The palpable buzz that surrounded Willie Tucker’s return during the Cal Poly football team’s fall training camp has come to fruition the past two weeks.
It may have taken a little longer than he hoped, but the fifth-year senior wide receiver has come on strong when the Mustangs needed it most.
As Cal Poly ran for nearly 500 yards in a rout of visiting Idaho State on Saturday night at Alex G. Spanos Stadium, Tucker turned in a performance reminiscent of the ones he repeatedly delivered early in his career before suffering a season-ending knee injury in 2013.
The 6-foot-3, 201-pound wide receiver caught four passes for 87 yards and two touchdowns against the Bengals. Both of Tucker’s scoring receptions — covering 8 and 59 yards — came during the decisive third quarter, when the Mustangs scored 24 points to pull away.
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“We know when he stays patient with his route running, he’s a tough guy to cover one-on-one,” head coach Tim Walsh said. “When you’re running the ball as well as we ran the ball, then people have to play man because they have to stop the run.”
Tucker often was the beneficiary when Cal Poly went away from its triple option in favor of a downfield pass. Of Brown’s five completions on seven attempts, four of those landed in Tucker’s hands.
Despite not having a reception against Montana in the season opener or at Arizona State during Week 2, Tucker leads Cal Poly’s veteran receiving corps with six catches for 117 yards — an average of 23.4 yards per reception — and three touchdowns.
“I was out of the game for 18 months, so there’s a little period where you kind of just have to get back adjusted to it,” said Tucker, an El Dorado Hills native. “But I absolutely feel more than 100 percent confident in everything between Chris, me, the offense.
“I feel like every play could go for 100.”
Five weeks into the 2013 season, Tucker suffered an MCL tear in his left knee that caused him to miss the final seven games of the season. During the ensuing offseason, he entertained walk-on offers from FBS schools Fresno State and Oregon State and was reportedly granted his release from Cal Poly.
Tucker opted to stay in San Luis Obispo, and spent the next calendar year rehabbing his knee. He missed the entire 2014 season, and unlike many Mustang skill players, Tucker had a redshirt year remaining because he played as a true freshman.
Eight months after the first surgery, Tucker said he wasn’t feeling as well as he expected. He went in for another MRI, and eventually, a second surgery.
“It was actually a sense of relief that they said there was something still wrong there,” Tucker said. “So when they ended up fixing it, immediately I came out of there like, ‘Wow, this does feel a lot better.’ ”
During his 37-game career, Tucker has caught 66 passes for 1,211 yards and 14 touchdowns. He had his biggest statistical impact as a sophomore when he caught 28 passes for 517 yards and seven scores, helping Cal Poly win a share of the Big Sky Conference championship and an FCS playoff berth.
“He had a long past two years, and mentally that can do a lot to a person,” said Brown, who is roommates with Tucker. “Especially dealing with the amount of injuries that he’s had. It’s good to see him trusting in what he does.”
Brown said he understands the frustration that comes with being a receiver in the Mustangs’ run-first triple-option offense. Tucker, along with seniors Jordan Hines and Roland Jackson Jr., would all like to have more touches each game.
“It’s something we talk about all the time,” Brown said. “I know he wishes he could get the ball more, but at the same time I know the type of offense that we’re in, it’s not really supposed to happen.”
Even if the chances can be few and far between, Tucker appears ready to make the most of whatever comes his way.
“I’ve just been happy and blessed to get back out on the field and feel the way I do,” Tucker said.