Editor’s Note: This is the first of four articles looking at each of the four quarterbacks in the running to become Cal Poly’s starter for 2013.
At his lowest moment, Vince Moraga wondered whether football was in his future.
Up until last season, his growth curve at Cal Poly was more like a dotted line — one year lost to back surgery and another spent ineligible after an NCAA drug test.
But after a comeback year as the Mustangs’ primary backup quarterback, the Oxnard native is in the hunt to become the next starter.
He played only sparingly last year behind Andre Broadous, but on weeks when the senior was nursing minor injuries — which was not uncommon in Cal Poly’s physical run-oriented offense — Moraga got the first-team repetitions in practice.
The oldest of four quarterbacks in a wide-open competition, which also includes sophomore Chris Brown, redshirt freshman Tanner Trosin and sophomore Air Force transfer Dano Graves, Moraga also has the most experience with The Mustang Way.
“My game mostly runs around my ability to manage the offense,” said Moraga, a junior. “The triple option, that’s where the offense starts. Understanding all of the fronts we’re going to see, that’s definitely my advantage.”
As Cal Poly conducts spring practice this month, it was two years ago, the spring leading into his redshirt freshman season, that Moraga was ruled ineligible.
He had just completed spring practice confident that he had earned a shot to travel as the third-stringer in the fall when results indicated he had failed a drug test.
Moraga said he was never told what substance triggered the result, but he figured one of the weight-lifting supplements he was taking included a banned ingredient he was unaware of.
He said he went into the test without even the slightest worry but spent the next year feeling more like a team manager than a player.
“The entire year,” Moraga said, “I would just come to practice. I would film practice and film games. It was a weird experience for me because I felt like I wasn’t part of the team. It was something really hard to go through. A lot of times I felt myself thinking, do I really want to go on with this? Is football something I really want to pursue? It was hard to get through that year, but I’m glad I got through it.”
By the start of last season, Moraga was back in good standing, and through the course of the year, he became the quarterback who played with the second unit in blowout games.
In those situations, Moraga passed only twice, completing one attempt for 16 yards. He also ran 10 times for 76 yards.
“Vince manages the offense really well, is really good under center and does great things with our quarterback run stuff,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said. “We’ve got to make sure he does what we need him to do as far as throwing it, durability and taking care of the football.”
Durability was a big question with Moraga early on.
When he arrived in San Luis Obispo in 2009, Moraga was one of three quarterbacks in his recruiting class at Cal Poly, one whipped up post-haste by the incoming Walsh.
Walsh had less than a month to organize a signing class after replacing former coach Rich Ellerson in early January. He dropped some of Ellerson’s recruiting targets and stayed on the trail of some others, Moraga included.
Of the trio of quarterbacks, including Kenny Johnston and Duke DeLancellotti, who eventually transferred and is now a senior at Texas State, Moraga’s passing statistics from Oxnard Pacifica High were the least gaudy.
He threw for 1,701 yards and ran for 694 and 11 touchdowns, but he had just five passing TDs and seven interceptions.
And though he didn’t know it yet, it turned out he was damaged goods.
Moraga suffered some chronic back pain in high school, pain nagging enough it forced him to stand up during class the spring of his senior year.
Early in his first fall camp with Cal Poly, he aggravated the injury, and doctors advised him to have surgery to correct a slipped disk or risk future clearance to play.
Moraga never attended college classes that first fall, returned home to have surgery and enrolled as a grayshirt in the spring after six months of rehab.
He hasn’t had any physical setbacks in the three years since and says he’s 100 percent healthy.
“If you ever see me play, you’ll never see me slide,” Moraga said. “I love contact.”