Cal Poly

Running back, secondary are primary concerns for Cal Poly's football team

Quarter-back Dano Graves, left, and running back Kristaan Ivory will return for Cal Poly’s football team this season. Ivory ran for 1,113 yards last season.
Quarter-back Dano Graves, left, and running back Kristaan Ivory will return for Cal Poly’s football team this season. Ivory ran for 1,113 yards last season.

When signing day hit in February, Cal Poly running back recruit Lance Mudd could not contain his excitement.

The first of his class to go public with his verbal commitment to join the Mustangs the previous fall, Mudd was thrilled to hear about one of the last, fellow running back Alex Suchesk.

“Two running back commits,” Mudd said at the time, “bringing some serious speed to Cal Poly.”

Both put up marks on the track that landed them on CIF section and state rankings list — Muss in the San Diego and Suchesk in the Southern Section.

Mudd’s season-best 100-meter dash time was 10.74 seconds, a mark that would have ranked in the top nine at the state meet. Suchesk’s career best was 10.72.

With players reporting to San Luis Obispo today and training camp scheduled to begin at the Sports Complex on Friday, sixth-year head coach Tim Walsh finally gets to see what all that speed looks like in Mustangs colors. With the speedy newcomers and a couple of redshirt freshmen — Jake Brito and Kyle Lewis — vying for immediate playing time, the slotback positions in Cal Poly’s triple option are definitely ones to watch this preseason.

“I don’t think there’s any question I’m really excited to see the young running backs, Alex Suchesk and Lance Mudd,” said Walsh, noting one of the freshman is likely to see the field rather than redshirt.

Practices that are open to the public are scheduled to be held eight consecutive days beginning Friday and will be rotated between the turf fields at the Sports Complex and the grass field adjacent to the parking structure on Grand Avenue.

Though Kristaan Ivory returns as an honors candidate for his senior season after rushing for 1,113 yards on 6.5 yards per carry last season, he’ll need a capable backup to remain fresh, and another back will have to replace recent New England Patriots free-agent pickup Cole Stanford in the scheme.

“On offense, that’s the position we’re concerned about,” Walsh said. “Wide receiver will take care of itself.”

With respect to receivers, one aspect already has. Senior receiver Willie Tucker, the lone proven gamebreaker at the position, will redshirt this year as he continues to recover from a season-ending knee injury suffered in the fifth game last year.

Led by senior Chris Nicholls’ 15 catches, the five remaining returners have combined for just 36 catches last season.

For an option attack that led the FCS with 301.9 rushing yards per game last season, it makes sense to maintain that success. Besides, the passing game stands to be more effective now that a four-way battle at quarterback has been thinned out.

Former high school state record-holding passer Tanner Trosin has transferred, and last year’s opening-game starter, Vince Moraga, is still recovering from a devastating knee injury suffered in the second week of the 2013 season.

Juniors Chris Brown and Dano Graves are competing for the starting spot, but Walsh expects each to play during the season and is confident each can be successful after a 60-40 split in starts in favor of Brown over the last 10 games of a 6-6 season.

Heading into camp, the two are considered neck and neck to take the job when the Mustangs open the season Aug. 28 at FBS New Mexico State.

“Whoever it is, somebody’s going to take that first snap,” Walsh said, “and if we play well and he plays well, he’s going to keep playing.

“They way I look at it right now, they could be playing good, but if we’re not playing good on offense, it’s like having a sixth man in basketball, somebody that energizes your team and makes a change.”

Defensively, Cal Poly has to replace six starters, including three of four in the defensive backfield.

Defensive tackle Sullivan Grosz, the 2013 Big Sky Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year, and four-year starter Johnny Millard each moved on to the NFL this offseason, representing big losses. Safety Alex Hubbard, who is pursuing an indoor football career, also leaves a void.

Hubbard and cornerbacks Vante Smith-Johnson and Bijon Samoodi combined for 172 tackles and five interceptions last season.

Senior Jordan Williams, the lone returning starter in the defensive backfield, moves over to replace Hubbard.

Senior safeties Dave Douglas and Trevor Weis had solid showings in the spring and are likely to battle over Williams’ old spot.

At cornerback, Cal Poly signed Idaho transfer Solomon Dixon, but the former Vandals starter was not admitted academically, Walsh said. In the wake of that news, the Mustangs snagged Wyoming transfer Cortland Fort, a sophomore who started his career at Army and was originally recruited by Cal Poly out of Rancho Cucamonga Etiwanda High.

Fort could team with redshirt freshman Dominique Love, who transferred from New Mexico State, but they will get heavy competition from juniors Karlton Dennis and Chris Fletcher.

“The guys that have been here need to make one more jump before they finish playing here,” Walsh said.