Toward the end of the 2015 football season, Fresno State clearly had issues. It was making its way quite unsteadily to a 3-9 finish. The Bulldogs were banged up, a lack of experience and depth showing.
The defensive line was one of the problem spots.
Todd Hunt, one of two senior starters at end, was playing everything. He lined up at end, at nose guard and when the Bulldogs went nickel, he was on the field. Nate Madsen, who had moved inside to nose guard from end, played through injuries – an ankle and a knee. The backups were young, undersized and inexperienced, all in their first seasons of college football at the FBS level. And the Bulldogs ranked 117th of 128 in the nation in rushing defense and 116th in rushing touchdowns allowed, giving up 234.7 yards per game and 32 touchdowns on the ground.
With three senior defensive ends including starters in Hunt and Claudell Louis, a quick fix did not appear to be within their grasp. But when Fresno State opens spring practice on Feb. 29, they will be four-deep at the nose guard position with junior college transfer Malik Forrester, third-year sophomore Tyler Puccio and Patrick Belony and Jaleel Carter, a third-year sophomore and a redshirt freshman that were redshirted last season. And while the depth is not as set at the end positions as it is at nose, Madsen is healthy and moving back outside and the Bulldogs will have numbers to work with with Nick Kristofors returning and redshirt freshman Mason Bradley ready to make an impression. There is competition with more to come in this summer in JC transfer Austin Vaimili and freshmen Elijah Piper and Kevin Atkins, who come in with the size to make an impact.
Turning that around, defensive line coach Pete Germano said, required a different game plan and some good fortune when out on the recruiting trail. But, just three-plus months later, the Bulldogs’ defensive line is in a much better place than it was at the end of the season.
“We’re going to have depth. But, also, what I see is competition,” Germano said. “We don’t return anybody with any significant playing time except for Nate. If you look at how many reps Nick played a game and how many Tyler played, you can say those are all bankable reps. You definitely put them in your memory bank and we’re better off with those guys having played than coming into the spring and fall without them, but significant amount of ‘Here we go,’ it’s Nate. So, we’re young. It’s open season. I’d like to put all 11 in a room and the first three that come out start. We’re really trying to find the best three D-linemen and we hope that it plays itself out that two are ends and one is a nose guard.
“But I’m excited. I’m excited for the spring. I’m excited about what’s coming down the road in terms of the group, in terms of where they’re at and the challenges that come about with that.”
The Bee: On paper anyway your position group got healthy pretty fast. You have depth at nose guard, got some options at end now. At the end of last year with guys banged up and not a lot of depth to begin with you were having to play young guys that were maybe a year or two away …
Germano: Or, the other way of looking at that, is the No. 1s played too many reps. I rode Todd Hunt. I rode him. I took him off special teams and I rode him. He was my best player. He wasn’t acknowledged for that, because of the stats. But he played nose, played end, played nickel and never came off the field. It’s unfortunate because he finally just put it all together and it was unfortunate the way the season went. No offense to Claudell (Louis), Claudell got the accolades because had stats. Give him credit for making plays. But if you ask anybody, Todd was the guy.
But we’re going into spring ball with 11 live bodies and the 12th is Kyle (Hendrickson) – three minutes in the last game and he tears his ACL. But part of that 11 is Malik from L.A. Pierce (College), who allowed me to go ahead and move (Madsen) back to end. That was the plan. If we could, we wanted to move Nate back to end. We’re going to take two of those nose guards, of six, and move them to end to balance it all out. Would you rather get one rep at nose or five or six reps at end to show us that you’ve got something because a ball player is a ball player?
They’re not ideally made for that position, but they give us depth. And we signed some beef – it’s the first time we’ve been able to bring in some kids that you don’t necessarily feel the first thing we need to do is put weight on them. With Elijah Piper and Kevin Atkins, that’s two high school kids that have some butt to them and some size. And then Austin, the plan was to bring him in earlier. We lost it there. He’s now like a high school kid coming in, but he has played junior college football so hopefully he can pick it up a little sooner. But Ioane (Sagapolu) was in that boat. Claudell was in that boat. Nick was in that boat and Nick found his way to the field, so he was the first successful junior college kid that came in during the summer and got on the field and was able to play.”
