In a departure from his expressed preference to redshirt incoming freshmen, Cal Poly football coach Tim Walsh has been telling this year’s recruits that they should come in prepared to play.
Coming off a 4-7 season, the Mustangs’ worst since finishing 3-8 in 2003, Walsh is looking for help turning things around from newcomers.
One of those, as it turns out, is local product K.J. Cusack — the St. Joseph High touchdown machine who led the Knights to school records for wins and longest winning streak.
Cusack said he made a nonbinding verbal commitment to accept an athletic scholarship from Cal Poly this week, nearly two months before signing day. The NCAA prohibits college coaches from commenting on recruits before they sign national letters of intent.
During the recruiting process, the 5-foot-10, 160-pound running back and return specialist just assumed Walsh would want him to redshirt.
“He said, ‘Wait, hold up there. We want you to come in and compete,’ ” said Cusack, an Arroyo Grande resident. “We’re going to make the best players play. We’re not going to do senior priority. We’re going to play the best players, so if you come in to camp and show you can handle the college level, you can have a good chance of playing some plays on offense.”
But the chance at early playing time isn’t the biggest reason Cusack is ready to become a Mustang.
During a season in which he scored 33 touchdowns, rushed for 1,845 yards and averaged 25.2 yards per punt return, Cusack attracted scholarship offers from Football Bowl Subdivision schools Air Force, Miami of Ohio and Army, as well as Football Championship Subdivision teams Portland State and Sacramento State.
He said he respects the military academies but did not want to make a military commitment. What separated Cal Poly from the other candidates was Cusack’s comfort with the coaching staff.
“Mostly, the recruiting coaches pushed you to make your decision,” Cusack said. “Cal Poly just sat back and let you get the whole recruiting experience. When I went up there for one of the games, the coaches took me around and showed me the school. They were more welcoming than everyone else.”
Cusack led St. Joseph to a 12-1 record and the semifinals of the CIF-Southern Section Northwest Division playoffs, where the Knights were ousted by Serra, and Cusack left the game with a concussion.
Cusack said he was playing against Serra with a broken big toe he suffered in the previous week’s game and also was limited earlier in the season by a shoulder separation, which he said is fine now.
If the injuries bring up questions of how Cusack will be able to handle the physicality at the college level, St. Joseph coach Mike Hartman answered them.
“He held up fine for a guy who was a primary ballcarrier,” Hartman said. “We’re an I-back team most of the time, so it’s a different kind of running. In the spread option at Cal Poly, you’re not going to take the same types of hits that he took in our offense. Plus in our offense, he was playing defense and he never got a rest. He’ll be fine. He’s a tough kid. He’s a hard worker … He’s going to be a very big player for them.”
Cusack carried the ball 134 times, averaging a state-leading 13.77 yards per carry according to MaxPreps.com’s statistical rankings, numbers that would look good in Cal Poly’s triple-option offense.
Even if Cusack has no experience playing in the scheme, the pitches designed to get runners the ball in space would be within his comfort zone.
“That’s where he excels, and he catches the ball well,” Hartman said. “They’ll have him be a receiver as well.
“I hope they get him into the special teams, especially early, because he’s a dangerous return guy. He just sets up his blocks so well, and he’s just a smart returner. Anytime you get him the ball in the open field, good things are going to happen.”