While most of the attention might be on the four-way quarterback battle at Cal Poly football training camp, it’s the defense that aims to make the biggest impact once play begins.
Senior defensive tackle Sullivan Grosz and senior linebacker Johnny Millard lead a defensive unit that lost just two starters and maintained more stability than an offense replacing its most utilized skill players and an offensive coordinator.
Cal Poly already had the second-stingiest defense in the Big Sky Conference during a 9-3 season last year that included a share of the Big Sky Conference title.
There’s little reason to believe the Mustangs shouldn’t be as good or better on defense.
“It’s limitless,” said Grosz, a 6-foot-4, 295-pound three-year starter from Fresno’s San Joaquin Memorial High. “We have extreme potential. It’s just knowing that and using it to our advantage. … In case the offense needs a boost, we’re there, three-and-out.
“No matter what, we need to be the strongest point of our team right now.”
After the fourth day of practice at the upper fields of the Cal Poly Sports Complex on Thursday, the Mustangs are finally ready to don full pads for the first time today.
Head coach Tim Walsh said the bulk of evaluating the quarterbacks — junior Vince Moraga, sophomore Chris Brown, redshirt freshman Tanner Trosin and sophomore Air Force transfer Dano Graves — will happen during the next week, culminating with a scrimmage Aug. 17 where each is expected to get 25 plays.
The first two days of practice were non-padded. The past two have been in shoulder pads and shorts. On Thursday, the closest the team came to a game situation were 7-on-7 situations where linemen such as Grosz were off on another side of the field instead of pressuring the quarterbacks.
“We really have to see the full contact,” Walsh said. “The one thing I do know is it’s competitive as heck, and their attitude has been phenomenal as far as the competition factor.
“I probably could make comments by the end of the week. Full-padded practices will be a better indicator.”
Cal Poly is scheduled for full-contact practices today and Saturday, but the offense will be without senior slotback Cole Stanford and junior receiver Willie Tucker, two starters with minor injuries who are expected to return to practice Monday.
Stanford was pacing the sideline in a walking boot on his right foot after spraining his ankle jumping for a pass earlier in the week.
Walsh said Stanford landed on a defender’s foot and rolled his ankle.
Tucker, who led the Mustangs with 28 catches for 517 yards and seven touchdowns last season, has yet to practice because of a chronic foot injury.
Tucker said he feels pain in the balls of his foot after each season, but after last year, the soreness bled into the spring and his foot gave out during an uphill conditioning run in the week following the spring game.
What turned out to be extreme inflammation in the cesmoid bone in his foot did not heal quickly enough on its own over the summer.
Tucker said he was given a cortisone shot to lessen the pain, and the rest of his season will hinge on the management of that pain.
Neither he nor Walsh expect Tucker to be out long.
Certainly, the quarterbacks would like to have both Tucker and Stanford back when the competition heats up next week.
As for the rest of the team, the quarterback situation does not seem to be much of a distraction.
“I don’t think it is as much for the team as it is for the quarterbacks,” Tucker said, “just so they can know if they have to get more reps. But as a team, we’re not too worried about that. All we have to do is our own position. It doesn’t matter which quarterback is throwing the ball. We have to do our own route, our own assignment.”
Said Grosz: “Whoever gets the chosen job will be great and we will all buy into them, and they better keep it up because, if not, other guys are grinding for that spot.”