Cal Poly

Cal Poly Mustangs have depth on defensive line

Cal Poly’s defensive linemen go through a drill during practice Friday at the Upper Sports Complex.
Cal Poly’s defensive linemen go through a drill during practice Friday at the Upper Sports Complex. jmellom@thetribunenews.com

Auto collisions are one of the leading causes of the injury that kept James Chen off the football field for Cal Poly last season.

Midseason, the Mustangs nose tackle was hit with a pelvic avulsion fracture, which happens when a muscle connected to the hip contracts so violently that it pulls off a chunk of bone.

According to multiple online sources, other common causes include cancer, infection, overuse of the hip muscles and soccer. Chen has plenty of violent collisions at the defensive point of attack, though they might not exactly qualify as car crashes. At 6-foot-2 and 270 pounds, the fifth-year senior is not playing a ton of soccer either.

Chen’s injury more likely falls under overuse.

And overuse while being leaned on by offensive linemen from places like Montana — where he regularly gives up more than a few inches and up to 50 pounds.

Compounding the issue, Cal Poly was undermanned on the defensive line last season as the Mustangs transitioned from a three-man front to a four-man front. The starters weren’t given many breathers.

“It’s no surprise we’re an undersized defensive line,” Chen said. “We have to rely on our speed a lot. And instead of having a guy go 60 plays … having guys that rotate in lets you have fresh legs, you can catch your breath and always get in there and go full go.

“It’s when your body’s extremely fatigued and you’re pushing 110 percent when muscles tear, when I get the avulsion fracture, where you have shoulder/labrum issues. So definitely having the depth will help tremendously.”

After coaches appeared to make the defensive front a priority in the offseason, the depth was there when players got their first training camp action in full pads Friday.

Headlined by a healthy Chen, Cal Poly returns five defensive linemen who were at least part-time starters last season. Plus, the Mustangs brought in defensive end transfers Matt Singletary (Baylor) and Kyle Murphy (Santa Rosa Junior College).

Gavin Cooper (6-3, 240 pounds) is also back for his junior season after a year off tending to his surgically repaired labrum. Troy Shotwell (6-3, 235) was switched from the offensive line to defense in the spring, and freshman Sullivan Grosz (6-4, 265) is getting rave reviews coming out of his redshirt year.

Singletary (6-3, 250), the son of San Francisco 49ers head coach and former Chicago Bears great Mike Singletary, was not caught off-guard by the competition but knows it won’t be easy breaking into the lineup.

“If you go into any situation like ‘I got this,’ it’s going to sneak up on you 10 out of 10 times,” Singletary said. “Depth is a huge asset to have, you just have options and that’s not just something you always have.

“I don’t want to say I want to start, because that’s not what I want … I want to be the best that I can be so I know that I left it out there.”

Former Atascadero High standout Brandon Roberts (6-2, 245), a junior, and sophomore Kyle Winkelman (6-3, 245) shared a starting role opposite Ryan Shotwell last season. Redshirt freshman Nick Leyden (6-2, 250) of Pioneer Valley High and junior Joe Brum (6-3, 250) are also looking for time on the outside.

Erich Klemme (6-2, 270) started alongside Chen at the other tackle spot and was joined by Kevin Hess (6-4, 260) inside when Chen went down. They and Grosz appear likely to form a four-man rotation at tackle.

In all, there are about 12 capable players competing for a limited number of spots. No more than 10 are likely to travel with the team, and second-year defensive line coach Jamar Cain advises players to work their way into the top eight if they want to assure themselves of playing time.

“I wouldn’t even say my name’s penciled in,” said Chen, who first topped the depth chart as a redshirt freshman. “I’m one of the guys that’s going to give it all I’ve got and make sure I see the playing field. And I feel like that’s how the majority of our players are, which is what I love to see. That’s how you should play football.”

The main evaluator in arguably the most heated position battles in camp is Cain, who was brought in last season to complete the makeover from former head coach Rich Ellerson’s flex defense to Walsh’s 4-3.

He’s gone from having to do more with less to all of a sudden worrying about who to dole the playing time to.

“I tell all my guys it’s going to be a tough decision on me, so make it easy,” Cain said. “I grade every day. I grade practice every day. I grade production every day.

“All the pressure’s on me. So, I just can’t mess it up.”

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