Fresno State defensive coordinator Nick Toth on spring: ‘You can’t be the same player/coach you were last year’

With a change in scheme, the Fresno State Bulldogs went from one of the worst defensive football teams in the bowl subdivision to one of the best, particularly when it came to takeaways.

Just one year after ranking in a tie for 119th and last with only nine turnovers gained, they were fifth with 35. Playing a defense brought in by coach Tim DeRuyter and taught by defensive coordinator Nick Toth, line coach Pete Germano, and secondary coaches Tim McDonald and Jordan Peterson, the Bulldogs also took significant strides up the rankings in passing, total and scoring defense.

It was not all just scheme, of course. Fresno State played with a confidence it was not close to having the previous season, the Bulldogs more aggressive and more physical. This spring, Toth wants to make sure they recapture that, even as they try to find replacements for some key contributors starting with strong safety Phillip Thomas and including SAM linebackers Shawn Plummer and Tristan Okpalaugo.

That is the goal this spring and it is a challenge to every player and every coach. Written on the board in his office is this: “You can’t be the same player/coach you were last year.”

Toth wants the Bulldogs better, and to be building. He talked about that and more in this Q&A leading in to spring practice, the first of 15 for the Bulldogs scheduled for Monday. 

Question: Well, you have some bodies to replace …

Answer: Yeah, we’ve got a couple guys … not a whole lot (he was joking, obviously). We have some work to do. We definitely have some work to do. But it has been good. The winter workouts have gone well, so hopefully we get these 15 practice days and go.

What’s the priority this spring for this defense?

We want to make sure, No. 1 that we re-establish our identity. I think the first thing we did when we got here is say, “Hey, we’re going to go out and run around on defense.” That was the big thing. We are going to run to the ball. We are going to try to be physical. And, regardless of what is happening with the offense, we’re going to control what we can control and that’s our attitude, our physicality and our energy level. We’re coming out to re-establish that, and take it to a higher level. That’s the thing that our kids have been talking about, that we’ve been talking about, throughout winter workouts.

It’s not going to happen again just because it happened last year. You don’t scare people into believing you have a decent defense, so we have to start with those things – our energy level, our tenacity getting to the football and our physicality. That’s what spring football is going to be about. There are a thousand things that we’re going to be working on, but that’s the No. 1 thing we have to do. We have to go back and re-establish our identity.

Is that something you think might have waned at some point last year?

No, not at all. As a matter of fact, our defense was as good at not doing that as any that I’ve ever been around. We played really hard and ran to the football. There wasn’t a game that we negatively graded ourselves on those things. But I think that when you’re still a young program – and we’re still a really young program, I mean, we just signed our first recruiting class – you want to make sure you don’t take that stuff for granted. You don’t want to take those core things for granted.

This is a new team. This isn’t last year’s team, even though it might be some of the same guys. These guys haven’t done it together yet. This team is going to take the field on the first day of spring ball and they have not played a down together as a team, with this structure that we have.

You always have to start with what’s important to you and we believe that winning comes from those things. With Coach DeRuyter, that’s where it starts. To start anywhere else, to start talking about anything specific beyond that, as a first part of the conversation, I think we’d be wrong. We’d be wrong.

From there, you are starting from a pretty good spot. First year with the new scheme, with players that didn’t always fit the way they will in the future, you have to be pretty happy with what this defense was able to get done last year and the way they took to all of it …

I was. I think, especially with the confidence that we played with, for a team that I don’t think had always played with confidence in the past on defense, at least in the recent past, I think we did a decent job of fixing that. Not that we have it fixed. But I was OK with how it went last year.

And, now, or on Monday with the start of spring, that’s all over …

It’s over today. I have it written on my board right now: You can’t be the player/coach/whatever your role is, whatever you were or whatever you are for us, you cannot be the same guy you were last year. Can’t. It’s not the same. You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. You can’t just be the same. You can’t expect it to get better accidentally.

Looking at the positions groups, Phillip Thomas obviously is at the top of the must-replace list …

Strong safety, that’s going to be a position where we’re looking to develop. We signed Rodney Mathews, a junior college kid who is here and has done a great job since he’s been here. But the transition from junior college to major college football is never easy for anybody, especially with the amount of pressure that’s put on that position on our team. He’s done a good job, though. The thing about Rodney is he’s a mature kid in terms of how he handles his business. He knows how to handle the classroom. He has a great foundation. So, we’re expecting him to bring us maybe a little more than a freshman would.

