With Cal Poly’s football season at a midseason crossroad and a seventh consecutive ranked opponent coming to Alex G. Spanos Stadium on Homecoming Weekend, the Mustangs turned to an unproven 18-year-old quarterback who had never taken a collegiate snap.
Knowing the team would be without fifth-year senior quarterback Chris Brown against No. 14-ranked Portland State, Cal Poly gave true freshman Khaleel Jenkins an opportunity to make a difference somewhere other than the practice field.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Jenkins made his first collegiate start Saturday night in front of a sellout crowd, putting an end to the redshirt season he preserved through the first six games of the season.
There were some brilliant moments, like the 50-yard touchdown run in the first quarter that qualifies as end-of-the-year highlight reel material. But there also were some expected growing pains, such as the two lost fumbles and nine incomplete passes.
By the end of Cal Poly’s 38-35 loss to the Vikings — its fourth setback in the past five games — Jenkins contributed 93 rushing yards on 16 attempts. He surpassed the 100-yard mark but a fourth-quarter sack deducted 13 yards from his total.
“I think he probably wishes that he could have a couple plays back, and we wish he would’ve had a couple of plays back,” seventh-year head coach Tim Walsh said. “But I think when you grade his overall performance, in his first college start against the 13th-ranked team in the country, I think it’s pretty impressive.”
From outside the program, it came as a surprise when Jenkins’ name was called as the starter during pregame introductions. When healthy, Brown rarely misses a snap and junior Andrew Barna was the only other quarterback on the roster to play in a game this season. With senior Dano Graves sticking to his redshirt in hopes of taking over for Brown in 2016, it seemed unlikely Jenkins would see the field at all this fall.
Walsh quickly put that thought to rest, however, saying Jenkins has been the No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart all season. Because Brown often sits out of practice recovering from games, Jenkins has taken countless reps at the Upper Sports Complex and developed a strong handle on the Mustangs’ triple-option offense.
“Going into this season I wanted to do whatever I could to help the team,” Jenkins said. “So if that means redshirt and just be a backup the whole year and just learn the system, then that’s what I would do.
“If my number was called, then it was my job to be ready.”
When the Mustangs found out on Thursday that Brown wouldn’t be able to play, Jenkins continued taking reps with the first team offense. That preparation translated into Saturday’s contest, and the freshman led a 16-play, 78-yard scoring drive that took more than six minutes off the clock in the first quarter. He converted a pair of short fourth-down runs, something Brown has become known for this season.
In total, Jenkins directed the Mustangs to 536 totals yards, with 420 of those coming on the ground. Cal Poly punted only once and possessed the ball for nearly 10 minutes more than the visiting Vikings. But four turnovers, a late-hit penalty and an errant snap on a second-half punt gave Portland State too many extra opportunities.
A win Saturday could have gone a long way for a Cal Poly team looking to bounce back from a heartbreaking overtime loss at Eastern Washington two weeks ago. Brown’s undisclosed injury was serious enough to keep him out of a pivotal game, and despite Jenkins’ impressive first start, the Mustangs are looking up a 2-5 record with one win in four Big Sky Conference games.
“The team needed me to play and it was my time to step up and do that,” Jenkins said. “Our guys work so hard all year that if I need to come in and play and help them out to win a game, then that’s what I’m supposed to do. It’s tough that we weren’t able to get it done.”
Jenkins said he and Brown room together when Cal Poly travels for road games, and he’s benefited from that relationship on and off the field. Replacing Brown, who entered Saturday as the conference rushing leader at 117 yards per game, doesn’t happen overnight.
Even for a player as talented as Jenkins, who accounted for more than 4,700 total yards and 57 touchdowns during his standout prep career at San Diego’s Francis Parker High. Also a standout basketball player, Jenkins has already been inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame.
“Me and Chris are really close,” Jenkins said. “He’s bummed he couldn’t play, but I knew I owed it to him. Everything he’s done for our team and everything he’s done for me, I owed it to him to step up and try to play my best.”
No. 14 Portland State 38, Cal Poly 35
Leading rusher: Kori Garcia, 18 carries for 131 yards
Leading tackler: Burton De Koning, 9 tackles
X-factor: Kyle Lewis, 201 all-purpose yards, 2 TDs