The Bee: I just saw Malik outside – that is one large human being …
Germano: He did a great job in the classroom, is conscientious. But his film, if he plays up to what I saw, his short-area quickness and strength and power in that area is up there. We really need somebody in the middle that is nasty, really nasty. We were spoiled for three years with Tyeler (Davison). No offense to anyone who played there this year because we all know where that was, but the mindset ... the defense permeates out from the nose guard position. It comes out of that.
I’ve got four guys now that are going to go fight – Malik, Patrick Belony, Tyler Puccio and Jaleel Carter. That’s why I moved the other guys to end. They all show something. And, we got stronger at end by moving Nate back there, which is what he did in 2014. And Nick has another year and so on and so on.
The Bee: Talking to Coach (Tim) DeRuyter, Malik is someone that he is really excited about. You knew you had a need there going way back, so take me through the recruiting process with him, identifying him, contact, recruitment … he got to be a pretty popular prospect.
Germano: Well, based on what we had here, we didn’t necessarily need on paper to attack that position. We lost three ends, so you feel like you have to sign three, and everyone is back at nose guard. But if we found the right one, not a guy, the right guy, it would make us better. So, watching the film, if you sign a high school kid, you’re saying that you’re OK going into 2016 with that. In some regards a high school kid is going to get redshirted. But if you have some concerns, don’t find a backup, don’t find another guy, find the right guy that can be the guy. Right? There were guys out there, now, but once we saw Malik and I saw his film – he wasn’t at L.A. Pierce in the spring, so he wasn’t a name on the list …
His story, he was all set to go from Fairmont State to Antelope Valley College. He flew out to L.A. in the beginning of summer, to go there. They weren’t there to pick him up. I don’t know the details, but L.A. Pierce wanted him, too, and they knew he was landing and they were there at the airport and they grabbed him and they took him to L.A. Pierce.
But once I saw him on film, I not only thought that he was head and shoulders the best nose guard, but I was sold that he was the best D-lineman that I had seen. And we had some guys, now, that we were working. We had what I call the best working list in my five years recruiting here. We had a really exciting list to work off and he went right to the top. Then it became, well, Boise wanted him and Nevada wanted him, Colorado State wanted him. I went and saw him at the end of October and we worked up his academics and we offered him before some of those other guys, he stayed with us. But it was nip and tuck right down to the end. But, long story short, it wasn’t that position, it was the right guy.
If we didn’t find the right guy we might have stayed with (recruiting) three ends. We technically signed four (players) so we went one over and to go over you’re going because you have the right kid there. And, the thing about Malik and this system, once the system is learned because it is so unique and multiple, it becomes a system you thrive in. I don’t want to put undue pressure or undue expectations on the kid, but based on what we’ve seen we feel like everybody is going to know about him at some point. The only thing that might limit him early is learning all the calls and that’s on me.
That’s not to take away from Tyler Puccio. That’s not to take away from Patrick and Jaleel, who were redshirted. Two big dudes, right, that bring unique skill sets to it. They’re all really sort of different. They’re not all the same. It’ll be really interesting to find out who wants that.
The Bee: Coach DeRuyter already has put all the expectations on Malik, so you don’t have to worry about that …
Germano: I don’t want to do that to the kid right now and I don’t want any resentment. But the kids know, the best players play. The kids know you’re ether getting better or you’re getting worse. It’s not a system based on how many years you’ve been here. So, it will be interesting to see how well he picks things up. But there are certain aspects to playing D-line that have nothing to do with our defense. It’s about getting off blocks and being nasty in there and bring able to control your body. He showed quite a bit of that on film. I give him credit, because he went to Fairmont State, but he said, ‘You know what? I think I can do better than a Division II school’ and came all of the way across the country and it has worked out for him.