We’re moving Charles Washington to strong safety. Charles might be the fastest player on our defense and he’s definitely physical. I’m hoping those two guys have what we need, and we have some more options down the road if we’re not confident that those guys can do it. But I think that’s a great battle for spring ball. I think that’s a fun one to watch. I think talent level-wise, there are two guys that are talented – Rodney was the No. 1 strong safety we recruited out of junior college. We got what we want, we think. So we’ll see how that develops. And Charles has played some downs at free and on special teams, so, I like it. I’m excited about those two kids’ attitudes. But those are big shoes to fill with Phillip, so we know that we have some work to do there.

The other position to replace for us is really SAM linebacker. We lost Tristan Okpalaugo and we lost Shawn Plummer and those two guys together gave us a decent combination out there. The loss of Phillip is much more staggering than those two guys, but we still have to replace that position and the guy that would probably be the incumbent, or was getting ready to play more, was Jamaal Rose, and he isn’t going to go through spring ball full speed.

Actually, he went through winter workouts (Friday) 100%and he looked really good. We can push him through spring ball, but we don’t need to do that. He’ll have time in camp. With Jamaal not being there it gives an opportunity for Nat Harrison and Brandon Hughes, who are going to compete for that position and both of those guys body-wise and athletically have what we want. I just feel by the time we get to camp, we’re going to have as good a replacement if not better than what we played with at SAM linebacker, but right now there are just a lot of question marks with it.

I think we have great guys to evaluate for there. We’re not lacking talent, it’s just inexperienced right now.

With Phillip at the strong safety, you were able to do a lot of things with him. Would the goal be to not have to back off that, to make it that position as much of a weapon as it was a year ago?

Absolutely. That’s an integral part of our defense. We’re approaching it kind of a couple of different ways. We’re going to certainly try to do the things that we did last year with that position. But our defense is evolving as it always is, because there are some other things that we do good. I think that, with these guys in the second year of it, we might be able to approach and attack it a couple of different ways that people haven’t seen on film already from last year.

But we certainly want to develop a Phillip Thomas-esque type of guy there and have our defense continue to be good in the places it was. But we’re definitely looking at, if it takes a guy a little bit of time to catch up at what we want at strong safety, other ways to replace that part or the productivity of that part of our defense.

I would think for both of those guys, Rodney and Charles, that’s a tough order …

We’re not asking them to be Phillip Thomas, and that’s huge to understand. We can’t ask somebody to be somebody else. They need to take that role and make it their own. Charles Washington needs to be Charles Washington and Rodney needs to be Rodney. There are things, there are techniques that Phillip played well, that we can coach anybody to do. Every player is their own guy. I don’t need them to be Phillip, The productivity, the numbers that Phillip had, that would be great. But those guys have to go out and play that position the way they play it and we have to make sure the defense always fits the guys that we’re playing, not just at that position.

The thing is always evolving. It evolved to fit Phillip. It really did. It evolved to fit Derron (Smith). It evolved to fit Tyeler Davison. We’ll evolve it to fit the guys that are on the field. The truth is, that’s one of the benefits of our 3-4 – it can fit the guys that are playing it. It’s not a stagnant defense. It’s very adjustable. So, I feel OK about it. We have a lot of work, not just at strong safety. We have a lot of work to do at a lot of positions. But I think we have some answers.

You mentioned Jamaal, he was making a real push when he got hurt (knee) last year. Friday, you said, is the first day that he went 100%?

And he’s been cranking it. He’s been going at different aspects of our morning workout program, which we call Red Dawn. … It’s awesome; it’s an awesome thing for a team. He’s been going through different stations and (Friday) I think he tied it together for the first time and he was really good. If he took the knee brace off, I don’t know if you would have known (he was injured).

With his work on the field limited, what would be a good spring for him?

What would I consider a good spring for him? That’s a good question. I’ll tell you what, No. 1, I think Jamaal has to come out feeling like the textbook part of our defense, the verbiage of our defense, he should grasp 100%. I want him to come out feeling like he knows the defense because that’s going to be a lot of what he’s doing. He’s going to be in meetings, he’s going to be standing behind linebacker coaches during practices. He’s not going to be going through full-contact stuff so the Xs and Os part, the part that takes place in the classroom, I expect him to be able to give that back, and some of that is regurgitation. But digesting it, getting it in your head and understanding it, being able to say, “Hey, this is what is supposed to happen here, I expect that to happen.” He’s got a lot less on his plate, because he’s not going to be on the field as much. I’d be happy if he can come out of spring like that.

