2011 Fresno State Preview – Defense
Fresno State LB Travis Brown
Fresno State LB Travis Brown
Posted May 30, 2011

CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Fresno State Bulldog Defense

Fresno State Bulldogs

Preview 2011 - Defense

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What You Need To Know: After a complete and utter disaster of a 2009 season, the defense got far better in a hurry and it was all because of the pass rush. The Bulldogs finished 59th in the nation in total defense, but gave up way too many yards and points in chunks while not doing nearly enough to take the ball away with a mere five recovered fumbles and eight picked off passes. There's tremendous speed and athleticism all across the board, and there are a few superior talents like DT Logan Harrell and safety Phillip Thomas, but more big plays are a must and finding a productive pass rusher to replace Chris Carter will be tough. The linebackers can fly, the secondary is ultra-athletic, and the line should be able to get into the backfield. Now all the athleticism has to translate into more production.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Travis Brown, 79
Sacks: Logan Harrell, 10.5
Interceptions: Phillip Thomas, 3

Star of the defense: Junior DT Logan Harrell
Player who has to step up and be a star: Junior DE Matt Akers
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Jeremiah Toma
Best pro prospect: Harrell
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Harrell, 2) S Phillip Thomas, 3) LB Travis Brown
Strength of the defense: Speed, Pass Rush
Weakness of the defense: Takeaways, Good Quarterbacks

Defensive Line

State of the Unit: The line will undergo a bit of a change with lots of movement to try to find the right combination. Replacing Chris Carter will be a major problem after he came up with a dominant 11 sack season, but there are several good prospects to play around with all across the line. After not getting to the quarterback in 2009, the line was great last year, finishing ninth in the nation in sacks, and if everyone can pick up the slack for the loss of Carter, this could be a strength.

The key to the line, and the defense, will be to find the right spot for Logan Harrell, who has WAC Defensive Player of the Year written all over him. The 6-2, 280-pound junior is a natural tackle and a whale of an interior pass rusher making 10.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss to go along with 46 tackles. Moved around across the line throughout spring ball, he was tried out on the nose and as a big end, but he's a defensive tackle who's a perfect fit in a college 4-3 and will be better as a 3-4 end at the next level. He's too quick, too strong, and too productive, and he demands a double team on every play.

Taking over on the nose for 13-game starter Cornell Banks is senior Chase McEntee, a decent reserve who made 16 tackles with 1.5 sacks and four tackles for loss as a fill-in. At 6-2 and 285 pounds he's a short, squatty lineman who gets great leverage and should hold up well in the position, but he could move to be a three-technique tackle when needed. Quick and athletic for a nose, he could be a steady interior pass rusher. He'll combine with 6-2, 305-pound redshirt freshman Tyeler Davison, who brings more size to the spot. A big, strong mauler, he's an ideal nose tackle.

The big concern, though, is at one end where Carter needs to be replaced. The most promising option is Matt Akers, a 6-2, 245-pound junior who always has the motor running to go along with tackle strength. He's nowhere near as quick as Carter, but he didn't see any time last year after serving mostly as a reserve early on. After looking the part at times this spring, he should be a quick, athletic option at one end, and he'll be backed up by a big, imposing prospect in 6-4, 280-pound senior Donavaughn Pritchett. Strong and huge for an end, he's better suited for a 3-4 system, and he looks the part, and now he'll get his shot to do far more after making 13 tackles as a spot-starter and top reserve. He also came up with two sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss.

Operating at the other end will be the combination of pass rushers. Sophomore Nat Harrison is a veteran speedster who bulked up roughly 25 pounds to get to 240 on a 6-2 frame. He only saw nine games of work and made nine tackles with a sack, and while he was expected to do more, he'll get his chance this year. Also operating in the rotation is junior Tristan Okpalaugo after failing to register a stat in his three games of work. At 6-5 and 235 pounds he looks the part and a smart, quick athlete, but he has yet to do anything on the field.

