Fresno State Football

Fresno State spring football: Slowdown takes effect as defense plays much faster

Fresno State linebacker James Bailey (24) makes a tackle in his first career start against UNLV on Oct. 16, 2015. He finished with seven total in the game, including three solo, as the Bulldogs beat the Rebels 31-28.
Fresno State linebacker James Bailey (24) makes a tackle in his first career start against UNLV on Oct. 16, 2015. He finished with seven total in the game, including three solo, as the Bulldogs beat the Rebels 31-28. THE FRESNO BEE

What has been admitted into evidence so far is purely circumstantial, but that will start to change Friday when Fresno State puts on full pads for the first time this spring.

Two practices in, though, the slower pace of the installation of fronts and coverages on defense appears to be having a positive impact on a unit that has struggled the past three seasons and last year ranked 10th of 12 in the Mountain West Conference in total defense and last in scoring defense.

They are playing faster. They have some takeaways in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 team periods, four on the first day and two more Wednesday, which is supposed to be a big part of the overall plan for the spring. Install, then give the players time to digest it, to know it and thrive in it.

“It gives us a chance to go faster because we know what we’re doing,” said outside linebacker James Bailey, who got his crash course in the fall and in a true-freshman season was able to tie for sixth on the team with 47 tackles, including 2.0 behind the line of scrimmage. “It’s nice for everyone because I feel like the defense is playing faster and is a lot more confident, too.”

Right now, new defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward and the Bulldogs’ defensive staff have three coverages installed. Last year at this time, it was four or five.

“We’re going to make sure that the installation is detailed out,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “We have some younger players that really need to understand why we call things the way we do, what situations we’re going to call particular defenses in, where the strengths of that defense are and where the weaknesses of that defense are.

“I think sometimes young players don’t always understand why we have all these different calls. Well, there’s no perfect defense, and when you understand by disguise and are able to play some open and closed middle stuff, it makes it hard on an offense, and then where the stress points are on your defense and where they’re going to try to attack. When guys understand that, you can play faster.”

The Bulldogs do have a number of young players returning on that side of the football as well as some veterans, so there is a base there. But the aim is to make sure there is a good grasp before moving to what’s next – they want the players understanding the techniques and not just play because that is what they were told to do.

“At the end of the day, it’s about our guys playing fast and getting to the rock, downing the football,” outside linebackers coach Jordan Peterson said. “As coaches, we have to look at it and go, ‘Well, it’s not really what we know it’s what our players know.’ If they can’t verbalize it back to us and they don’t know what they’re looking for and what each technique is all about, then we have to cut it down.

“We’re really focused on the fundamentals and techniques right now to make sure our guys fully grasp the why. It’s easy to say, ‘This is your technique and this is how you execute it.’ But now, we have a little more time to talk about why and that way they have a fuller understanding of how it fits within the scheme and why we want to call certain things in certain situations.”

Promising start – The Bulldogs got a glimpse Wednesday of what Dejonte O’Neal could do working as a slot receiver, having moved there from running back this spring.

In a 7-on-7 period, the diminutive Bullard High grad – he is listed at 5-foot-7 – made a tough catch in traffic and away from his body and then weaved his way toward the end zone. The run was a nice flash, but considering they weren’t in pads and in a no-contact period, the catch was much better.

“I knew he had really good hands,” DeRuyter said. “I think putting him in the slot, he can be a playmaker for us, and I love how he competes. Now, he’s a smaller target for the quarterback, so he has to be able to make those catches. But I’ve been impressed with him. He has really good natural hands.”

O’Neal and Da’Mari Scott, an outside receiver last season, are working inside this spring. Jamire Jordan, who led the Bulldogs with 46 catches and 540 receiving yards and was tied with Josiah Blandin for the team lead with five receiving touchdowns, is out for the spring following hip surgery.

Quarterback reps – Chason Virgil, Kilton Anderson and Ford Childress split reps fairly evenly during the two 7-on-7 periods, but when they went into team drills, Virgil and Anderson got the majority of reps.

