Watch the sideline closely during Cal Poly football games, and you might notice something relatively new about Tim Walsh.
He isn’t wearing a headset and hasn’t been since late last season.
There are times when the fourth-year Mustangs head coach will don the communication device so he can talk to assistant coaches up in the press box, usually during timeouts or other breaks in play.
But as a testament to his confidence in the play-calling of co-offensive coordinator Bryan Cook, who came to San Luis Obispo with Walsh from Army in 2009, Walsh is staying out of the way.
“I can disrupt people in what they’re trying to do. I have that unique ability,” Walsh said with a chuckle. “And I really have believed in my career that if you hire somebody, you need to give them the authority to do their deal and to accept responsibility if it’s not right.
“That’s allowed Bryan to really feel like he’s in control of what’s going on, and I think that’s real important for a coordinator to have.”
Over the past three offseasons, Cook has worked hard to renovate the Walsh version of former Cal Poly head coach Rich Ellerson’s triple option. He’s studied other programs and alternate versions of the scheme and made changes.
This year, the results have been more points, more big gains and an amalgam of option plays that give Cal Poly its own unique offensive identity and Cook a comfortable seat to operate from in the coaches’ booth.
“His leadership on the offense has been instrumental,” Walsh said. “He’s gone out on his own and researched some things that we can do to add to the offense. He’s added to it in a positive way, which still allows us to be who we are.
“His play selection and his play-calling, what he’s seeing in the box, has improved every year, and this year, what he’s looking down at, what he sees, I think he has immediate answers.”
Cook calls the Mustangs’ offense the red-headed stepchild of the triple-option world because their scheme is not related to the Paul Johnson tree that sprouted its roots at Navy, moved along to Georgia Tech and branched out to Georgia Southern.
There really are no remaining architects of Ellerson’s system left at Cal Poly, and the Mustangs have no relation to the option attack at Air Force.
Each year, Cook and the rest of Cal Poly’s staff tweak a playbook that started when he and Walsh were coaching in the Army system in 2008. It has truly molded into something that best fits the personnel and personality of the Mustangs.
“This past offseason, we tried to find ways to get the ball in space and get it to our more explosive players more frequently,” Cook said, “and change up how the defense sees things and what they see.
“As a staff, we understand each other a whole lot better and operate a whole lot more efficiently than we did a few years ago, too.”
Walsh said Cook was one of the first assistants he knew he wanted to bring to town when he got the Cal Poly job in 2009.
Fired along with the rest of Stan Brock’s staff after the 2008 season, Walsh remembers being immediately impressed the first time he met Cook. The head coach of Army’s prep school traveled 90 miles to join the first quarterbacks meeting with Walsh, who was the Black Knights’ new offensive coordinator in 2007.
When Brock made the decision to adopt the triple option for the 2008 season, Cook was included in the process of writing the playbook for the four-year program.
Then the group came to Cal Poly in 2009 and had to adjust to new personnel, new assistants and a new environment.
At times each of the past three seasons, the No. 11 Mustangs (7-0, 5-0 Big Sky Conference) have been criticized for conservative play calls. The offense relied heavily on fullback dives into the heart of the line, and drives were largely plodding efforts.
Walsh himself characterized the offense as being unsuited for quick scores and comeback victories.
This year, with the tweaks to the offense and a trio of influential senior leaders, Cal Poly has bucked that description. The Mustangs have been able to mount comebacks in five of their seven victories, often times pulling away with quick scores late in the second half.
Cal Poly is scoring nearly a touchdown more per game this season, and many of those scores are coming on plays of 20 yards or more.
Senior quarterback Andre Broadous already has as many 30-yard passing plays this season (9) as he did in all of 2011, and that’s with this Saturday’s game at Sacramento State and three more regular-season games still left on the schedule.
As a team, the Mustangs have scored 11 touchdowns on plays longer than 20 yards compared to only eight last season.
Sophomore slotback Cole Stanford has five catches of 30 yards or more. Sophomore receiver Willie Tucker has touchdown catches of 45 and 34 yards.
Whereas last season Cal Poly had to utilize gadget plays for big gains in the passing game, Broadous is responsible for the nine longest pass plays this season.
Three of the top six passing plays in 2011 — all 45 yards or longer — came on halfback passes by Mark Rodgers and David Mahr.
Cook credited the leadership and explosiveness of Broadous, senior center Geoff Hyde and senior slotback Deonte Williams, who has four running plays of 50 yards or more and averages 132.3 yards per game.
But Broadous also said the evolution under Cook has allowed the team to better showcase its abilities.
“We went from huddling up to no-huddle, and the way he did that was brilliant,” Broadous said. “He did that to cater to our talent. He knows we have a lot of speed and a lot of weapons. It’s pretty hard to do, and he did it in less than a year.”