Air Force on Saturday his positional versatility could prove pivotal in trying to slow down the Falcons’ option-based offense, which leads the conference in rushing with 287.8 yards per game and 17 rushing touchdowns.
“There’s no glorified position this week,” he said. “We’re going to do what we have to do. We’re going to do our job and we’re going to get out of there.
“This week, if I have to put my hand on the ground or be in a four-point stance, if I have to drop back, I’m going to do whatever it takes to get this win.”
He has started at linebacker the past two games, but with the emergence of freshman linebacker Levelle Bailey the Bulldogs defensive staff increasingly has looked to move Walker around in a multiple defensive front, putting him in position to make plays.
“He didn’t exclusively move to a certain position,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “He can play Mike. He can play defensive line. He can do different things, so you try to move him around and put him in position to be successful.
“But with that comes who is going to fill in at linebacker and so Bailey, who is a true freshman, is playing and doing a nice job.”
Walker could line up just about anywhere against the Falcons.
“I don’t know if they can really miss me out there,” he said. “But it does do some things to the offense, and being able to bring Bailey in the game and have him play a little bit and have me go down to the edge, it makes our defense so much more diverse and lets us do a lot of different things.
“Right now I’ve been at three different positions, but whatever they’re feeling that week, I trust (defensive coordinator Bert Watts) and the defensive coaching staff to come up with the best defensive plan. So wherever they want to put me, that’s where I’m going to play.”
Red zone defense on alert
Fresno State has been difficult to run against in the red zone, allowing an average of 2.3 yards on 24 plays. But it also has allowed opponents to score a touchdown on 70.6% of its red zone trips – 12 of 17, six rushing TDs, six passing TDs.
That red zone touchdown percentage is tied for 10th in the Mountain West.
Air Force obviously will run the football inside the Bulldogs 20-yard line. The Falcons have not yet completed a pass in the red zone and 16 of their conference-leading 17 rushing touchdowns have come in the red zone.
But in its past seven games when it has had a red zone touchdown percentage of 50% or lower, Air Force is just 1-6.
3-2 would be a hot start
Jorge Reyna is 2-2 as the starter, and among Fresno State quarterbacks to start careers this decade he is tied with Derek Carr for the second-best winning percentage through four starts.
Marcus McMaryion was 4-0 in 2017 with wins over Nevada, at San Jose State, against New Mexico and at San Diego State.
Carr and McMaryion each lost his fifth career start, and it’s not a great list. McMaryion was 4-1, Carr (2011), Brian Burrell (2014) and Zack Greenlee (2014-15) were 2-3 and Kilton Anderson (2015) and Chason Virgil (2015-16) were 1-4.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada