Fresno State defensive line coach Pete Germano said he is pleased with his position group at this point in fall camp. There have been standouts in nose guard Malik Forrester and ends Nate Madsen and Nick Kristofors, and overall it is working hard and staying together.
But finding the best fit among the top seven or perhaps eight players who will travel to the Sept. 3 opener at Nebraska remains a work in progress, which makes Saturday’s second scrimmage in fall camp an important exercise.
Patrick Belony continues to push Forrester. Junior college transfer Austin Vaimili is in that mix at end, as is freshman Kevin Atkins, and senior Wyatt McBee has been getting more reps of late. Freshman Elijah Piper, at 6-foot-3, 308 pounds, adds some versatility playing at end and some at nose guard.
“We still have a ways to go,” Germano said. “Normally what happens with young guys that are learning the system, they start to learn and then there’s a leveling out where things start to mash together and something that was simple five days ago to do, with the other things that are in there it doesn’t become quite as simple. We’ve been kind of good and bad with that second group.”
Defensive tackle Logan Harrell had 10.5 sacks for the Bulldogs in 2010, the most by a Fresno State defensive lineman over the past eight seasons.
Vaimili, at least early in the season and until he gets a solid hold on the defense, could be more of a third-down pass-rush specialist. Atkins, who was taking reps with the No. 2 defense when he was moved to the offensive line for two days, is getting caught up.
“They’re not that far off,” coach Tim DeRuyter said. “They’re young, but we think they’re guys that we can roll in and (there won’t be a) dramatic drop off. I don’t know that we’ve had six guys like we have right now.”
But finding a fit for all of those pieces will be a goal Saturday.
“It’s a big day for evaluations, to settle in where we are with that group,” Germano said.
“You’ve got to throw them in the fire when you get right down to it and you have to be able to live with the good, the bad and the ugly with it and get their feet wet. Obviously, the first game is going to be interesting because of the quality of the opponent.”
Big block – That bubble and bullet game that Fresno State made such good use of when it had Davante Adams, Josh Harper and Isaiah Burse didn’t get much done last season.
Poor blocking by the receivers on the outside played a part and it carried on through spring, despite many of those same players having ample reason to put something extra into it with a new offensive staff in place in coordinator Eric Kiesau, receivers coach Burl Toler III, running backs coach Dave Ungerer and line coach Mark Weber.
It was awful, Kiesau said.
“It was bad,” he said.
But the Bulldogs’ offensive coordinator also said it now is light years ahead of where it was just a few months ago, and a group that has made some sterling plays in fall camp with its hands, athleticism and speed really has been noticed more for its physicality and tenacity when a good strong block-out at the numbers will net a sizable gain.
I have a feeling we’ll start fast. These guys have done a really good job of when we make mistakes coming out the next day and correcting it.
Offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau on the Fresno State offense
“It’s a big emphasis for us and really what we’re trying to do is say, ‘How do you play when the ball is not in your hands, because only one guy can carry it,’ ” Kiesau said. “We’re trying to get all 10 guys, that when they’re out there playing, to do their part and to block and help out downfield and play snap to whistle. It’s all an indication of effort. That’s all you’re trying to do, create effort and a culture and you play snap to whistle no matter what’s going on and they’ve done a real good job of embracing that.”
Senior Aaron Peck, who missed last season with a foot injury, has led that group but there has been improvement, top to bottom.
“I don’t think it’s even close and there are a couple of reasons for it,” DeRuyter said. “Guys grow up. We have a little more of a veteran group. I think we’ve seen strength gains, particularly with guys like KeeSean (Johnson) and Delvon (Hardaway).
“But I think that Burl is doing a great job … with those guys, explaining that if you’re going to be a professional at this you have to hone your craft and it’s not just about catching passes. It’s about blocking for the other guys when you’re not getting the ball. He has gotten them to take tremendous pride in it, they’ve grown up, and so that combination I think has made us much more effective.”
Restart for offense – The Bulldogs’ offense did not start the first scrimmage in fall camp at a very good clip – the first-team produced two first downs on their first four series, both when Chason Virgil scrambled free from a collapsing pocket on third-and-8 and second-and-2 pass plays.
But with the way camp has gone, Kiesau said he is expecting his group to rebound.
“No, we’ll emphasize it obviously in meetings before and well remind them how we started slow last time,” he said. “But I have a feeling we’ll start fast this next scrimmage. These guys have done a really good job of when we make mistakes coming out the next day and correcting it.
Fresno State last season converted only 37.3 percent of its third-down plays into first downs. The Bulldogs hit 50 percent of their third-down passes and averaged 3.4 yards on third-down runs.
“I’m really proud of them because that’s all about coaching and teaching and they’re really responding. I’m very excited about (Saturday). I can’t wait to go back out here and do it again and have a chance to redeem ourselves.”
Et cetera – DeRuyter said the scrimmage plan will be similar to the first in fall camp. The Bulldogs will do more in the kicking games and also work more situations, which is a positive.
“We’ll have a dedicated period where it will be on the minus-1 (yard line) coming out, we’ll have a period of goal line where it will be first and goal at the 4, we’ll have another end-of-half or end-of-game situation, red zone at the end,” DeRuyter said.
“We’ve been doing a little more in practice where we will do those things, but now you want to put it together in live situations during a scrimmage where guys have to think and execute in game-like conditions. If you’re just running plays, it’s good, but it probably tells you you’re not quite ready for a game. I think we’re getting closer.”
▪ Running back Dontel James and inside linebacker Nela Otukolo, who had minor knee surgery on Aug. 12, did more rehab work on the field during Friday’s practice.
▪ The Mountain West this season changed the rule on travel rosters – teams can now travel with 70 players to conference road games, up from 64.
“I really like the rule change and I think it will help,” DeRuyter said. “But there’s also going to be some weeks where we don’t travel 68 guys. We’ll take as many guys as we think we need to go win a football game.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
Fresno State football key dates
Saturday: Scrimmage No. 2 (closed to public)
Aug. 26: Scrimmage No. 3 (closed to public)
Sept. 3: Season opener at Nebraska, 5 p.m. PDT
Home games in CAPS
Sept. 3: at Nebraska, 5 p.m. (Big Ten Network)
Sept. 10: SACRAMENTO STATE, 7 p.m.
Sept. 17: at Toledo, noon (ESPN3)
Sept. 24: TULSA, 1:30 p.m. (MWN)
Oct. 1: at Nevada-Las Vegas, 7:30 p.m. (CBSSN)
Oct. 8: at Nevada, TBA (ESPN network TBD)
Oct. 14: SAN DIEGO STATE, 7 p.m. (CBSSN)
Oct. 22: at Utah State, 7:30 p.m. (CBSSN)
Oct. 28: AIR FORCE, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
Nov. 5: at Colorado State, 12:30 p.m. (ROOT SPORTS/MWN)
Nov. 12: BYE
Nov. 19: HAWAII, 4 p.m.
Nov. 26: SAN JOSE STATE, 12:30 p.m. (CBSSN)
Dec. 3: Mountain West Championship, TBA