Maybe knowing that, ‘Hey, they didn’t just bring in Malik for unknown reasons,’ maybe that motivates the guys and they know they have to fight for this. That’s what I want. I want guys where their practices or how they handle tempo or how they handle spring ball, I want them guys to go out and fight, not go through the motions. I’m not saying we’ve had kids that way. Tyeler was a great example. Nobody was going to beat him out and he still practiced hard because he didn’t want the guy in front of him to beat the crap out of him on that play. He had too much pride, that no matter what, I was going to beat that guy in front of me, and that’s the mindset that we’re looking for.
That battle alone this spring is going to be fun.
The Bee: It will. Think back to some of those rookie ball scrimmages in practice toward the end of the season, every one, it might have been 10 or 12 snaps, but in every one Belony made big plays …
Germano: How do you think he feels?
The Bee: Challenged?
Germano: Absolutely. I had a heart to heart with Patrick about that. I told the kids when you have a bad year you look at what you’re calling, you look at how you’re coaching it, and the third thing is you look at who’s playing. You either have to coach them better or you have to get better players. You have to look at how you’re coaching and you have to do it better. You have to look at the scheme and if it fits the kids. It’s a coaching thing, a scheme thing and a personnel thing and we’re all in it together.
They all have certain things they have to learn and we’re tweaking some things, too, getting more back to 2014 and the ’13 and the ’12 way, so what was sort of coached in ’15 is really new even for those guys. The only two guys that really understand what was being done in ’13 and ’14 is Nate and Ryan Steele, they were in that system where we were starting more head-up and doing a little more movement. It’s back to the base way when we came in with this. We did some tweaking last year, so there are going to be some changes that will keep them hopping.”
The Bee: The tweaks last season, those stemmed from just being a little lighter with personnel and depth?
Germano: Well, everything that was done was all thinking that’s going to put our players in a better position up front to succeed. It was all done to help us. It was all done based on our ability and what was coming back and thinking, ‘What can we do schematically to help our kids succeed on the field?’ We cheated some stuff with our ends playing more in the gap and we played a little different technique with the nose guard, not on every snap, thinking it was going to enhance rather than hurt.
You look at it, you could have a lot of discussions about all of the things that potentially went wrong from the front to the back or back to the front, but I think Coach DeRuyter wanted to go back to the way we installed it initially with some minor changes like we did it in 2012 and ’13 and ’14 when we had Nikko (Motta) and Andy (Jennings) and they were head-up and moving and Tyeler was moving. That’s how we initially installed it. So, the footwork is different. The mindset is different.
They have to learn the call a little differently. But if you’re in the system it won’t take long. It will be a little harder for Malik, because it’s all new for him. But I’m excited about it. That will be one of the more intriguing scenarios in the spring, and I’m not throwing Malik in the first huddle. I’m going to work him in and let him go. Tyler Puccio has worked his way up. I’m not going to throw him out there, so it will be interesting to figure out how to work the reps each day, but I want that sort of earned and what I see. It’ll be a day to day thing.
The Bee: The end positions, not as deep there yet, but having Nate back there is big …
Germano: Not as flexible at the end position, and a lot younger there. Losing Kyle (Hendrickson) is going to hurt a little because he was developing and he was learning, but we’ll have him back in the fall. But that changes things. Somebody else is going to get his reps, so take advantage of it.
The Bee: The changes there, Nate obviously …
Germano: We moved Nate. We have Nick. They might start as the No. 1s. Ryan Steele and Jasad Haynes moved from nose. Jasad Haynes, Clovis North, love him to death. Hard-worker. Cares. Getting stronger. Ryan Steele got caught a little bit with numbers, so I talked to both of those kids. They’re OK with the move. Not ideal ends (physically), but if you go kick somebody’s butt all the time you’re going to make us take note. You’re rolling the dice a little bit when they’re out there, physically they’re not built the way you want. But it just makes us be able to keep guys fresh. I’d have three ends on one side and two ends on the other side. Now I made one three deep and I made one four deep. That made sense to them, that they’re going to get more reps by doing that.
