Four games into 2018, Fresno State was 3-1 and on its way to 12-2 and a Mountain West Conference championship.
Justin Rice had a solid role in all of that, playing on all of the Bulldogs’ special teams units and as a backup linebacker to three highly productive players. He had the skill set, football instincts and versatility to play at the Mike behind Jeff Allison, the Will behind George Helmuth and the Sam behind James Bailey, and did.
But barring injury, those three starters weren’t coming off the football field, so the junior from Modesto took advantage of an NCAA rule change that allowed a player to participate in any four games and still retain a redshirt season.
He took a strategic step backward so that he could have two full seasons in a larger role with the defense. This spring and repping only at the Will linebacker spot, it is looking like a solid move for the Bulldogs and for Rice.
“He’s doing a good job,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “He’s picking it up well. He’s moving around well. He’s making plays.”
Rice said that going into 2018 he expected to be a backup and play on special teams, but, “Coach Tedford and I sat down and we talked about, ‘Get the four games in, get some experience, and if we can, no injuries, let’s put you on the shelf for next year.
“It gave me more time to learn, especially under the guys that were there, Jeff, James and George. It gave me a really opportunity to learn the position, learn the ins and outs of the defense, and obviously when you redshirt you go against the offense all year so going against the No. 1 offense the whole year really helps.”
Most experienced linebacker
Rice is the most experienced player in the position group with Mykal Walker moving this spring to Mike linebacker from defensive end and Arron Mosby toward the end of last season moving to Sam linebacker from safety.
He is working from a solid base within a defense that made huge strides in 2017 and again last season, developed through film sessions with Helmuth back in the fall.
“He was really good at knowing the defense and knowing what he was going to get, knowing the offensive scheme,” Rice said. “When he was in a certain position, he knew what he was going to get from the offense, so it helped him play faster.
“Just being able to talk with him about that, knowing what an offense can do to you in a certain coverage or blitz, it helped a lot. Every time I watched film with him I’d be like, ‘Why did you do this? Why did you do that?’ He’d go through and explain it.”
Share the knowledge
Linebackers coach Kenwick Thompson said having Rice share that kind of knowledge will be important.
“He has been around here a while and he has a lot or reps,” Thompson said. “He’s probably the most knowledgeable as far as knowing the playbook, knowing what’s going on, knowing what to do.
“Those other guys out there, they kind of look to him for his knowledge. How smart he plays is a big part of who he is. He has a knack for finding his way to the ball.”
The Bulldogs will count on that in the fall with all three linebackers when trying to build on a defense that last season led the Mountain West Conference in passing defense, total defense, scoring defense and red zone defense.
Center Sampson returns to field
Center Tyrone Sampson, who was expected to miss a big chunk if not all of the spring due to an injury, took part in some individual drills on Wednesday.
“He’s getting better, starting to work back into some things a little bit,” Tedford said. “ We’ll see how he responds and get him some treatment next week and then get him going the last couple of weeks, at least the last week for sure.”
The center position is one of the Bulldogs’ largest question marks this spring after losing seniors Markus Boyer and Micah St. Andrew.
▪ Rice as a true freshman running back in 2016 burned a redshirt to play in six of the final seven games in a 1-11 season.
▪ With cornerback Jaron Bryant along a handful of players out with the flu, the Bulldogs are getting a chance to get additional reps to the younger players in that group including Chris Gaston, Deonte Perry and Deshawn Ruffin, the freshman from Sunnyside High.
“Ruffin is going to be a good one,” defensive backs coach J.D. Williams said. “He’s a freshman, but I’m excited to see him in the first scrimmage and see what happens.”
▪ Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Leonard Payne was taking some reps at defensive end on Wednesday, and could get work at both positions through the spring.
“We’ll see how our team ends up shaking out, see where we need him the most as we keep progressing,” Tedford said.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada