The Cal Poly football team carried on its longstanding tradition of recruiting the top high school prospects on the Central Coast when St. Joseph High School standouts CJ Cole and Fenton Will each signed a National Letter of Intent to play for the Mustangs this week.
It was another good haul for head coach Tim Walsh and his assistants, who put together an 18-person class that ranks among the most talented in recent program history. Both Cole, a versatile running back and sharp route runner, and Will, a decorated linebacker with a nose for the football, grew up making the trip north from Santa Maria to watch Cal Poly play on Saturdays.
“We always dreamed about playing at the next level after high school,” Will told the Santa Maria Times during a National Signing Day ceremony at St. Joseph High on Wednesday. “But we never could’ve imagined playing together at the same college.”
It’s a dream several Central Coast natives have realized over the last half-decade.
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Since 2012, Cal Poly has devoted many of its roster spots to local high school standouts and has had 10 such players on the roster for three consecutive seasons.
Players such as Atascadero graduate Weston Walker and former Arroyo Grande High standout Kelly Shepard developed into all-Big Sky Conference performers during their time with the Mustangs.
The 2017 team could include at least six other Central Coast natives in addition to Cole and Will. Three former Arroyo Grande players dot the roster in defensive back Bradley Mickey, linebacker Grant Alton and offensive lineman Josh Day. Nipomo graduate Peyton Witcher (defensive back), Templeton alumnus Ross Berry (offensive line) and former San Luis Obispo star Jack Ferguson (defensive line) also give Cal Poly plenty of local flair.
“A lot of people contribute to where we are to make this all happen and I’m really proud of who we are and what we are,” Walsh said. “… We have young men that are committed to the whole of what this university stands for and that’s another thing that makes it easy for us.”
The 6-foot, 182-pound Cole was one of the first members of the 2017 recruiting class to give a verbal commitment to the Mustangs. During his senior season at St. Joseph, Cole rushed for 1,067 yards and 11 touchdowns, averaging more than 8 yards per carry. The Los Padres League Offensive Back of the Year was at his best during a 22-carry, 305-yard performance against Pioneer Valley in mid-October.
Cole also is a proven wide receiver and could fit into a slot back role similar to veteran Kyle Lewis.
“Any time you get a chance to sign the best offensive player from your back yard to stay home, you’ve got to be excited about that,” running backs coach Aristotle Thompson said. “Really, he is a Cal Poly guy through and through.”
The same can be said for Will, who garnered Los Padres League Defensive Back of the Year honors during the fall. The 6-foot, 200-pound inside linebacker was a three-year starter and made 266 careers tackles with 26.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks under head coach Dustin Davis.
Cal Poly defensive coordinator Josh Brown said Will is a “true inside linebacker” who could potentially play one of the outside positions in the Mustangs’ 3-4 defense later in his career.
“The thing that I like about him the best is his football IQ is off the charts,” said Brown, who also coaches the linebackers at Cal Poly. “He understands the game, he understands coverage and he plays hard and he’s really physical.”
Cole said he plans to pursue a degree in viticulture at Cal Poly, and Will is interested in studying construction management. The two prep teammates also play to live together during their freshmen year and continue building on the bond they forged growing up in Santa Maria.
“I think they’re both phenomenal fits for what Cal Poly does on both sides of the ball,” Davis told the Santa Maria Times. “… But I told them they’re not seniors anymore. They’re freshmen. The need to get ready to work. It’s a fun job, but it’s still a job when you get to that level. And they understand that.”