It’s the second padded practice of the offseason at San Luis Obispo High and speed is on the mind of head coach Pat Johnston.
“Let’s go! Faster, faster! We have 25 seconds!” the second-year coach and Cal Poly alum yelled at the offense during drills on the chewed up practice field.
Johnston, who shifted the Tigers from a triple-option offense to a spread attack when he took over before last season, feels like the increased tempo and emphasis on a no-huddle offense will help the program rebound from a 2-8 season and a last-place finish in the PAC 5.
It’s a good place to start. Last season, SLO was just that — not enough tempo and not enough wins.
“At no point last year, even as bad as we were getting beat in some of those games, I never felt at one point like my kids we’re quitting. And I was really proud of them for that,” Johnston said.
The Tigers will be a much different team personnel wise in 2015.
Senior quarterback Omeed Djassemi will lead the option-read offense, taking over for signal caller Sam Thompson, who led the team in rushing.
“I think I’ve worked hard on trying to become a pass-first quarterback and making my reads, but I know I have the ability to get on the run and make some moves and get some yards out there,” said Djassemi, a stocky 5-foot-10 left-hander.
It’s an offense that struggled to score points in 2014. The Tigers failed to score more than 14 points in half games.
“His arm strength has improved drastically,” Johnston said of Djassemi, who filled in for an injured Thompson briefly last season. “That game experience that he had last year playing against Cabrillo, Righetti and Paso Robles, two PAC 5 starts, that ought to pay dividends for him this year.”
Djassemi was 29 of 58 passing, for 367 yards last season in limited action. He also had six touchdowns and three interceptions. Last October, in a game against Cabrillo, Djasemmi led the Tigers to a dramatic 40-35 win.
Perhaps the biggest departure is that of running back/receiver Nate Greenelsh. The speedy Greenelsh, who walked on for the Cal Poly football team, was second on the team in rushing yards and first in receiving yards. Johnston says that while he doesn’t have star power at the top, this year’s Tigers are deeper than last year’s squad.
The Tigers ranked last in the PAC 5 in total offense with a 296 yard-per-game average.
New look defense
On defense, Johnston is changing things up, switching from a 5-2 stack defense run by many teams on the Central Coast to a 3-4 scheme to make use of a deep set of linebackers.
“A lot of guys that are tweeners, not quite as fast and not quite as big” Johnston said, referencing players that don’t fit naturally at linebacker or defensive end.
Senior linebacker and defensive captain Geovoni Gabriele will look to lock down the middle of a Tigers defense that gave up an average of 57 points per game in league play last season.
“Tackling was horrible last year, if I’m being honest,” said Gabriele who’s listed at 5-11, 200. “I think if we tackle better, we win more games last year.”
Playing in front on Gabriele is classmate Ryan Clayton, who is moving from linebacker to defensive end, a move the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder is looking forward to.
“We don’t want to feel all those bad feelings that we had last year. After every game we always told ourselves, we don’t want to feel like that again,” Clayton said. Clayton, who had 1.5 sacks last year, will also look to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Tigers had just seven sacks last season.
Greenelsh will also be missed on defense. He led the team with 70 solo tackles last season.
On offense, two unknowns could make a big impact.
Delvon Jack, a senior slotback who recently transferred from Lyman High in Lakeland, Fla., has the look of a big-time receiver. At 6-1 and about 180 pounds, Jack has shown flashes of playmaking abilities during 7-on-7 passing drills this summer and early on in practice. Jack also played defensive end at Lyman.
But Jack, who Johnston said is a high-character guy, will have to earn his playing time. The diminutive, shifty Vatsal Bhatt and fellow senior Jackson Martin will likely see most of the reps at wideout early on.
The running back competition is a wide-open fight, Johnston said. With four players in the mix, sophomore Pierson Mosichuk is the frontrunner.
“He’s really been working hard in the offseason and astounding a lot of us, the coaches and the players, and he’s really showing his talent,” Clayton said of the 5-foot-8 underclassmen.
Senior Cristino Sandoval, a much bigger back than Mosichuk at 5-10, 170, is also getting plenty of action in the preseason.
The Tigers, armed with a new quarterback and a new defense, are confident that the offseason workouts and film study will add up to more wins in 2015.
“For me, I feel like last year was a year of learning and adjusting to a new coach and a new system and I think we’re ready this year,” Gabriele said.
For Clayton, it runs deeper than wins and losses: “It’s really a big want of ours to change the program for the community, for the school and for ourselves.”
When the season begins Friday at home against Santa Ynez, Johnston is sure the Tigers will be ready to play.
“I’ve seen teams take two ways with it, either they’re gonna fold or they’re gonna work as hard as they possibly can to get themselves in a position where they’re competing with everybody. And I know my group, I know they’re not a fold it and mail it in kind of team,” Johnston said.