Fresno State defensive-line coach Pete Germano had figured that by this point, with 14 spring practices and two scrimmages down and one day to go, he would be very pleased or very worried about the progress in his position group.
It turns out he is neither. He is more in between the two extremes, and he can lean one way or the other after any one practice, with the defensive line giving him good and not so good in fairly equal doses.
“Doesn’t mean that nobody is working hard,” he said, “it’s just that the inexperience is really showing.”
On the plus side, the nose guard position is developing nicely. Malik Forrester, the midyear junio college signee, is as advertised. He can be an explosive playmaker in the Mountain West Conference once he gains a comfort level with the calls and technique.
Third-year sophomore Patrick Belony, who started the spring with the No. 1 defense, has pushed every practice and played very well over the last half of the spring. Redshirt freshman Jaleel Carter gives the Bulldogs legitimate depth at the position, which they have lacked in the past few seasons.
The Bulldogs, Germano said, have a lot of rear end there: Forrester, Belony and Carter go 315, 309 and 340 pounds, respectively, and all three will be asked to trim down some during the summer.
Moving junior Nate Madsen back out to end from nose guard also has played well this spring. The fourth-year junior last season played inside when a bit undersized at 290 pounds and through ankle and knee injuries, but can be a much more dynamic presence at a more natural position.
But, to the minus, the depth – particularly at those end positions – has not developed to a point where the Bulldogs will come out of their 15 practices a solid seven or eight deep across the line.
Madsen and senior Nick Kristofors worked with the No. 1 defense at end, with the twos a mix of redshirt freshman Mason Bradley, converted nose guards Ryan Steele and walk-on Jasad Haynes, as well as walk-ons Wyatt McBee and Nick Aibuedefe. The Bulldogs are expected to have Kyle Hendrickson (knee) back for the start of fall camp and a key incoming JC transfer in Austin Vaimili as well as incoming freshmen Kevin Atkins and Elijah Piper joining the group this summer.
You’d love to have two-deep at least and one or two swing guys. You’d love to be there – Pete would be feeling really good about himself. We’re not there yet, but I do think we’re getting much closer than where we were in January.
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter, on piecing together the core group of defensive linemen
“You’d love to have two-deep at least and one or two swing guys,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “You’d love to be there – Pete would be feeling really good about himself. We’re not there yet, but I do think we’re getting much closer than where we were in January coming in and thinking, ‘Are we going to be all right here?’ Hitting on Malik I think was important, and it has been really good to see him progress this spring and I know he’ll just get that much better come the fall.”
The offseason, Germano said, will be important for all of them.
“Those kids will watch spring cut-ups, they’ll continue to come out and hit the sled on their own and then I can meet with them in the summer once a week,” he said. “They also can go out and do the drill work. They key is, you want them to focus on their academics and finish strong, but if they put it aside (and) here we come out in the fall and we have to relearn everything and it’s all strange to them, then we’re not going to be where we need to be, because we’re still so young and so inexperienced in terms of reacting to what’s happening in front. They’re thinking too much, so the game has to slow down for them.
“They have to understand everything so they can play fast. That will be my driving point, that they stay on top of it, and that’s not any different than when Andy (Jennings) was here and Nikko (Motta) was here and Tyeler (Davison) was here. We don’t just shut it down. But how much they’re going to put forth on that on their own, when nobody is watching them, is huge.”
Vaimili, Atkins and Piper all will get opportunities to work their way into the two-deep in fall camp, but that is a transition that has proven difficult.
Kristofors last season made it to the field, though, after arriving in the summer from Santa Rosa College and all three come in with the size and strength to compete right away. Vaimili is 6-5 and 256 pounds, Atkins goes 6-2, 279 and Piper 6-3, 308.
“It doesn’t matter whether we had a good spring and I felt great or I felt a little concerned,” Germano said. “But getting Kyle back from his knee injury and those three kids that are coming in, we have to throw them in the mix and see if anybody can help us depth-wise at the end spot because ultimately Ryan Steele is probably a nose guard and Jasad is a nose guard, so you don’t really have a lot of depth. You’ve got Wyatt and Mason battling, and they’ve got a lot of reps to get better, but you can’t leave it at that.”
Evaluation period – The spring evaluation period opens April 15 and DeRuyter confirmed that the Bulldogs will be expanding their recruiting territory into the Southeast, with defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward making stops in Georgia and Florida as well as the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.
In addition, inside linebacker coach Nick Toth has been assigned a chunk of Southern California to take better advantage of his recruiting ability. When he was the defensive coordinator, with less time to be on the road particularly during the season, he recruited in the Bay Area.
We’re deep into evaluation now and we’ll have two solid weeks before going on out to make some good decisions.
DeRuyter, on the staff’s push to recruit the next wave of Bulldogs entering a new evaluation period in April
“We’re already well ahead of the game from where we’ve been,” DeRuyter said. “We’re deep into evaluation now, and we’ll have two solid weeks before going on out to make some good decisions. We’ve been evaluating guys since January, but we’ll have an opportunity to maybe contact some more high school coaches and get more information on guys before setting our schedules to go out.
“Then, we’ll go out for two weeks, bring the staff back in for a week to see where we’re at, see where we have to make second evaluations, and go from there.”
Stanley surging – Toth on inside (Will) linebacker Robert Stanley and the impact he has made this spring: “He has had the best spring of the group. He has played the same position now a couple of seasons in a row. We moved him to linebacker I think last spring for the first time, so he went through a spring and a fall and he has been able to do it now for a calendar year. He has grown into that frame. He has gotten faster. He has leaned up a little bit. He has gotten stronger with his weight, gotten rid of some of the bad stuff. He is exactly what you would think a fourth-year junior would be.
He wasn’t a kid that was thinking about what he was supposed to do on a play. He was a kid that was naturally playing football, which allowed him to create a takeaway.
Inside linebacker coach Nick Toth, on further evidence this week of linebacker Robert Stanley’s impact this spring
“He’s more mature. He’s finishing tackles much better. He’s not leaving his feet like he had been because he wasn’t confident. (Tuesday), he played a play and did everything you could ask a kid to do, and he did it at the highest level. Pre-snap, he had everything. He cheated the play as well as he could. He fit the play the right way. And because he knew what he was doing he ripped on the ball and caused a fumble. He wasn’t a kid that was thinking about what he was supposed to do on a play. He was a kid that was naturally playing football, which allowed him to create a takeaway.
“I couldn’t say enough about that guy right now. He has developed into a leader. We’ve gained one right there. We’ve gained a guy that is an impact guy for us. I couldn’t be more excited about Robert.”
Spring showcase – The Bulldogs close their spring Saturday with a scrimmage that will run from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., with plenty going on at Bulldog Stadium before and after.
The athletic department is holding a yard sale, liquidating more than 8,000 uniforms, sweatshirts, polo shirts, jackets, sweats and equipment.
There also will be a youth clinic on the field and a chance for anyone that has purchased or put down a deposit on season tickets to win their seats for free by throwing a football from the near hash mark at the 5-yard line into a trash can that will be placed in the back corner of the end zone – a drill the Bulldogs’ quarterbacks do often during practice.
The yard sale starts at 8 a.m., while the clinic will be at the conclusion of the scrimmage.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada