Cal Poly defensive coordinator Josh Brown didn’t have much to complain about following the Mustangs annual spring game Saturday afternoon.
His unit continued its trend of dominance that was on display throughout Cal Poly’s 15-practice spring schedule. The white-clad defense forced four turnovers and controlled the second half en route to a 59-30 victory over the offense at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
For Brown, who has served as the Mustangs’ defensive coordinator since 2011, Saturday’s performance was the culmination of a month-long transition into a new-look defense.
Changing Cal Poly’s base defense from a 4-3 front to a 3-4 scheme yielded encouraging results despite playing without a handful of injured starters.
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“It took us a little bit to get in our groove, but I think with this defense and this scheme, we’ve got to come out with our guns blazing first series,” Brown said. “We don’t have time to sit on our heels and wait for things happen.
“We’ve got to make things happen.”
Fifth-year senior quarterback Dano Graves led a 12-play, 70-yard opening drive, giving the gold-clad offense an early advantage. All-American fullback Joe Protheroe capped the series with a 3-yard touchdown run around the left side. That touchdown was the first scored by the offense since the 2013 spring game.
Former walk-on quarterback Andrew Barna delivered the offense’s most explosive play of the day a few series later. The senior, not necessarily known for his speed, broke free for a 48-yard touchdown run up the middle during his first drive under center. Barna did not play the rest of the scrimmage and had a bag of ice wrapped around his right hamstring.
Little went right the rest of the afternoon for the Mustangs offensively, particularly as the coaching staff went deeper into the depth chart.
“I thought Dano Graves, at the line of scrimmage and the way he handled his plays, he was legit today,” head coach Tim Walsh said. “His execution was on target. I was really pleased with what we looked like for the first 10 to 12 minutes of the scrimmage.”
From there, Cal Poly’s defense took over and benefited from an offensive unit that fumbled seven times throughout the 72-play scrimmage. They forced nine three-and-outs after Graves turned in his helmet for a headset early in the first half.
Walsh and Brown were both encouraged by the strong play of Cal Poly’s young linebackers.
Senior Joseph Gigantino played sparingly, giving senior Chris Santini and freshmen Nik Navarro and Noah Thompson a chance to standout. All three impressed, as did senior defensive end Josh Letuligasenoa, who was voted a team captain this spring after being academically ineligible for the entire 2015 season.
“The guys coming back from last year, those guys performed how they’re supposed to,” said Letuligasenoa, who was a preseason FCS All-American last fall. “But some of the younger guys were making plays, too.”
Santini led the defense with seven tackles, and freshman defensive backs Kitu Humphrey and Carter Nichols made six stops apiece. Navarro added five tackles and senior Charlie Davis made four tackles and returned a fumble 40 yards for a touchdown on the final play of the scrimmage.
Walsh said the Mustangs plan to shift their attention to offseason conditioning in the weight room before the beginning of fall camp Aug. 5. A total of 89 players were on hand Saturday, and with a 19-person freshman class coming in, Walsh said the coaching staff will have to make several cuts before the season.
“They’ve got to make sure that they learn from the good, the bad and the ugly that they did this spring — which hopefully they will do,” Walsh said.
“Giving guys the opportunity to play is really what today is all about.”