The defense had been sliding since that first season, when coach Tim DeRuyter turned a 4-9 Fresno State football team into a 9-4 Mountain West champion.
The Bulldogs in 2012 had ranked fifth in the nation in turnovers gained, only to fall to 47th, then 65th, then 69th last season. They were 22nd in total defense, then 95th, then 111th and then 102nd. They were 36th in scoring defense then 86th, then 101st, then 119th.
There are myriad reasons behind that, but what came next DeRuyter had been through before.
“When I was at Navy, my first year, we dramatically improved, everything was great. The next year, we get crushed with injuries,” he said. “The head coach had to make changes. He let the offensive coordinator go and a few other coaches and then demoted me from coordinator to secondary coach.”
DeRuyter hired Lorenzo Ward to be defensive coordinator but also was able to get former coordinator Nick Toth to move into another office on the second floor of the Duncan Building; out the door, veer right, turn left and there it is on the left. And, though the head coach knew it would be a difficult decision for Toth to remain, it was as important as any of the hires made coming off that 3-9 season.
“The bottom line,” DeRuyter said, “is we’re a better football program with Nick Toth than we are without him.
“One of the reasons I’m excited that he’s coming back is he’s in it for the guys. He’s going to look at this as an opportunity for him to grow professionally. Bringing in a guy with Lorenzo (Ward)’s résumé and experience I think is going to do nothing but help him. Because of his relationship with his players, the way he recruits, his relationship in the community and with our administration, I didn’t want him leaving, quite frankly. I also talked to him that, as a coordinator who is switching roles, it’s going to be very difficult. I had to go through it personally myself. But I used it as something that I think really helped my career, and I think it will be the same for him.”
Toth returns as inside linebackers coach, working with the same position group he did when coordinator, and he is excited to start spring practices.
The group is young and senior Jeff Camilli will miss the spring due to an off-season leg injury. But sophomore Nela Otukolo, third-year junior Robert Stanley and redshirt sophomore George Helmuth got valuable experience last season, and the Bulldogs also signed junior college transfer Trent Soechting in December out of Blinn College and there will be a ton of reps to go around.
Q: So, how are you settling in?
A: Good. It has been good. The transition, I get the question a lot and people look at me like I have leprosy a lot, but there are three things that I think are supremely important in understanding what we do. Coaches just want to win – I don’t care if we’re playing a football game or if you’re telling me you’re going to race me at a mile, or we’re shooting free throws on the basketball court, or we’re playing Risk at home with my kids, if you’re telling me there’s a winner and a loser, I just want to win. Whether I’m coordinating or the linebacker coach, I just want to do whatever it takes to win the game.
The second thing is, coach has hired good dudes. Coach at every position has hired really good guys. There are some guys that he could have hired to be the defensive coordinator that would have made the transition much harder on me, or vice versa. If I wasn’t professional and I didn’t do my job the right way, I could make that really hard on him. If that’s the case, I wouldn’t be here. Coach didn’t have to keep me around. If he didn’t believe I was the best guy to coach linebackers there’d be another guy coaching linebackers. If coach Ward didn’t think that I was going to help him win, I wouldn’t be here. And, the flip side is I wouldn’t have stayed if I didn’t believe in coach DeRuyter and if I didn’t think coach Ward and I were the right fit; I didn’t have to be at Fresno State.
If I didn’t think that being a part of the Red Wave and the Valley and those things were important to my family, I wouldn’t be sitting in this chair right now. Coach has hired good people. The ones that are here, the new ones that have come in and the guys that got to stay, those are the right guys to make this place better. I think it’s a tribute to coach DeRuyter in hiring, the guys that he has here now, and to coach Ward for being able to make the transition work. But also coach (Jordan) Peterson and coach (Pete) Germano, easing the transition and making it easier.