The second thing, I think we’re going to turn him loose in some individual (drills), so if he can come out feeling confident except for the moment of contact, the moment of truth, the tackling part of it, if he can feel comfortable moving around on the football field with the equipment on and do everything except being in live stuff, I think that’s a great spring for him.

I think that would be great progress. It was great (Friday). I didn’t expect him to be out there and I looked up and he is in my drill. The coolest part about it is, his teammates were jazzed up about it, too. I think there are a lot of cool things going on. A year ago, before he got hurt, he was kind of his own guy. I think this injury has done a lot of things for him.

Brandon, he had some growing physically to do last year. He didn’t get a lot of the defense last year when he was on the scout team. Where do you feel like he is right now?

You know, he’s had a very good winter. From the first day of the Red Dawn program to today, he’s one of the guys that has made the biggest jump and finished at the head of the pack, so that’s great that he has that in him, that we saw that already at such an early age. But he’s got to grasp some defense and for any young kid, grasping the defense and then playing your best every play is going to be a challenge.

I mean, you’re going to make mistakes, but going hard and not focusing on scheme and focusing on playing, and having it be natural, that’s really the challenge for him. We’re going to give him as many reps as we can give him. He’s not going to be able to handle as many reps as we’re going to give him. He’s going to be force-fed it and we’re going to demand that he goes. He has the ability, it’s just going to be the mental part letting him play and catching up to where he’s smart enough to go. And then the demands, because one thing you see about our defense, we demand it from them. We’re not going to give him a free pass just because he’s young. But I like where he’s at. He’s doing a good job in the classroom and the thing I said about him and the Red Dawn, that’s pretty impressive. That’s a freshman we’re saying that about. I think he has the capability to do it.

You mentioned the moment of truth with Jamaal, but tackling was an issue at times with the linebackers, mostly the inside guys. But how much work can you get done on that this spring?

Oh yeah. Absolutely. That’s something we’re already addressing in our workout. And it was outside linebackers and inside linebackers. We got though our stuff from the fall and we’ve been doing that a lot the last several weeks and continue to do it – we’re not done evaluating last year until next season starts. We weren’t great finishers at times at our inside or outside linebacker positions and we have already started fixing it. You can’t hide from it. You have to attack that.

It isn’t from a lack of want – our guys want to smash you, they do. We have to get them better at doing it. We have to get the physical aspects of that better. Shoot, every one of our position groups will have that as an emphasis every day this spring. Our inside and outside linebackers have been working their butts off on it. It takes time. And, in the end, we control a bunch of it, but ultimately, they control the most of it and an individual player’s ability to do that, he’s got to get better. He’s got to take that coaching and apply it when the time comes. But, yeah, we’re going to get better. That’s one of our challenges. That’s one of our goals.

Working on it now, is that more of a mental thing or a physical thing?

A big part of that is physical. A big part of that is body control and understanding where your body position is supposed to be at certain times. That can happen a bunch in the strength room with (strength and conditioning coach Joey Boese). Strength gives you better control of your frame and when your frame is under control it goes where you want it to go. And, playing at top speed and being under control is important, and Coach Boese has worked on that a ton. Red Dawn is all about that: It’s about playing as fast and as explosive and as violent as you can, and being in control while you do it.

Getting to the line, you have a lot of guys coming in this fall. But what are the expectations for some of the younger guys, especially?

We’ve got Tyeler Davison and Andy Jennings back. We’ve got Nikko Motta. Those three guys played a lot of snaps. We’ve got Todd Hunt, who came back (knee) midseason and played a lot of snaps. Then you have Ben Letcher, who played a lot more snaps than we expected. Maurice Poyadue, he didn’t play a bunch last year, but he has had an unbelievable morning workout session. If you ask any defensive coach about who surprised you the most and made great strides, they’re going to say Maurice Poyadue. He’s the No. 1 guy that happened to this offseason.

If we can develop another guy there, to have six right now without the addition of those junior college guys and those high school guys coming in, it’s a little different than it was a year ago. A year ago, Ben Letcher and Maurice, they weren’t there yet. Todd Hunt was a big question mark. He was a freshman, and then he got hurt. We came out of spring last year thinking: Man, we’re really thin. I think we have a chance to have some guys that can come out here and have some depth.

We’re going to move some guys around – you’re going to see some guys playing different positions this spring, because we know we have a couple guys coming in that are going to let us be more multiple with our front, so we’ll do more with our front than we have in the past.

