The Cal Poly football team is scheduled to begin its 15-practice spring camp Saturday morning, needing to replace six all-conference performers and incorporate a handful of offseason coaching changes.
The Mustangs enjoyed a bounce-back 2016 season in which they finished fourth in the 13-team Big Sky Conference and went on to host a first-round FCS playoff game for the first time since 2008.
Cal Poly ended the year 7-5 overall following a somewhat surprising loss to Pioneer Football League opponent San Diego inside a rain-soaked Alex G. Spanos Stadium in late November.
A few months later, head coach Tim Walsh and his staff put together an 18-person recruiting class on National Signing Day, many of whom he expects to make an immediate impact on the field.
“For the first time I can really say that we’re looking at playing six or seven freshmen,” Walsh said in February. “I think that’s going to be really important to who we’re going to be in 2017 because we have some needs.”
Returning players — including five starters on offense and eight more on defense — will start laying the foundation for the summer and fall camp when practice opens at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Upper Sports Complex.
Here at three key story lines to follow over the next month:
The Khaleel Jenkins era officially begins.
After backing up standouts Chris Brown and Dano Graves his first two years on campus, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Jenkins will get his chance to lead Cal Poly’s triple-option offense.
Jenkins burned his redshirt six weeks into the 2015 season when Brown was injured and made the lone start of his career. His collegiate debut came against a top-25 Portland State team in front of a sell out home crowd on Homecoming Weekend.
The San Diego native went 3-for-14 for 59 yards and rushed 16 times for 93 yards, including a brilliant 50-yard touchdown run, during a 38-35 loss.
With Graves almost never missing a snap during his impressive senior season, Jenkins spent most of the fall practicing with the No. 2 offense. As he completes the transition to working with the first team, Jenkins will have the benefit of Graves serving as the full-time quarterbacks coach on Walsh’s staff.
Wide receiver Kory Fox is listed a Jenkins’ backup on the spring depth chart, followed by redshirt freshman Jake Jeffrey and walk-ons Callan Bard and Sam Serra.
Depth at slot back appears thinner than previous years.
While two-time All-American fullback Joe Protheroe figures to be the driving force behind the Mustangs’ offense, there are some questions about the depth and experience of the slot back group.
Senior-to-be Kyle Lewis, who recorded more than 1,000 all-purpose yards and scored 10 touchdowns in 2016, will likely take on the numerous carries vacated by senior three-year starter Kori Garcia.
Freshman Chuby Dunu turned heads in fall camp and earned a spot on the travel roster during his redshirt year, and he is listed as the starter opposite Lewis. Fellow freshman Tre Green, Drew Hernandez and Jacob Nashke also dot the spring depth chart.
Junior Malcolm Davis has played sparingly during his 21-game career, with 13 carries and one touchdown to his credit. Sophomore Alex Suchesk could also return to the fold after missing the entire 2016 season.
There will likely be a steep learning curve if Cal Poly will have a chance at leading the FCS in rushing for a fifth consecutive season.
The defensive front will look much different next fall.
Defensive linemen Marcus Paige-Allen, Jason Patterson and Kelly Shepard, and linebackers Josh Letuligasenoa, Joseph Gigantino and Chris Santini turned in strong senior campaigns.
Filling those positions will be a key area of emphasis this spring and summer.
Incoming seniors Jack Ferguson and Augustino Elisaia bring back starting experience up front, while undersized defensive end Miles Williams will get an opportunity to expand upon his special teams role from last year.
Dynamic athlete Charlie Davis, a 6-2, 228-pound senior, will likely take over at the rush linebacker spot where Letuligasenoa excelled in recent years. He played in three games last fall before suffering a season-ending injury.
Sophomores Noah Thompson and Nik Navarro are slated to start at outside linebacker, with senior-to-be R.J. Mazolewski moving to the middle. Mazolewski also suffered a season-ending injury last fall and, along with Anders Turner, is not expected to participate in spring drills.
Other players who are injured this spring include starting wide receiver J.J. Koski, offensive lineman Ross Berry and nose tackle Saia Fonongaloa.
Cal Poly Spring Football 2017
First practice: 9 a.m. Saturday, Upper Sports Complex
Spring game: 9:30 a.m., May 6, Alex G. Spanos Stadium
Top returners: FB Joe Protheroe, RB Kyle Lewis, DB B.J. Nard
Key losses: QB Dano Graves, OL Matt Fisher, LB Chris Santini