Jono Grayson said he wasn’t worried about getting hurt. Then the Cal Poly running back rapped his fist on the interview table.
Mustangs coach Tim Walsh quickly followed suit from one chair over as Grayson continued to talk under an interview tent outside of Spartan Stadium following Cal Poly’s 19-9 loss at San Jose State on Saturday.
They had reason to “knock on wood.” Both Jon Hall and Jordan Yocum, running backs who starred in the first two games for the Mustangs (1-2), missed the third one.
No one had the heart to point out that both player and coach were pounding on a plastic fold-away.
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“If you think about getting hurt, you get hurt,” Grayson said. “You start to slow down and things come your way and you start looking for hits and anticipating hits. You have to just play and you can’t think about that.”
Grayson looked anything but slow in his breakout game against the Spartans. The 5-foot-7, 170-pound senior ran 15 times for a career-high 138 yards, including a 53-yard touchdown run that gave the Mustangs a 6-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
Coming into the game, Grayson had just 16 yards and no scores on five carries — numbers some expected to be much better now that he was in the starting lineup full-time.
Each of the past two seasons, the Marin City native was a primary backup who had some impressive games when he was pressed into action.
When James Noble went down with a broken hand last year, Grayson stepped in and rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns at South Dakota State, the team the Mustangs will face at home this Saturday.
In 2007, Grayson had three more spot starts, rushing for 127 yards on 15 carries against Northern Colorado and scoring his only two rushing touchdowns of the season in a win over UC Davis.
With former starters Noble and Ryan Mole gone, Grayson appeared ready to step right in.
But an offseason quadriceps injury jeopardized Grayson’s playing time as a nearly all-new coaching staff was evaluating the roster for the first time.
Grayson missed pretty much all of spring practice, and his status entering the season was up in the air. He is conspicuously absent from the front cover of the Mustangs’ media guide, which features portraits of seven other players.
“I’ve never been concerned with being hurt,” Grayson said. “Initially, during spring, I pulled a quad, but aside from that, knock on wood, I’ve been able to stay healthy.”
Yocum, who took a pounding as he collected career highs with 27 carries and 130 yards against Ohio, sounded similar after the Bobcats game, saying that he was sore but would be fine by the following Monday. Coaches ended up keeping Yocum out of the San Jose State game to give his bruised hip extra time to heal. Yocum’s replacement Saturday, redshirt sophomore and former Templeton High standout Jake Romanelli filled in with 10 carries for 37 yards but committed a costly fumble deep in Cal Poly territory that led to the Spartans’ clinching score.
Yocum “could have played tonight,” Walsh said, “but to me the tradeoff was if he’s 85 percent and gets nicked up and goes backward to 70 percent, you lose him for two more weeks. We have a tremendous amount of confidence in Jake Romanelli, and that’s the decision. If we didn’t have to play him, we weren’t going to play him.”
Hall missed the game with a tear in his meniscus, which he said last week would require arthroscopic surgery that would keep him out another week or two.
Even with Hall and Yocum sitting, Cal Poly had success running to the outside, something the Mustangs struggled mightily to do against Ohio.
Grayson and fellow slot back Jaymes Thierry combined for zero yards on three carries against the Bobcats. Thierry had 27 yards on three carries against San Jose State, and most of his and Grayson’s yards came on runs around the edge.
Walsh chalked it up to improved blocking by the running backs, who were opening up better seams for each other on option pitches to the outside.
“Coming down and just executing, finishing blocks,” Grayson said. “Running up the middle sets up the perimeter and passing sets up the perimeter. Just playing well all around on offense opens up everything.”