Tony Smith learned a lot in his first season as the starting quarterback at Cal Poly.
The experience he received helping lead the Mustangs to a 4-7 campaign in 2009 — its first under head coach Tim Walsh — is probably his biggest asset in the senior’s attempt to turn away sophomore challenger Andre Broadous as training camp opens Monday.
As last year wore on, Smith got more comfortable on the field. He passed for 407 yards and six touchdowns in the penultimate game of the season, his finest.
But the team stumbled to lose its final four games, going from Football Championship Subdivision playoff contention to last place in the Great West Football Conference, and Smith understands he might not have many allies outside the locker room because of it.
“The main thing I’ve learned is,” said Smith, “it really only matters if you win.
“As the games went on, you understand what it takes. Every opportunity counts. You have to understand that every time you touch the ball and make decisions, it affects the outcome of the game.”
Monday’s 11 a.m. practice session, a strictly helmet-and-shorts affair at the upper sports complex, will be the first chance for coaches and spectators to see newcomers like Baylor defensive end transfer Matt Singletary, highly touted freshmen like former Pleasanton Foothill kicker James Langford and Oakland safety Dave Douglas or local product K.J. Cusack, a running back from St. Joseph, in green and gold.
Senior receiver Dominique Johnson, a former UCLA transfer who broke one of Ramses Barden’s school records with five touchdowns in Smith’s big game against South Dakota, spent spring camp on the non-contact list because of shoulder surgery.
Declared healthy, Johnson was recently named to the College Football Performance Awards 2010 FCS Preseason Watch List.
West Virginia transfer running back Mark Rodgers is completing a summer course he needs to become eligible and may not be finished in time to join the team by Monday. Rodgers could be forced to redshirt, and that would make the question of who will step up in his absence a major one.
Even though the Mustangs return 17 players who started at times last season, there are also plenty of position battles to pique people’s interest.
But even with all the above going on, the duel between Smith and Broadous will likely be the most scrutinized.
Though Smith played nearly every meaningful snap, and Broadous was lifted after fumbling twice in his only real relief role at Montana last season, Walsh said the first-team snaps in training camp are going to be doled out as equally as possible between the two.
“They’re pretty even going into camp,” Walsh said. “Andre’s improved enough to get an opportunity to prove he can do it. Tony’s got experience that’s hard to overcome, but it’s not impossible.”
Smith is already considered the better passer of the two. He completed 51 percent of his attempts for 1,618 yards, 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions last season, the first real action of his career.
But the triple option, which Cal Poly has been running since 2007, requires more from its quarterbacks than throwing the ball.
“With Tony, he needs to make good quick decisions and become a quicker more attacking runner,” Walsh said.
The previous two seasons — when Barden was taking on Jerry Rice’s legacy in a battle for NCAA supremacy and James Noble was sharing a backfield with Ryan Mole and assaulting school touchdown records — quarterback Jonathan Dally was the one ruling the Mustangs’ running game.
Dally deceptively led the team in rushing yards in each of his two years as the starter. The former Righetti High and Allan Hancock College standout had 793 yards in 2007 and 821 in 2008, when Cal Poly’s triple-option offense was arguably the best FCS unit in the country.
Though he led the Mustangs with five rushing touchdowns, Smith averaged only 20 yards per game on the ground in 2009, when former Templeton High star Jake Romanelli led the team with 492 rushing yards behind an injury-plagued offensive line.
“It’s tough coming in after Jon Dally,” Smith said. “He’s probably one of the best ever to come through the program, if not the best. So, those are big shoes to fill.”
Compacted with that comparison is Broadous’ area of expertise: The running game.
The 6-foot, 197-pound sophomore from Portland, Ore., excelled as a passer at Grant High but also rushed for 992 yards and 18 touchdown his senior year, leading Grant to a 12-1 record and a berth in the semifinal round of Oregon’s Class 6A playoffs.
Broadous has shown an affinity for extending plays with his feet in Cal Poly practice situations. He rushed 14 times for 74 yards and a touchdown in the spring game as Walsh and offensive coordinator Bryan Cook unveiled a new shotgun formation that seems tailor-made for Broadous.
Conversely in the coaches’ eyes, Broadous needs to improve “his ability to throw the ball to the right guy at the right time and get it there,” Walsh said. “And he needs to take control of the opportunity he has from a leadership standpoint because Tony is good at that.”
Broadous took advantage of his opportunity in the spring game, completing all four of his passes for 91 yards and a touchdown while starting with the first team.
Starting with the second string, Smith was 2-for-6 passing with 12 yards and an interception and rushed five times for 15 yards and a touchdown.
Smith understands his role. Though the coaches are imploring him to be more of a threat, his job is to get the ball to the team’s playmakers, guys like Johnson and possibly Rodgers.
Broadous is expected to be a playmaker, which makes it tough to compare the two.
They both could prove effective in their respective roles in camp, but only one will win the job.
“Andre is a fantastic talent,” Smith said. “He’s going to be a great quarterback in this program. I have no question about that, but it is a competition. A lot of it has to do with the way our season went last year. I know I didn’t play spectacularly in any sense, but I need to be ready to play.”