As Cal Poly ran through football practice at the I-Field on Wednesday, redshirting freshman receiver Lance Castaneda was the only one wearing a red jersey.
Normally reserved for injured players, red usually conveys non-contact. But in this case, it was a big caution flag rather than a stop sign.
As in, “Caution: Tysson Poots crossing.”
The Mustangs (4-2) face Southern Utah (2-4, 1-0 Great West Conference) and Poots — the Las Vegas native that has gashed them for 34 catches for 530 yards and four touchdowns the past three seasons — in their last of a five-game road swing Saturday and are preparing to pay a lot of attention to the senior receiver.
“He’s a big guy,” said Cal Poly junior safety Greg Francis, a three-year starter who has seen plenty of the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Poots the past two seasons. “He’s got big hands and runs good routes. He’s really athletic, and he knows the offense really well.
“We got different doubles going on and different things.”
The treatment won’t be anything new for Poots, who was ignored by bigger college programs despite a standout prep career and is now looking to make the move into the NFL.
A consensus preseason All-American, Poots has had big games against almost everyone, and Cal Poly isn’t the first to slap a different color jersey on its scout team version of him.
“I have a few buddies that are on different teams that we’ve played this year,” Poots said in a phone interview, “and they’ve told me their defenses are doing the same thing. So, I know they know where I’m going to be at, but if they look too hard at me, it’s going to open things up for my teammates.
“You can’t put all your eggs in one basket, pretty much.”
Or apparently, no matter how big your egg basket is, it still can’t hold Poots.
For all of the attention he receives, which also includes a preseason Great West Offensive Player of the Year nod, the current graduate student is still averaging seven catches and more than 105 yards per game this season and has scored five touchdowns.
He had 10 catches for 147 yards in a Sept. 18 game against San Jose State, a 16-11 loss that snapped Poots’ streak of 16 straight games with at least one touchdown catch.
His numbers are a bit below his second-team All-America numbers from a year ago (9.4 catches and 120 yards per game), but not by much, and Poots is coming off of a season-best performance.
He caught 13 passes for 250 yards and a touchdown in a 31-21 Great West win over North Dakota that earned him the conference offensive player of the week award last week, and he’s always had huge games against Cal Poly.
In 2008, Poots set a Southern Utah single-game record with 16 catches, the most ever by a Mustangs opponent, for 246 yards and a touchdown. Last season, he caught another 12 passes for 170 yards and a score in the teams’ Great West tilt.
Even as a redshirt freshman, when he was just the team’s third-leading receiver, Poots had 114 yards and two touchdowns against Cal Poly.
All kidding aside about how kind the Mustangs have been to him on the field, Poots genuinely likes Cal Poly’s defensive backs, including cornerback Asa Jackson, who was named Great West Conference Preseason Defensive Player of the Year.
“It’s almost like you know them,” Poots said. “You know them as a football player, not so much as a person off the field, but you feel like you know them, and you feel pretty confident. It makes this game a lot of fun when you go against the same team every year, especially a good team like Cal Poly.”
That doesn’t mean that Poots isn’t looking forward to the time when he won’t be lining up against the Mustangs.
A few NFL scouts have come out to isolated Cedar City, Utah — which is about a 175-mile drive from Las Vegas — to meet with and watch him practice. Come Saturday, Poots will have played in front of pro scouts five times this season.
“I don’t know if being drafted in the high rounds is really a realistic goal for him,” said third-year Thunderbirds head coach Ed Lamb, “but if he gets with the right team that gives him an opportunity, they’ll find that he’s really special at what he does.
“Two things. He runs routes with such relaxation that he’s able to read defenses and find holes. The second thing he does well is if the ball is anywhere near him, he fights for it. That’s a difficult skill for a coach to teach, and he had that before I met him.”
The biggest question scouts have is about his speed. It’s the same question that might have dogged him coming out of Coronado High of Henderson, Nev., in 2005, where he was a two-time all-state selection at receiver and was named Las Vegas City MVP.
Poots had more than 2,000 yards receiving and was a second-team all-state linebacker during his varsity career at Coronado, which opened in 2001. His best 40-yard dash was 4.52 seconds, and he hasn’t had to run the drill since then.
Most college teams wanted him as defensive player, either at linebacker or safety, but even those schools were looking at him as a walk-on, including hometown UNLV, Poots said.
He had dreams of walking on at Michigan State or in the Pac-10, but when it came down to it, money mattered to mom, and Southern Utah was the only school willing to give him a scholarship.
So, after waiting a couple of months after the signing date for a late offer from elsewhere, Poots called up the Thunderbirds to ask if they still had one for him.
“That happens to a lot of kids out of Henderson or Vegas, unless you’re from Bishop Gorman,” Poots said. “The other kids get overlooked a lot, even by UNLV. I didn’t think it would happen to me because of the stuff I did, but you do get overlooked. A lot of players in Vegas don’t get seen. People must pass through Nevada and go straight to California.”
The California team that’s going straight to its Nevada hotel today surely won’t be making the same mistake.