It’s remarkable to think of Weston Walker as the anchor to the Cal Poly football team’s offensive line.
The former Atascadero High standout started as an afterthought in the recruiting game, invited to walk on with the hope he could get a few plays a game as a long-snapper.
But a redshirt freshman, Walker was thrust into an every-down starting role against a national title contender in a late-season game with heavy playoff implications when the first- and second-string right tackles were lost to injury.
Two years later, he and center Stephen Sippel, a fellow junior who was also pressed into action because of injury as a redshirt freshman, are the two most experienced blockers for a triple-option team expecting to once again be among the FCS leaders in rushing yards.
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Walker’s first start actually came in a 35-29 loss at Sacramento State in 2012. It was the first loss of the season for Cal Poly, but the stakes rose exponentially in the following week’s 34-17 defeat at national power Eastern Washington.
The 6-foot-4 Walker was listed at 250 pounds, which was not nearly enough to get the leverage he needed. But the Mustangs were running out of options after senior starter Karl Winkelman went down and his junior backup, Mike Freeman, was lost for the season.
“All the experience you can get is good experience,” said Walker as Cal Poly opened training camp this week. “I had some bad games, don’t get me wrong, but it was good to see the level I needed to be at. I wasn’t there then, but it was good to see it and see how other guys were able to handle that bigger, stronger level and eventually work my way up there.
“I really wasn’t ready. I wasn’t physically ready. I wasn’t mentally ready. I wasn’t big enough. I wasn’t strong enough, but I’ve put on some weight, I’ve gotten a lot stronger, gotten a lot smarter, figured out the offense, and now everything’s starting to click. Hopefully, this will be my year, our year.”
He’s being challenged for the starting right tackle job by 6-6 Santa Rosa Junior College transfer Calvin Sandeen, but Walker has the experience.
The Mustangs have an interesting makeup along the offensive line. In addition to Freeman, who was a senior last season, Cal Poly also said goodbye to Lefi Letuligasenoa, a four-year starter at guard, and Giovanni Sani, who also started multiple seasons at tackle.
This year, there isn’t a senior in the bunch.
“Me and Stephen Sippel are the oldest guys, so we’re really turning into those leaders,” Walker said. “After losing Gio, losing Lefi, losing Mike Freeman, those were the guys that we looked up to for our first few years, now we have to take that role and show our young guys what it’s like to be Cal Poly Mustangs and have our offensive style.”
The group is young, but because of injuries over the past couple seasons, it does have some experience.
In addition to Sippel and Walker, sophomore Matt Fisher started 10 games at guard last season and is moving to left tackle. Sophomores Nick Enriquez, Billy Shipman and Derek Sabo all played quality snaps last season and are battling for upgrades in playing time.
Ross Berry, a redshirt freshman from Templeton, and true freshman Sam Ogee are also in the mix to play.
“They’re not young guys anymore,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “Whoever we start on the offensive line, they’re all going to come back and play again next year. As youthful as we might be, they’ve all played, and they should be that much better. They should play like they’re seniors even though most of them are going to be sophomores and juniors.”
Walker started 10 of 12 games last season and is now up to 275 pounds, which is even more impressive considering he was a 215-pound tight end for the Greyhounds.
Cal Poly offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Saga Tuitele remembers when Walker attended the Mustangs’ summer camp his junior year of high school.
In a one-on-one blocking drill, Tuitele said, there was a 300-pound recruit from Bakersfield who was destroying allcomers. For the final showdown of the day, Walker stepped up and battled the big man to a stalemate despite giving up upwards of 90 pounds.
“He didn’t win, but he didn’t lose,” Tuitele said, “and because of that, we said ‘This kid’s tough, and that’s what we need.’
“He takes advantage of everything he gets. He started because of injury, and as a preferred walk-on, to start a couple games as a redshirt freshman here, for him, it was a great deal.” Plus, he’s a walk-on no more. Walsh awarded Walker a scholarship after this past spring game.
As it turns out, he wasn’t much of a long-snapper. Walker still handles short snaps on field goals and PATs, but being a long-snapper never materialized.
To the Mustangs, that’s quite all right.
“The hope was that he could grow into a player,” Walsh said. “He got thrown into the fire before he was physically, but he competed and competed well because of his mental makeup, and Weston is as tough as they come. I don’t know if we have a tougher guy. He doesn’t say a lot, but his toughness makes him the player he is, and now you add the strength he’s been able to develop and the size he’s been able to develop, and I think he’s ready to have a great year.”