It feels like Cal Poly has been waiting forever for B.J. Nard.
The sophomore safety is just now returning to the field after tearing his ACL in fall camp prior to the 2013 season. Before the injury, it appeared the former Bakersfield Frontier High standout was destined to make an immediate impact as a redshirt freshman.
Unfortunately for Nard and the Mustangs, it was a tease that lasted more than a year. His certainly was not the average ACL tear, which some athletes can return from in as few as four months after surgery.
Making a tackle near the sideline during a practice scrimmage, Nard not only tore his ACL but also his meniscus and suffered a microfracture as well. And three months after surgery, Nard was disappointed to find himself back under the knife after suffering an unexpected setback in recovery.
“It was frustrating because I had just got to that point where I was going to get over the hump and play,” Nard said.
“I kind of had to start the process all over again, which was rough because I trained every single day just working my butt off, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do sometimes. It’s unfortunate, but I’m blessed to be back.”
Last week, Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said Nard’s return solidifies the defensive backfield. Now fully healthy, Nard could make his collegiate debut in Saturday’s 6:05 p.m. home opener against Portland State (1-2). Cal Poly (0-2) could use the extra help in the defensive backfield against a Vikings program that is passing more than ever under fifth-year head coach Nigel Burton.
Last season, Portland State ran the ball on 60 percent of its plays from scrimmage, but in losses against Pac-12 foes Oregon State and Washington State and a victory over Division II Western Oregon this season, the Vikings are passing 54 percent of the time.
If those numbers hold up, it will be the first time since 2009, the season before Burton left his job as the defensive coordinator at Nevada to take over the program, that Portland State has passed more times than it has run.
One of the reasons for the current split, Burton said, was having to face two Pac-12 opponents, which feature large-bodied defensive fronts that are difficult for an FCS offensive line to move off the ball. Passing eventually becomes the more prudent option.
But the offense has also matured under Burton. Quarterback Kieran McDonagh is in his third year starting, redshirt sophomore quarterback Paris Penn has been around for three seasons and the players are just more seasoned running the pistol offense that Burton brought with him from the Wolf Pack.
“Now we have quarterbacks who are in their third year, and they’re much more comfortable,” Burton said. “We’ve got receivers who are seniors and juniors who have been in the system for a number of years. It’s just their comfort level and their ability to read and do some things.”
So far, Cal Poly has had its troubles defending larger receivers, especially in the red zone. In the season-opening 28-10 loss at New Mexico State, the Aggies used a height mismatch to draw a pass interference call against the Mustangs in the end zone.
In the 44-18 loss at South Dakota State two weeks ago, the Jackrabbits scored on a 16-yard touchdown pass to 6-foot-5 receiver Jason Schneider and an 11-yard pass to 6-4 Jake Weineke.
Cal Poly needs to find a way to stop big receivers without its two tallest cornerbacks. Dominque Love (6-1) and Courtland Fort (6-0) were two of the five suspended players charged in connection with an alleged attempted armed robbery last month. And Portland State brings another big target to the table.
Former-walk-on-turned-star Kasey Closs leads the Vikings with 18 catches for 228 yards and two touchdowns. The 6-3 senior caught a 48-yarder against Western Oregon, and against Cal Poly last season, he had four catches for 95 yards.
“They can throw the ball,” Walsh said. “There’s no question they can pass. I think they’d like to be balanced. They run the ball really well, and I think they can throw it extremely well.
“I think Kasey Closs will probably get a chance to play at the next level. He’s an outstanding athlete, and we’re going to have to make sure we can handle him as well as some of their other wideouts.”