That flexibility up front, you had Tyeler play inside and outside, Andy played inside and outside …

That’s it. You hit it. Tyeler is going to be an inside-outside guy. Andy is going to be an inside-outside guy. Nikko Motta is going to be an inside-outside guy. You know, Maurice, climbing the way he is, we can make use of that. And then we have the young man from Fresno City College coming in (Ioane Sagapolu). Ioane is a great nose guard, a great junior college nose guard. And we have a junior college defensive end that’s a monster coming in (Claudell Louis), so the competition that those guys create is great. To be a nose guard in this defense, we’re going to have a couple of decent guys. If you want to play, you better be able to play somewhere else. I feel like we’re going to have some good battles there and that group as a unit, their toughness and work ethic is pretty good. I feel good about it.

That group had a pretty good year, given the lack of depth and having to move guys around …

Coach (Pete) Germano did an unbelievable job with those guys. I shouldn’t say that – I expected Pete to do that, so it’s not unbelievable. But the production he got was beyond expected. They play hard and they go. Now, just because they did before doesn’t mean they can do it again. That’s what we keep telling them – you keep pushing them, keep pushing to where they need to be.

For Claudell and Ioane in the fall, how difficult is that going to be getting them up to speed with what you do?

Part of it, the place where D-lineman get lost when they come into college, is the strength factor. If they’re coming out of high school, they don’t physically have the strength. They might have some speed and agility, but often times, especially at a mid-major, they might not be as strong or have the size that they need to contribute right away. That’s the benefit of a junior college D-lineman – he’s probably got a lot more strength to him. I think some of the deficiencies that a new kid could have, those two guys, Claudell and Ioane, with their size and strength, they’ll overcome that initially.

The learning part is always going to be there. The great news for them, they’re jumping into position battles, right? We’re not expecting them to start, however, we know they could start. So we can be a little bit patient with them and figure out and choose our times to push them, and compartmentalize their teaching and learning, so maybe they don’t have to learn the whole thing. We can maybe pick spots initially that they’re going to help us and know what they’re doing so they can play fast and grow them into it as time goes on. I think it’s realistic to think they’re going to contribute this year, from any level, from learning to just being a 20-, 30- or 40-play a game guy. The whole range is realistic.

The last spot is the corners and you have pretty much everyone back …

We’ve got Sean Alston and L.J. (Jones) and we have three guys behind them, really four. We’ve got Jamal Ellis and Shannon Edwards, and Shannon played some this past year. Then you mix in Jonathan Norton and Davon Dunn. You’ve got some guys that are going to be pushing, and some of those freshmen had unbelievable of seasons.

I don’t know that we had that last year, because we wanted to redshirt some kids and we didn’t necessarily want to play Shannon at corner right away. It’s going to let us do some things in nickel and dime that we didn’t do. We’re going to be able to change coverages a little differently than we did in the past and bring pressure from some different angles.

Every one of those guys is focused on going and getting the ball when it’s in the air or it’s on the ground. That’s a neat spot. And then you talk about junior college guys, we have Tray Hall coming in, who could be a corner, a nickel back. He does everything. For me, it’s a perfect storm.

L.J. and Sean, they started every game last year. Do they know that competition is real?

You know me, man. There is no free pass ever. They are earning everything they get. Those kids, especially L.J., he wouldn’t want it any other way. He’d want maybe a cheeseburger for free, but he doesn’t want any charity. He’s very aware. They’re aware. And we’ll break up the pair during the spring, just to make sure we’ve got the right guys working with the right guys. Guys might work with the twos even though they’re not demoted, just because we want to get some guys with the ones. We’ll mix that up. Just because it happens on the field doesn’t mean the depth chart has changed. You have to find the mix.

So, at the end of the 15 practices, where do you want to be with this defense?

Other than the things we initially talked about, I want to come out feeling that the competition has raised our ability to play and that we’re not the same defense that we were in the fall, that the kids have gotten better at technique because the competition has forced them to hone in on it. I want to be a better tackling defense. I want to make sure we’re attacking the football, better than we did. And those things are quantifiable. The tackling, the taking away the football, they’re quantifiable. And I want to make sure our mojo, our attitude, our morale, is where we want it, that we have the correct swagger about us and hunger. When we walk off the field after practice 15, I want to make sure we come out saying: “Hey, we’re a tough bunch of guys that are going to go out and fight you. No matter who is on the other helmet, whatever name it is, we’re going to respect you, but you’re going to get a mouthful from us.” I think if that’s what happens, we’ll feel like it’s a good spring.