Monday, August 24, 2009


Returning lettermen: 9

Incoming: 3
Lost: 3 (Sharrod Davis, Will Harding, Jake Jorde)

It’s the biggest fundamental difference in Fresno State defenses now and in the recent past. Why the poor record in 2006 and the mediocre one in 2008? A lack of playmaking on defense. The Bulldogs have intercepted just 14 passes in the past three seasons combined (2006-08). In the three seasons prior (2003-05) Fresno State recorded 41 interceptions – a difference of 27 potentially game-changing turnovers.

So what gives? Do the ‘Dogs not have the guys capable of making plays anymore? While that’s possible, another explanation is a lack of emphasis on forcing turnovers, something coaches have tried to change during fall camp by instituting a rule that the defense has to do conditioning drills after every practice in which at least one turnover is not forced – incentive at its finest. Randy Stewart (who takes over as defensive coordinator this year) is a great, passionate, hands-on instructor who will focus on safeties this year while new assistant Micah Alba coaches cornerbacks.

The team has at least one star talent who has yet to emerge at corner – A.J. Jefferson (6-0, 190). Jefferson looked like a blossoming force in last year’s opener at Rutgers, showing that he had coverage skills and not just speed. But, somehow, Jefferson fluttered out of the starting lineup by season’s end. If Jefferson commits to working on the nuances of the position, and not just relying on raw talent, he might have NFL scouts paying attention for more reasons than kick returning.

Playing his way in to a starting role last year was sophomore Desia Dunn (5-9, 190), a former walk-on who had one of the team’s five interceptions last season. While Dunn was susceptible in isolation situations at times last season, he seems more confident this year and has looked far more aggressive in making plays on the ball. Also competing for a starting spot is Damion Owens (5-11, 200), whose 68-yard interception return during the first series at Boise State last year was one of the team’s only highlights. Owens was as impressive as any defender during the first fall scrimmage, making multiple open-field tackles to snuff out would-be big plays. That said, he’s not the fastest corner and was a liability in downfield coverage last year.

A crop of youngsters are itching to show their stuff, and it starts with sophomore Isaiah Green (5-10, 180), who’s said to be one of the team’s fastest runners but has been used mostly on special teams so far. Green picked off a Ryan Colburn pass in the end zone during the first fall scrimmage and also recovered a fumble. Expect him to be in the regular rotation. Coaches are also high on athletic freshman L.J. Jones (5-10, 170), who was practicing with the veterans from Day 1 of fall camp.

The Bulldogs will need some youth to emerge within a crop of inexperienced corners that also includes sophomore Jermaine Thomas (5-11, 180) and walk-on redshirt freshman Cris Wilson (5-10, 180). A couple of true freshmen have already impressed in camp in J.B. Dock (5-10, 170) and Erik Brown (5-11, 185).

While the interesting competition at corner is for the reserve spots, several safeties with starting experience are battling for a job. One spot is locked down by Moses Harris (6-1, 205), a second-team All-WAC performer last season who was third on the team with 75 tackles. With three years starting experience, Harris needs to become more of a sure tackler and work on shedding blocks, but his fitness is almost unparalleled.

There’s a three-way battle for the other job between two experienced starters in junior Lorne Bell (5-10, 205) and Marvin Haynes (6-2, 205) and redshirt freshman Phillip Thomas (6-1, 205). Bell has been in on first-team reps all fall, but Thomas looked like the man in summer voluntary workouts. Bell was hampered last season by a nerve injury in his leg, but seems to be healthier and faster, and remains the defense’s hardest hitter. Thomas excels in pass coverage, as he showed with a 60-plus yard interception return for a touchdown in the second fall scrimmage, and might be too good not to start. He’ll make an impact this season either way. Haynes, while athletic and talented, looks to be playing catch-up with his competition. He had two interceptions in the opener at Rutgers last season, but injury kept him out down the stretch.

But depth-wise it’s hard to ask for more.Sophomore Zak Hill (6-2, 200), Pat Hill’s youngest son, has been exposed often in pass coverage during camp, and might even be better off with a switch to linebacker. Redshirt freshman Terrance Dennis (5-11, 180) will have more of a chance to stand out next season with Harris and Haynes graduating, but walk-on redshirt freshman Justin Webber (5-9, 180) has already made some noise. Webber, a converted running back who’s bounced back from multiple serious injuries, flew around the field in the first fall scrimmage, making two tackles for losses.

Rating: 6 of 10

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