Fresno State took a hit with the loss of Sam linebacker Kesomi Mafi, who suffered a season-ending knee injury at Alabama.
The junior college transfer was No. 2 on the depth chart, and though he joined the team during fall camp and was in a rush learning a new position he was expected to see a good number of snaps on Saturdays this fall.
“He was another guy that was new and each week was trying to learn the whole thing, but a very good football player so we’ll miss him,” coach Jeff Tedford said.
So what now for the Bulldogs?
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Making the transition from end to backer and playing in space, there’s a learning curve there, but he has the ability to do it. He’s long. He’s fast. He can cover a lot of ground.
Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford
Senior Justin Green remains at the top of the depth chart at Sam and sophomore Justin Rice moves up to No. 2, but a position in transition will more or less stay that way.
Green had started fall camp as a defensive end, Rice last season as a freshman was playing running back before moving to defense in the spring and Mafi had come to Fresno State after playing as a strong safety at Laney College.
There is a learning curve there, for all of them.
The Bulldogs could face some challenges from the strong rushing teams on their schedule – Green is listed at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, Rice at 6-2 and 210 – including No. 6 Washington on Saturday in Seattle.
But Green, a true senior who came out of a redshirt season as a freshman in the seventh game of the year to try to add some life to the Bulldogs’ pass rush, has turned some timely plays in his career while playing limited roles.
He recovered a fumble in the fourth quarter of a 38-24 victory over San Jose State in 2014 that effectively ended that game. He had a fourth-down sack at the Bulldogs 32-yard line with 1:27 remaining to preserve a 31-28 victory over UNLV in 2015.
And, he is liking the fit at Sam in the Bulldogs’ 4-3 and playing in space after lining up more as situational a pass rush specialist in a 3-4 his first three seasons and then taking reps at defensive end in the spring and start of fall camp.
Green said not to discount those reps at defensive end against the run game.
“It helped tremendously,” he said. “Being with the line, you learn how to be a hog, just really working and being physical. … You’re not afraid to use your face and stuff. You know how physical you have to be.
Being with the line, you learn how to be a hog, just really working and being physical … you’re not afraid to use your face and stuff. You know how physical you have to be.
Fresno State linebacker Justin Green, who was a defensive end at the start of fall camp
“Size is really just mentality. Yeah, you see some bigger people. We just played Alabama. If you play hard it really doesn’t matter, just play harder than the person in front of you. It hasn’t affected me yet – I’m starting.”
If there is a transition for the senior, it may be more in pass coverage.
“As long as you play with pad level and leverage and you play 100 percent, go full speed, then he’ll be fine to do that,” Tedford said. “There are a lot of Sam backers out there that aren’t much bigger than that. But he’s used to contact. It’s not like he’s coming from a safety to play a Sam or anything like that. He’s used to playing in the front seven.
“He was playing defensive end before. I think making the transition from end to backer and playing in space, there’s a learning curve there, but he has the ability to do it. He’s long. He’s fast. He can cover a lot of ground. I think the more reps he gets in there he’ll adjust to certain things we want him to do.”
The reps on Saturday at Washington are to be determined – Green started both halves at Alabama but played about the same number of snaps as Mafi before he was injured in the third quarter planting his foot awkwardly when trying to bring down running back Najee Harris. Rice picked up there, coming in on the next play, a third-and-goal, and helped plug a gap while Mike linebacker Jeffrey Allison took down Harris.
Rice played the majority of snaps to finish the game.
“They’ll switch off in there, depending on what’s going on,” Tedford said. “We’ll keep evaluating them each day. Like anything, everything is competitive. They have to practice well, just like anyone else.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
On to Seattle
FRESNO STATE AT WASHINGTON
- Opening kickoff: 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Husky Stadium (capacity 70,138)
- Records: Bulldogs 1-1, Huskies 2-0
- TV: Pac-12 Network
- Season-opening results: Fresno State defeated Incarnate Word 66-0 at home and lost at No. 1 Alabama 41-10; No. 6 Washington won at Rutgers 30-14 and defeated Montana 63-7 at home
- Head-to-head: Fresno State and Washington meet for the fourth time, all in Seattle and all in September. Washington won 49-14 in 1979 and 21-20 in 2006. Fresno State won 35-16 in 2004.
- Local connection: Ricky McCoy is a Washington redshirt sophomore defensive lineman out of Roosevelt High. McCoy (6-2, 292) played in two games in 2016 but has yet to see time in 2017.
- More online: Check out Robert Kuwada’s updates and video at fresnobee.com/bulldogs or download the Bulldog Buzz mobile app