Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Returning lettermen: 6

Incoming: 8
Lost: 1 (Nick Bates)

Fresno State gave up a whopping 5.6 yards per rush last season – unacceptable for a team that expects to win. Part of the blame sits with a linebacker corps that was young and inexperienced last season, and is still young now. The difference is the youth now has starting experience under its belt, and a large crop of even younger prospects has added depth to a position sorely lacking a season ago. Coach Tim Skipper takes over the linebackers – a much more natural fit for the former Bulldogs standout – after spending the past two seasons as running backs coach.

The on-field leader is junior Ben Jacobs (6-3, 225), with two years of starting experience in the middle and second-team All-WAC honors in 2008. Jacobs turned his aggressiveness up several notches last season, and though his one weakness is speed, it didn’t stop him from collecting a team-high 113 tackles last season. He came to fall camp noticeably leaner and stronger and should be poised for his most successful season. When he has guys on offense looking up to him, it’s safe to say he’s doing things right.

One guy who did some things right in the offseason is junior strong side linebacker Nico Herron (6-3, 240). Though his listed at the same weight, it’s hard to believe he didn’t weigh more than 240 last year. Herron, too, is noticeably trimmer. His lack of speed was even more of a liability than Jacobs’ last year, in his first season as a starter, when he finished fourth on the team with 65 tackles. With highly-touted true freshman Travis Brown (6-2, 235) in the mix and battling for time, it should be easy for Herron to stay motivated and push himself. Brown, the son of the late longtime defensive coordinator Dan Brown, was expected to offer instant depth, but showed his youth (along with some promise) during fall camp. But it’s no secret coaches expect big things from him eventually.

On the weak side, sophomore Kyle Knox (6-1, 215) takes over as the full-time starter. Knox had lots of experience in 2008, but was in more of a reserve role as Chris Carter toggled between linebacker and defensive end. Now, Knox has the position to himself, and has quickly established himself as a wreckless hitter who loves to make big plays – see his team-high eight tackles for losses last year. He should be the unit’s best pass rusher. Sophomore Shawn Plummer (6-0, 200), a former walk-on, is the only reserve with much experience. Plummer can compete for time at weak or strong side after adding muscle to his frame. Frankie Manquero (6-1, 205), another former walk-on, converted from safety in the offseason and entered fall camp second on the depth chart. Manquero has been predominantly a special teams player, but might offer help in passing downs.

Backing up Jacobs in the middle is junior Sonny McCree (6-0, 230), yet another former walk-on, with very limited experience – five tackles last year. The way true freshman Daniel Salinas (5-11, 205) stands out in practice, it’s hard to imagine him not working his way up the depth chart this season. Salinas graduated high school a semester early to participate in spring camp, and has a knack at flying to the ballcarrier – something that used to be typical of Bulldog defenders.

The most noticeable thing about the incoming freshmen is their size – none of them look like Fresno State’s freshmen linebackers of recent years. They’re bigger. That’s the case with Salinas and Brown, as well as Patrick Su’a (6-2, 215), who has monster calves, Jeremiah Toma (6-0, 215) and Ibe Nduka (6-0, 220), whose physical build resembles former standout Bryce McGill. Another guy, currently behind Brown at strong side is freshman Damion Whittington (6-1, 235). While Su’a, Toma and Nduka are likely to redshirt, Whittington might be ready to see the field this season.

Though redshirt freshman Mario Moore (5-11, 180), a walk-on last year, might be the fastest linebacker, it’s odd to see someone his size not playing defensive back. He’ll battle to find a niche that gets him on the field this year, but new walk-ons David Halopoff (5-11, 210) and Steven Plevney (6-2, 205) have a long way to go.

Rating: 7 of 10

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