The Last Line of Defense
Free safety Devon Banks has 35 tackles this year, good for third on the team.
Free safety Devon Banks has 35 tackles this year, good for third on the team.

by Aaron DeWall, Fresno State Media Relations

The Bulldogs were facing their second Pac-10 team of the season. After tough losses to Ohio State and UCLA, the `Dogs were home and looking to redeem themselves.

They did.

The Fresno State defense shut down the Cal offense, holding them to just one field goal. One of the strongest threats came when Cal pushed to Fresno State's 30-yardline. Cal took to the air with a pass that looked to be a touchdown, but instead was picked off by senior cornerback Dante Marsh at the Fresno State 5-yard line, eliminating the threat.

Senior Dante Marsh, junior Vernon Fox, junior Tierre Sams, sophomore Marcellus Armstrong and junior Devon Banks are the heart of the Bulldog secondary.

At safety, Fox is the solid leader of the 'Dogs' secondary. He was one of only six players to have over 100 tackles in the WAC last season. This season he has had 29 tackles, including one sack for a 7-yard loss. He has also had one forced fumble and a pass breakup. He is considered one of the most fundamentally sound defensive players on the team.

"My main goal this season is to snatch that ball right out of the air," Fox said. "I went all last season without an interception and I will not do that this season."

After sitting out two full seasons, Banks played in 12 games last season at cornerback and had a total of 32 tackles. Not an anticipated starter, Banks has filled the void left by injured Anthony Limbrick who was chosen first team All-WAC in 1999. Banks stepped up to the job. He is second on the team with 33 tackles, including two pass breakups. Against UCLA, in his first start as a Bulldog, he racked up a career-high 14 tackles.

"It wasn't really a shock to me to play well, but it was kind of a shock to have 14 tackles," Banks said. "I always prepared as if I would start the game. Especially with UCLA. Last year, they beat us up, and I kind of took it to heart and took it personally. I wanted to come back and be ready this year."

As equally impressive as Banks has been Marsh. But solid play this year isn't the only thing the two have in common. Marsh and Banks have been best friends for 11 years, before the days they both starred at McClymonds High School in Oakland, Calif. Marsh started all 13 games last season at cornerback and tied for the team lead with three interceptions. He is currently fifth on the team in tackles with 28, 25 of which were solo. He has become one of the WAC's best cover men. He has three tackles for loss and the one interception against Cal.

Armstrong played running back for the majority of the season last year but switched over to cornerback to play in the final season game against San Jose State. He has a total of six tackles and two pass breakups this season. A Fresno, Calif., native, Armstrong is gradually becoming more accustomed to the cornerback position, as evidenced by his strong performance against Cal.

"I think the competition between us has helped us," Marsh said. "It's been a blessing for me. My fundamentals have gotten a lot better. And with [secondary coach J.D.] Williams helping us, I think we'll continue to get better. He relates well to us and is fun to play for.

Sams is one of the fastest players on the team. He trades off in the cornerback position with Armstrong. Also a stalwart on special teams, he scored a touchdown of a blocked punt at Oregon State last year. He has become a solid cover man and has proven to be a deadly tool against the run.

"We have a lot of pressure on us," Fox said. "What makes us excel is that we all know we can depend on the guy next to us."

"If the ball goes in the air, it becomes our responsibility," Sams said. "One person's mistake on the defense can will cause mistakes for everyone."

Evaluation is also key for the backs. For them to advance in their ability they study themselves on film and there is no popcorn or milk duds for this film. The backs must critically analyze every action they made and learn from every mistake.

"You always see something in the film that you should have done better," Fox said.

"When you watch that film there are no excuses."

With all of this work, it is a wonder they ever go back out on the field. In addition to the physical work involved in practice and weightlifting, these players also have this constant barrage on their minds. They must hate having to go out on that field with all that stress.

Think again. For each of these players the desire to be out on the field consumes them completely. Any negative aspect is immediately erased from their memory. Nothing could take that away from them.

As the soldiers of Bulldog stadium march out of their tunnel and take their places on the battlefield, take note of these defensive backs. A wild fire raging in their eyes, all notions of mercy wiped clean from their minds. The field erupts before them and becomes theirs. Fox leads his fellow backs with his motto of the defense ripping through his mind.

"Offense wins games, but defense wins championships."



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