It is worth noting, though, that after Virgil threw a pass over the middle that was picked off by safety Stratton Brown, he went right to the sideline. The pick came on Virgil’s fourth rep with the ones to start the period, and Anderson took the next eight before Virgil got back on the field.

“The emphasis is we have to take care of the football and if you’re going to throw the ball away we’re going to see if somebody else won’t do that,” DeRuyter said. “The point is going to be made, turning the ball over is not acceptable.”

Fresno State has struggled in that area the past two years. In 2014, the Bulldogs’ quarterbacks ranked 11th of 12 in the Mountain West and 126th of 128 in the nation with 21 interceptions (18 by Brian Burrell), and last season they were 11th and tied for 113th with 16 picks (six by Zack Greenlee).

DeRuyter on Childress: “We’re rotating those guys right now and part of it is every day there’s an evaluation and you earn your reps. Our threes aren’t going to get as many as our ones, and you have to earn your reps. I thought he had a better day, the other day was a little rusty, and we’ll see how it goes.”

Et cetera – Nose guard Tyler Puccio, who ended the 2015 season No. 2 on the depth chart, did not practice because of a knee injury and could be headed for what would be a third knee surgery.

Fresno State does have depth at the position – more than it has had in any season running the 3-4 defense under DeRuyter. The Bulldogs last season had 309-pound Patrick Belony and 340-pound Jaleel Carter take redshirts, Belony as a sophomore transferring from Antelope Valley College and Carter as a freshman from Alief Elsik High in Houston.

The group also includes 315-pound Malik Forrester, a midyear signee from L.A. Pierce College, who is expected to have an immediate impact on the defense.

▪ Though the Bulldogs will practice in full pads Friday, they will be in line with NCAA guidelines with no live periods scheduled for what will be practice No. 3 of the spring.

“You have to have three in just helmets and the Friday before the spring game will be our third just-helmets practice, and there are four or five no-tackle practices,” DeRuyter said. “We’ll be in pads. It’ll be all thud, but there will be contact.”

▪ The Bulldogs were in helmets and shorts for the second time Wednesday, but there was plenty of contact and a few scuffles broke out, mostly between the offensive and defensive lines.

“There was a little bit more than what you want with just helmets, but I like that,” DeRuyter said. “I like when guys compete, and sometimes when you compete, that happens.”

▪ The Bulldogs are trying to get former cornerback Sean Alston back to fill the graduate assistant position on defense. Alston, who started all 13 games as a sophomore in 2012 before suffering a career-ending shoulder injury, spent last season as a recruiting GA at Missouri.

▪ Tight end Kyle Riddering (Clovis North), who had shoulder surgery at the end of the 2015 season and will be held out of contact this spring, has been able to participate in the first two practices.

“He’ll be out here doing individual (work), out here learning the offense,” DeRuyter said. “It’s huge, learning the offense and understating the tempo at which we want to play, understanding the terminology and the adjustments. There’s a lot more shifting and motioning so just the whole process of the offense, he’s learning, he just won’t be in any contact.”

The Bulldogs will look to utilize the tight end position more in the new system being installed by offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau and Riddering could be an important component. They have Riddering and David Tangipa lining up as tight ends (Y’s), with incoming freshman Johnny Rojas (Clovis West) joining them this summer. And they have Chad Olsen and Jared Rice playing as “H” receivers, with incoming freshman Donte Coleman in that group this summer.

Fresno State 2016 football schedule

The Mountain West Conference released a tentative 2016 football schedule, with some games subject to be moved to Thursday or Friday to accommodate television broadcasts. Here’s a look at the Bulldogs’ slate:

(Home games in bold CAPS; all times TBA)

  • Sept. 3: at Nebraska
  • Sept. 17: at Toledo
  • Sept. 24: TULSA
  • Oct. 1: at UNLV
  • Oct. 8: at Nevada
  • Oct. 15: SAN DIEGO STATE
  • Oct. 22: at Utah State
  • Oct. 29: AIR FORCE
  • Nov. 5: at Colorado State
  • Nov. 12: BYE
  • Nov. 19: HAWAII
  • Nov. 26: SAN JOSE STATE
  • Dec. 3: Mountain West Championship