Like any senior should, Lefi Letuligasenoa knows what he needs to do. Cal Poly football head coach Tim Walsh knows what his three-year starter at left guard can do.
On Saturday, “can” and “need” for Letuligasenoa and several others will meet at Alex G. Spanos Stadium without much full-contact lead-in time.
Left guard Mike Freeman suffered a gruesome lower leg fracture in last year’s homecoming game. Left tackle Giovanni Sani broke his foot during spring drills. And Letuligasenoa had offseason shoulder surgery.
Those three seniors form the nucleus of the Cal Poly football team’s veteran offensive line, one with high expectations a year after it helped pave the way for the third-highest team rushing average in the FCS.
After successfully rehabbing those injuries, the trio is healthy enough to start Saturday’s 4 p.m. season-opener against visiting San Diego, Walsh said, but to do so, they were also held out of full contact situations for nearly the entire preseason training schedule.
They’re confident they can jell quickly against the Toreros, a nonscholarship FCS program they pulled away from in the fourth quarter of last year’s opener for a 41-14 victory in the first of a seven-game winning streak to start the season.
It won’t however, be automatic.
“In the film rooms, I know what I need to do when I’m out there,” Letuligasenoa said. “It’s a matter of mental concentration to know what you need to do and how you need to step.
“It’s the little things that can make a big difference, things as simple as your foot placement. It’s little things that can kill you. You make a wrong step or take the wrong angle, you’ll lean too much one way, and you’ll fall over and mess a play up.”
Ranked No. 14 by the media and 11th by the coaches in the preseason polls, Cal Poly heads into this week expecting to be without one projected starter on each side of the ball.
Sophomore guard Kyle Zottneck, a returning starter, was lost for the season with a shoulder injury. The versatile Freeman will move from tackle to guard, allowing coaches to start former Atascadero High standout Weston Walker at right tackle, where he filled in after Freeman’s injury last fall.
Walsh said junior linebacker Cameron Ontko will sit with a knee injury that isn’t expected to keep him out too long. Senior Xavier Ramos is in line to initially move into the starting spot vacated by the graduation of Kennith Jackson.
And although several players battling for playing time have also gone down, the Mustangs have helped keep much of the starting lineup intact by limiting contact for recuperating established players.
For a time, that list also included senior captain and defensive tackle Sullivan Grosz, who sat out the lone training camp scrimmage with an injury suffered when a teammate fell on his foot in the first week of training camp.
Grosz said he could have played in the Aug. 17 scrimmage had it been a game week, but at 80 percent, coaches decided to hold him out.
Grosz said Walsh’s injury management style has evolved since his first year in the program in 2009, also Walsh’s first season as the Mustangs’ head coach.
Walsh is more willing to ease up on some contact if it means having a healthier team on Saturdays.
“On gameday, it’s a whole different beast,” Grosz said. “You come out on the field, and you know you’re set.
“Coach Walsh would never do that if he thought we were soft. Gameday, we know how to turn the light switch on. Come Saturday, if we come out soft, I know we’ll have full-padded practices all week.”
The three senior offensive linemen all participated in full-contact practices Monday and Tuesday and will have another one scheduled for today.
Letuligasenoa said the few snaps he played in the scrimmage did knock off much of the rust that had accumulated over the course of the offseason, and this week’s preparation has been helpful in that area, too.
Any other adjustments to the speed and contact of a game situation will have to come Saturday.
“My hope would be,” Walsh said, “being fifth-year seniors and being as experienced as they are, that would happen the first drive.
“They know what to expect. It’s just a matter repetition. I think they’ve gotten some good repetition this week, and I think they’ll be ready to play.”