The day Dave Douglas signed with the Cal Poly football team, Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh expected big things from the defensive back, saying Douglas could contribute as a freshman, perhaps even become a four-year starter.
Those projections began to materialize in 2012, when Douglas broke into the starting lineup at safety as a sophomore, quickly earning a reputation as an intimidating hitter.
Cal Poly opened the season 7-0, and Douglas had a great rapport with fellow Bay Area native Alex Hubbard in the defensive backfield.
Then, on a routine late-season practice drill, Douglas heard a loud whip. He thought the quarterback had thrown the ball in his direction.
As it turned out, the sound was cartilage tearing in his hip, and Douglas’s season was over.
“That was a rollercoaster for me,” said Douglas, poised to start the upcoming season atop the depth chart as a senior. “I didn’t know how to react. This never happened to me before.
“When a football player gets football taken away from him in the a blink of an eye, your whole life changes, and I didn’t really know how to do it.”
As Mustangs training camp enters its second week, Douglas appears to be back to his old self, and with three starters, including Hubbard, to replace in the defensive backfield, coaches are looking to Douglas to play a leadership role.
Cal Poly will have its first full-padded practice today. Through Tuesday, the Mustangs had completed five days of camp with only two of those in half pads, but head coach Tim Walsh has been impressed so far with what Douglas has contributed since returning from surgery to repair a torn labrum.
“He’s moving better than he’s ever moved. He’s not ever going to” run 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash, Walsh said, “but with his change of direction and quickness of foot, he looks ready to play, and he’s really done some good things so far in camp.
“He’s definitely got himself ready to play mentally and physically. He’s in the best place that he’s been since he’s been here.”
In nine games of that 9-3 Big Sky co-championship season, Douglas had 33 tackles and a fumble recovery. His postseason surgery pushed his rehab into last season, and it took most of 2013 for him to feel comfortable and confident on the field again. He had five tackles in limited duty.
Douglas also said he put on around 30 pounds while he was inactive, creating another hurdle for himself on the path back to the field.
“He needed to take care of his body,” defensive backs coach Neil Fendall said. “The ability’s been there, the speed, the quickness, but when you don’t manage your body correctly, it doesn’t show. Now, his body is back to where it was a couple years ago, when it comes to his weight, his strength levels. He’s able to do things he could do before. It’s really that simple.”
Douglas credited his teammates for stepping up in his absence. When he was forced to the sidelines, Matt Reza stepped in capably, and Jordan Williams assumed a starting role last season, racking up 38 tackles and two interceptions.
Williams returns as a senior this year, and he and Douglas are likely to start the Aug. 28 season opener at New Mexico State as the two safeties.
Cal Poly is also looking to replace two senior cornerbacks, but just as in the past two seasons, there are plenty of candidates to play at every position in the defensive backfield.
Juniors Karlton Dennis and Chris Fletcher are atop the depth chart at cornerback. Junior and former walk-on Fernando Cabico is earning high praise. Walsh raved about his play in the team huddle after practice Tuesday.
The Mustangs also have some size at corner with 6-foot-2 New Mexico State transfer Dominique Love and 6-0 Wyoming transfer Cortland Fort.
Fort could also play at safety or take command at the nickel back position.
Also at safety, senior Trevor Weis has entered the conversation, and coaches expect B.J. Nard to compete for playing time when he eventually returns from knee surgery.
Nard was initially hurt in preseason camp last year and appears close to a return.
“There’s four or five guys who could start at corner and four or five guys who could start at safety just based on their play,” Fendall said. “There’s not a big drop off from our one to five at every spot. The ones and twos know there’s guys nipping at their heels.”