Fresno State’s defense put together one of the most memorable seasons in program history last year as it ranked with the best in the nation.
The ‘Dogs allowed only 14.1 points per game, good for third out of the 130 teams in the FBS. Their success was due in large part to the secondary, which held opponents to a 51.7 completion percentage, fourth in college football.
Despite the fact that two starters left the unit, one to the NFL and the other to graduation, the returning players are the cornerstone of the defense and provide the potential for an even better defensive season for the Bulldogs.
“We expect the same results, if not better,” senior cornerback Jaron Bryant said. “Can’t shoot too high, but that’s what we do. We set the bar high, and we hold each other accountable throughout practices, throughout the game, so that way we know who we are. And we try to be better than last year.”
Along with Bryant, senior strong safety and Hanford native Juju Hughes returns, giving the Bulldogs one of the most experienced defensive partnerships in the country.
The duo came into the program together in 2016 and immediately earned playing time on special teams. They both took over starting positions in 2017. Hughes has started all 28 games since, and Bryant has started 27.
“Coming in we were roommates, so it definitely made our bond better,” Bryant said. We started playing around the same time, so it did help a lot once we all started. It helped us communicate better, and just made us all better in the secondary.”
Two sophomores fill out the rest of the starting spots. Wylan Free is lining up at free safety, and Christ Gaston is at cornerback. It’s the third year in the program for both defensive backs – they redshirted in 2017, their first year in the program.
“[Hughes] and [Bryant] are both helping me out,” Free said. “They had a little bit more time with the defensive playbook, more than anybody else in the defensive back room right now. [Hughes] knows the defense in and out right now, so he’s been helping me along the way as far as what you do in certain formations and checks and calls.”
For Hughes, helping out his teammates and stepping up as a leader is the natural thing to do.
“I was there at one point,” Hughes said. “I was the young guy in the room. I had some great older guys that looked out for me, helped me along the way. I just know how it is for them, so I want to be there for them, help them, show them things that they don’t know about yet.”
The man who ties the secondary together is J.D. Williams. The defensive backs coach praised Bryant and Hughes for their leadership and stressed their importance to the team.
“Those two guys back there – and we’ve got some younger ones back there with them – they’re teaching,” Williams said. “They’re teaching the guys how to practice. They’re teaching the guys how to be players.”
In regards to Free’s transition to safety, Williams said he’s stepped in and is doing a good job.
“He’s got to be the quarterback of the defense,” Williams said. “He’s stepped in that role. There’s some things he can work on still, but he’s accepted his role and he’s trying to thrive with it.”
Coaching the defensive backs at Fresno State is special for Williams. He played cornerback for the Bulldogs from 1986-1989 under former head coach Jim Sweeney.
Williams made multiple All-American teams and was a first round draft pick to the Buffalo Bills in 1990. He played in the NFL for seven years and played in four-straight Super Bowls with the Bills.
He started his coaching career in 1997 as a graduate assistant at Fresno State and also served as the secondary coach for the Bulldogs from 2000-2001.
“It feels really good having somebody with experience at the next level and can tell you what to expect and the do’s and don’ts,” Free said. “He’ll tell us every day we’re out here building habits. So the habits that you build today are going to stick with you throughout life. It feels good having that wisdom coming from somebody like Coach [Williams].”
Williams said he sees parts of himself in his players and works on continuing the culture of the program from the Sweeney days.
“That’s one thing, Coach Sweeney, Pat Hill and Coach Tedford – you’ve got to have some toughness back here,” Williams said. “When we say toughness, it’s physical toughness and mental toughness. The guys are working hard.”
Photo: Fresno State Athletics