1. Who takes over for Marcus Riley?
Chris Carter has clearly taken over the spot vacated by Marcus Riley. Carter was moved from defensive end over to weakside linebacker, where he was more familiar with playing that position in high school, mainly because of his speed, but also because the improved play by Chris Lewis and Michael Stuart allowed the coaches to make the move.
At about 235lbs, Carter also becomes one of the biggest weakside linebackers that Fresno State has ever had under Coach Pat Hill. Carter is the quintessential run stopper from the weakside spot, as he loves to hit and will corral anything that comes his way. He has also greatly improved on his pass coverage, and has gotten more comfortable with the unit as camp closed. Fresno State’s run support on defense will improve with Carter at WLB. He will also be part of the many blitz packages that the Bulldogs will send at opposing offenses. Because Carter is a converted defensive end, he can line up at the LOS and give the Bulldogs the flexibility to play a 4-3 or a 3-4 in certain situations as an end.
2. Who takes over for Clifton Smith?
A number of players, including Ebahn Feathers, Rashad Evans and Devon Wylie, will man this position. There really is no pure replacement for Smith. No one has really emerged with the skill sets that Smith possessed, at least not yet. The coaches have worked with Ryan Mathews to become a more encompassing running back, with the capability to pull off the many duties that Smith did. But so far, the verdict is still that there is no clear winner in who is taking over this position. Look for a variety of plays, but that will originate more from the receiving end of the slot position or from the passing end with Feathers executing those sets. The one big bonus this year is that Feathers has the ability to pass the ball, especially on the run, when Smith could not do it last year.
3. How will practice go with a new offensive coordinator?
Aside from closed practices, this is a complete non-issue when it came to the notion that the Bulldogs will struggle to adjust to their fourth offensive coordinator in as many years. The transition from friend, and former OC Jim McElwain was as smooth as it could be.
OC Doug Nussmeier, calmly and quietly, is churning the offense, giving it a continuance of what it was building on as last season ended, with minimal terminology change and, with a veteran team, minimal grooming as far as fundamentals is concerned.
The running game is as strong as ever, with excellent blocking up front and minimal mistakes at the line of scrimmage. The adjustment to the new clock rule seems smooth and uneventful, which is a big bonus as teams prepare for a noticeably shorter game because of it. The offense has picked up right where it left off last year. It is attributed to the familiarity Coach Nussmeier has with Coach Mac.
4. How will the DL address its run stopping needs?
The defense has done well with plugging in the holes that left by Tyler Clutts and Charles Tolbert. Wilson Ramos adds huge size to one end. Ikenna Ike, healthy again, takes over the other end with his strength and motor. Jon Monga is as dominant as he was last year, and Cornell Banks has stepped up and taken the other tackle position.
The DL took a hit in the first fall scrimmage when Monga sat out, as did MLB Ben Jacobs and OLB Nick Bates. Since then, the DL has gotten much stronger, displaying its ability to control the running game against the first team offense that seemingly was unstoppable in the first scrimmage. The line had issues with depth across all positions coming from spring. However, a few surprise developments in camp alleviated the worries.
Mike Stuart and Chris Lewis have both stepped up at defensive end, and both are beginning to live up to the hype that both came in with after transferring from USC and Miami, respectively. Both are huge bodies, and in Lewis’ case, there seems to be urgency in his play that will translate to an aggressive motor on the field. Lewis was the #1 ranked heavyweight wrestler out of high school, and his ceiling at defensive end is still very high. The increased intensity of both players are part of the reason why the coaches have felt comfortable switching Chris Carter out of the defensive end position over to linebacker.
The impressive displays of true freshmen Matt Akers, Logan Harrell, Chase McEntee and Anthony Williams give the defensive line actual effective depth. The play of the three in the interior was part of the reason the coaches felt comfortable moving mammoth DT Bryce Harris over to the offense. All four true freshmen could play this year, with Logan Harrell and Chase McEntee slated to see time against Rutgers. They will back up Monga, Banks, and Mark Roberts.
The Bulldogs are coming off the edge better, cleaner, and attacking the blocks at the first line of defense. As long as the front four can eliminate the main gaps, the linebackers will do the rest. The first unit LB crew is very good against the run, with the smallest being Carter at 235 lbs, while Nico Herron tips the scales at about 255 lbs. If the unit continues to carry over its intensity into the Rutgers game, fans on both sides will be very surprised by the play of this defensive front four against the run.
5. How will the secondary address its inability to create turnovers?
This defensive back unit may be the most impressive unit since the unit in 2004 (Richard Marshall, James Sanders, Tyrone Culver and Marcus McCauley). They played very opportunistic in camp. The unit has been significantly more aggressive in attacking the ball, rather than the receivers, while the ball is in the air.
A.J. Jefferson, Damien Owens and Sharrod Davis are solid at cornerback, and all three have speed to burn. Owens in particular has been a ball hawk lately, and he and Davis are interchangeable as to who starts opposite Jefferson. Will Harding brings experience to backing up at either corner spot. The corners have been pressing much more than they have done since 2005, and they have taken more risks in jumping routes underneath.
Moses Harris is solid against both the run and pass from his strong safety position. A fundamentally sound Zak Hill and an always-physical Lorne Bell, a surprise return that many did not foresee, are backing him up. Meanwhile, Marvin Haynes and Jake Jorde are interchangeable at the free safety position.
The back four are very good this year, and it will not take them long to produce interceptions. The secondary has worked hard on their hands and at focus and attention towards the ball. Along with the anticipated performance from the front four of the defense, the DBs will be able to press, zone, and stay in man coverage whenever called upon, while still being opportunistic whenever turnover opportunities present themselves. Fresno State will not be one of the last teams in D1A to gain an interception this year, and they should produce significantly more interceptions than the year prior, when the defense dropped at least 11 possible interceptions that hit defenders in the hands or chest.
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