DJ Peluso plays with an edge.
“It’s built into him,” Cal Poly running backs coach Aristotle Thompson said. “Some guys are just wired a little different.”
At 6-foot and 228 pounds, Peluso brings an aggressive style to an already talented Mustangs backfield.
The junior transfer from College of San Mateo joins the fray alongside preseason All-American Kori Garcia and dynamic quarterback Chris Brown — each 1,000-yard rushers in 2014 — and sophomores Joe Protheroe and Kyle Lewis.
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Through the first week of fall practices, Peluso has impressed teammates and coaches at one of the most-relied on positions within the Cal Poly offense.
“We’re looking for him to contribute,” Garcia said, “big time.”
For a team that averaged more than 351 rushing yards per game last season — tops in the FCS and No. 1 in the Big Sky Conference by more than 100 yards — Peluso’s arrival fuels already high expectations within the program.
“DJ Peluso is going to be a good player,” seventh-year head coach Tim Walsh said. “But we’re playing him at maybe our most complex position formation-wise, so therefore assignment-wise, too.”
It’s nothing Peluso can’t handle.
Building the fire
Peluso didn’t receive much recruiting attention following his standout prep career at El Camino High in South San Francisco.
“Not one team” expressed interest, Peluso said.
The former Peninsula Athletic League offensive player and linebacker of the year enrolled in San Mateo, a short drive from his then-home in Millbrae.
San Mateo’s fire technology program was enticing for Peluso, who moved past football to pursue a career as a firefighter in the fall of 2012.
It was his former coach at El Camino, Mark Turner, who got Peluso to revisit the idea of playing in college. Peluso tried out, made the team and used a grayshirt year in 2012.
“If I want to play football, I’m not just going to try to make the team,” Peluso thought. “I’m going to try to be that guy on the team. I took it upon myself to get better in every aspect, even special teams. I got stronger, I got faster, I got smarter.
“That’s what kind of set it off.”
Over the next two seasons, Peluso rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns on the way to earning first-team all-NorCal honors as a sophomore. He made the dean’s list three straight years.
The Mustangs standard
Cal Poly assistant coach Jim Craft recruits the Bay Area for the Mustangs. It was his initial relationship with Peluso that sparked interest and eventually led to him signing a national letter of intent in February.
“He found a gem,” Thompson said, adding it was a bonus San Mateo ran a similar offense to the Mustangs triple-option.
But it wasn’t the selling point.
“That kid could play in any football system,” Thompson said. “He’s a great football player. He has to get there to that greatness, but you can see it in him.”
Under Thompson’s coaching, the Mustangs have produced at least one 1,000-yard rusher each of the past four seasons. Brown and Garcia surpassed that mark in 2014, following Kristaan Ivory (2013), Deonte Williams (2012) and Jake Romanelli (2011) before them.
“We have a level of expectation for the running game here at Cal Poly,” said Thompson, a 2001 Boise State graduate. “Those guys, regardless of it’s their first year or their fifth year, they’re going to be held to that expectation.”
A dream realized
When Peluso says he’s “blessed for the opportunity” to be a Mustang, you believe him. Growing up in the cultural melting pot of South San Francisco instilled humility in the now chiseled 21-year-old.
Peluso and his brother, Nick, and sister, Fabiana, lived with their father and grandfather until Peluso’s sophomore year at El Camino. Following their grandfather’s death in 2008, the three kids moved in with their mother and stepfather in nearby Millbrae.
“Dad had custody of us all our life,” Peluso said. “He kind of moved away and didn’t have the money to live in that area any-more.”
Maturing at an early age “absolutely” helped Peluso develop the blue-collar approach to football that landed him a scholarship offer at Cal Poly.
And it’s been on display all week.
“Everyone has their own story, you know,” Peluso said. “I’m not saying my story is any more special than anyone else’s, but I think the way I was brought up definitely made me who I am today.”