Saturday, August 23, 2008


Returning players: 7
Incoming: 2
Lost: 5 (Marcus Riley, Trevor Shamblee, Ryan McKinley, Todd Chisom, Robert Schenck)

This isn’t the first time in recent years linebackers have been called the team’s biggest question mark. Last season the group thrived on the challenge, thanks in large part to sophomore Ben Jacobs (6-3, 225). Jacobs was thrust into a starting role in the middle as a redshirt freshman after Ahijah Lane suffered a career-ending injury in fall camp. Now, Jacobs enters the season as the veteran of the group, coming off a season with a team second-best 81 tackles, 6 for losses and 2 sacks. He also blocked 2 kicks on special teams. He fits that prototypical mold of the player who always seems to be around the ball. This year, Jacobs will be expected to take charge of the defense, especially the linebacker corps. During Jacobs’ first year in the program, former teammate Tyler Clutts predicted he’d be an All-American by the time he graduated. That’ll take some hard work, but Jacobs is off to a solid start.

The other two starting roles are what have fans wondering. Junior Quaadir Brown (6-0, 210) was expected to be the veteran presence of this group, but reportedly had some off-field issues that took his mind off football for a while and led to him losing a significant amount of weight. Brown spent at least the first week of fall camp on the sidelines, not participating in contact drills. With his status up in the air, sophomore Chris Carter (6-2, 220) was converted from defensive end. Though just a few weeks into his new role on the weak side, Carter has earned most of the first-team reps and has demonstrated he’s going to be a standout once he refines his technique and gets used to playing in open spaces. Carter had 15 tackles, 2 for losses and a forced fumble as a true freshman last season at end, but was ranked as one of the state’s top linebackers coming out of high school – so he’s not a stranger to the position. Carter is one of the most chiseled players on the team, and probably the fastest of the front seven.

On the strong side, the long-awaited arrival of sophomore Nico Herron (6-3, 240) seems to have arrived. Herron had a standout spring, and an even better start to fall camp, and looks to be the starter. He’s got prototypical linebacker size and is a vicious hitter. He’s even shown some ability in pass coverage during camp, something that won’t always be expected of him. It shouldn’t take the Red Wave long to fall in love with Herron after he crunches a few bones out there. The downside is that he has very little game experience other than on special teams. He missed the first 8 games with an injury last season, finishing the season with just 2 tackles.

The Bulldogs took another big blow to their depth with word that junior Ryan Machado (6-0, 210) is reportedly done for his career. Machado was having a breakout season in 2007 before an injury at Nevada sidelined him. But there is some reserve experience with sophomore Nick Bates (6-2, 210), who originally came to Fresno State as a highly-touted catcher on the baseball team before deciding his heart was in football and walking on under Pat Hill. Bates had 19 tackles, 4.5 for losses, 2 sacks and a forced fumble in his first season, but enters fall camp No. 2 on the depth chart.

A player who has somehow managed to flow under the radar so far is redshirt freshman Kyle Knox (6-1, 215). But he won’t be under the radar long – those who saw his high school film knew right away what type of an athlete the Bulldogs were getting. Knox moves well and is an aggressive, punishing tackler who specializes in snuffing out running backs and blitzing. He showed early glimpses in the first scrimmage of fall camp, delivering a crushing blow to running back Lonyae Miller and then intercepting a pass for a touchdown a few plays later. He’s sure to find his way onto the field this season.

Serving as backup in the middle is another redshirt freshman, Austin Raphael (6-2, 225), who has shown surprising speed early in his career and might play his way into the rotation a bit sooner than expected. He’s had an up-and-down camp, but definitely grown since last season.

A pleasant surprise in camp has been the emergence of freshman walk-on Shawn Plummer (6-0, 200), the son of longtime Hoover High coach Pat Plummer, a former Bulldog lineman. Plummer, who played safety at Clovis High, is a bit undersized but makes up for it with speed. He’s played well beyond his years in scrimmage situations, and draws comparisons to Bates last season.

A couple of local walk-ons from last season are working hard to climb the depth chart and will definitely play large roles on special teams, as they did last year. Sophomore Sonny McCree (6-0, 230) of Edison High has 3 tackles in 4 games since converting from H-back last season. Sophomore Eric Brown (5-11, 210) out of Clovis West High is the son of defensive coordinator Dan Brown. He finished with 9 tackles in 6 games, and was often the first defender down the field on kickoffs. Being brought up in a football family didn’t hurt his on-field intelligence either. Brown says his favorite football player is Marcus Riley, the WAC Defensive Player of the Year who graduated from Fresno State last season and is now in the NFL. Both McCree and Brown have been solid in camp.

True freshman Michael Butler (6-3, 220) of Sunnyside High was originally thought to be either a tight end or defensive end, but is now working at linebacker. Typically, the Bulldogs would want to redshirt him, but might need him this season with such unproven depth. He’s one of the most driven and positive-thinking recruits under Hill, who committed to Fresno State last season and then worked on convincing other area targets to become Bulldogs.

A couple of walk-ons fill out the unit in freshmen Dustin Russell (6-0, 210) of Atwater and Chad Martinez. Neither is likely to see a significant role this season. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, two of their most highly regarded recruits didn’t yet show up for camp in Ricky Pemasa (6-1, 205) and Damion Whittington (6-1, 220). Both would have been candidates to play as true freshman.

Rating: 6 of 10

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