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Fresno State football spring preview: Defense

It was better than you think in 2016, and it could be the unit that leads the Tedford-era renaissance.

NCAA Football: Hawaii at Fresno State Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

If you missed the spring preview of Fresno State’s offense, click here to get caught up.

Depending on which numbers you decide to trust, the Fresno State defense never had a chance or was, perhaps, not as hopeless as they often appeared in 2016:

  • By yards per carry allowed, the Bulldogs gave up 1.83 yards less in the first quarter than they did in the three quarters which followed (3.54 vs. 5.37). No team in the country had games salted away by the running game quite like Fresno State, either, as only North Carolina faced more second half carries.
  • Excepting the game again FCS Sacramento State, the Bulldogs ranked 124th in opponents’ third-down conversion rate and gave up nine first downs on 13 fourth-down attempts, for good measure.
  • The defense ranked third (third!) by Bill Connelly’s Explosiveness factor, and finished fifth nationally in twenty-plus-yard plays allowed despite ranking right around the national average in average yards per play allowed (5.72, tied for 65th).
  • The linebackers ranked in the top 40 in positional Havoc Rate, but the defensive backs ranked 106th and the defensive line ranked 126th.

It was a season-long uphill battle for Lorenzo Ward’s unit, and while it may have been unfair, in some respects, that he was swept out with the rest of the DeRuyter staff after the campaign’s end, it was still best for everyone involved.

The challenge for new defensive coordinator Orlando Steinauer, imported from the Canadian Football League, is to bolster his charges from any serious regression because, where the offense returns ten starters for the spring, the defense loses a lot of experience: Tyquwan Glass is gone, and so are Stratton Brown and Jamal Ellis. Jeff Camilli is gone. Per Football Study Hall, that’s four of the team’s top six tacklers and 20 of its 35 passes defensed which, if the numbers regarding returning production are to be believed, are substantial losses.

Defensive line

Best-guess depth chart: Nathan Madsen (DE), Malik Forrester (DT), Patrick Belony (DT), Elijah Piper, Jasad Haynes, Austin Vaimili

As a whole, it’s still something of a mystery as to whether the ‘Dogs will continue with a 3-4 or shift to a different scheme but, regardless, the defensive line could benefit from the same level of open competition that its counterpart on offense will likely face.

The big recruit, three-star athlete T.J. Mauga, will probably get to redshirt in 2017 but this is a unit that’s still far deeper than it was a year ago. My best guess is that the top three — Maden, Forrester and Belony — aren’t seriously challenged for their roles, but that one defensive end spot is up for grabs.


Best-guess depth chart: James Bailey (OLB), Tobenna Okeke (OLB), Robert Stanley (ILB), Nela Otukolo (ILB), Jeffrey Allison, Trent Soechting, Justin Green

Bailey did about everything he could as a Deone Bucannon-type hybrid linebacker and, in my opinion, is quietly one of the best returning defenders in the conference. And everyone here has starting experience, but their job security may be tenuous, anyway.

That’s because of players like Allison. He appeared set on transferring somewhere closer to home over the offseason, but he’s still listed on the official roster and is the one guy who could seriously threaten the upperclassmen. He also had a very strong fall camp last year and saw playing time down the stretch, so if he acclimates to the new system he could be the next big thumper in the middle of the defense.

Defensive backs

Best-guess depth chart: Mike Bell (CB), Matt Boateng (CB), DeShawn Potts (SS), Jalen Smith (FS), Juju Hughes, Earl Chambers, Anthoula Kelly, Jaron Bryant

Coming into 2017, this unit is long on potential and short on experience. Hughes turned heads in fall camp by hauling in interceptions seemingly every other day, but he, like Bell and Kelly and Bryant, never had all that much time on the field. Chances are both Hughes and Bell will both get long looks with the ones in spring practice, but Bell’s height and relative speed make him a play to watch.

Boateng, a three-star JuCo arrival, is the one newcomer that could figure into the conversation immediately, but the bigger story could be the battle at both safety positions. Potts did defend five passes but was inconsistent at strong safety, and there’s no clear successor for Stratton Brown.

Smith is an intriguing candidate who’s been known mostly for being snakebitten to this point: After missing 2015 with an injury, he didn’t play in the last seven games of 2016. Bryant also had brief stints at safety last year, but Chambers could be a sleeper after being a surprise addition to the most recent recruiting class.


It was never going to be easy to replace a veteran like Garrett Swanson but, even grading on a curve, Blake Cusick’s freshman year left something to be desired. The Bulldogs lost four yards per punt and plummted to 123rd in on raw average, and the net punting average (36.23) ranked just 91st after finishing 52nd in 2015.

The only other punter on the current roster, Nathan De Jager, never really distinguished himself during fall camp but figures to make it a two-man race once again, anyway. Whoever wins this battle will simply have to be better than the punting game often looked a year ago.