Before this week, Hal Kelley had never granted an interview.
Being an offensive lineman, the Cal Poly center really hasn’t had to dodge too many reporters, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still choose to be the silent type.
“I’ve always avoided it,” Kelley said.
Only, when Will Mitchell, the vocal leader of the Mustangs offensive line, went out last week — just the latest in an almost eerie run of injuries for Cal Poly — Kelley took the opportunity to come out of his shell.
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Mitchell, the starting right guard, left before the fifth play of a blowout victory over Division II Dixie State with an ankle sprain and turned into a cheerleader.
“Obviously everything’s not going to go the way you expect it,” Mitchell said. “(I was) just making sure their head stays in the game and that they know there is a next play and you’ve got 60 minutes to play.”
Mitchell did not travel with the No. 18 Mustangs (4-3, 1-0 Great West Football Conference) for today’s game at North Dakota (3-4, 1-1 GWFC), and the offensive line play is a major plotline going into the game.
Depending on how you look at it, Cal Poly is starting between two and four backups on the line this week, and though both Dixie State and North Dakota each line up with an odd front, the Fighting Sioux, a transitional Division I team, are supposed to present a tougher challenge than a program only four years away from leaving the junior college level.
Though Mitchell is not expected to be out for an extended period of time, he is the third three-year starter on the offensive line to go down this year.
Mitchell’s ankle sprain as well as season-ending injuries to fellow offensive linemen Art Munoz and Jason Cox — not to mention a rash of unrelated injuries to nearly every starting skill player — have left the Mustangs without a consistent source of leadership.
The offensive lineup has changed every game this season, and injuries have kept several players off the practice field even if they proved able to play on Saturdays.
“We are struggling for a little leadership,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “We have real strong leadership from Ryan Shotwell and Carlton Gillespie, seniors on the defensive end, but on the offensive side, from a continuity standpoint, we’re looking for somebody that’s there all the time that can help keep us together and keep us going the same direction. We’re concerned about it, but I think somebody will step up.”
Last Saturday, co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Saga Tuitele saw some of that in Kelley, who helped to direct injury fill-ins Matt Bertole and Lucas Trily.
When Mitchell went out, left tackle Scott Winnewisser was moved to the guard spot, Bertole and Trily were shuffled in and out and Trily received his first collegiate action.
“Hal stepped up and he kind of became the vocal leader out there,” Tuitele said. “I saw him commanding the huddle. It’s some good and bad: You lose one, but you gain good experience with your center. Now, he’s the leader, and I saw him out there doing a good job of controlling the guys, settling them down or hyping them up.”
Kelley was an injury fill-in himself last season. After All-American guard Stephen Field and starting center Cox each went down with leg injuries, Maurice McClure and Kelley were each pressed into action.
Cox was projected to start this season, but he has taken longer than expected to recover from knee surgery.
Less than a year later, McClure and Kelley are now the veterans on the line and each knows exactly how Bertole, Trily and true freshman Giovanni Sani, Munoz’s replacement at tackle, feel being thrown into the action midstream.
Along with that, Kelley brings a calming influence.
“We practice a lot and coach puts us in positions to be able to step in and take over,” Kelley said. “It’s easy to be nervous, but we really know what we’re doing, and all the practice and all the coaching, it’s not like we’re going in completely unaware.”
Still, Tuitele and Mitchell both agreed that experience does count for something. It takes some time to put their knowledge and power together in a live-action situation.
“Physically, they can do it,” Tuitele said. “Mentally, they can do it. It’s just the game speed, game-time experience, those little games within the game that o-linemen play.”
And since the Mustangs do not travel injured players, the support system of motivational speakers — Munoz, Cox and now Mitchell — who’ve been there for moral support at every home game, will really be gone.
Winnewisser, a first-year starter, was also hanging on to a crutch at practice this week but is expected to play. If he can’t, it will be Trily at Mitchell’s guard spot, Bertole at Winnewisser’s tackle spot and true freshman Nick Leyden, a former Pioneer Valley High standout, playing a primary backup role.
“We lost some great players and we definitely lost some guys that we really would have loved to have around,” Kelley said, “some guys that really stepped up in the past and did what they needed to do and were kind of leaders on the offensive line, but I think right now, certain guys have stepped up and kind of taken their role leading the offense without them.”