The third thing is, I love my players. Whether I’m the coordinator, whether I’m coaching linebackers or whether I’m coaching special teams, I love my guys. Sitting in this chair, changing offices from that office to this office, that doesn’t matter. I get to coach my dudes still. We started down a path with some of these guys four and five years ago and we accomplished a whole bunch of goals and things that are really good, and because we took a dip that doesn’t change the way I feel about them and we have a lot of unfinished business with these guys.
I’m excited moving forward, comfortable with the role that I have on this team and proud that coach DeRuyter has said that, ‘Hey, you are the best guy for this job and we can’t win a championship without you’ and coach Ward has been a part of that as well. Now, I just have to make sure I don’t let coach Ward down, that what we’ve done in the past, what we’re doing now and what we’re going to be doing in the future fit into the scheme that he wants, into the vision that he and coach DeRuyter wants. I have no doubt that the guys here on defense are all on the same page with that vision. If I didn’t think I could do that, or coach DeRuyter didn’t think I could do that or any of these coaches could do that, I wouldn’t be here.
With all that being said, that’s a lot of words to say it’s going really well. It really has. There are so many guys that have sat in my seat and been a lot less comfortable than I am.
Q:Well, that’s it, isn’t it? I know you had other opportunities out there, could have moved on …
A: A lot of guys could. But here’s the thing, and this is going to sound like total coach-speak: Coaches don’t want to move. I have been all the way in with both feet to Fresno State University and being a Bulldog every day that I’ve been here. Just because people talk to you and say nice things about going to a different job, not everybody has what we have here. Not everybody has a tradition of winning. We’ve won three championships in four years – two conference championships and one division championship. Not many of the schools that I talked to this offseason that were interested in me coming to work for them could tell me that. And they couldn’t tell me they have a chance to do it this year like we do.
That’s really important, because I want to win and I don’t want to move my family every year. I have a house in a great community in Clovis. I have a great church; the place takes care of me and my wife. And we’re going to win here. And I am not uncomfortable walking into this office every day. I’m more bought-in than I’ve ever been. The players and I have a great relationship. Coach DeRuyter has hired great dudes to be in this office with.
There are guys that have (made this transition) that have walked into the office and been miserable every day and said, ‘Man, I got the short end of the stick not having that title anymore’ and all those things. I’m not that dude. I’m sure there are a lot of people that want to write articles about that or tweet about it or whatever. That’s not my deal. I’m not that negative dude.
There are a lot of positives that come from this and I am real comfortable with who I am. I work hard. I have plenty of ball to learn, but I’ve learned from some pretty good people and I’m going to wok my butt off for this place and go from there. Hopefully, I get to stay here for a while.
Q: I think that next interview we have will probably be the first one …
A: Well, you know how it is, the easy thing to write is the former coordinator is here and there potentially is friction there and all that stuff. If that happens, then I won’t be here, by my own volition, because that’s defining. That’s character-defining. If I make this hard for Fresno State to win, then I shouldn’t have been here from the beginning. That is a character-defining trait.
Either you’re about the team or you’re not. I don’t care if you’re coordinating, if you’re demoted, whatever. That is a character-defining trait. Either you’re in or you’re not. Are you in during good times? Well, then, you better be in during bad times because that’s the deal.
Hopefully, our bad times are over. Hopefully, we’re done losing and it’s all good from here. But I’m all in. I’m fired up to be here and I’m glad I didn’t leave. My wife is glad we didn’t move. We’re going to go win another championship and go from there.
Q: From a professional standpoint in terms of career development, how do you make this an even larger plus for you?
A: Well, No. 1, the huge plus for me right now, and there are probably 10, and you’re thinking, this guy just got demoted and he’s telling me it’s a positive. Well, shoot, if you said career-wise would you rather still be the coordinator or still be the linebacker coach, you’d rather be the coordinator. But the role I’m asked to be is the linebacker coach. What are the positives in that? No. 1, I get to recruit my butt off right now. I get to recruit every day and I don’t have to go to bed at night thinking about what the defensive end is supposed to have done. I don’t have to worry about that. I don’t have to worry about the corner. I’m going to know that stuff, but that’s not my responsibility now.
