Tim Walsh has been coaching college football for nearly three decades, yet even he had never experienced anything quite like last year’s one-win season.
Those inside Cal Poly’s football program can point to a multitude of factors that led to the Mustangs’ worst statistical season in more than half a century, perhaps none more significant than losing three of this year’s team captains to season-ending injuries.
Spring practices allowed Walsh and his coaching staff to unpack what went wrong in 2017, adjust to a new roster and implement a plan to move forward.
Walsh, now entering his 10th season at Cal Poly, delivered a simple message on the final day of spring camp.
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“It’s over,” he said.
“From that day on, it’s been gone and we’re talking about who we are in 2018, and who we want to be in 2018, and looking from a positive perspective.”
Players insist dwelling on the past won’t lead to different results this fall — not with an unforgiving schedule that includes playing five teams ranked in the preseason top-25 polls during the first six weeks of the season.
There is no bigger challenge in all of FCS football than what awaits the Mustangs in Fargo, North Dakota.
Cal Poly kicks off the season at 12:30 p.m. Saturday against No. 1-ranked North Dakota State, a team that has won six of the last seven FCS national championships. Another title in 2018 would give the Bison — who return 13 starters — the most national championships in FCS history.
“I think it’s tough, but it’s exciting,” Walsh said. “It’s our opportunity to make a statement about who we are, too.”
Here are five things to watch as Cal Poly enters the 2018 season:
Mustangs bring back more experience, talent and leadership
Seniors Khaleel Jenkins, Joe Protheroe and Harry Whitson — arguably the three most influential players in Cal Poly’s triple-option offense — are back and healthy. That alone should breed some optimism in Mustang fans.
The 5-foot-11, 230-pound Protheroe was granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA after missing all but two games in 2017. The two-time All-American fullback has rushed for nearly 2,500 yards and scored 22 touchdowns in his 34-game career.
Simply put: he’s the driving force that makes the Mustangs go.
The physically gifted Jenkins returns at quarterback after a knee injury ended his junior season early. He’ll be taking snaps from the 6-4, 298-pound Whitson — a former all-Big Sky Conference selection — who also is coming off a season-ending injury and is one of the team’s unquestioned leaders.
“We had a lot of guys who were forced to play a lot of downs last year, where maybe they wouldn’t have had to in the past. I think that’s only going to help us,” Jenkins said. “Those guys are going to have a lot more experience, and they’re going to be in a place where a lot of guys in their second year haven’t been.”
Who will emerge at slot back?
Senior Malcolm Davis and sophomore Broc Mortensen are expected to start Week 1, but Walsh said he expects to use up to six players at those positions.
Davis has the most game experience, though it hasn’t translated into consistent statistical production.
Mortensen played in all 11 games as a true freshman and could be the featured slot back in 2018. Chuby Dunu is another physically gifted athlete who could be a difference maker with another year of experience.
Perhaps the most intriguing newcomer is junior college transfer J’uan Campbell, who will be one of Cal Poly’s primary kick returners early on. A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Campbell has turned heads throughout the summer as one of the fastest and most explosive players on the roster.
“He’s dynamic,” Walsh said of the 5-7, 170-pound Campbell. “His attitude is tremendous.”
The defensive front will have to learn on the fly
One look at Cal Poly’s preseason depth chart reveals significant youth on the defensive line.
It’s possible the Mustangs could start three freshmen on the defensive line when they face a physical North Dakota State team that is 6-0 against Power Five teams since 2010.
While some combination of freshmen Jojo Falo, Pono Faaagi and Stanton Manumaleuna will likely start, Walsh said he could play seven or eight guys up to 30 plays per game.
“I do think they’re a talented group,” Walsh said, “but they’ve got to get in the fire, they’ve got to play in that environment and find out what Division I football is really all about — especially at the highest level.”
At the linebacker spot, senior Anders Turner and junior Jayson Lee are both coming off injuries, while senior Patrick Walker parlayed an offseason position change into a starting spot at rush linebacker.
Nik Navarro and Joey Ruiz are expected to start at the inside linebackers, with Santa Maria native Fenton Will and Matt Shotwell pushing for playing time as well.
Lee, Cal Poly’s top returning tackler, said he can sympathize with the young defensive front, having been pressed into action as a true freshman in 2016.
“I believe in them, I trust them, and as long as they’re physical and as long as they’re tough, I think they’ll be all right,” Lee said.
Will experienced secondary translate to better performance?
Hard-hitting safety Kitu Humphrey stayed in San Luis Obispo over the summer, helping younger teammates get comfortable with Cal Poly’s defensive schemes. He was pleasantly surprised by the turnout, which Humphrey said was the highest in his three years on campus.
Defending the pass hasn’t been one the Mustangs’ strengths as Big Sky offenses have evolved in recent years.
Last fall, Cal Poly was last in the 13-team conference in passing yards allowed per game (293.5), completion percentage (64.9) and touchdowns allowed (30).
“I think what motivates me is just having a new opportunity in the new year to make a new name for yourself,” Humphrey said. “Having leaders that understand that we’ve been there, and that understand where we want to go, and understand that we don’t want to repeat that.”
The Mustangs will be more experienced on the back line, with a starting lineup that includes three juniors in Humphrey, Carter Nichols, Sharky Reza and senior Dominic Frasch.
Walsh said sophomore Bradley Mickey, an Arroyo Grande graduate and the 2015 Tribune County Player of The Year, has stood out in fall camp and will likely be in the safety rotation.
A schedule that features no weeks off
Walsh called Cal Poly’s schedule “a tremendous challenge,” and he may be underselling it.
Five of the Mustangs first six opponents include No. 1 North Dakota State, No. 6 Eastern Washington, No. 9 Weber State, No. 18 Montana and No. 23 Sacramento State. Cal Poly also hosts Ivy League-opponent Brown on Sept. 14.
“We can’t get caught up in who we’re playing next week or the week after,” Jenkins said. “We’ve just got to handle one week at a time. We know that each team is — they are what they are — but they bleed just like us, as far as I’m concerned.”
The Mustangs also go to Northern Arizona and Montana State, and will host Idaho State and Southern Utah to close out the regular season.
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