This fall camp has a different feel for Cal Poly quarterback Andre Broadous.
For the first time in three seasons, the redshirt junior won’t be battling Tony Smith for the starting spot when football training camp starts Monday at the Upper Sports Complex.
With Smith graduated, Broadous has the keys to the offense — one that could feature more pass-friendly formations than the usual Mustangs’ triple-option attack.
Another position battle, however, will directly affect Broadous’ game.
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“The most important one would be wide receiver,” said Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh, who leads the program into its final season in the Great West Conference before its impending move to the Big Sky in 2012.
After losing NFL undrafted free-agent signee Dominique Johnson, who overwhelmingly led the team in catches and receiving touchdowns each of the past two seasons, Walsh is searching for a go-to target.
Redshirt freshman Lance Castaneda (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) has similar size to Johnson (6-4, 220) and will get the first crack at playing a primary role. Because of a hip injury suffered his senior year at Modesto’s Davis High, Castaneda has not played a full season since 2008, but he has impressed coaches since arriving in San Luis Obispo.
But Walsh isn’t just looking to replace Johnson, the former UCLA transfer who had 47 catches for 634 yards and four touchdowns in 2010. Every receiver who caught a pass last season was also a senior.
The entire unit is in transition, and another player who redshirted last year could join Castaneda in the starting lineup.
Walsh said former junior college transfer Brandon Michalkiewicz has the potential to be a bigger contributor than any of last season’s secondary receivers. Graduated seniors Mike Anderson, Kellen Moriarty and Eric Gardley combined for 15 catches and 122 yards. The only touchdown scored by the trio came on an end-around run by Gardley.
Though just 5-10 and 175 pounds, Michalkiewicz had a standout career at Sierra College, racking up 1,208 yards and 13 touchdowns on 79 catches his sophomore season before redshirting at Cal Poly last year.
Nicknamed “Chalk,” coaches were high on Michalkiewicz last season but knew they might need him more down the road.
“He’s a junior college All-American,” Walsh said. “He’s a proven player. We saw him and we said ‘Hey we think he is a good player. So, why play him in a backup role when we feel like next year he can be a factor player?’ ”
Monday’s 2 p.m. practice session will also be the first look at highly touted true freshman Willie Tucker, who turned down an offer from Nevada for a chance to play right away at Cal Poly.
Tucker led all of the CIF-Sac-Joaquin Section with 114.3 receiving yards per game at El Dorado Hills’ Oak Ridge High last season and had 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns on 55 receptions as a senior.
Coaches have been hoping Tucker could be an immediate threat because they said he runs good routes and has good hands. Walsh will determine Tucker’s playing time based on how well he can block for running backs Mark Rodgers, David Mahr, transfer Deonte Williams and the rest.
“A lot of it is also how he handles not necessarily catching the football and running routes but the physicality in the run game and all the things we ask them to do,” Walsh said.
A couple of converted running backs will also be in the mix. Redshirt freshman Chris Nicholls was moved to provide depth at receiver and will also compete to be Cal Poly’s No. 1 punter.
The bigger impact move could be made by senior Jarred Houston.
Houston is a former Rich Ellerson recruit who has always been a Mustangs sprint standout on the track but hasn’t been able to translate that into football playing time.
A receiver who moved to running back last season and back to receiver this spring, Houston caught six passes for 74 yards and a touchdown as a sophomore in 2009.
“Can you be a playmaker?” Walsh said about the question facing Houston. “We’re hoping that he takes advantage of his opportunities.”
Other receivers on the roster include tall juniors Josh Swaney (6-5) and Ryan Taylor (6-3) and freshmen Jordan Hines and Roland Jackson, who could be redshirt candidates.
Hines is also a standout triple jumper who figures to compete right away for the Mustangs track and field team.
“We’ll make some determinations rather quickly,” Walsh said.