The 2016 Fresno State football team takes the field for the first time Saturday at Nebraska and this year's team is hopeful that many of the same faces from last year’s 3-9 team will take a leap forward - but one position group’s overhaul looks to make the ‘Dogs an instant competitor in 2016.
Last year’s defense certainly had next-level talent as linebackers Ejiro Ederaine and Kyrie Wilson and defensive backs Shannon Edwards and Charles Washington spent the last month fighting in the NFL’s preseason. But those second and third lines of defense were often left at a disadvantage after opposing offenses had their way in the trenches.
The struggles of the defense led to the reassignment of former defensive coordinator Nick Toth to being only the linebackers’ coach. Toth has seen how the new-look defensive line in 2016 is making things much easier for his linebackers.
“It’s everything - 100 percent.” Toth said. “You’re seeing these linebackers run a little bit easier. Last year, we probably weren’t quite as good as we are right now on D-Line. Our linebackers I thought was a good corps, but they had guys on them a lot. You’ve got Kyrie Wilson who is playing right now with the Raiders, Kyrie Wilson is a good player, but when somebody has their hands on you it’s tough to make plays.”
How can a three-man group that graduated two starting seniors possibly improve that much in one offseason?
It all starts at nose guard. The signing of nose guard Malik Forrester out of LA Pierce College and others makes a night-and-day change to the unit, trickling down from the nose to the end.
“When you have Malik and [Pat] Belony, 310-pound plus guys at the nose guard, we can put Nate who is 290 now and Nick Kristofers who is 280-ish [at end],” Fresno State Head Coach Tim DeRuyter said. “Those young guys, Kevin Atkins and Elijah Piper are 300-plus pound guys. We’re starting to look the way we’re supposed to. When you’re 250 and 260 up front, the offense has a lot better chance to get movement up front.”
At 6-foot-1 and 320 pounds, many Power 5 schools passed on Forrester, but the Bulldogs still had to battle out more than 10 schools who offered him. His physique makes him an ideal fit in Fresno State’s 3-4 defense.
That one position can make the whole scheme run more successfully.
“Without giving away too much, on a lot of plays our nose guard is the one that really has to set the point of our defense,” senior defensive end Nick Kristofors said. “On a lot of plays, his job is to force the ball carrier to us and our job is to force the ball carrier outside of us which is where our backers come in. That’s one of the main schemes of our defense.”http://www.scout.com/college/fresno-state/story/1701300-fall-camp-what-w...
If you watched the Bulldogs last year, you probably saw opponents break for huge runs between the tackles game after game. Now when linebackers are fitting outside gaps, they can expect to find the ball carrier in their vicinity rather than watching them flying down the middle of the field.
“We can’t give away things for free,” Toth said. “That’s been the M.O. right? To play well, well, well and then give something up for free. We can’t do that. We’re confident, but we know we’ve got a ways to go.”
Sophomore James Bailey, who plays a hybrid of both linebacker and defensive back, notices the difference in both aspects.
“It’s a lot easier, having Malik in there is a good body right there,” Bailey said. “It gives us more time fit and find our gaps… For running the blitz, everybody is hitting the holes, we’re all finding our gaps. In coverage, our D-Line might get us a sack"
A bigger body at nose also means easier work for the ends too. Kristofors has experienced the difference in practice.
“I think that’s key in the 3-4 defense - having a big guy that’s over 300 pounds plugging up the middle and taking up double teams every time,” Kristofors said. “That really clears up the B gaps and C gaps for us out at end.”
Last year the Bulldogs were without a true nose guard at all. Tyeler Davison was off to the NFL and the next man up, Maurice Poyadue, left the program. In an effort to get the team’s three best linemen on the field, Nate Madsen was moved to nose guard. He bulked up to 290 pounds, but his 6-foot-4 frame is a more ideal fit at defensive end in the scheme. Madsen was left trying to fight double teams and gain leverage on smaller, heavier interior linemen all season long.
“I was a taller guy,” Madsen said. “That sort of gave me a disadvantage. At the same time, it doesn’t matter how big, strong or short you are at any position. But being a guy that’s short, stout, heavy and strong, that makes it much easier on double teams. In there it’s more about taking up blocks and stuff like that... It was hard for me to do so I feel like the body type does matter, but it’s all about attitude.
“We need big, strong, stout guys in the middle to eat up blocks and when we need them to make big time plays,” Madsen added. “I feel we have some young guys that are able to do that and that gives me to go back to defensive end and play the position I was recruited here for. Having those big guys in the middle opens up opportunities for everybody else.”
Forrester and Madsen bring an impressive one-two punch to the defensive line that was sorely missed last season. The full two-deep was announced Monday, naming Kristofors the third starting D-Lineman. While he is likely third of three when it comes to size and talent, he is the group’s undoubted leader.
Of himself, Kristofors said, “I can tell you what, I’m the highest number, No. 99, so you can’t miss me. I’ll be the guy with my helmet off, screaming, trying to get the crowd behind us. My role is to bring a lot of energy, I’m a vocal guy and I just love playing football.”
The next three Bulldogs on the D-Line two-deep have never played a game at Fresno State, but that’s not a bad thing.
“We’ve recruited pretty well there in the last 18 months,” Toth said. “We’re far away, we ain’t where we want to be yet, but there’s definitely a difference - especially visually. We look more like the line we want to be.”
The Bulldogs aren’t short on nose guards this year, that's for sure. Behind Forrester is another big-bodied nose guard, Patrick Belony. Belony stands at 6-foot-1 and 317 pounds. He spent a redshirt year last season after transferring from junior college.
One of the Bulldogs’ second string defensive ends can fill the role of nose guard too, and he’s just true freshman. Elijah Piper, a 6-foot-3 and 305-pound defensive lineman has impressed with the size and athleticism to play right away. The Bulldogs have struggled mightily to find this type of true freshman athlete, rather depending on undersized players to mature and bulk up in the program.
It’s leaving observers scratching their heads how the ‘Dogs landed him.
“He has really, really good body control,” said Pete Germano, Fresno State Defensive Line Coach, of Piper. “He’s very explosive, 300-pound kid that can move that body. He reminds me of some other kids we’ve had here in the past that have played. I don’t want to throw out those names yet and start having Piper associated with those guys. But big guys that can move their bodies like that, that’s a start in the right direction for sure. He can play [both nose or end] but we have more of an issue with our end spot now… We’re leaving him at end because he can move well enough to play it.”
Rounding out the two-deep is a junior college addition, Austin Vaimili. Though Vaimili and Kristofors are both on the lighter end of the defensive end spectrum, Madsen and Piper add bigger end options, which was a key difference in the success of the 2012 and 2013 defenses compared to the failures of the 2015 defense.
Of the unit, Germano said, “This look, first of all we’re young and inexperienced, there is really only one guy with any kind of playing time - Nate (Madsen) - But the young talent that we recruited, I’m really, really excited about. We have some pretty good football players in that group… I’m fired up about my group.”
If the Bulldogs have a good showing at Nebraska on Saturday, it could start with the impact of the team's revamped D-Line.
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