When Cal Poly begins its fall football camp Monday afternoon at the Upper Sports Complex, seventh-year head coach Tim Walsh won’t be concerned with making drastic changes.
The Mustangs have less than a month to prepare for a season that includes the most rigorous schedule in Walsh’s tenure, an offense returning nine starters and a defense with several unknowns.
Senior quarterback Chris Brown returns to lead Cal Poly’s triple-option offense that led the nation in rushing for the second consecutive season on the way to a 7-5 record in 2014.
Walsh said the dynamic Brown was “sensational” as a junior, when he became the first Mustangs quarterback to rush and pass for more than 1,000 yards in the same season. “What we do on offense is unique and it causes lots of teams lots of problems,” Walsh said. “… We don’t want to lose our identity.”
Replacing first-team all-Big Sky Conference linebackers Cameron Ontko and Nick Dzubnar will be a key focus for a Mustangs defense needing to replace six starters.
Seniors Burton De Koning and Tu’tua Inoke open camp atop the depth chart at the inside linebacker spots, and junior Joseph Gigantino hopes to build off a strong spring as the third starter.
The linebacker group, which Walsh said might be deeper than 2014, will be one of several story lines to follow during fall camp. Here are four others:
Deep, talented wide receiver group
Returning starters Jordan Hines and Roland Jackson Jr. give Brown two proven targets. Jackson led the team in receiving with 415 yards last season, averaging nearly 38 yards per reception.
The return of fifth-year senior Willie Tucker is intriguing for Walsh, who said the Mustangs could feature some three-wide receiver sets this season.
Tucker suffered a season-ending knee injury five games into the 2013 season and missed all of 2014 to continue recovering. The sure-handed senior has caught 60 passes for 11 touchdowns during his career.
“We’re just hoping that he can be a guy that can give us everything that we think we need,” Walsh said, “in every role that we ask him to play in.”
Junior Carson Murphy (6-foot-4) and Purdue transfer Alex Egurbide (6-6) bring some additional size to the position group.
Filling holes up the middle
No one player will make up for the loss of Ontko and Dzubnar.
Dzubnar, currently in training camp with the San Diego Chargers, led the Mustangs in tackles three straight years, including a school-record 167-tackle performance during his All-America senior season.
With De Koning, Inoke and Gigantino listed as starters, Walsh said transfers Charlie Davis (Laney College) and Chris Santini (Boise State), and redshirt freshman Noah Letuligasenoa also will be expected to contribute.
“It’s kind of like running back,” Walsh said. “We’re going to have a 1,000-yard rusher because the offense is designed to do that. On defense, we’re going to have a 100-tackle guy.
“It’s just a matter of who it’s going to be and where he’s going to make those tackles.”
The four-man defensive line depth chart includes senior Logan Mayes and junior Kelly Shepard at the ends, along with junior Marcus Paige-Allen and sophomore Augustino Elisaia at the tackle positions.
Cal Poly also must replace graduated all-Big Sky safeties Dave Douglas and Jordan Williams. Seniors Kaulin Blair and B.J. Nard are listed as the fall camp starters, and Washington State transfer Kevin Griffin is expected to be in the mix as well.
Brown’s progress report
Coming off a season in which he passed for 1,465 yards and ran for 1,265 more, Brown is the Mustangs undisputed leader.
Walsh said the senior has improved each year since he arrived on campus. If Brown is able to take another step this fall, Walsh believes he could be considered for the Walter Payton Award by the end of the season.
“On top of that, I think he’s matured as a guy,” Walsh said. “His leadership qualities have really, I think, he’s demonstrated them and really truly become the voice of who we’re going to be in 2015.”
Fellow senior quarterback Dano Graves, who served as Brown’s backup last season, could be in line to redshirt this fall and have the inside track to the starting job in 2016. Walsh said a redshirt season is on the table and largely predicated on Brown’s status, but there’s “no guarantee” entering fall camp.
Tough sledding, injury update
Few teams in the FCS will play a more demanding schedule than Cal Poly.
The Mustangs open their season against No. 12-ranked Montana in Missoula, and go to Tempe, Ariz., to play Pac-12 opponent Arizona State during Week 2. Cal Poly then plays four consecutive opponents ranked in the top 25 of the preseason FCS coaches’ polls.
Cal Poly hosts No. 10 Northern Iowa, goes to No. 11 Montana State, hosts No. 24 Idaho State and travels to Cheney, Wash., to take on three-time defending Big Sky champion Eastern Washington.
On the injury front, Walsh said running back and punter Elias Stokes is still recovering from a non-contact knee injury suffered in the spring and he could miss the season opener.
Junior running back Kori Garcia, who broke a bone in his foot in April, “should be totally cleared by mid-August” and will be limited to non-contact drills until then.
Offensive lineman and former Templeton High standout Ross Berry has been ruled out for the season after undergoing a second surgery on the leg he broke last fall.
Sophomore lineman Miles Williams also will miss the season after rupturing his Achilles tendon during offseason workouts in the weight room.