Cal Poly football is off to its earliest start in program history, launching fall camp last Wednesday, two weeks earlier than years past, to prepare for the 2017 season. On Thursday, the team held its second padded practice of camp, and the energy was high as evidenced by a mid-practice scuffle.
Here are five of the top storylines we will be following leading up to Cal Poly’s nationally televised season opener at home against Colgate on Aug. 26 (4 p.m., ESPNU) inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
By far the biggest storyline in camp, and the rest of the season, will be the transition of junior quarterback Khaleel Jenkins from longtime backup to starter. Jenkins first took control of the team in the spring game after backing up former starters Chris Brown and Dano Graves the past two seasons.
Jenkins, a dual threat at 6-foot-2, 214 pounds, has played in seven games over the past two seasons with one start his freshman year. But in reality, Jenkins is as green as they come. He’s attempted just 17 passes and 19 run attempts over that span. Jenkins had an up-and-down practice Thursday during a limited number of live drills with the first-team units, but he did make two well-placed deep throws to slot-back Kyle Lewis, who made an acrobatic catch on one and dropped the other.
Accuracy was the biggest question mark for Jenkins heading into this season, so that was good sign for the team. Watching his progression over the next three weeks will be interesting.
Joe Pro’s Big Expectations
The expectations are high for fullback Joe Protheroe as he enters his senior season after a junior year in which he rushed for 1,334 yards and 13 touchdowns to lead the conference in rushing and earn a second All-Big Sky Conference first-team honor.
This week, Protheroe was added to the watch list for the 2017 Walter Payton Award, an offensive award that is the FCS version of the Heisman Trophy. Entering the season, Protheroe is eighth on the school’s all-time rushing list with 2,297 yards.
In his final season, he has his sights set on breaking the school season rushing record (1,578 yards) set by James Noble in 2005. If Thursday’s practice is any indication, he’s fired up to chase him down. His bruising running style was on full display during live drills. And a little scuffle with sophomore cornerback Kam Dennis had Protheroe steaming for the last half of practice.
Can the D-Line get pressure?
The biggest Cal Poly defensive linemen will also be the biggest key for the unit.
Senior nose tackle Augustino Elisaia, listed at 6-feet and 315 pounds, will take on a bigger role this season and be expected to clog the middle and get pressure on the quarterback in the Mustangs’ 3-4 system. Cal Poly struggled to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks in 2016 and finished the season tied for last in the conference with 15 sacks.
Elisaia, along with senior defensive tackle Jack Ferguson and senior defensive end Miles Williams, the other two projected starters on the defensive line, will look to change that.
The return of Charlie Davis
Senior Charlie Davis will step into the rush linebacker spot that was occupied by current Green Bay Packer Josh Letuligasenoa last season.
Davis, who played in three games before suffering a season-ending injury, didn’t participate in the spring game as he continued his rehabilitation. If Davis can return to 100-percent health, he can fill an important role in the brand-new linebacker corps as a rangy, 6-foot-2, 230-pound outside ‘backer with the athletic ability to cover receiving tight ends and enough size to get around the edge on the pass rush.
The upside is there, now it’s a matter of if.
Next man up for offensive line
Arguably the most important unit in Cal Poly’s triple-option offense is the offensive line. Don’t expect that to change this season.
Three starters graduated from last year’s unit — FCS All-American left tackle Matt Fisher, Billy Shipman and Nick Enriquez — which spearheaded a rushing attack that was ranked No. 1 in FCS for the fourth consecutive season. Taking over for Fisher is Sam Ogee, a 6-foot-4, 280-pound junior, who didn’t start last season but played in 12 games as a backup.
On the right side, sophomore Tyler Whisenhunt (6-4, 270) will fill in at guard, and junior Zach Shallcross will play tackle. The two have one start between them. The experience on the line comes in the form of senior center Joey Kuperman (6-1, 300) and junior left guard Harry Whitson, both 12-game starters last season.
The biggest thing for this unit during fall camp will be staying healthy as the depth drops off quickly.
2016 Season at a Glance
Record: 7-5 (5-3 Big Sky)
Highlight: 42-41 home win against Montana
Lowlight: 35-21 loss to San Diego at home in the first round of the FCS playoffs