I get to focus on recruiting the heck out of inside linebackers every day. I get to have an area that is quadrupled in size and has changed in the level of importance, in terms of my recruiting area. I was pretty prideful in my recruiting when I got here, and the amount of my recruiting decreased over the years. Staff turnover, changing secondary coaches every year, shuffling staff around, a lot of those things take away from your ability to recruit. I’m fired up I get to recruit. I get to develop a relationship more with my personnel group, my linebacking corps, still with other positions, but I’m going to focus on those guys a little more.
I get to step back and learn from another guy that’s going to be involved in our defense in coach Ward and the way he has done it at different places. You sit in that seat and you’re in charge, you have to go and visit people to try to grab information. I still get to do that, but now I get to watch him and see the way he’s doing it. I’ll coordinate again someday, or maybe I won’t, but I still get to draw all that information I learn from him right now. Those guys that came in on offense, I get to watch them from a position coach point of view, do that they do. As a coordinator, I wouldn’t be focused on offense at all. As a position coach, I can watch how they’re coaching stuff.
There are a lot of positives there. I get to do a lot more learning now than I’ve done in the last four years. Career wise, that’s huge for me. The development as a teacher is going to be good. It’s going to climb for me and I’m excited about that. And, it’s a test. It’s a test right now to make that transition and do it well because, again, if I don’t, that defines. That’s the way I see it. Either you’re a good dude or you ain’t, right? I’m going to be a good dude. That’s the only way to do it.
Q: Well, I’ve seen people not do it that way.
A: And you know what, that’s the deal. Hopefully, when this thing is over, we win a championship and, hey, one of the reasons this happened is coach Toth ended up being a really good dude in that transition. He made the place better by accepting that role, grabbing onto it and taking off with it. I hope that’s what is said, after the fact, because that’s what I control.
Q: OK, well, as inside linebackers coach you have some work to do this spring, obviously. You have five that are on the depth chart including Jeff, three more coming in the summer. But for the spring, is that enough to get the group where you need them at the end of the spring?
A: In spring, it seems like whether it’s inside or outside, we’ve been fighting a depth issue at one of those spots. It’s good that we have guys that need to get reps and they’ll get a bunch of them. Two springs ago, we went through with just four. Brock Carmen was our starting Will (weakside) linebacker two springs ago. I like the four we’ve got and the fifth is Jeff, who is not fifth in terms of the depth chart, but he will be fifth in the spring because of the injury and working him back in.
I’m not worried about it. I like that we’re going to play guys in the spring who are going to be playing in the fall. We’re not going to be just repping guys. … We’ve done that in the past. We’ve had guys go through reps to get us out of the deal and there was very little chance that they were going to play. I’ll be evaluating four guys that are going to play, guys that played a bunch of downs last year and guys that will play a bunch of downs this years. Sure, you’d like to have six, but I’m not going to complain.
Q: Nela was a true freshman last season. Helmuth was a redshirt freshman, a little undersized yet. Robert Stanley, still a young guy. They all played, but in putting this thing together for the fall, they’re the guys now. They’re the most experienced inside guys. The reps this spring …
A: They need as many reps as we can give them. You can’t feed them enough reps. Good or bad, making mistakes or making all the plays in the world, they need repetitions. And, the new offense will be good for them. There won’t be any comfort zone there. They won’t have any sense of what’s coming. They can’t cheat plays. It will be good.
Q: Where do you start with Trent?
A: You know what? You don’t treat him like a freshman because he has gotten a bunch of reps against kids that are playing all over the country right now. Probably eight guys on the offense that he played against are playing at the same level that he’s at now or higher. He has played against some pretty good competition. You teach him the framework and then let him go, try to head off some things that we’ve seen be problems for guys in the past from the onset with him; learn from the mistakes we’ve made with other guys. But also just let him go be him and see what mistakes he’s going to make or see what he’s having problems with and adjust it for him.
