Brandon Hughes has a range of pass-rush moves, all of them playing off of his speed off an edge, and over the summer and now with the Fresno State Bulldogs in fall camp he can pull up video of some of the best in the NFL, a Von Miller or a Clay Matthews, study how they go to work on opposing tackles and try to make use of what he has gleaned. Add this, accentuate that. Any or all, he can give it a shot.
He can spin or dip, use the push and pull, maybe try a good punch every once in a while. Nine practices in and the device of his choosing on any particular play is working, the fifth-year senior outside linebacker a frequent though unwanted visitor in the Bulldogs’ offensive backfield.
But that is only part of the equation this fall for Hughes because he has been in this very spot before. Great summer. Great start to fall camp. Then …
Last season, it was a hamstring injury early on that set him back. This season, with the Bulldogs not particularly deep at the outside linebacker positions, staying healthy and on the practice field is an imperative for Hughes as well as sophomore James Bailey and juniors Tobenna Okeke, Justin Green and Stephen Van Hook.
There is a lot of production to replace, with Ejiro Ederaine having moved on after racking up the second-most career tackles for loss in the Mountain West with 45.5.
I know what I have to do and I’m going to fly around and do it.
Fresno State outside linebacker Brandon Hughes
Hughes is taking care of that, as well. Extra stretching before practices, staying hydrated. Overhydrated, he said. There also is the ice tub afterward, which can’t be a lot of fun. “It does take some getting used to, but they definitely help,” Hughes said.
The result the Bulldogs hope will be a full and productive 2016 season – playing in only eight of 12 games last year while missing time to a suspension followed by an ankle injury, Hughes still ranked fourth on the team in sacks and sixth in tackles for loss.
“He always plays with a chip on his shoulder. I think that anytime that you’re a football player you better have that and he definitely has it,” outside linebackers coach Jordan Peterson said.
“He’s very explosive. He has a good speed rush when it is a pass-rush situation. He has gotten tremendously better with his counter move in pass rush. The other thing is he’s really good with his hands. He has heavy hands. So whether it’s defeating a block or countering on the pass rush, he’s able to be active with his hands and get the blocker off him and finish the play.”
Fresno State last season got 16.5 tackles for loss from Ejiro Ederaine. The Bulldogs’ outside linebacker position group in fall camp has 19.0 career TFLs – Brandon Hughes has 7.0, Tobenna Okeke 6.0, Justin Green 4.0 and James Bailey 2.0.
Through the first nine practices in camp, Hughes along with Bailey in the No. 1 defense has made a solid impression, dropping hints every day they will be able to extend a good run of playmaking ability from those positions. In the Bulldogs’ 3-4, the outside linebacker and safety positions are prime actions spots and at the Sam and Joker they always have had it with Tristan Okpalaugo, Donavon Lewis and Shawn Plummer in 2012, Ederaine and Lewis in ’13 and ’14, and Ederaine and the returning group last season.
From 2012 to ’14, there were two outside linebackers ranked in the top three on the team in tackles for loss and last season outside linebackers ranked first and fifth.
Over the past four seasons, there were two outside linebackers ranked in the top five in sacks including a first and a second in 2013 with Ederaine and Lewis.
“One of the things that I’ve liked about him so far in camp, he has really done a nice job as a speed edge rush guy,” coach Tim DeRuyter said of Hughes. “He has always had that, but he’s as big and strong and fast as he has been since he has been here. He understands what we’re doing, so he’s playing with just a little extra edge like a senior should. He’s another guy that adds to that puzzle, and if he can give us a good edge presence I think we can put some pressure on people.”
Hughes can make an impact there in 2016 in a defense that has been pared down, simplified to better allow the Bulldogs to play more freely and without getting bogged down.
He always plays with a chip on his shoulder. I think that anytime that you’re a football player you better have that and he definitely has it.
Fresno State outside linebackers coach Jordan Peterson on Hughes
“It will let us play faster, plain and simpler,” Hughes said. “Since it’s a lot simpler, we now what we have to do and it allows us to focus on making plays and not focus on, ‘What do I have to do?’ I know what I have to do and I’m going to fly around and do it.
“I feel real comfortable with the playbook. It’s my fifth year in it so I know it pretty well and I’m just out there trying to bust tail and run around as fast as I can.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada