Behind the tranquil Fig Garden Shopping Center on Fresno’s west side is this common sound that resonates in this peaceful community during the fall afternoons: The sound of piercing and thunderous hits coming from two linebackers clad in the Bullard High uniform.
There’s a deep fraternity of linebackers who have donned the Knights’ uniform on the corner of Palm and Barstow Avenues; a fraternity that seniors Ben Baker and Cameron Lamanuzzi are trying to honor through their hard hits and stellar linebacker play.
“When there’s a tradition, I feel strongly about it and I do as best as I can every day to improve and keep the tradition going,” Baker said. “I mean, we’ve had guys from as far back as I can remember: Josh Newman and Darian Duckett were there before us. Also the Snelling brothers and the Justices, the list goes on.”
Added Lamanuzzi: “Growing up, I was on the sidelines during the 2009 championship year and my favorite players were Daniel Snelling, Caleb Justice, all of those guys. It’s good to be in their shoes now.”
Bullard’s latest linebacker incarnations are bringing the hammer to the Knight defense, smashing on running backs and quarterbacks who dare to cross their line of scrimmage. Both stand above six feet, weigh over 210-pounds, have been on the varsity roster since their sophomore year and on the field, zero in on whoever totes the ball then arrives in a bad mood. Additionally, if one ‘backer gets blocked, it makes it easier for the other to slip by and demolish the play.
Baker and Lamanuzzi have been hailed by many Central Section football pundits as the top linebacker duo in the area. Jokingly, Baker likes to compare him and his fellow bouncer Lamanuzzi to the NFL’s top linebacker pair: Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis of the Carolina Panthers.
“Davis and Kuechly, that’s who we model after,” Baker said.
But, despite their prowess in a Bullard uniform and despite the noise they’ve made in their shoulder pads and helmets, Baker and Lamanuzzi’s recruiting period has been as quiet as a dead shopping day at Fig Garden. Both are yet to land offer No. 1 and said that they’ve heard little from nearby university Fresno State.
Baker said two Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) programs are taking a closer look at them.
“We’re getting pretty recruited by Cal Poly and UC Davis,” Baker said, but adding that no scholarship paper has been extended to them yet.
Lamanuzzi confirmed that the two Big Sky schools are scrutinizing the BHS defenders and both are planning to visit the Central Coast university Cal Poly soon on an unofficial visit.
There is one source of motivation for the duo when it comes to hoping that offer No. 1 gets placed inside their mailbox, and that inspiration comes from a former Bullard standout who went from walk-on player at Fresno State to earning a scholarship with the university: Bulldog running back Dejonte O’Neal.
Before O’Neal’s season-ending knee injury against Tulsa, Lamanuzzi has long been an admirer of the former Knight standout’s work ethic.
“Tay’s one of the hardest working guys I know. I’ve been working out with him since the eighth grade,” Lamanuzzi said. “The guy just grinds and grinds and grinds. He’s always been overlooked and he’s one of the guys I look up to. He earned his way to a scholarship and I respect him so much.”
Baker added that O’Neal preaches a certain “E” word to him when he visits Bullard practices or stops by the T1 Sports Academy training center, the place where all three work out at.
“His big item is effort. As you can see, that’s what he’s all about. He’s just a workhorse,” Baker said.
The hard-nosed duo aren’t just using O’Neal as their primary model for perseverance on the recruiting trail, but are also listening to and taking in what other former Knight standouts who now play collegiately are preaching to them.
Said Baker: “They preach ‘Don’t give up.’ Those guys worked their tails off the whole four years at Bullard. We’re just going to do the same until the end of the season and see what happens.”