In their second year under head coach Tim Walsh, Cal Poly football players seem almost universally more comfortable.
One thing they weren’t as comfy with as training camp opened Monday at the Upper Sports Complex were their shoes.
The trending talk as players stalked the sidelines seemed to be how painful their pairs of brand-new cleats made their feet on the hot turf. Some were even forced out of action because of it.
But while those aches will go away as the shoes break in, the comfort with Walsh is lasting.
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At this time a year ago, coaches and players were just getting to know each other. Now, the awkward moments are reserved for freshmen.
“It’s almost night and day,” junior cornerback Asa Jackson said. “It’s real nice when you’re coming into camp and you know what you’re going to be dealing with. All the dudes that started in our secondary last year, we all know what to expect and we know the techniques already. We’re that much ahead of the learning curve.”
For Walsh, the difference is communication. He prefers his players to be willing to talk to coaches — even though they may not always agree.
“If they have issues, I don’t want people holding them in,” Walsh said. “I want them to talk to me. That’s the real world, and that’s real life.
“They feel more comfortable talking to us now, and I think that’s healthy.”
As Walsh witnessed last season, mental health is one thing, but physical health — or more precisely a lack thereof — can be a hindrance.
Injuries to the offensive line, running back and a few other select spots on the team had coaches scrambling for inexperienced replacements.
A trio of cornerbacks went down in the spring. Jackson, a two-time All-Great West Football Conference honoree, broke his hand, and leading receiver Dominique Johnson sat out most of spring practice rehabbing from shoulder surgery.
Both were back fully healthy Monday, as were cornerbacks Bijon Samoodi and Brandon Williamson.
The only offensive lineman still out is senior Art Munoz, who broke his leg the second week of last year and had to have a second surgery to repair the leg in the offseason. Munoz is still projected to start at right tackle.
Johnson played most of last season after partially dislocating his shoulder against South Dakota State, and since the offseason surgery limited his mobility, he made sure to concentrate on the task he could perform.
Namely, he hit the weights.
“It feels better now than it did even before I got hurt,” said Johnson, who put on nearly 15 pounds since transferring from UCLA at 206 last year. “I feel stronger, more sturdy and stable.
The real test will come when the team begins practicing in full pads on Friday.
“It’s been about nine months since I’ve done anything physical like that. The hardest thing might be the mental part of that.”
Still working on the mental part of a summer school math course was West Virginia transfer Mark Rodgers. As expected, the junior running back was not with the team Monday but Walsh expects to find out Rodgers’ final results within a week.
Once he earns a passing grade, he should be allowed to practice with the team. If not, he could be forced to redshirt the season.
But finding a replacement would be nothing new for Cal Poly, given the experience the team had with injuries last season.
Senior guard Will Mitchell said, “We’ve got this philosophy now — ‘plug and play’ — where, because of the injuries we had last year, the next guy has to be able to come in and play and we shouldn’t lose a step.”
David Mahr and Jarred Houston would be picking up the slack at running back, and Mitchell said the freshmen offensive linemen, guys like Joe Coleman, Lefi Letugliasenoa and Josh Hines, were in tune with that philosophy.
“The first thing I noticed was their work ethic,” Mitchell said. “I didn’t see anyone out there dragging along. They were really open. These freshmen are really easygoing. They stay loose and adjust. That’s the main thing here. Things change on the fly, and you have to be able to adjust.”