And Ryan Steele, he knows the defense as well as anybody. He has been around the system. I call him Dr. Steele, because he’s as good as anybody in the room. He knows it. He’ll be put in some situations that are not ideal, that’s all taken into consideration. Part of what I have to do is make these guys better D-linemen, the fundamentals of being a D-lineman, the pad level, eyes and hands and striking and feet. If they can show us something there that can potentially change a lot of things going into the fall.
So, Jasad Haynes and Ryan Steele are going out with the ends along with Wyatt McBee and Mason Bradley and Nick and Nate Madsen. Another walk-on we’ve got, Nick Aibuedefe, he’s intriguing. He doesn’t know a lot of football, but he’s already 258 pounds. He looks exactly how you want them to look. But playing that position, he had no idea. He was a skinny 220-pound kid and came in as a walk on. Now, he’s starting to look like a man. So we have seven ends and we’ll see how that works itself out.
The Bee: And Austin Vaimili, he will be here for the first summer session?
Germano: Austin, Elijah (Piper) and Kevin (Atkins) will all be here in the summer. Austin has got to do his deal, though. The whole thing with him is he was under the gun in the fall and he didn’t get it done.
We told him that we weren’t sure we were going to resign him. We were opening that up to recruiting and see what else is out there, because now he was in a different category. He was not a mid-year, he was a May kid. But he wanted to be a ’Dog. I told him to take another trip. He could have taken another trip, but said, ‘I don’t want to take another trip, coach, I want to be a ’Dog and things worked out where we could resign him. He’s a big 6-5½ kid, a long kid that’s athletic. I feel better about the importance of what he has to finish (junior college classes) with. He doesn’t have a backup plan now. The backup plan worked out for him. He didn’t get it done in December, I can get it done in May. If you don’t get it done in May … that’ll be intriguing, the challenges of getting him ready in the summer.
Guys start thinking and then they start getting absorbed by blocks, they don’t get off blocks and they don’t show the physicality and they’re all over the place. They look out of place. You try to get that over with so they can play fast. Mason, Mason is coming along. He has put on a lot of weight – he’s in the 270s now. It’ll be interesting to see the two high school kids – they’re not coming in skinny. Kyle came in skinny – he was a high school linebacker. Mason came in a little heavier, but didn’t play end. These guys are coming in, they’ve put their hand down. And the Piper kid, the Piper kid has body control that reminds me a lot of Tyeler. I couldn’t believe how well he moved. I was shocked. Washington State tried to come in on him late, but I don’t know. That was a nice one to find.
The Bee: Nate has to be happy that he is moving back outside …
Germano: He said, ‘Yeah, I thought that might happen.’ That’s what his answer was. But he’s my leader. He’s the one guy with the most experience. He’s smart. He knows his stuff. But there’s a lot more in him that I have to get out of him. He has to play more carefree and stop overthinking things and play, play to his ability.
The Bee: Is that going to be easier for him at end than it was last season, having just moved inside to nose and dealing with taking on the doubles and everything else in there?
Germano: I think the transition going back to it will be in my opinion easier for him than going in to nose and I think the mental part is a lot easier at nose. You’re not as exposed, because you’re in the middle. But it’s far more physical. There’s constantly four hands on you and sometimes you’re in a big pile and it goes over you. That part was different for him.
I think he’ll go back out there and feel like he’s back at home. I think he’ll be back where he needs to be. I think he has the body size, the length, to play either gap, the C-gap or the B-gap. I think he understands the defense better. And if we go nickel and I put my best two guys in there and one of them has to play the nose spot, it doesn’t have to be a nose it could be an end, he’ll have played both. He’ll know it. He’ll have a bigger picture. That has to make him a better player and it gives me more flexibility. If we go to nickel, I may move him to nose. I may, I may not, but the point is that’s invaluable and so you have to use it as an asset.
