After an unexpected playoff appearance last season, the Cal Poly football program has a lot of reasons to be excited about this year.
The Mustangs, who start the season ranked No. 23 in the Football Championship Subdivision preseason poll, have been preparing for this season’s kickoff with a five-week fall preseason training camp.
Though the team is following a momentum-building season, finishing 7-5 with a playoff berth in 2016, many key players have now graduated. This leaves the Mustangs with 13 returning starters, five on offense and eight on defense.
An experienced secondary looks to improve
While the defense returns more starters, some key issues from lastseason still loom. Cal Poly gave up 32.8 points per game, ranking the Mustangs 96th in the FCS in scoring defense. Their pass defense was one of the worst in the country; only 11 teams gave up more yards through the air.
The Mustangs made some additions to the coaching staff this offseason which may turn the team around. Randy Stewart, who coached at Cal Poly from 1987-1991, returned to coach the safeties. Stewart spent the past 26 years coaching various college teams such as University of California, Berkeley, Boise State University and University of Nevada, Reno. He also coached pro-bowl defensive backs such as Deltha O’Neal and Nnamdi Asomugha.
“He understands the game more than anybody I’ve ever met,” senior safety B.J. Nard said, “I think it’s going to be something that improves our game tremendously.”
Nard, who leads all returning starters in tackles, highlights a secondary studded with upperclassmen. Head coach Tim Walsh says the experience and growth of the secondary will help the team.
“They need to play better,” Walsh said. “But they have all played a ton, so I’m looking forward to big things from them.”
Maintaining strength up front
The Mustangs need to replace many positions on the defensive front, including a linebacking core which is missing the team’s three leading tacklers from 2016. Nard, however, sees these holes filling up quickly, saying that several players are stepping up in fall camp.
Walsh echoed his safety’s comments, noting that most players at the top of the defensive depth chart already have solid experience.
Senior linebackers Charlie Davis and R.J. Mazolewski, both of whom started the first three games last year before injuries cut their season short, have returned from their ailments. Walsh expects solid production from the defensive line as well, most notably from senior Augustino Elisaia, who Walsh expects to be one of the best in the league at his position.
Plenty of senior experience provides some hope that the defense can improve, but Walsh noted that college football is changing in a way that puts a large emphasis on offense.
“It’s more of a 24-to-27 point game is a good defensive game,” Walsh said. “If we score 35-to-38, we’re going to win a lot more than we’re going to lose.”
The Mustangs scored 34.7 points-per-game last season, which is indeed why they won more games than they lost. But just like the defense, the offense has some new faces at important positions.
A new man under center
Junior Khaleel Jenkins is listed as the starting quarterback on the depth chart and will likely be the starter for Cal Poly in their opener against Colgate. Jenkins served as Dano Graves’ backup, who is now coaching the quarterbacks after graduating. Graves had the best passing efficiency rating of any starting quarterback in the Walsh era.
Walsh said the big pass plays put them over the hump in terms of scoring points, but their running game is the main focus. Controlling the time of possession by running the ball is how they win games, though overall efficiency at the quarterback position is still vital.
The Aug. 26 season-opener against Colgate will not be Jenkins’ first start, after starting against No.13 Portland State as a freshman. He showed flashes of brilliance in his lone start, most notably a 50-yard touchdown run, as the Mustangs scored 35 points behind Jenkins.
“I think we’re going to see a guy who’s a pretty special athlete play quarterback,” Walsh said.
The praise for the new starter did not stop with the coaching staff.
“I’ve always had faith in [Jenkins], I’ve had faith in him since he started his true freshman year against Portland State,” senior fullback Joe Protheroe said. “He’s twice as good as he was then, and he was good back then.”
Threats from everywhere
Perhaps the most important returning-starter for the Mustangs is senior fullback Joe Protheroe, who led the team in rushing this past season with over 120 yards per game. Protheroe, who earned spots on multiple preseason All-American lists, is the clear leader of the offense that has led the nation in rushing three out of the last four years.
Protheroe is not the only one who makes the Mustangs’ running game so strong. The senior fullback credits a strong offensive-line and a backfield deep with talent.
“Threats from everywhere, basically, is why we’re so good,” Protheroe said.
The Mustang backfield includes returning players junior Malcolm Davis and seniors Jared Mohamed and Kyle Lewis. Lewis is second in rushing among returning starters, averaging 9.69 yards per carry.
Cal Poly’s first opponent, Colgate, will provide a formidable first test for the Mustang offense. In 2016, Colgate gave up the least amount of rush yards in the FCS, providing a matchup worthy for one of the nation’s best rushing attacks.
One the other hand, Colgate was the 8th worst in passing yards allowed, providing an opportunity for Jenkins to settle in early.
The game against Colgate will be nationally-televised on ESPNU, with kickoff set for 4:05 PM on Aug. 26 at Spanos Stadium.