With Kalen DeBoer’s new staff in Fresno came a new defensive team, and a whole new scheme. Coach William Inge brought a 4-2-5 defense, but a massive wrench would be thrown in the works with the pandemic shutting down both Spring and Fall practice for the Dogs. An abbreviated season left fans with a lot of questions, and hope that a full off-season would lead to a much improved 2021 defense. The addition of highly touted recruits and transfers should help inject some life into a unit that slumped badly from the 2018 unit that ranked in the Top 20 nationally. Let’s project the starters and key back-ups
The two defensive end positions are tough to project, only because the Bulldogs have a lot of viable options ready to start. Star ends David Perales and Kwami Jones both return, as do capable subs Isaiah and DeMarcus Johnson (no relation). Linebacker Aaron Mosby has also moved down to the DE room, hoping to fill that hybrid role that Mykal Walker turned into an NFL career. Perales and Jones turned in huge sack numbers, so those two should be the two starters.
DE: Kwami Jones/Aaron Mosby
DE: David Perales/Isaiah Johnson
In the middle of the defensive line, Kevin Atkins returns as the one constant over the last 4 years, and looks to go out on top. With the loss of both Kurtis Brown and Alex Dumais to the transfer portal, the team is looking for another tackle to start alongside Atkins. After opting out of the 2020 season, Leonard Payne seems to be the best bet to take that spot, as Fresno State fans have been looking forward to what Payne can bring to the table ever since he arrived. Pushing them both for time will be Oregon State transfer Evan Bennett, who was good enough to start for the Beavers as a freshman, and junior Matt Lawson.
DT: Kevin Atkins/Matt Lawson
DT: Leonard Payne/Even Bennett
The biggest change going into 2020 with the new defensive scheme was going from 3 linebackers to only 2, adding a hybrid nickleback role called a Husky. With Aaron Mosby moving to defensive end, that opened up a starting spot in the linebacking corps. Former Boise State and FIU linebacker Tyson Maeva made waves in the off-season by announcing his transfer to Fresno State, and has earned rave reviews from the coaches and players. Maeva has even been voted as team captain for 2021, showing what a big impression he’s made quickly for the Dogs. Alongside him, Levelle Bailey returns, moving from Husky to linebacker with Jacob Hollins transferring. After a strong first season in reserve duty, Malachi Langley is ready to play again on passing downs. And after showing flashes of greatness on special teams, Tyler Mello looks ready to move into the two-deep as a sophomore with a full off-season behind him
LB: Tyson Maeva/Tyler Mello
LB: Levelle Bailey/Malachi Langley
The Husky back was definitely a change for Fresno State, as evidenced by how many of them were recruited in the 2021 class. For now, with Levelle Bailey becoming a starting linebacker, sophomore Justin Houston looks primed for that role. The Husky is seen as a bit of a roving linebacker/safety role, similar to the Viper back in a Don Brown defense. While it was not very effective last season, having the time to learn the position and scheme should help improvements come in Year 2. Behind Houston, true freshman Emari Pait may actually be the one set for 2nd team status. Defensive coaches have been talking him up since he arrived on campus, and he has the measurables to be a star in the next couple of years if he continues to develop
H: Justin Houston/Emari Pait
One of the best stories for Fresno State fans last year was watching walk-on CB Brayln Lux climb up the depth chart to become a starter and scholarship player. He even ended up being the leader tackler on the 2020 team. Now, having a defensive back be your leading tackler obviously isn’t what you want, but it was part of his great story in the short season. I don’t expect to be any changes to the starters at CB, with both Lux and Wylan Free returning. Where I see changes coming are those right behind them going into 2021. All-Big Sky CB Daron Bland has transferred in from Sacramento State, and freshman recruit Cale Sanders look locked in as the 2s to begin the season.
CB: Brayln Lux/Daron Bland
CB: Wylan Free/Cale Sanders
And finally, our defensive tour ends at the safety position. A raft of injuries have created some weird safety combinations for the Bulldogs over the last two years, especially with COVID hitting the defense hard over the last month of the season. At least Evan Williams is back for Year 3, and former 4* UCLA transfer Elijah Gates looks set to start next to him. Now behind them, things get a bit scrambled. Former RB Deonte Perry played well in reserve last year, and has been practicing on and off with the starting defense in the Fall, and local product Kosi Agina look to be in line for the 2nd spots, but it would not surprise me to see more movement going on at the safety spot. Stephen Comstock, former QB, is a name to keep an eye on as he recovers from injury.
S: Evan Williams/Kosi Agina or Stephen Comstock
S: Elijah Gates/Deonte Perry
This brings us to the end of the 2-deep projections for Fresno State. We’ll see how everything lines up next Saturday when they take the field against UCONN. My game preview will go up early this week, and keep it glued here for all of your Mountain West news.