Cal Poly head football coach Tim Walsh said his team’s 15 spring practices, which begin today at 6:30 a.m. and culminate with the May 2 spring game, are a chance to assess improvement from young players, transfers and the coaching staff alike.
And, most important to him, “it’s all about staying healthy.”
For quarterback Chris Brown, that means staying away from the live spring practice drills while still working to build off of last season’s record-breaking offense.
“He’s still on the IR so to speak,” said Walsh of Brown, who is working his way back from an ankle injury that forced him out of the season finale at San Diego. “He’ll do some things, but I doubt you’re going to see him take a lot of live reps throughout the 15 days of spring practice.
“Hopefully we can give him enough so he can stay in tune and maybe make one more step as a quarterback in the system we play in. If he can do that, I think it’s only going to make us that much better.”
In his first year as the go-to starter, Brown beat out Dano Graves in training camp and became the first Cal Poly quarterback to rush for more than 1,000 yards, running for a team-high 1,265 while throwing for 1,465 as a junior.
He was the catalyst for a Mustang offense that averaged 483 yards and 34 points per game in a 7-5 year.
According to Walsh, the best is still yet to come from the Torrance native.
“There’s still large parts of improvement for Chris,” he said. “Some of his mistakes last year are aggressive, good mistakes, but he gets very anxious when he knows he’s going to have the ball in his hands, and sometimes, he’s got to let things happen in front of him. And there’s other times maybe he needs to react quicker.
“He’s bought into the fact that he has to be a football junkie. He’s spent a lot of time looking at last year’s film, watching himself fundamentally. I think he wants to take that next step to being a more complete quarterback in what we’re asking him to do.”
Senior wideout Willie Tucker is back in the fold, at least on paper, after he missed all of 2014 with a knee injury and contemplated transferring from the program.
His 60 catches for 11 touchdowns in his career give the Mustangs another experienced receiver along with seniors Jordan Hines and Roland Jackson, but Walsh said Tucker is still facing knee complications.
“The issues that he has right now are correctable, and it’s just a matter of how they are going to be corrected,” Walsh said. “If he doesn’t practice in the spring, I don’t think we lose much at all as long as he’s ready on Aug. 10.”
The offensive line battled a multitude of injuries last season to pave the way for Brown and Co., and while some won’t be back for spring, Walsh said he feels good about the unit’s health come training camp.
Guards Matthew Fisher (foot) and Ross Berry (foot) aren’t likely to participate this month. Senior starters Stephen Sippel at center and Weston Walker at tackle have made progress, but “how many live reps they’re going to get throughout the spring remains to be seen,” Walsh said.
The defense is dealing more in the unknown, as the Mustangs welcome four transfers to that side of the ball and are tasked with replacing standout linebackers Nick Dzubnar and Cameron Ontko as well as fellow starters Jordan Williams and Dave Douglas at safety and linemen Chris Lawrence and Chris Judge.
Senior Burton De Koning is expected to move from the Sam linebacker spot, where he amassed 43 tackles a year ago, to Ontko’s Will position. The spring depth chart lists senior Tu’uta Inoke starting in the middle and Joseph Gigantino at Sam followed by Boise State transfer Chris Santini.
Walsh said the team might run more of a 3-4 look in addition to its usual 4-3 scheme, which could also mean more playing opportunity for players such as San Luis Obispo High graduate Jack Ferguson, who officially moved from outside linebacker to defensive end.
Regardless of where players line up and in what system, Walsh, who enters his seventh season at Cal Poly, said his Mustangs are more bulked up than ever before.
“We probably have the strongest team we’ve had since I’ve been here, as far as weight room and some of the things (strength and condition coach Chris) Holder has done,” he said. “We’ve seen some great improvements in our bodies, and along with that, in our strength.”
That strength won’t be on full display in spring drills, but that’s by design, as Cal Poly will ratchet up the intensity leading up the Sept. 5 season opener at Montana.
“The spring is really big for us,” Walsh said, “but in reality, it’s going to be what we do the first 25 days of practice next fall.”