As a true freshman, James Bailey just stood out. It was the skill set, mostly.
Playing as the nickel back and a Sam outside linebacker in Fresno State’s 3-4, he could take on and defeat a lead blocker against the run, or use his speed off the edge to pressure quarterbacks. He could drop into coverage but also could match up man-to-man on a slot receiver and win, which is not an easy task.
Coach Tim DeRuyter has had productive players at the position at Fresno State and before that at Texas A&M, but there really is no comparison.
“No one as dynamic as James,” DeRuyter said. “Sean Porter when we were at Texas A&M, he was a fourth-round pick with the Cincinnati Bengals, he’s a guy who might have been a little taller, but James is more athletic. Sean couldn’t play man coverage on a slot. He was a little bigger guy, but he had a similar skill set.”
He can play any down and just about any technique that we ask him to play, whether he’s blitzing off the edge, playing man, whatever it may be.
Outside linebackers coach Jordan Peterson on James Bailey
Jordan Peterson, the Bulldogs’ outside linebackers coach and was a graduate assistant at A&M with DeRuyter, needed two players for the one comparison.
“He’s like a mix between Sean Porter and a guy named Terrence Frederick,” Peterson said. “T-Fred was our true nickel guy and Sean was our starting Sam linebacker. He has the size of Sean. But he has the man-cover ability that T-Fred had. Put those two together, you have a pretty good player.”
And with Bailey about to enter his sophomore season, beginning Saturday at Nebraska, they all are expecting his production to jump as he plays as an every-down Sam or nickel, to match the unique skill set.
“In my career, that has been the most crucial position that you have to recruit because it’s very rare to find a big physical guy against the run and an athletic guy that can cover in space,” said defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward, who came to Fresno State from South Carolina. “James is the ideal guy for us in this system, and that’s why I expect this to be a big season from him.”
Fresno State has had an outside linebacker rank in the top two on the team in sacks all four seasons since coach Tim DeRuyter installed a 3-4. Last year, it was Ejiro Ederaine, with 9.0.
“This is where you get a chance to make a quantum leap as a football player,” DeRuyter said. “When you’re a freshman and you’re just learning the position, you’re learning to go to class and all the requirements of being a Division I student-athlete. You really have a hard time performing at a peak level.
“I think he showed a great understanding of our package in the spring and it has continued through the fall. Athletically, he really has the skill set to affect a football game, which is what we need.”
Knowledge, Bailey said, is the primary asset in putting more of a jolt in that play-making ability.
“I just feel more confident in it, really,” said Bailey, who last season tied for seventh on the team with 47 tackles including two for losses; broke up two passes; and forced one fumble. “I’m studying in the film room, staying late with the coaches. I’m taking it a lot more personally, to watch more film and know those plays.
“With that experience last year the game is slower, but I can react a lot faster now. Since coach Ward changed up the whole defense, how he’s coaching it, it gives me more time to play faster and play more physical.”
Athletically, he really has the skill set to affect a football game, which is what we need.
Coach Tim DeRuyter on James Bailey
With Bailey playing opposite senior Brandon Hughes who’s at the other outside linebacker spot, the Bulldogs could have a duo as productive as Ejiro Ederaine and Donavon Lewis in 2013 or Tristan Okpalaugo, Shawn Plummer and Lewis in 2012, when DeRuyter installed the 3-4 and the Bulldogs’ defense made huge gains.
Fresno State in 2011 ranked 106th of 120 in the nation in scoring defense, then tied for 36th the following year. It was 100th in total defense, then 22nd. It was tied for last in turnovers gained, then fifth.
Bailey could have that kind of impact, and the Bulldogs likely will need him to as they try to rebound from a 3-9 season.
“He has always been gifted athletically,” Peterson said. “Last year, it was kind of a year for him to get adjusted to playing more on the line of scrimmage. In high school, he was more of an overgrown strong safety that played outside of the box a lot, so he had to get used to that realm.
“This year, he’s an every-down kind of guy. He knows the run game and the anticipation of what kinds of blocks to expect based on formation, all those things. He’s beyond where most guys are, even as a senior. He can play any down and just about any technique that we ask him to play, whether he’s blitzing off the edge, playing man, whatever it may be. He has the ability to do it and he’s smart enough to do that kind of thing. He’s the everything that can do it all.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE AT NEBRASKA
- Saturday: 5 p.m. PDT at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln
- 2015 records: Bulldogs 3-9, 2-6 Mountain West; Cornhuskers 6-7, 3-5 Big Ten
- TV/radio: Big Ten Network/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: Third in a three-game series between the schools, with Nebraska winning 42-29 in 2011 in Lincoln and 55-19 in 2014 at Bulldog Stadium. … The Cornhuskers are 34-2 all-time against current members of the Mountain West.