The wait is almost over.
When Dano Graves graduated from Folsom High in 2011 — leaving behind one of the most decorated prep careers in state history — he never expected it would be another five years before he truly returned to the spotlight.
Cal Poly’s fifth-year senior quarterback has navigated a winding path to the top of the Mustangs’ spring-camp depth chart. Now, the opportunity to lead Cal Poly out of the tunnel during its 2016 season opener at Nevada in September is his for the taking.
It just took a little longer than Graves might have hoped.
“He wants to take advantage,” head coach Tim Walsh said, “and I think he’s ready to do it.”
A prep sensation
Folsom has developed into a California powerhouse in recent years, and it’s fair to say Graves deserves some of that credit.
As a senior in 2010, he led the suburban Sacramento school to a 14-1 record and the Division II state championship. Graves was named the 2010 MaxPreps National Player of the Year after throwing for more than 3,700 yards and 62 touchdowns.
The 85 total touchdowns he scored that year stood as a state record, which was later broken by fellow Folsom standout and current University of Washington quarterback Jake Browning.
As a two-year starter, Graves led Folsom to a 25-3 record and accounted for more than 9,400 total yards and scored 151 touchdowns. He was intercepted six times in 363 attempts as a senior.
“Those memories stay with you forever,” said Graves, who scored six touchdowns in the state title game. “As far as statistics, that never really stood out to me.”
That led him to Air Force, a school that passionately recruited Graves from his junior year in high school on.
Yet he would play in just one JV game during his two years at Air Force. As interested as Graves was in becoming a pilot, he quickly realized the military lifestyle wasn’t for him.
The football facility was his sanctuary. He dreaded going back to the dorms, where the upperclassmen were less than welcoming.
“Just seeing myself be there for another three years at that time,” Graves said, “I didn’t think I could do it.”
He returned to California, enrolling in the school where his parents, David and Angela, met two decades earlier when his father was a three-year starter for the Mustangs.
Starting from scratch
But his less-than fulfilling experience at Air Force coming out of high school left Graves behind the proverbial eight ball when he transferred to Cal Poly two weeks before spring practices began in 2013.
He went on to make five starts that fall and led the Mustangs to a 47-0 rout of Weber State the first time he put on a Cal Poly uniform. Graves completed 13-of-16 passes for 169 yards, rushed for another 116 and scored three times in his debut.
He and Chris Brown, who ultimately became Cal Poly’s starter the past two seasons, competed for the starting job most of that year, and the latter emerged as one of the most explosive players in the Big Sky Conference in his time under center.
Graves played sparingly in five games as Brown’s backup in 2014.
The same situation seemed like a foregone conclusion last fall, so Graves and the coaching staff opted to use his redshirt and preserve one final year of eligibility.
“Dano’s going to be a great leader for this team,” quarterbacks coach Juston Wood said. “But he’s a very different type of leader than maybe Chris was.”
Making up for the loss of Brown, who rushed and passed for more than 3,000 yards in his career, won’t fall squarely on Graves’ shoulders, however.
The Mustangs are deep, talented and experienced in the backfield, armed with players who have made significant contributions to Cal Poly leading the FCS in rushing three consecutive years.
The 5-foot-10, 185-pound Graves welcomes the pressure that comes with his position in the triple-option offense. Teammates voted him a team captain this spring, demonstrating their trust in a player who made his last start in 2013.
“It’s just another season,” Graves said. “I just prepare to play between the lines.”
Carrying on the tradition
Wood has helped develop two of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in recent Cal Poly history in Brown and his predecessor Andre Broadus.
When Wood speaks with confidence about Graves’ ability to lead the Mustang offense in 2016, you listen.
Wood praises the quarterback’s high football IQ, his “tremendous skill set” and the growth he’s seen in him as a vocal leader.
“He’s always working on his craft. He’s always doing it full speed. He’s always getting better, and he’s doing it because it’s fun,” Wood said. “I think that’s inspiring to our guys, and it becomes a model of what it means to work hard and kind of sets the expectation for his teammates.”
Perhaps the biggest question for Graves entering the season is how his undersized frame will hold up over the course of an 11-game schedule.
Brown logged more than 200 carries each of the last two seasons, often missing practice while recovering from games.
He was sidelined against a top-25 Portland State team last fall, a game that forced true freshman Khaleel Jenkins to burn his redshirt midway through the season.
Wood said he’s heard comments from people outside the program suggesting the Mustangs will see a decrease in explosiveness from the quarterback position now that Brown has graduated.
He shrugs them off.
“Dano’s different than Chris,” Wood said. “He’s not necessarily the top-end, 100-meter type breakaway speed.
“But he has a dynamic ability to make people miss that is pretty unbelievable.”