It’s been quite some time since the Cal Poly football team has faced significant uncertainty — especially relative to other programs around the country.
Head coach Tim Walsh is entering his ninth season at the helm. His go-to triple-option offensive scheme isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Still, change is the name of the game in college football. And this season, the Mustangs will be forced to adapt to their fair share of it heading into their opener at home Saturday inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium (4 p.m., ESPNU).
Enter Khaleel Jenkins — Cal Poly’s third starting quarterback in the past three seasons.
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After backing up Chris Brown in 2015 and Dano Graves last season, the junior finally gets his chance. Change under center may be the recent norm with the Mustangs, but this will be the first season they field an inexperienced quarterback since Graves and Brown shared duties in 2013.
Brown was the full-time starter for two seasons. When Graves took over last season, the fifth-year senior had a wealth of experience.
Jenkins has attempted all of 17 passes in limited game action.
“Khaleel made extraordinary growth this year in practice,” Walsh said, “and at 6-2 and 214 pounds, hes big for a quarterback and one of our best athletes. He needs game experience, no question about that, but our expectations are that he can run our offense. He is a good runner and an efficient thrower.”
Jenkins on paper appears to be the perfect fit for the triple-option, but even that tried-and-true scheme could see some changes under first-year offensive coordinator Jim Craft, who previously worked with wide receivers and served as special teams coordinator before stepping into the new role following the departure of Justin Wood.
While Jenkins is clearly an athlete, how efficient he is as a thrower will be the main question.
“I have a lot of faith in Khaleel, and I think this entire offense does; we’re all following behind him,” all-purpose slot back Kyle Lewis said. “So I think we’re going to be strong in that aspect of it.
“I think (Craft is) going to try to use our weapons wisely and not just run so much, depend on the run. When there’s shots we’re going to take them. Even though it is another change, everyone is ready. He’s the same coach we’ve always had, he’s just doing something different.”
One thing likely to stay exactly the same as the nation’s No. 1 rushing team the past four seasons is Cal Poly’s ability to run the ball. And the explosive Lewis will undoubtedly be counted on to keep defenses honest. He had 591 yards and six touchdowns on the ground and a team-leading 375 yards and four touchdowns on 22 catches.
He’s clearly confident in his ability to have a big senior season.
“I’ll do whatever you need me to do,” he said. “I just want to leave here as the best slot to ever (play) at Cal Poly. I want to break the touchdown record, I want to be scoring at different positions, receiver, slot, running back, getting pitches, screens, whatever it may be. I just want to be a weapon across the entire field.”
And if Lewis is the knife, fullback Joe Protheroe serves as the sledgehammer. The senior fullback, the position that sets the tone for everything Cal Poly does offensively, led the team with 1,334 yards and 13 touchdowns and enters his final season No. 8 on the team’s career rushing chart. He made the preseason All-Big Sky Conference Team and landed on the Walter Payton Award watch list, which goes to the top offensive player in FCS.
Lewis and Protheroe are two of 13 returning starters from last year’s team that finished with a 7-5 mark and tied for fourth in the Big Sky Conference last season, losing in the first round of the FCS Playoffs to San Diego.
The Mustangs will put their strength to the test in their very first game — in front of a national TV audience — as they shoot for back-to-back FCS Playoff appearances.
Colgate, the third-place team from the Patriot League last season, was the nation’s top team against the run in 2016, allowing just 69.4 yards per game.
“It’s strength against strength, there’s no question,” Walsh said. “... This team needs to go out there and show people that we are serious about who we are and we want to be competitive for a Big Sky championship.”
Cal Poly vs. Colgate
When: 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Alex G. Spanos Stadium, San Luis Obispo
On the air: ESPNU, 1280 AM
Players to watch: Cal Poly — Joe Protheroe, sr., FB (1,334 yards, 13 TDs); Kyle Lewis, sr., SB (591 rushing yards, 6 TDs, 375 receiving yards, 4 TDs); Khaleel Jenkins, jr., (2nd career start). Colgate — James Holland, sr., RB (732 yards, 16 TDs in 2015); Alex Greenawalt, sr., WR (411 yards, 1 TD); Trent Williams, sr., LB (48 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 3 sacks).