As spring practice opened Saturday, the Cal Poly football team got a look at a few new faces — and one very celebrated face from its past.
NCAA record-breaking receiver Ramses Barden was back at the Mustangs’ practice field for the first time since being drafted into the NFL in 2009.
Barden hung around the first of 15 spring practices for Cal Poly, even offering route-running tips to receivers like sophomore Cam Akins, and plans to be a regular.
Barden’s in San Luis Obispo for the next two weeks until he’s scheduled to fly out for his first minicamp with the Buffalo Bills, who signed him to a futures contract this offseason.
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“The main reason I’m here is to kind of show guys how much they have here,” Barden said. “How else would they know how special this time is if people don’t come back and enjoy it and cherish it with them?
“It just kind of shows current players, current athletes, current students that this is a place worth enjoying for the rest of your life.”
Barden had been seen at some Cal Poly basketball games, where he’s even joined the radio play-by-play team occasionally, but he had not been around the football program since the 2009 spring game, the day he was taken in the third round by the New York Giants.
Said Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh, who took over the Mustangs the season after Barden rewrote Cal Poly record books: “We’ve had him talk to the team, and we’ve just had him hanging out and being a good mentor for guys to see. We’re excited about the whole deal. Once a Mustang, always a Mustang.”
Saturday’s no-pads session at the Sports Complex was also the first practice for a couple of high-profile FBS transfers, defensive end Logan Mayes, formerly of Washington State, and former Nevada linebacker Burton De Koning.
After signing with the Mustangs in February, De Koning arrived on campus just a week ago. Mayes started class in the winter quarter.
Even though it was a noncontact practice, this was the first time Cal Poly coaches got to see the juniors in Mustangs jerseys.
“Number one thing is for them to learn our system and learn the way we do things here as opposed to maybe where they did it,” Walsh said. “They’re both athletically what we thought they were just watching them run around. … Those guys have the ability to be major contributors. Will they start? That’s up to them. They’re both playing really competitive positions.”
De Koning was a two-sport star at Folsom High, where he played with fellow Mustangs Dano Graves, Stephen Sipple and Carson McMurtrey, and has expressed interest in playing baseball for Larry Lee and nationally ranked Cal Poly.
But the main reason De Koning came to the Mustangs, who actually gave him his first scholarship offer back at Folsom, was to contribute in his final two seasons of eligibility on the football field.
“I’ve been training hard, been working my butt off for the past four or five years, and it’s not to sit the bench” said De Koning, who had 11 tackles as a sophomore playing mostly on special teams for the Wolf Pack. “It’s to come in, make an impact and play.
“I’ve got a lot to learn still. … I definitely have to get back in the books, and I’ve got stuff to learn and stuff to perfect.”
De Koning is looking to replace four-year starter Johnny Millard at linebacker and will be in a position battle with several others. Mayes is in a similar situation at defensive end.
The Mustangs return senior ends Jake Irwin and Wesley Flowers, who were also former FBS transfers — Irwin from Wisconsin and Flowers from UCLA.
Mayes echoed De Koning’s sentiments about earning immediate playing time. His connection to Cal Poly was a little less direct.
As a high schooler at Eugene (Ore.) Marist Catholic, he received tutelage from Keith Millard, Johnny’s father and a former Cougars star who played with Mayes’ father, Rueben.
So, when his scholarship deal with Washington State blocked him from transferring to another Division I program, Mayes said, he quickly zeroed in on Cal Poly in favor of UC Davis and Sacramento State.
“When you whittle that down, Cal Poly is pretty much the best choice,” Mayes said. “Cal Poly’s heads above the rest.”
Plus, “The weather’s great,” Mayes said. “Coming from Pullman, where it’s snowing right now, that’s definitely a bonus.
People here are like shivering. I’m like, ‘This is awesome.’ ”