With little more than a month and a half until signing day, the Cal Poly football team is looking for incoming players to fill immediate holes on defense.
Senior defensive tackle Sullivan Grosz was named team MVP this past week, and the 6-foot-4, 295-pound All-American’s departure leaves a huge void in the middle of the Mustangs’ line.
Cal Poly loses its top two sack leaders in Grosz and tackle/end Nick Leyden, and senior and former junior college transfer Barrett Wangara was also a key reserve inside.
The Mustangs also lose three of their four starting defensive backs, and will have to replace five of their top seven tacklers from this past season.
“Even though I think we have some good young players in the program,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said, “in order to play good, quality defense, those are two areas we definitely have to hit.”
As for defensive tackles, “We’re looking for junior college transfers,” Walsh added, “but we’re not going to sign a JC guy just to sign a JC guy. We have to think a guy can play like Barrett Wangara or better.”
Two-year starter Chris Lawrence returns at defensive tackle, and redshirt freshmen Marcus Paige-Allen and Jason Patterson will have the opportunity to earn big upgrades in playing time as sophomores this spring.
Patterson made the travel roster for select games this past season, and Walsh prizes the quickness of each player, though both are undersized. At 6-1, 250 pounds, Patterson set a Santee Santana High record with 171⁄2 sacks his senior year. At 5-11, 245 pounds, Paige-Allen grayshirted after signing with the Mustangs in 2012 and is the nephew of Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive lineman Larry Allen.
“We think he has the chance to be really good,” Walsh said of Paige-Allen. “He plays really well in flashes, but he didn’t play consistently enough, and especially as good as we think we’re going to be at linebacker again, they have to be consistent players. They don’t necessarily have to be Sullivan Grosz. They just have to do their deal and let the linebackers make a lot of plays.”
Linebackers Nick Dzubnar and Cameron Ontko, the leading tacklers this past season, both return, and several young players will be looking to fill the spot of senior linebacker Johnny Millard, who ranked third.
As for the defensive backfield, Cal Poly is counting on players already in the program to step into starting roles, but they could be pushed by incoming players as well.
Starter Jordan Williams returns at one safety spot, and Dave Douglas, a former starter, comes back for his senior season looking to replace Alex Hubbard.
Redshirt freshman B.J. Nard was competing for playing time before suffering a season-ending knee injury in training camp, and with his rehab going well, Walsh said Nard is an all-conference-level talent.
With senior cornerbacks Vante Smith-Johnson and Bijon Samoodi moving on, redshirt freshman and former New Mexico State transfer Dominique Love projects to move into a starting spot opposite Karlton Dennis, a part-time starter who returns for his senior season.
At cornerback, there are also Chris Fletcher and Fernando Cabico, former prep teammates from Chula Vista Eastlake High who return for their sophomore seasons looking to contribute.
Cal Poly will also have to replace its top two scorers from last season — versatile fullback Akaninyene Umoh, who scored 10 touchdowns, and kicker Bobby Zalud, who was 8 for 14 on field goals and totaled 57 points.
Former Mustangs soccer walk-on Stephen Pyle is the top returning kicker, and he could be challenged by a newcomer.
There are several backs already on campus who will compete to step in for Umoh and senior slotback Cole Stanford, and the recruiting class will likely build depth behind them or provide future replacements for leading rusher Kristaan Ivory and receiver Willie Tucker, who will be seniors next season.
“Nobody’s going to beat Kristaan Ivory out,” Walsh said. “But I would like to have a guy like Kristaan Ivory available like he was as a freshman.
“If we find a guy that’s a speed guy, that guy will have a chance as a freshman at either wide receiver or slot.”
With the development of freshmen runners Jake Brito and Kyle Lewis, who redshirted this past season, and freshman starter Cameron Akins and Tucker returning at receiver, “all of those things make us more skilled than maybe we showed this year.”