Spectators got an abbreviated look at Cal Poly football slotback Kori Garcia after Kristaan Ivory was sidelined by a couple of minor injuries last season.
Now that Ivory is indefinitely suspended along with four other players who were arrested in connection to an alleged armed robbery of a fraternity house this week, Garcia inherits the starting job full-time, and several other new names are vying for carries as the Mustangs prepare to stage their only preseason scrimmage at Alex G. Spanos Stadium today at 2 p.m.
“I wasn’t expecting to come in this season as the number one guy,” said Garcia, a sophomore from Los Angeles who running backs coach Aristotle Thompson said was due for a breakout year even before the arrests. “But I was always training as the number one guy, and then opportunities come at different times. It’s weird how it happened, but I’m ready for it now.”
Garcia was sixth on the team in rushing last season with 55 carries for 217 yards and a touchdown. He also had four catches for 37 yards and another score, a 14-yard touchdown catch in a thrilling 38-34 comeback victory at Portland State where Ivory was dealing with leg cramps.
Garcia also ran a team-high 18 times for 56 yards in a 17-13 midseason loss to Northern Arizona where Ivory tried to start but re-aggravated an ankle sprain on his first carry.
“I’ve shown that I can run the ball,” Garcia said. “I just want to instill more confidence in the coaches’ heads and just know when they put me out there, they don’t have to worry about it.”
The loss of Ivory wasn’t the only hit to the Cal Poly backfield. Redshirt freshman Jake Brito was also arrested and suspended, leaving more opportunity for seniors Kenny Mitchell and Chris Nicholls to play slotback opposite Garcia in the Mustangs’ triple-option offense.
Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh also said to expect sophomore Paso Robles High product and former Tribune County Player of the Year Elias Stokes to get a chance to prove himself at today’s scrimmage.
The depth chart is set at fullback, where seniors Brandon Howe will start and be backed up by senior Brent Michaels. Grayshirt freshman Joe Protheroe could see time as well.
The scrimmage will also help determine the pecking order between two true freshman runners looking for immediate playing time. Lance Mudd and Alex Suchesk are each speedy backs, and Walsh has said at least one will play this season.
“They both have had good days, and they both have had some off days,” Walsh said. “We have to evaluate, and it’s going to be a lot of situational stuff. Third-and-3s are critical downs for us. So, it’s going to be interesting to see how much they know, how physical they could play. A guy could run for a 50-yard touchdown. That doesn’t mean he’s going to be the guy. Maybe the things he does without the ball is going to be more important.”
Mudd has been practicing as a return specialist as well, and today found himself assigned to a spot rushing punts for the first time.
As a sign he and Suchesk are becoming more comfortable after two weeks of training camp, Walsh approached Mudd and told him, “It’s fun when you know what you’re doing and you can go play football.”
“The biggest thing was learning the playbook,” Mudd said. “Because you have all the veterans and all these fifth-years that know the whole playbook. So, they know everything, and you’re the one that’s the new guy. They throw you into a play, and they expect you to run it, and if you do it wrong, you get yelled at.”
“I had to learn to really get into the playbook and watch film a lot more than I did in high school. I’ve been definitely staying up and watching a lot of film, and coaches have been giving us a lot of tests on our plays.”
Other players suspended because of the arrests include sophomore receiver Cam Akins, a projected starter, and defensive backs Courtland Fort and Dominique Love, who were competing to play at cornerback.
Going into the scrimmage, junior receivers Jordan Hines and Roland Jackson were slated to start with sophomore Carson McMurtrey and redshirt freshman Kyle Lewis playing second string.
Hines, McMurtrey and Jackson combined for 13 catches for 188 yards last season. Jackson also racked up 74 rushing yards on five end-around carries.
In the defensive backfield, Fort and Love had yet to ascend the top of the depth chart, so the projected starters at corner remain juniors Chris Fletcher and Karlton Dennis, but the depth of the unit has taken a hit.
Walsh said the team needs inexperienced veteran seniors Dylan Mohamed and Trevor Weis, juniors Fernando Cabico and Kaulin Blair, and perhaps even true freshmen Jonathan LaBonty and Kai Sheffie to step up their games.
Usually, it’s injuries and not arrests that take players out of commission, and those have happened, too.
Senior defensive ends Jake Irwin and Chris Judge have been limited by offseason hip surgeries. Irwin is hoping to start the Aug. 28 season-opener at New Mexico State, and Judge has yet to fully participate.
Additionally, sophomore offensive lineman Matt Fisher, expected to start at left tackle, was lost to a foot injury this week that Walsh said could take four to six weeks to fully heal.
The shuffling on the line forced sophomore Nick Enriquez from guard to tackle and opens an opportunity for redshirt freshman Templeton High product Ross Berry to start at left guard.
Berry will be competing with sophomore Billy Shipman and fellow redshirt freshman Joey Kuperman for playing time today.
The Mustangs did make an addition, welcoming redshirt freshman transfer kicker Zach Schottenfeld to his first practice Friday. Schottenfeld walked on at Utah last season, and took several punts during special-teams drills Friday.
Junior Stephen Pyle leads all comers in the competition to replace two-year starter Bobby Zalud at kicker and punter.
It could be Pyle’s job to lose, but Walsh said Schottenfeld would also kick today.
“Stephen Pyle is improved,” Walsh said. “I hope he shows it.”