When an athlete fails to be admitted academically at Cal Poly, that’s usually the last his or her name is heard in San Luis Obispo.
Despite falling two passing grades short of qualifying after signing with the Mustangs in 2013, Joe Protheroe was set on making the Central Coast his home and joining a Cal Poly backfield brimming with young talent.
Instead of pursuing opportunities elsewhere, the Concord native took junior college courses online so he could honor his commitment, and the Mustangs are delighted to see the former 3,000-yard rusher arrive this fall, even if it is a year later than expected.
“I was determined,” said Protheroe, a 6-foot, 230-pound fullback. “I was was down on myself, thinking ‘What if I don’t play football again?’ I studied every day. I drove down to Cuesta every two weeks just so I could take my tests. It was a grind, but I got it done.”
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With a bruising run up the middle broken for a huge gain, Protheroe had the play of the day to raucous hoots from his offensive teammates in an abbreviated scrimmage at training camp Wednesday, the first full-contact, full-padded practice session of the season.
Effectively spending last year as a grayshirt, Protheroe has true freshman eligibility and could play for five years if he takes a redshirt season.
As it is, however, he could also be called upon this year. If his breakaway run Wednesday is an indication, his amazing senior season at Concord Clayton Valley Charter High was the real deal.
Protheroe ranked third in the state in rushing in 2012 with 3,014 yards and 34 touchdowns in leading the Eagles (12-2) to their first CIF-North Coast Section Division II title.
Having played in a double-wing offense at Clayton Valley, Protheroe is suited to the downhill style Cal Poly needs from its triple-option fullback.
“He’s tough, and he loves the game of football,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “We’re fired up about what we’ve seen from him so far. He’s got a lot to learn about the game and what we do on offense, but physically, he’s what we’re looking for in the guy that plays behind the quarterback.
“He’s got some gifts, and he may have to use them. He may get in the mix this year.”
Though seniors Brandon Howe and Brent Michaels figure to handle most snaps at fullback this season, Protheroe is getting plenty of repetitions. Fellow freshman runners Alex Suchesk and Lance Mudd were also getting time with the first team Wednesday as Walsh wanted to see how well they would do with the veterans.
Redshirt freshman runner Kyle Lewis also lined up at wide receiver and could convert to a pass-catcher full time, Walsh said.
The young backs are definitely getting their chance to earn immediate playing time.
“I think it’s a pretty talented group of good athletes,” senior slotback Kristaan Ivory said. “They’re just trying to learn our offense. That’s always the hard thing for incoming freshmen. “Joe Protheroe, he had a nice little run out there. He looked good today, so that was good to see.”
Coming off a season where he rushed for 1,113 yards and six touchdowns and was named team MVP, Ivory has yet to fully participate in practice.
He injured his hamstring running routes in a voluntary offseason workout with the quarterbacks two weeks before camp started. Walsh said the team is in no hurry to rush Ivory back, and he is expected to be fully healthy for the Aug. 28 season-opener at New Mexico State.
On Wednesday, Ivory was dressed out and ran sprints on the sideline but was held out of live action.
“I’m out here running, and I feel a lot better,” Ivory said. “I’m almost ready. I feel like I was in great shape when I got hurt. I’ve still been out here running a lot of hundreds and striding and doing everything I can. So, I still feel like I’m in good shape.”
Ivory is not the only projected starter still sidelined.
Defensive end Jake Irwin and linebacker Chris Judge are each still recovering from offseason hip surgery, and senior defensive tackle Chris Lawrence is sitting with a hurt thumb.
All of them are expected to be ready in time to start the season, but while they are out, their absence is opening up opportunities for younger players to be seen by coaches.
Being one of those younger players, Protheroe has opened some eyes. He’s still getting back into shape after spending a year away from the field. He was encouraged by Wednesday’s big run but far from satisfied.
“I’m getting there,” Protheroe said. “I think in about a week or two, I’ll be in the best shape I can be in.
“The biggest thing for me right now is I need to get with” running backs coach Aristotle Thompson, he added, “and learn all the plays. I haven’t accomplished anything out here until I learn all the plays.”