Cal Poly

Cal Poly football set to kick off fall camp ahead of 2016 season

The Cal Poly football team begins practice for the 2016 season Saturday afternoon on the upper fields at the Cal Poly Sports Complex. The Mustangs hope to rebound from a 4-7 season a year ago.
The Cal Poly football team begins practice for the 2016 season Saturday afternoon on the upper fields at the Cal Poly Sports Complex. The Mustangs hope to rebound from a 4-7 season a year ago. ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

Tim Walsh doesn’t have much interest in reliving the past.

Entering his eighth season at Cal Poly and the 26th year of his head coaching career, Walsh believes there’s little value in dwelling on the uneven 2015 season that was marred by self-inflicted wounds.

When the Mustangs open fall camp at 2:30 p.m. Saturday on the upper fields of the Cal Poly Sports Complex, it will mark the official start of what Walsh hopes to be a turnaround season in San Luis Obispo.

Despite being picked to finish ninth in the Big Sky Conference preseason polls, optimism remains within the program, and there’s a sense last year’s 4-7 campaign was simply a flash in the pan.

“Who you are and what you are at the end of the year,” Walsh said, “is predicated by what the scoreboard says.”

Those who followed the program closely a year ago can point to a three-game stretch in October — at Eastern Washington, home against Portland State and at Southern Utah — that came to define Cal Poly’s season.

The Mustangs were arguably the better all-around team in all three matchups, but they fumbled 14 times and were essentially eliminated from Big Sky title contention.

It’s safe to say ball security will be a key focus for each position group this season and something that will be emphasized from the start of Saturday’s practice.

Here are three of the biggest questions heading into fall camp:

Is Dano Graves ready to lead Cal Poly’s triple-option offense?

Replacing dual-threat quarterback Chris Brown, who rushed and passed for more than 3,000 yards in his career, won’t happen overnight. But the 5-foot-10, 190-pound Graves strategically sat out all of 2015 as a redshirt to get that chance this fall.

The fifth-year senior from Folsom has more experience than people may realize. Graves was in a tight competition for playing time with Brown during their sophomore year in 2013. Graves’ role diminished the following season, and he spent nearly all of 2015 running the scout team offense.

“The bottom line thing is, Dano Graves has started a lot of games at quarterback and so have eight other players on offense,” Walsh said. “In reality, we have a lot of guys coming back that have started football games for us.”

Graves was voted as a team captain during spring ball and shows a more stoic demeanor on the field compared to the graduated Brown. He has a slew of talent to rely on in the backfield, with top returners Kori Garcia, Joe Protheroe, a STATS FCS preseason second-team All-American fullback, Kyle Lewis and DJ Peluso capable of leading the Mustangs in rushing on any given day.

How will a veteran offensive line develop under new coach Todd Spencer?

Walsh said he feels like Cal Poly enters fall camp 10-deep along the offensive line.

Though graduated all-conference performers Stephen Sippel and Weston Walker will be missed — particularly from a leadership standpoint — veterans Matt Fisher, Nick Enriquez and Joey Kuperman appear ready to lead the Mustangs up front.

Kuperman, a 6-1, 295-pound junior, is expected to take over at center for Sippel, who started 35 consecutive games to end his career. Senior guard Billy Shipman also returns with 33 games of experience to his credit.

It will be interesting to see the growth of this group under recently hired offensive line coach Todd Spencer, who brings more than three decades of triple-option experience to Cal Poly.

Losing former offensive coordinator Saga Tuitele in mid-July will leave a noticeable hole in the coaching staff, but Walsh expects to be among the FCS leaders in rushing for a fourth straight season.

“Bringing in somebody that has 30 years of experience doing it,” Walsh said, “can only be a positive is the way I look at it.”

What should be expected of Cal Poly’s defense in 2016?

This is probably a loaded question in the pass-happy Big Sky.

The Mustangs had some impressive performances early last season, holding Montana to 19 points in the season opener and limiting Arizona State to 21 points until late in the fourth quarter of Week 2.

Injuries eventually took their tole, however, and Cal Poly finished the year allowing more than 35 points per game.

For the second straight season, the Mustangs graduated their top two tacklers and will need to replace the 179 combined stops made by linebackers Burton De Koning and Tu’uta Inoke.

Look for former Boise State transfer Chris Santini to take over one of those inside linebacker spots as Cal Poly completes the transition to a full-time 3-4 defensive front.

New defensive line coach Payam Saadat will play a leading role in that adjustment, and he’ll likely be working with fifth-year senior rush end Josh Letuligasenoa.

Based on spring practices, Letuligasenoa will be as physically imposing as any player in the Big Sky this fall. He is listed at 6-2, 263 pounds and is widely considered the strongest player on the roster. Motivation certainly won’t be in short supply for Letuligasenoa, who sat out all of 2015 while academically ineligible.

“He has the ability to be the most dominant player in this league,” Walsh said.

Competition in the secondary should be interesting to follow. The leader of the group is junior safety B.J. Nard, who started all 11 games last season, made 62 tackles and swiped three interceptions.

The Mustangs could potentially start two of the taller cornerbacks in the conference with juniors Jerek Rosales (6-1, 191) and Kevin Griffin (6-1, 180).

Redshirt freshman Kitu Humphrey, junior Darren Adjei and sophomore Aaron Johnson could all be in the mix for starting spots as well.

Cal Poly Football 2016

First practice: 2:30 p.m. Saturday

Season opener: Sept. 2 at Nevada

Key losses: QB Chris Brown, OL Stephen Sippel, LB Burton De Koning

Top returners: RB Kori Garcia, DL Kelly Shepard, DB B.J. Nard

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