Fresno State Fall Camp is less than two weeks away and in preparation BarkBoard.com is taking a look ahead to the position battles. While there are many new eyes on the coaching staff and coaches won’t be guaranteeing any starting spots, BarkBoard.com picks our starting locks and analyzes position battles. Next is the linebackers:
Two of Fresno State’s biggest names on the 2015 team were multi-year starters Kyrie Wilson and Ejiro Ederaine. Both were mainstays in the starting lineup at inside and outside linebacker respectively, but their complementary teammates seemed to change each week.
Now the Bulldogs must rely on the revolving door of linebackers to fill all four spots.
As we have highlighted, there is reason to be confident about Fresno State’s defensive line and cornerback positions. If the Bulldogs round out the defense with a solid group of linebackers, this year’s defense could be one of the stronger units in the Mountain West.
There are still holes to fill to make that happen, however.
OLB - Lock - James Bailey
Ejiro Ederaine started all 12 games last year, while opposite of him, James Bailey started three, Tobenna Okeke started five and Brandon Hughes started four. The three returners will be competing for the two outside linebacker spots, but Bailey appears to stand out.
For one, Bailey and Hughes grabbed a hold of the OLB spots this past spring. When Hughes went down, Okeke stepped into his spot.
As a freshman, Bailey’s 47 tackles was the most by a Fresno State freshman in 20 years. Though he started only three games, he was regularly on the field as a player who could serve as a linebacker/safety hybrid player. He can serve the traditional outside linebacker role, slide into coverage against the slot, be a nickel back or even drop back into the deep secondary. His versatility makes him stand out as the top option in the group.
ILB - Lock - Jeff Camilli
Injuries have plagued Jeff Camilli throughout his early Bulldog career, but his junior season ended up being one of the best on the 2015 team. Camilli still faced criticism despite his relatively good numbers.
Camilli still weighs in at over 260 lbs and almost looks like a defensive lineman playing linebacker at times. He still appears to be far and away the Bulldogs’ best ILB option this year, so they will have to adjust to his limitations when it comes to speed and hips.
Injuries kept him from contributing much in his freshman and sophomore years, but he logged 11 starts as a junior. Camilli turned those 11 starts into 76 tackles and two interceptions, second best in both categories for the 2015 team.
ILB - Open - Robert Stanley / Nela Otukolo / Trent Soechting
When it comes to the eye test, Stanley seems to be the best fit. At 6-foot-3 and 250-pounds, and the brother of a first-round NFL draft pick, he has the best measurables. However he has yet to overly impress so far as a Bulldog. Stanley was only 17-years-old when he arrived to his first fall camp, so he could be just ready to break out.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Nela Otukolo carries the same weight at a 5-foot-11 frame. Otukolo was the more effective second teamer, finishing with five more tackles (25) than Stanley (20). He also added 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and a fumble recovery.
Camilli was out injured this spring, meaning both Otukolo and Stanley handled first team reps.
Fresno State added a junior college addition Trent Soechting to the mix in the spring, but he didn’t make a big impact in his first session with the team. With Camilli commanding the first inside linebacker spot at 260 lbs, the Bulldogs could opt to complement him with a speedier option. Both Soechting, and George Helmuth who saw the field last year, weigh in between 220 and 225 lbs.
OLB - Open - Tobenna Okeke / Brandon Hughes
Opposite of Bailey should be a tough competition between Brandon Hughes and Tobenna Okeke. Neither had the season they had hoped for in 2015. Hughes was sidelined one game due to a suspension and three more due to injury.
Tobenna Okeke impressed as a freshman and appeared to be ready to step into the spotlight, but after starting three of the first four games last season an injury set back his progression. Okeke returned by the end of the season, but a combination of rehabbing and the team’s spiralling season kept him from looking his best.
When Hughes and Okeke entered spring ball, Hughes was OLB Coach Jordan Peterson’s choice on the first team. An injury put Okeke into his spot later in the session.
Watch for the two to continue to battle for the spot through camp. Justin Green rounds out the two-deep as a not-so-distant fourth option in the group. It also appears that Tyrell Robinson is back into the picture too, but whether he will be a serious option is yet to be seen.
Fresno State’s linebacker unit does not jump out as a major strength, but it does not appear to be a big weakness either. The ‘Dogs have three outside linebackers that should be expected to be solid Mountain West level players this year. Meanwhile, Camilli returns ready for his senior season and the ‘Dogs have options to round out the second ILB spot. An improved D-Line and cornerbacks could take pressure off this group from having to exceed expectations.
(OLB - ILB - ILB - OLB)
First: Bailey - Camilli - Otukolo - Hughes
Second: Okeke - Stanley - Soechting - Green
Third: Wright - Helmuth - Allison - Robinson