Energy and enthusiasm to play the game were the two things Cal Poly football coach Tim Walsh wanted to measure as spring camp opened Saturday morning at the Upper Sports Complex.
The ninth-year head coach found what he was looking for during the first of 15 practices leading up to next month’s annual spring game. The Mustangs “came with great energy” and got through every repetition scripted by the new-look coaching staff.
“That tells us the pace is right,” Walsh said. “Now, there’s a lot of things to correct, but it was tremendous pace. If we keep doing that, day 15 we’ll start looking like the team we want to be in 2017.”
A Cal Poly team that finished 7-5 overall during the regular season and qualified for the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2012 began the process of replacing a talented senior class that left several holes in the starting lineup.
On offense, junior-to-be Khaleel Jenkins takes over at quarterback for Dano Graves, who was hired as the Mustangs’ full-time quarterbacks coach immediately following graduation.
Jenkins figures to be one of a handful of first-time starters on that side of the ball, along with sophomore wide receiver Jake Smeltzer, junior offensive linemen Sam Ogee and Zach Shallcross and freshman slot back Chuby Dunu.
Jenkins said he’s absorbed knowledge from Graves and his predecessor, Chris Brown, to help him get ready to be the leader of the Mustangs’ unorthodox triple-option offense.
“I was just trying to establish myself out there and find a rhythm with these guys,” Jenkins said. “I think we’re going to have a pretty good spring. I’m excited.”
Defensively, Cal Poly returns its entire starting secondary in cornerbacks Jerek Rosales and Kevin Griffin and safeties B.J. Nard and Kitu Humphrey.
Returners Kai Sheffie, Carter Nichols and Aaryn Bouzos also got significant playing time in 2016, and the group will be led by fiery coach Randy Stewart, who replaced Jacob Yoro this offseason.
Things appear a little less clear on the front seven, and the spring should help defensive coordinator Josh Brown iron out his depth chart heading into the summer.
Senior defensive lineman Augustino Elisaia and Jack Ferguson bring back the most starting experience from a year ago. Senior Miles Williams and LJ Mealancon will be competing for the other starting spot in Cal Poly’s 3-4 defensive front.
The linebacker group has depth on paper, but many of the top returners are young, coming off injuries or moving to a new position. Potential starters Anders Turner and R.J. Mazolewski, who is moving to the inside linebacker spot for his senior season, likely won’t participate in spring drills because of lingering injuries.
That means sophomores Nik Navarro and Noah Thompson will need to take their development a step further this month to help seniors Charlie Davis (also coming off an injury) and Mason Montgomery.
Navarro welcomes the challenge.
“It’s the most important time,” the 6-foot-1, 240-pound sophomore said. “This is when you figure out how all the plays work. This is when you figure out how everything is supposed to go. This is when you find out if you’re really ready for the season.”
In addition to incorporating new assistant coaches Graves, Stewart and Dan Ferrigno (wide receivers/special teams), the Mustangs also will be under the direction of a different offensive coordinator for the third straight season.
Longtime assistant Jim Craft was promoted to that role when Juston Wood accepted a job at Georgia Southern in December. Wood held the title for one season after taking over for Sage Tuitele, now the run game coordinator and offensive line coach at New Mexico.
Walsh understands there are a lot of new voices in the mix, but he likes the makeup of a coaching staff with Pac-12 veterans in Ferrigno and Stewart and a first-timer in Graves.
“It’s both ends of the spectrum,” Walsh said. “But I think that their experiences are going to be valuable to who we are.”