Now, with all those guys, we haven’t taken a square peg and tried to fit it into a round hole. We slid Kyrie (Wilson) over to Mike (midde linebacker) last year. We slid Nela in, and the thing fit Nela. We kind of adapt it to fit what they can do. I think that’s why we’ve been able to play freshman linebackers. We’ve been able to play first-year players here because I can adapt it to fit them and react to their positives and their negatives. That’s coaching – seeing what they can do and being able to adjust from there.
Q: Any cross-training with them this spring or do you stick with Trent and Nela at Mike (middle linebacker) and Robert and George at Will (weakside linebacker)?
A: That’s a good question. Right now the plan is not to. I wouldn’t think we do that a lot. I think the guys need to get reps at the positions they’re marked down in. But you never know. You get to the last five practices of the spring and I like to tinker. Every spring I feel I’ve tinkered the last five (practices) with something, a position or something like that, and I think it helps. Right now, we’re going to see how they do on their own at the positions they’re slated in and then see what happens as it goes.
Coach Ward will have his ideas, too, how we want to do it. He has a good perspective on it. Things were done differently at South Carolina, at Virginia Tech and some of the other places he has been. It has been really good for me as an inside guy. His perspective will be a big help.
Both those Wills come fall could end up playing Mike (middel linebacker). They did it last year. Trent, as smart as he is, could very well end up being a Will (weakside linebacker) down the road. But right now that’s how we’re going to go.
Q: Attrition last year hit a couple of the position groups hard – O-line, inside backers. Losing Michael Lazarus, losing Xavier Ulutu, where do you feel you are with the group? With three more freshmen coming in this summer, it’s a very young group.
A: We haven’t missed on a recruit’s ability yet at inside linebacker. We’ve signed a bunch of guys that can play. They wouldn’t have played as true freshmen or first-years if they weren’t good players. I think the core that we have in there now, they have a very solid foundation as a well-rounded student-athlete. They’re big-picture guys. Not that they aren’t going to make mistakes or haven’t, but they’re just solid in all walks of life. Their leadership is growing. The four plus Jeff, the five, they all have the potential to be vocal leaders. I think we have a good core in there that can be the quarterbacks of this thing, more Travis Brown-type guys when they’re out on the field. I think we have that now, more than we’ve had.
As good a player as Kyrie was for us, I was always trying to increase Kyrie’s leadership and he knew it. We talked about it all the time. It’s a hard thing to grow in a guy.
So, I like where we are with the group. Sure, you’d like to have the guys that are going to be here in the summer, those other scholarship guys, in the mix in the spring. But I think the group is where you want it to be. Sure, I’d like to have not lost a couple of guys that we lost, but team rules are team rules and you’re either going to be a Bulldog and be bought-in or you’re not. I think the guys we have now are bought-in.
Q: The experience level, though …
A: It’s a weird one, because you look at Nela, he played eight games and probably would have been playing in half of every game that he could play if he didn’t get hurt there at the end. He might have even started some games, because of Kyrie’s injuries last year. I’m not worried about his experience level. I’m not. If I was worried about it, he wouldn’t have played last year.
Jeff has obviously played a lot of football, a lot of game reps. Robert Stanley, his reps went through the roof last year and it wasn’t in mop up time, it wasn’t in the fourth quarter. So we have reps in there. George, he has done it all. George payed in every single game last year. I don’t think the inexperience is going to be a big deal. The question is going to be come fall whether any of those new guys in the nix like they have been in the past, because then you’re starting to say, OK, we’re dropping freshmen in there and that’s a little different piece to the puzzle.
Trent, he’s the only one who doesn’t have reps with us, but he’s here in the spring. He’ll be here in the summer. If we can take a guy who just shows up in June and make him be a player, we can get Trent where we need him to be. I’m not worried about the experience level of our inside guys. You’d like to have two or three junior or seniors returning, but we’ll be OK.
