Cal Poly’s upcoming spring drills might be less about getting better and more about getting healthy.
At least 10 players will not be participating because of injury when the Mustangs football team opens practice at the Sports Complex at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said.
Of course, one of those players is receiver Willie Tucker, who is returning to San Luis Obispo after initially getting his release to transfer in the offseason.
Tucker is still not healthy from a season-ending knee injury and may take all of 2014 to redshirt and recover.
Potential or returning starters Cameron Ontko and Chris Judge at linebacker and Jake Irwin at defensive end are also sitting out after offseason surgeries.
Quarterback Vince Moraga, who won the starting job going into last season, is still unavailable after blowing out his knee in the second game. While Moraga mulls a possible retirement, Walsh said he would like the sixth-year senior to return in at least an emergency role.
While veterans like Tucker and Ontko aren’t expected to do much heavy lifting during the spring sessions, these practices are usually a chance for younger players or those in heated position battles to show their stuff.
Several who could be in line for playing time in the fall will also be unable to go.
Former Tribune County Player of the Year Elias Stokes, a sophomore from Paso Robles, added a labrum tear to a nagging hip injury and will be out at slotback despite the Mustangs needing to find a suitable replacement for NFL prospect Cole Stanford.
On defense, Cal Poly loses all-Big Sky Conference safety Alex Hubbard to graduation. Walsh was high on sophomore B.J. Nard going into last fall, but the Bakersfield product tore ligaments in his knee and starts the spring still on the injured list.
Sophomore linebacker Joseph Gigantino is a similar story as well.
But injuries don’t quash all intrigue.
There is still a quarterback battle to be settled and several other newcomers and exciting youngsters are expected to get plenty of repetitions.
With the transfer of Tanner Trosin and Moraga’s injury, the four-man battle for the starting quarterback that took place all offseason gives way to a much more manageable two-way competition.
Chris Brown finished the season as the starter with 230 yards of total offense and three touchdowns in a 42-14 win at Northern Colorado. Brown enters the spring even with fellow junior Dano Graves, who also rotated in as the starter last season.
In eight games, Brown completed 56.4 percent of passes for 104.5 yards per game with 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. He also added 85.6 yards per game and eight touchdowns on the ground, leading the Mustangs to a 3-2 record as the starter.
Going 2-3 as a starter, Graves averaged 69.3 yards in six games, completing 60 percent of his passes for three touchdowns and five interceptions. Graves also ran for 61.2 yards per game.
De Anza College transfer sophomore Andrew Barna, also formerly of Humboldt State, provides depth with freshman Kai Ross arriving in the fall.
“Dano and Chris both did enough really good things to both merit the starting quarterback job,” Walsh said. “I want somebody to go into fall camp as the starter, but I won’t guarantee it.”
The Mustangs will hold 14 practices with Monday, Wednesday and Friday sessions scheduled to start at 6:20 a.m. and Saturdays at 10 a.m. Spring drills will culminate with the spring game May 3 at noon at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
Those sessions will also be the debut of two FBS transfers looking to make an immediate impact. Coaches will get their first good looks at Nevada transfer linebacker Burton De Koning and defensive end Logan Mayes, formerly of Washington State.
Redshirt freshman Jake Brito, a 6-foot-1, 225-pound slotback, will get the first crack at replacing Stanford.
Former San Luis Obispo High standout Jack Ferguson, a 6-2, 240-pound linebacker, is expected to get plenty of reps as a redshirt freshman.
There’s also the question of replacing Tucker. The likely starters at wide receiver, junior Jordan Hines and sophomore Cam Akins, combined for 15 catches last season.
Senior Chris Nicholls (210 rushing yards and 161 receiving yards in 2013) could line up at as many as four positions as a double threat.
And with kicker Bobby Zalud out of eligibility and punter Paul Hundley no longer on the team, Walsh is hoping junior kicker Stephen Pyle is the solution on special teams.
Pyle will get an opportunity to claim both kicking positions with three redshirt freshman walk-ons being evaluated as well.