During spring football practice at Bulldog Stadium this week, there were reminders of past victories as well as signs of future success.
One of those reminders walked down the south end zone ramp wearing their trademark dark sunglasses and white Bulldog hat.
Former Fresno State head coach Jeff Tedford, who coached the football team from 2016-19, visited the Bulldogs’ football practice on April 21. He greeted former players with hugs and chatted with his former offensive coordinator and now the Bulldogs’ current head coach Kalen DeBoer.
Together, the pair watched quarterback Jake Haener throw crisp passes to wide receivers in an individual drill.
For a few minutes, the Bulldogs’ past and current head coach stood beside each other — one with a Mountain West championship to his name, the other with aspirations to win his own as a head coach.
If the 2021 Bulldog football team finds such success, a new standout in the secondary may be a big reason why.
Daron Bland has drawn rave reviews in spring camp. The senior cornerback transfer out of Sacramento State earned All-Big Sky conference honors with the Hornets, and his skillset is transferring well with the Bulldogs, according to coaches and teammates.
Cornerbacks coach J.D. Williams said Bland is thriving by “taking advantage of the situation” at that position.
“During the springtime, we’re kind of down numbers, so it’s a situation where he’s going to get more reps than he would normally get,” Williams said. “He’s taking advantage of those with major plays [and] a couple interceptions here and there. I’m pleased with his progress.”
Senior cornerback Wylan Free said he studies every cornerback going through drills in practice, and Bland’s spring performance stands out to him — along with one other Bulldogs.
“I still got to give it to [Bralyn] Lux,” Free said. “He came in as a walk-on, he worked and he improved. Even to this day, he’s improving. So, I’m going to still give it to Lux, but Daron is definitely on his tail.”
Free, Lux, Bland and Randy Jordan are all competing for playing time at cornerback, but Free said the position’s depth has been a team strength since last season.
“One thing that made us able to match up well is our rotation,” Free said. “I felt like the guys who started had backups with just as much experience… we had a nice little rotation [last year] to take guys out and get a breather, and put some other guys in and still be able to get the job done.”
A rotation is key for the Bulldog cornerbacks, especially if they play largely man-to-man coverage like they did last season. Free said he expects the secondary to play man-to-man on 80 to 90 snaps again this season.
That style of defense puts an extra emphasis on safeties to cover the middle of the field, and Fresno State returns last year’s starting free safety and team captain Evan Williams.
When Fresno State ran its first scrimmage on April 19, Williams came away impressed with the secondary’s improvement in tackling since their last game in December, a 49-39 loss where the Bulldogs surrendered 495 total yards.
“I’m pretty proud of how we attack the ball,” Williams said. “That’s been one of our points of emphasis coming into spring ball, just being all about the ball… our safeties do a good job of filling some gaps and running through them.”
Another player receiving praise from coaches and teammates is strong safety Deonte Perry. J.D. Williams noted the importance of Perry’s veteran experience in a safety group where Tulare native L.J. Early is the only other senior.
“He’s become a team leader,” Williams said. “We need that, especially having a young secondary. We have his senior voice, so I’m pleased with his growth as a player and leader.”
Perry, originally signed by Fresno State as a running back, switched to defense in 2020 and started all five games he appeared in as safety.
“When you first convert from offense to defense, it’s difficult because you go from playing forward to backwards,” Perry said. “But now, I love it. I wouldn’t go back.”
The Bulldogs return all but one starter, Reggie Strong, from their defensive back unit in 2020. Given that Fresno State finished sixth in the Mountain West in pass defense last season without a proper spring ball or fall camp season, another year of development could yield major dividends for the Bulldog defensive backs.