Watch Out For … the freshmen. Top recruits Ronald Ussery, who has sub-4.4 speed, and Donavon Lewis have the wheels and talent to step in and start right away. At the very least they'll get long looks in the rotation, while 280-pound Maurice Poyadue could see time early on at tackle.
Strength: Potential depth at tackle. Moving Harrell to end from time to time will only work if the tackles can hold up, and assuming that Andy Jennings can come back after suffering a broken foot this offseason, the Bulldogs should have a nice rotation on the inside. The more Harrell can move around, the better.
Weakness: Consistent run defense. The weak and the sad, like San Jose State and Idaho, got stuffed. Ole Miss ran for 425 yards and four scores, Nevada ran for 245 yards and five scores, and Illinois and Northern Illinois ran amok. The line has to hold up better against teams with mobile quarterbacks.
Outlook: It's asking too much for the defense to come up with 37 sacks again, and it's asking way too much to find an immediate replacement for Carter. The more heat the rest of the line can take off Harrell, the better the chance for the pass rush to be fine. More is needed from the run defense and a good rotation has to be found, but after disastrous seasons in 2008 and 2009 and a great 2010, the line can regress.
Unit Rating: 5.5


State of the Unit: Chris Carter is a huge loss for the defensive front, but the defense's biggest absence is in the middle where long time tackling machine and team leader, Ben Jacobs, is gone after coming up with 87 stops last season. There's experience returning with both outside linebackers returning, but the spotlight will be on the middle.

Sophomore Jeremiah Toma has seen plenty of backup time, making 14 tackles, and now he gets to replace Jacobs on the inside. At 6-0 and 230 pounds he has good size after bulking up 15 pounds, and he'll be a top tackler after leading his high school team to the California state title notching 165 stops. Extremely active with limitless range, he'll be a stat-sheet filler. Backing him up is redshirt freshman Oma Fifita, a big-time tackler with 6-1, 235-pound size and great strength.

Junior Travis Brown started every game last year on the strongside finishing second on the team with 79 tackles with two sacks, nine tackles for loss, and a pick. The 6-2, 235-pounder suffered a hip injury this spring, but he's expected to come back and be fine. With good size and nice pass rushing skills, he's a good do-it-all veteran on the outside and is a tone-setting big hitter. The upside to Brown missing time this spring was the chance for sophomore Patrick Su'a to get more time after making a tackle in his brief time last year. More than fine when he got his chance this offseason, he'll be more than just a backup in the rotation.

6-1, 215-pound Kyle Knox started every game last year on the weakside, finishing fourth on the team with 74 tackles with a sack and 6.5 tackles for loss. Fast and with great range, he can get all over the field without a problem, and now he has to use his skills to be more disruptive as both a pass rusher and in coverage. He'll be backed up by Edward Dilihunt, last year's top recruit who came to Fresno State as a safety, but will use his 6-0, 210-pounds and tremendous hitting ability at linebacker. At some point, senior Shawn Plummer will be back in the mix after making 34 tackles last season and missing time this spring. The team's fastest linebacker, the 6-0, 200-pounder has the potential to do far more as a pass rusher.

Watch Out For … Toma to do more than Jacobs. There's no replacing Jacobs as a leader, and he was a rock against the run, but Toma can move. Jacbos only broke up one pass and wasn't used much as a pass rusher, while Toma will be all over the field.
Strength: Athletes. Knox and Brown can be used in a variety of ways because of their speed and athleticism on the outside, and Toma makes the corps far faster in place of Jacobs. The backups, especially Plummer, might be even faster.
Weakness: Run defense. This is where losing Jacobs will hurt. Knox and Brown are fine, and they're not afraid to tackle, but they're not going to rock against the run and they struggled too often last year. Toma will put up big stats, but he won't be the physical presence Jacobs was.
Outlook: This might not be a killer of a unit, it'll be among the faster and more athletic linebacking corps in the Pat Hill era. The goal for a defense that didn't take the ball away will be to get more disruptive big plays, and it'll all start with this group.
Unit Rating: 5.5

Defensive Backs

State of the Unit: The Bulldog secondary was helped by a phenomenal pass rush from the front four, and it showed. FSU gave up just 209 yards per game, and while there were too many big plays allowed, and Boise State's Kellen Moore, Hawaii's Bryant Moniz, and NIU's Chandler Harnish did whatever they wanted, this was a decent group that should be good with a little bit of time. Replacing three starters won't hurt as bad at might seem if, and it's a big if, the pass rush continues to be ultra-productive.

The star of the secondary is free safety Phillip Thomas, an all-star who hits like a ton of bricks and is the tone-setter of a playmaker. The 6-1, 205-pound junior came up with 64 tackles and a team-leading three picks and nine broken up passes, and now he could take his game to another level with experience to go along with his great skills. There's absolutely no question that this is his secondary. Sophomore Cristin Wilson didn't get on the field last year and isn't going to push Thomas out of time, but he has the potential to be a good leader and he can move. He's only 5-8 and 185 pounds, but he's versatile enough to be used as a nickel and dime defender.

