Cal Poly football’s opening game of the season should be a good measuring stick for how the Mustangs will fare in 2019.
They’ll host the University of San Diego, which has won or shared eight consecutive Pioneer League championships, in a non-conference match-up at 2 p.m. Saturday at Alex G. Spanos Stadium. The Toreros have also qualified for the FCS playoffs four times in the past five years and have won the last three Pioneer League titles with perfect 8-0 records.
San Diego also won last meeting between the two teams, 35-21 during the opening round of the 2016 FCS playoffs.
On the other hand, Cal Poly carries the momentum of winning four of its last six games following a 1-4 start last season. Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh is 4-1 against the Toreros, while San Diego head coach Dale Lindsey is 1-4 against Cal Poly.
Here’s what to expect from Cal Poly against San Diego and beyond in 2019:
Cal Poly will have a new face under center running Walsh’s old-school triple-option offense.
Redshirt freshman Jalen Hamler beat out sophomore Kyle Reid and junior Jake Jeffrey after a five-month competition that lasted until Monday. He takes over for two-year starter Khaleel Jenkins.
“Jalen is going to get the first shot,” head coach Tim Walsh said in a press release. “I think he’s deserving of getting it, but I’m not saying the other two guys are not far behind. I just want to make sure that Jalen understands it is his opportunity to take it, run with it and make something of it for himself.”
Hamler passed for 4,372 yards and 49 touchdowns with just six interceptions in 342 attempts and rushed for 1,437 yards and 21 more scores over his career at Lawndale High School.
“Jalen is going to get it largely because dynamically he did some good things in camp,” Walsh said. “His learning curve of the offense has gone way up in the last three weeks.”
On the Cal Poly coaches radio show, Walsh listed Hamler’s explosiveness and athletic ability as reasons why he got the nod. But Walsh didn’t rule out the possibility of the other two quarterbacks seeing the field this season.
Hamler will have a veteran receiver senior and captain J.J. Koski to throw to. Koski had 33 catches for 666 yards and four scores last year. Two returning slot backs will also ease the load for Hamler in Drew Hernandez (664 yards, nine touchdowns) and J’uan Campbell (195 yards, two touchdowns).
San Diego as well will feature a new quarterback this year, also the winner of a three-way preseason battle at the position.
San Diego lost veteran quarterback Anthony Lawrence, who started every year since 2014 and set every major school passing record, to graduation. Fifth-year senior Reid Sinnett will line up behind center against the Mustangs.
Former Mission Prep star and current San Diego quarterback Bryce Fledderman is also on the roster, but he is probably a year a way from competing for the starting spot.
Sinnett has plenty of capable weapons to work with, including senior wideout Michael Bandy, who had 88 catches for 1,698 yards and 14 touchdowns last season as an All-American and junior running back Emilio Martinez, who rushed for 710 yards and nine scores.
New offensive line
Cal Poly lost three veteran offensive linemen to graduation and a fourth, Apefai Taifane, will miss 2019 due to injury. Those who are returning, Paul Trujillo-Langdon and Tyler Whisenhunt, will slot into center and left tackle, respectively.
David Chellsen, who played in 10 games last season, is vying for either a right guard or right tackle position. Nicolo DiFronzo, a redshirt sophomore, is expected to take the spot that Chellsen doesn’t.
Walsh said there’s many young players on the roster looking to take the next step in their careers, naming DiFronzo and another potential left guard and backup center, D.J. Stuckey. The offensive linemen on the roster should get plenty of opportunities to do that in Cal Poly’s triple option.
They will be tested by a San Diego defense that returns two All-American linemen in Nick Friedel and Jacob Bergstrom, in addition to Kama Kamaka, who was the team’s leading tackler in 2018.
“I’ve always said the two teams that defend us the best are the University of San Diego and Weber State,” Walsh said on the radio. “So we’ve got our work cut out for what we’re doing.”
Same, but different defense
The Mustangs return nine starters from last season’s defense. The front seven — including Myles Cecil, Pono Faaagi and Jojo Falo — are young but experienced after being thrown into the fire in 2018.
Walsh said they will be doing some different things this season to keep more players involved on the defensive end, so expect to see 17 or 18 different players.
Junior linebacker Matt Shotwell returns to anchor the middle, as does senior Nik Navarro.
But it’s the secondary that should be tested the most on Saturday. While the safety position is well stocked with experience in Kitu Humphrey, Carter Nichols and former Arroyo Grande High standout Bradley Mickey, the cornerback position is not.
Two players with nine games experience each in 2018, senior Sharky Reza and junior Kevin Howell, will be starters after the departure of seniors Dominic Frasch and Jerek Rosales.
Last season, San Diego averaged almost 37 passing attempts per game. It’s possible they won’t reach that with the relatively untested Sinnett in his first start, but the passing game is sure to factor into Saturday’s game.