The Bee: In the spring, how do you go about sorting through that?
Germano: There’s a lot there. The guys that can execute what we’re trying to get done athletically, and guys that are versatile in what they can do, both inside and outside, meaning B-gap and C-gap. It’s a unique position because they’re playing a couple of different positions and one might be better at one and one might be better at the other. The guy that can master all the kills is the guy that’s going to be able to play more for us. You identify whether a guy is not as good here, but he’s better there.
You have to get a kid that can do it all. You put him in the B-gap and he lines up as a 3-technique over the guard. Or, he might be head up over the tackle and he’s going to step to the B-gap. Or, you line him up in the C-gap and he’s going to play the C-gap. There’s a lot of things they have to do. Certain guys are better at certain things. Once you identify that you realize what you’re working with. For example, last year, we played a field end and a boundary end. We knew exactly where Claudell was going to be and we knew exactly where Todd was going to be. I got rid of that this spring, because I don’t know what I’ve got. So, were playing ends, right end and left end. I’m scrapping the boundary/field scenario and just playing ends, then I can say, OK, here’s his strength here’s his weakness, here’s the kid that can do all of it. The guy that is the most versatile is the guy we need to have in this defense.
I don’t think there’s any end that has got any of those things mastered. The guy that understands it the best, who has done it, is Nate. I think the rest you just throw in a big ol’ pool and say, ‘Who can be the most versatile? Who can be the three and the four and the five? Who can slant? Who can angle? Who can rush the quarterback on the edge?’ You find that guy, so right now they’re all just thrown in there and then in the fall, maybe it’s ‘You know what, we truly have field ends and we truly have boundary ends.’ Like, Piper, he’s a boundary end right now. Austin, he’s a field end. And Kevin, he’s probably either one. But we’re not doing that right now. Nate is a boundary end. Nick is a field end athletically. Mason, I don’t know yet. But since I’m not worrying about that, I don’t care. We’re playing right and left so I can roll them in and out and find out what they can and can’t do.
There’s a little more of a question mark there. You have two nose guards. You have two walk-ons, which doesn’t take away from them playing … Wyatt is a good player. You have a redshirt freshman to a senior junior college kid. You look at it, it’s kind of a mixed bag there. You throw them all out there and it’s let’s go.
The Bee: Elijah and Kevin, like you said, they are physical guys right now. You mentioned earlier your recruiting list this past year. What changed there? Fresno State, a lot of Mountain West programs, they get D-linemen that are 240, 250 and try to develop thinking in two years …
Germano: I think the last year or two, the last two prior to this year, I was really frustrated how I ran out of names on (recruiting) boards. It was this time last year I said, ‘I just have to do a better job,’ so I spent more time looking at finding more guys and identifying more guys and then I spent three days in L.A. in May and I spent two days in the Bay Area. Austin is one of those kids I saw. I was in on a couple of kids until the end that I saw. I asked for more time to be out. I took it on myself to create a bigger list and I didn’t feel like I could sign a high school kid that didn’t play end and say, ‘I’m going to spend two years before I get him ready.’ I’m not saying that about Mason and Kyle, because Kyle played this year and Mason is coming up – it’s only his second year. But I said, ‘I have to find a kid that already has played with his hand down on the ground if I’m going to go high school’ because … we went 3-9. You don’t have five more years to figure it out. In this profession?
It’s a little risky if you’re depth is not OK. How long it takes you to develop and what your depth is like has a lot of do with it, but the numbers, I just didn’t have as many kids on the board. This year, we had a lot more kids to work with coming out of the spring, going into the summer, going into the fall. It was almost to the point it was hard to stay in touch with all of them. I think that helped. We had a nice pool.