Q: Just seems that the so-called moving year for some guys has always been a year ahead of where you might think when they come in.
A: I don’t think anybody is in a spot that we didn’t predict them to be. When we signed Nela, we had an idea and talked about it on signing day: He was going to be a guy that would come in and play as a true freshman. He was physically developed enough. He was smart enough. He had played at a high-level of football. He had been coached the right way. Robert Stanley, when we signed him, he was being signed a year early. He turned 17 while he was here. We knew what was going to happen with him. We brought him in as an outside guy and we knew he could end up working inside. It happened during the bowl game two years ago going to Hawaii that he moved inside. So, last spring and last fall, that was really that type of year for him. When we signed Jeff, we said this is a guy that is going to play as a freshman.
I think it’s tracking the right way. You’d always like to redshirt guys, that’s not debatable. But the guys that we’ve played as freshmen have made an impact, so it’s hard to argue that. It’s hard to say, ‘Hey, that guy just played 60 snaps and he made a sack.’ Well, should you redshirt that guy? You’d like to have guys playing when they’re 22. ...
Q: You really haven’t had that opportunity since you’ve been here.
A: Not yet. And some of that was the transition when we got here, the defense going from a 4-3 to a 3-4, some of the guys that we lost, and then you factor in the fact that we lost a couple of guys in the past year and a half that were on the depth chart. It hurts. It does. It’s not a perfect world. You’d certainly like to have those two spots filled, but at the same time it has let us recruit a higher-caliber guy.
When you look at the depth chart, I can say, ‘You fit right here. You have a chance to compete right away. There is no fifth, sixth, seventh guy you’re competing with. You’re competing with a third, fourth or fifth guy.’ That’s a huge thing and maybe that’s why we have gotten a higher-caliber play at that position, too. It’s all part of the equation, I think.
Q: At those positions, though, Mike (middle) and Will (weakside), when you’re talking about physical development and an experience level, you want to be ahead of that curve.
A: You’d like that to be a factor. You also like that you can recruit guys that are physically developed enough that they can play. Here’s the thing, we haven’t played anybody because we had to. We’ve played guys because they earned it. Look at Nela. Nela would have been potentially the best linebacker on our team last year whether he was a freshman or a senior. Jeff Camilli that year. Jeff Camilli played because he was good enough to play. That has been the deal.
We could have played somebody else. We could have moved somebody there. Just because a guy is labeled as a Mike (middle linebacker) doesn’t mean there isn’t a guy sitting at another position that could play. Robert Stanley wasn’t a Will (weakside linebacker), he was a Joker. Travis Brown was a Sam, he wasn’t a Mike. We moved him in. And we had Jeremiah Toma and Patrick Su’a, who could play a lot of football. We moved Travis Brown in from Sam to Mike and he started every game that year and he passed the kid who was the leading tackler on the team. There are always guys to put in a different spot and that’s the case again this year. We have options at outside backer and at safety if we want to move guys around, but that’s down-the-road stuff.
Q: So this spring, with the development of a Robert Stanley last year, where do you expect to see him this spring, beginning and end?
A: He’s going to start out and be a lot more vocal. His confidence level, like you talked about having that moving year, he’s going to be able to play with a much higher confidence level, which will make him much more vocal. He’s going to be able to take charge of helping other guys, be a factor with the players around him before a play. I expect him to be reacting quicker, because it has happened to him already once. A lot of the stuff that is going to be happening to him, he has already been through as opposed to it being the first time and having that slow response. I expect his reaction time to go up.
Physically, his lower body athleticism I think is increasing this offseason. We focused on that as something that was a little deficit, his flexibility, his ability to open his hips. He has really been working on that and I think that’s going to increase even from now to the summertime. I think you’re going to see some of that stuff. His change of direction is going to be better, which in turn he’ll be a better tackler on certain types of tackles that he wasn’t good at last year. And then the nuance of dropping, the different types of drops we do, I think you’ll see him be more exact.
