With the departure of Pat Hill, change was evident especially on defense where the Bulldogs were for the lack of a better word, awful.
The team struggled against the run and the pass. Turnovers were lacking, and for many games the defense held the offense from competing while they allowed an astounding 35 points per game. This ranked the Bulldogs amongst the worst in the FBS.
Head coach Tim DeRuyter entered into what looked like and unsolvable problem. With a change of scheme, switching the Bulldogs to a 3-4 defense and promising more pressure on the quarterback, the Bulldogs thrived.
The Bulldogs completely turned things around, from being one of the worst defenses in the FBS to the one of the best. The Bulldogs were second in passing defense and turnovers highlighted the season as the Bulldogs were on their way to a Mountain West championship.
Leading the Bulldogs on defense was Jim Thorpe finalist and unanimous first team All-American safety Phillip Thomas who had eight interceptions and scored three touchdowns.
But as the Bulldogs enter spring practice Thomas is not looming in their defensive backfield and key contributors like linebackers Travis Brown, Tristan Okpalaugo, Shawn Plummer and defensive end Anthony Williams are also gone. Therefore spring practice will be a test for the Bulldogs to find answers in key positions to maintain one of the best defenses in the country.
Thomas' production will definitely be missed, but the Bulldogs are not in a state of desperation without him.
The Bulldogs return both corners as well as free safety Derron Smith who finished behind Thomas in interceptions with six. Nevertheless, DeRuyter will have to find someone to fill Thomas' slot. Among them are redshirt freshman Dalen Jones and junior college transfer safety Rodney Mathews. Jones was a scout team standout last fall, and Mathews was one of the more physical tacklers in the country.
The situation up front is of little concern for the Bulldogs as they return two all-conference players, nose guard Tyeler Davison and defensive end Andy Jennings. The Bulldogs also return senior Nikko Motta who started six games for the Bulldogs and played in 12 games recording three sacks. For depth, the Bulldogs also return Todd Hunt and Ben Letcher who each made an impact defensively and can push for playing time in spring.
The real battle in spring on defense will take place at linebacker where two positions have opened up, but there's plenty of talent to fill the holes. Players like Karl Mickelsen got extra playing time after seniors Patrick Su'a and Jeremiah Toma suffered injuries. Mickelsen brings experience and much needed depth to the position especially since Su'a is returning from a season-ending knee injury in 2012. Along with Mickleson, Kyrie Wilson will also provide depth at the position and will compete for a starting spot as he recorded 18 tackles in his redshirt freshman season playing in every game. Inside linebacker will be the thinnest position from a depth perspective, opening the door for incoming freshman 6'3" 250lbs Jeff Camilli (Shingle Springs, CA - Ponderosa) to make an impact.
The defensive unit has the players, but injuries are always a concern especially at the linebacker position. And while the defense may not have the big name stars as it has on offense, the defense can still put up the numbers to be one of the conference's best.
The Bulldogs return all-conference lineman Tyeler Davison and Andy Jennings, while also bringing back the second leading interception leader Derron Smith. The trio will anchor the defense along with linebackers Jeremiah Toma and Patrick Su'a who can also be big play makers on defense if healthy.
Most notably All-American safety Phillip Thomas leaves the Bulldogs and his big play production is something the 2013 squad hopes to replace this season with whoever shows up in camp.
Continuing off the search to replace All-American ability, junior college transfer Rodney Mathews comes in looking to take over at safety. If Mathews can put up similar numbers to those he posted at Citrus College where he won first team All-West conference honors, the Bulldogs should continue their success in pass defense.
Injuries are always a concern, but if the Bulldogs can get fill the voids and get production from players stepping into the spotlight, the Bulldogs can come close to matching their offensive counter part in productivity. If they are able to come close, the Bulldogs are on their way of winning a conference championship.
What's the downside:
The Bulldogs suffer dreaded injuries and production is not replaced while the Bulldogs suffer losses hurting their BCS and Mountain West title dreams.
Stay tuned to FSBulldogs.com for more updates on the 2013 Fresno State football team.
You can follow Rudy Rendon on Twitter at @rendonrudy.