Kevin Atkins plays at a great program. He’s well coached. He played great competition. And then Elijah, he was lineman of the year. That’s what he has been because he has always been big. You have guys that have played the position. You take it for granted sometimes that you think you can get in a three-point stance and figure it out. That’s everything. You’re not used to it. You spend more time teaching it. You think, you have time, you have time, but if you don’t have time … it’s interesting how every year kind of changes. But I’m excited about those two kids, just because of what they look like and what their film looked like and where they came from and they’re D-linemen.
Nikko Motta wasn’t the most gifted kid, but he was a great technician. That’s what made him so good. Well, he had been playing it his whole life. Todd Hunt was a running back, tight end, quarterback. It took him a little while to learn it. There’s something to that.
The Bee: We talked last spring about exactly what you needed, but going about filling those spots with the 3-9 thrown in there, you guys hit on some good players … at positions that are really hard to recruit to.
Germano: Whether it was an off-year that encouraged kids to see maybe I have a chance to play right away or we did a good job selling that Fresno State’s history is we don’t stay down long. We sold a lot of Tyeler going to the NFL. I like coaching kids that want to play in the NFL. We know how unrealistic that is, but I want to coach kids that want to play at the highest level and have goals to be in the NFL. Malik wants to play in the NFL. So does Elijah Piper, so does Kevin Atkins. That’s what you want, guys that are eager to learn. Their ears are open, their eyes are open. They want to learn.
It was a unique year and I think we did a great job as a staff identifying D-linemen and that was a full staff deal. They kept feeding them to me. If they weren’t in my area, they were refeeding them to me and they were on top of it. Nick was pushing it, too, so we had a really good pool of kids to work with.
The list was a lot bigger. I was really happy with it. You get done with spring recruiting and you go into fall, I had numbers. Some kids were offered and some kids were on the waiting list, but it was a good pool so if you start to lose guys, you felt like you had enough. That’s what happens, they start getting chopped off the list and you have to keep recruiting it and that’s what happened.
They kept getting chopped off the list and I was running out of names and trying to manufacture names late in the process. That was on me. I just felt like I needed to do a better job because it’s such a hard position to recruit – everybody needs them and wants them, all shapes and all sizes.
My lists seemed to dwindle a lot quicker and it wasn’t because they were all going away necessarily it was because the list wasn’t large enough. I was worried because I knew I had three ends leaving. You can’t really have enough D-linemen on your recruiting list and you can’t ever have too many on your team, within reason. Same with the O-line, just because of the nature of it. A half-padded practice or even a practice in helmets sometimes, it’s still a physical deal.
The Bee: Well, it has worked out. From the end of last year, there has been a lot of ground made up getting the group back right from a talent standpoint, a depth standpoint …
Germano: I’m excited. It’ll be interesting to see how it all sorts out. Ask me how we are doing in practice No. 12, because I was pretty disappointed last year. We had injuries and we only had five live bodies. I think we were getting knocked around a little bit, but we had a little more veteran O-line with Alex (Fifita), Bo (Bonnheim) and Justin (Northern). Todd was out and Claudell was out a bit. I was really down and some guys would come to practice and say, ‘You guys are hurting.’ Well, we don’t have Todd and we don’t have Claudell. That would be my answer. But I don’t see that happening. I really don’t. I’ll be disappointed if we’re not stout. Now, we have a long way to go and I know that. But it will be interesting to see what my mindset is after practice No. 11 or No. 12.
There’s not a lot of experience. There’s going to be a lot of coaching going on. But I’m excited about that. There’s a part of me that says, ‘Hey, the three toughest guys coming out of this closet, you guys are going to start.’ If you said that, Tyeler Davison would come out every time. He would have. Nikko would have been one of those guys out. Andy would have been one of those guys out. And I feel like we have kids in that room that will be like that and they have a mindset. They’re working hard. They know last year, that can’t happen.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
Looking ahead to the 2016 Fresno State football season:
- Feb. 29: Spring practices begin
- Sept. 3: Season opener at Nebraska
- Sept. 10: Home opener vs. Sacramento State