I think all those things will happen. He’s a smart dude. That guy, he can handle the entire playbook so I think he’s going to have a big climb. The biggest thing for him, there’s a drive, those things are happening because he’s driven. He wants to be good. He knows he didn’t do some things well. He knows he has been moved around a little bit and he has found a home and he’s excited about it.
Like I think Jeff Camilli made a huge jump last year, I think Robert Staley is in a similar situation as Jeff a year ago. We highlighted some very specific things for him to get better at and he can work on those from the time the season ended to next fall, and he’s going it very well. I think you’ll see a big jump in Rob.
Q: Nela, same thing. Where do you feel like he is? Healthy, for one, after the knee injury?
A: He’s getting healthy now. It’s just being fully released and getting back into all of the things that we do. He has been in the weight room. When you have an injury like that you worry about cardio and what happens to your body because you’re just not allowed to have weight on your leg.
I’m expecting him to pick up where he left off before his injury. He has a lot of those things that we talked about with Robert, that he was out there and it was the first time so we didn’t demand him to do as many things that the inside linebacker should do from a communication standpoint, the responsibility of dealing with some of the other (guys) around him and helping with the big picture. We have to push him in that regard. We have to push him to get out of that freshman year. And, we have to make sure, you know, he’s a unique talent, his athleticism and change of direction, all of those things, sometimes he can do some things that some other guys can’t so we have to be careful about cuffing his hands and not trying to fit, like we said, a square peg into a round hole.
We have to make sure this thing does fit him. I don’t want him overanalyzing. I don’t want him overthinking. The things that maybe Jeff Camilli has to look at to be in the right spot to make the play, I don’t know that Nela has to look at those things. So I have to make sure I don’t overcoach that sucker. I have to teach him and let him run around a little bit because that’s what he does best. He is a slasher. He rips and runs. He slips blocks a little differently than some guys. Making sure that fits within our defense is going to be the thing I’m coaching him this spring, a little more awareness of what’s going on around him and what he’s doing.
Q: Do you feel better about where the four are physically?
A: (Strength and conditioning coach Joey Boese) has done a great job. I like the strength component of our program and our athleticism has increased, our change of direction and our dynamic movement is so much better. Our group is pretty strong, that’s what I can speak on the most. It’s a strong group. They’re going to be strong on block destruction, the stuff that we do in the offseason translates very well for those guys that are inside in the box.
Trent Soechting will be a different player in the summer time than he is in the spring. He’s only going to have a portion in the program by the time I get to see him in the spring. After that, the good stuff, the stuff that’s going to happen in April, May, June and July, that’s when you’re going to see that guy take off like a rocket. A little bit like Alan Wright. Alan Wright came in a year ago and he was a much better player in August than he was in the spring time. Our strength stuff, Coach Boese, is phenomenal with those guys, particularly with the inside backers.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
Fresno State Spring Football schedule
- Monday: Practice 1, 8-10 a.m.
- Wednesday: Practice 2, 8-10 a.m.
- March 4: Practice 3, 8-10 a.m.
- March 5: Practice 4, 8-10 a.m.
- March 7: Practice 5, 8-10 a.m.
- March 9: Practice 6, 8-10 a.m.
- March 11: Practice 7, 8-10 a.m.
- March 12: Scrimmage 1, 8-10 a.m. (open to the public)
- March 14: Practice 9, 8-10 a.m.
- March 16: Practice 10, 8-10 a.m.
- March 18: Scrimmage 2, 8-10 a.m. (open to the public)
- March 29: Practice 12, 8-10 a.m.
- March 31: Practice 13, 8-10 a.m.
- April 1: Practice 14, 8-10 a.m.
- April 2: Spring Showcase (free admission)
Times subject to change
Practices to be held in Bulldog Stadium.
All practices open to Quarterback Club members, scrimmages open to the general public. To join the Quarterback Club, contact club president Kenny Mueller at 559-288-0991 or the Bulldog Foundation at 559-278-7160.