Editor’s Note: This is the last of four articles looking at each of the four quarterbacks in the running to become Cal Poly’s starter for 2013.
There is no such thing as a redshirt at the U.S. military academies.
So, incoming football players not expected to be immediate contributors are often enrolled in related prep schools for a year to keep from losing any NCAA eligibility.
Dano Graves took that route after committing to Air Force in 2011.
That meant when the former record-breaking quarterback from Folsom High arrived in Colorado Springs, Colo., he wasn’t wearing a jersey and jeans on the sideline on game days like redshirts elsewhere. He wasn’t taking scout team repetitions.
Since the prep school has its own separate team, Graves was starting and playing junior college-level football, and it’s given him some experience to build on now that the sophomore has transferred to Cal Poly.
“What it really helped me do is come back from adversity,” said Graves, one of four top candidates in a wide-open spring practice competition to become the Mustangs’ next starter. “When we got thrown together on the prep school team, we barely had any time to play together. I was playing with young linemen, the protection wasn’t the best, and we were all younger than everyone we played.”
Sounds similar to Cal Poly’s spring drills, where each projected starter of the offensive line is out rehabbing an offseason surgery while Graves, former Folsom teammate Tanner Trosin, junior Vince Moraga and sophomore Chris Brown are in the position battle of their lives.
Graves nearly committed to Cal Poly coming out of Folsom. It was a natural fit. His father, David, was a three-year starter at safety for the Mustangs from 1987-89 and met his wife Angela when the two were students at Cal Poly.
At 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, Dano Graves is the kind of recruit the Mustangs thrive on, his undersized frame helping to conceal the high-major talent hiding within from would-be FBS suitors.
In his senior year at Folsom, Graves set a state record with 85 total touchdowns — 62 passing and 23 rushing — while throwing for 3,702 yards and rushing for 994.
In a run to the Bulldogs’ first state championship, Graves accounted for 12 touchdowns in his past two games, which included a 48-20 victory over Gardena Serra in the Division II title game.
That brand of success is hard to hide. So, when Air Force came calling, Graves took on the challenge. You tend not to back down when you’ve been called short all your life.
“That’s something that kind of drives me to prove them wrong,” Graves said. “When people mention stuff like that, it just gives me motivation.”
In his two years living the military lifestyle, however, Graves found it simply wasn’t for him.
He would have been in a two-player battle with junior Kale Pearson to become the new starter for the Falcons had he stayed at Air Force. Graves said his transfer was not centered on playing time.
“I was kind of chasing that D-I dream, but what I really learned is it really doesn’t matter what level you’re playing at as long as you’re having fun and happy with life.”
Arriving in San Luis Obispo just two weeks prior to the start of spring camp, Graves might be the least familiar with the Mustangs’ way of doing things, but he did pick up valuable experience with the triple option by playing with Air Force Prep, which runs an offense similar to the Falcons’ varsity team.
Playing against competition from the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference, Graves thrived by “staying positive when stuff went wrong and using my legs to make plays and keep the chains moving when the offense wasn’t as crisp early on in the season.”
By the third game of the 2011 season, Graves and Air Force Prep looked pretty crisp. In a 40-7 victory over Hutchison, which was ranked third in the country at the time, Graves was 8-of-8 passing for 127 yards and a touchdown, and rushed 13 times for 94 yards and two more scores.
At the time, Hutchison featured the top-rated JC receiving prospect in the country, Cordarelle Patterson, who went on to transfer to Tennessee and was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday.
Playing in five of the team’s eight games before spraining his knee, Graves graduated from the prep school and spent his freshman season as a backup with the Falcons, whose triple option differs somewhat from Cal Poly’s.
The two schemes feature similar concepts, but the reads key on different defenders, and while the Falcons quarterbacks are under center 90 percent of the time, the Mustangs have been transitioning away from that formation.
They spent close to half their snaps in the shotgun last season.
“Right now, I feel like the things I need most are execution and command,” Graves said, “being able to step up to the line of scrimmage and know exactly what I’m doing.
“Just distributing the ball to the athletes around me, doing that and earning coaches’ trust and showing I can keep the ball safe.”