One of the big keys this spring was the play of sophomore Derron Smith, a good-looking strong safety who made 28 tackles last year as a decent reserve. The 5-11, 190-pounder has excellent speed and the athleticism to play anywhere in the secondary. Cut-on-a-dime quick, pass coverage shouldn't be a problem. He'll be backed up by junior Zak Hill, a 6-2, 200-pound veteran who has been solid on special teams and has the versatility to play anywhere in the secondary. Back after missing all of last year with a knee injury, he's back and ready to get a long look as a defensive back, but he's limited.

Sophomore L.J. Jones will battle for one starting corner job with redshirt freshman Davon Dunn getting a long look. The 5-11, 180-pound Jones is the team's best pure corner and will lockup as much as possible on the opposing No. 1 target. He made 14 tackles in his limited time, while Dunn is a former wide receiver with tremendous speed and upside. The 5-10, 180-opund Dunn is still a bit raw and needs more time, but he has the talent to eventually be great.

Senior Isaiah Green is a blazer who came up with 34 tackles as a key reserve and late-season starter. The anchor on the World Youth Championship gold medal 4x100 relay team a few years ago, he also helped set the U.S. high school record for the fastest 4x200. While he's not polished, the 5-10, 180-pounder makes up for his problems with raw speed and a decent break on the ball, breaking up eight passes. 5-11, 185-pound junior Erik Brown isn't as fast as some of the other Bulldog corners, but he's one of the team's best all-around athletes.

Watch Out For … Jones. He didn't show much of anything against the pass last year, and he only got his feet wet, but he has shown the talent and potential to be the team's lockdown corner for the next three years. He's not FSU's best defensive back, but he might be the most important.
Strength: Speed. There might not be a faster defensive back in the WAC than Green, and Jones can fly. The entire FSU secondary can get around well enough to swarm around the ball.
Weakness: Interceptions. Call this a terminal issue for the Bulldog program. The defense has come up with just 22 picks in the last four years, and the linebackers and linemen were involved in the mix, too. Thomas came up with three of the picks, and he'll have to be the main man on turnovers again.
Outlook: There aren't going to be any receiving corps that can outrun this group, and the defensive backs look the part, but there has to be more done against the better passers and the interceptions have to start flowing. Thomas is a player and Jones and Green have upside, but the depth is lacking a bit.
Unit Rating: 5.5

Special Teams

State of the Unit: Senior Kevin Goessling has been a terrific kicker for the last three years nailing 21 field goals last season and hitting 15-of-16 two years ago. The lefty has range, experience, and the ability to bomb away whenever needed in clutch situations. A Lou Groza candidate, he's one of the nation's best weapons and he'll be good for over 100 points.

The punting game struggled throughout last season when it came to net average, as Andrew Shapiro averaged a paltry 37.4 yards per kick. However, he put 21 kicks inside the 20 and he hung it up high with a terrific 27 fair catches forced. He's not a bomber, but he gets them up in the air and is deadly accurate with just one touchback.

WR Jalen Saunders will be among the team's top receivers and should be strong on kickoff returns again after leading the way with 32 returns and 23.1 yards per try. However, Isaiah Burse will be better after averaging 26.2 yards per pop. Rashad Evans was the lead punt returner averaging 8.6 yards per try on 23 attempts, but Saunders will get more chances after averaging 11.5 yards per try.

Watch Out For … Shapiro to start pushing it a bit more down the field. He was so good at forcing fair catches and so good at putting it inside the 20 that the average can be forgiven. However, it didn't help the coverage team that got ripped up. Shapiro has to start hitting more big punts.
Strength: Goessling. One of the nation's best kickers, the lefty is all but automatic inside the 50 and has the strength to be tried out anywhere inside of 60 yards.
Weakness: Coverage teams. They were awful. The Bulldogs allowed 11.5 yards per punt return with a touchdown, and an even worse 24.3 yards per kickoff return with two scores.
Outlook: The kicking game will be great and the return game could have even more production if Burse starts to explode. If the coverage teams are a bit better, the special teams will be a major strength.
Unit Rating: 7.5

- 2011 Fresno State Preview | 2011 Fresno State Offense
- 2011 Fresno State Defense | 2011 Fresno State Depth Chart
- Fresno State Previews  2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006