For all that the Cal Poly football team has lost in starting personnel from last season, the Mustangs have gained as much or more in respect with this year’s move to one of the FCS power conferences.
Leading rushers Jake Romanelli and Mark Rodgers are gone. So is the whole defensive secondary and nearly the entire defensive line rotation from a team that finished 6-5 and tied for the Great West Conference title.
Still, head coach Tim Walsh believes the time is right for a breakthrough season now that the program has a more stable affiliation. He also wants to make sure the lost personnel won’t continue to pile up.
When Cal Poly football opens fall camp Monday — with the first practice at the Upper Sports Complex scheduled for 3 p.m. — a big chunk of the emphasis will be on conditioning the players mentally for the program’s move to the Big Sky Conference.
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Another will be on keeping them healthy.
Walsh has already decided to redshirt injured cornerback Bijon Samoodi, a possibility laid out in spring practice that has since become a reality.
Entering what would have been his senior season, Samoodi was the only returning starter in the secondary and was even ranked as the 10th best cornerback in the FCS by The Sports Network in the offseason.
He was third on the team with 62 total tackles last season and returned his only interception 42 yards for a touchdown.
The hip injury that kept Samoodi out of spring drills altogether has not progressed enough to suit Walsh. “There’s no question that the injury is severe,” Walsh said. “It’s in his best interest for him to be out a year. We’re going to get him back 100 percent healthy, and he has not been healthy since his freshman year.“It’s a big loss, but that’s reality.”
Samoodi’s absence leaves senior Nico Molino and junior Vante Smith-Johnson, each key reserves the past two seasons, as the starting corners heading into camp. Sophomore Kevin Britt, a former Nipomo High standout, and redshirt freshmen Chris Fletcher and Karlton Dennis will provide depth.
With a growing emphasis on brain injuries and plenty of injury horror stories from each of Walsh’s first three seasons in San Luis Obispo, the head coach said the contact might also be dialed down in camp compared to previous years.
“Eyes are wide open now as far as football and contact,” Walsh said. “So, I think that’s one of the things that’s going to be different. As a coach, I’m going to have to register how much contact I want to have in practice.“I could limit a good player to 10 reps in a scrimmage, and in any one of those 10 plays, he can be injured. What we want to do is minimize the number of plays so the probability goes down.”
What Walsh also wants to do is emphasize the importance of Big Sky play.
As a program, Cal Poly hasn’t had the experience of being in a conference that awards an automatic FCS playoff berth to its conference champion.
The Mustangs have no experience navigating a lengthy conference season. They played four or fewer Great West games each season since 2005. This year, they’ll play eight in the Big Sky.
Walsh, on the other hand, has years of Big Sky experience as the former head coach at Portland State.
With the perceived strength of a conference that has produced one FCS national champion and two national runners-up in three of the past four seasons, Walsh believes the Big Sky will deserve four playoff berths come November and will receive at least three.
He also believes Cal Poly, with only 14 seniors on the active roster, has a chance to be one of those playoff-bound teams.
The Mustangs have not been to the postseason since 2008 under Rich Ellerson, who left for Army that December after a first-round exit.
This will be the final season with any Ellerson signees, the most notable being fifth-year senior quarterback Andre Broadous. The team is made up mostly of Walsh recruits now.
And the current head coach is confident his bunch can rise to the competition.
“I really do think we have a chance to be good,” Walsh said. “The old saying is ‘timing is everything,’ and I think the timing of being in the Big Sky is good for us.”