Jul 16, 2020
Courtesy of Fresno State Atletics

The best defense in the Mountain West is in good hands with Bert Watts

The news broke early in the morning on Feb. 22. My colleague at The Collegian, William Ramirez, motioned toward his computer in class. I shifted my attention to the screen and read the headline.

Fresno State football’s defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer was departing back to his former team in Canada – the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

On one hand, I had suspected it. Yet on the other, I was confused.

I recalled a conversation I had with Steinauer after practice one day during the season. He motioned to a smooth, undisturbed patch of grass and explained to me that above all, being a teacher and a leader was the aspect that can turn a program around, and I believed him.

With his enthusiasm and conviction, I bought in.

Well, his methods proved their worth. Fresno State, with head football coach Jeff Tedford at the helm, won 10 games and boasted one of the best defenses in the Mountain West Conference. They were ranked 15th in the country in total defense by CBSSports.com and were ranked 11th in the country in rushing yards allowed at 113.4 yards per game.

I was shocked at the progress the team made. From a single win the year prior, the Bulldogs completely turned the program around.

Tedford and his team looked only to strengthen their squad for year two until Steinauer’s departure in late February caused somewhat of a stir.

I was worried. I thought that without Steinauer, this defense might take a step back. Along with players departing from the defense like Robert Stanley, losing Steinauer was a blow.

We won games because of our defense. I traveled to San Jose State, and I saw that group punch the Spartans in the mouth on every play. That was who they were throughout the season. They even held the Boise State Broncos to 17 points, twice. They had the best offense in the conference.

When news broke that former linebacker coach Bert Watts was taking over, I felt comfortable. He knows the system. He has the pedigree – he was a defensive coordinator at UC Davis and, most importantly, his linebacker group was sensational all season.   

I had the opportunity to chat with Watts after their spring scrimmage on Saturday, and he talked about his energy and building off the foundation that was set the year prior. I give Tedford credit for giving Watts a chance. He’s already been a great fit for Fresno State.

“I’m always going to be a coach that brings a lot of energy to the group and makes sure that I’m challenging myself every day to get the guys going and excited about what we’re doing to make every day a valuable day,” Watts said after the scrimmage.

Watts left an opening at the linebackers coach spot, but luckily for the Bulldogs, Tedford was able to lean on his connections and hire Kenwick Thompson.

Thompson formerly served as the linebackers coach at Cal with Tedford for six years plus, he was their recruiting coordinator. However, recently, Thompson held the position of defensive coordinator for the San Jose State Spartans and the East Carolina Pirates.

Like Watts, Thompson’s energy and knowledge will bring a fresh perspective to one of the MWC’s best linebacking corps. Jeffrey Allison, James Bailey and George Helmuth headline the group.

In a news release, Tedford said the addition would have a positive effect.

“I worked with Kenwick for a long time at Cal, and his knowledge of the game is excellent,” Tedford said. “And there’s a lot of similarities with some of our schemes with coach Watts, which helps them be familiar with each other in that way. It was a really good fit. A good opportunity to bring in a great person who I trust and has a lot of knowledge and is a great mentor to the student-athletes.”

Tedford’s ringing endorsement says it all.

The Bulldogs also gained a 10th coaching assistant spot this season from the NCAA, promoting former quality-control specialist Lucas Gingold. He will assume the role of on-field assistant coach and focus on recruiting and other areas.

Heading into the summer, the Bulldogs can now put their search behind them and focus on reclaiming the MWC.

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