Junior quarterback Tony Smith takes some reps during the first week of spring practice. The transfer from Utah will make his first start this Saturday after backing up Jonathon Dally for the past two seasons. Photo by Nick Camacho
Junior quarterback Tony Smith takes some reps during the first week of spring practice. The transfer from Utah will make his first start this Saturday after backing up Jonathon Dally for the past two seasons. Photo by Nick Camacho

Quick strikes showcased by a plethora of offensive threats. An undersized defense could hardly catch its breath running on and off the field. Unique schemes on both sides of the ball conjured up by former Cal Poly football head coach Rich Ellerson. That was last year’s storyline. This Saturday the Tim Walsh era begins.

The 12th-ranked Mustangs will host Sacramento State (0-1) under the direction of a new head coach and junior quarterback Tony Smith’s first time at the helm. Smith has spent two years as Jonathon Dally’s backup after transferring from Utah where he was converted to a receiver.

“(We need to) possess the ball, make sure ball security is a top priority and make sure we aren’t putting the defense in a bad situation (by) not turning the ball over and keeping a high tempo,” Smith said at Monday’s press conference.

Eating up the clock wouldn’t be the first thing that came to mind when describing the Cal Poly offense. Last season Cal Poly lead the Football Championship Subdivision (formally Division 1-AA) in yards (488) and points per game (44) with assets like Ramses Barden, Jonathan Dally, Tre’dale Tolver, Ryan Mole and James Nobel (five of the seven departed offensive starters).

Yet, the defense allowed more than 26 points per game, 70th in the FCS.

Although the defense returns all but two starters in 2009, it’s making the transition from Ellerson’s Double Eagle Flex 3-4 alignment to the more traditional 4-3.

“I love (the 4-3) so much better, I am playing more of how I know how to play,” said senior linebacker Marty Mohamed, who spent more time rushing the passer than reading him. “I like to play a more conventional style, utilize my speed rather than but up against a 300-pound lineman.”

Yet, fellow senior lineman Carlton Gillespie thrived as a flex linebacker, accumulating seven sacks and 12 tackles for a loss while playing more like an edge-rushing defensive end.

Walsh recognizes that the change may suit some players better, but when it comes to game time, it’s a change nonetheless.

“They probably feel like they match up pretty well against us,” Walsh said in Monday’s press conference. “We’re changing defensives, we’re not extremely large on the defensive side of the ball. They have a pretty big offensive line and they will run it at us pretty hard.”

On the other side of the ball, only one of the starting wide receivers has made a catch at Cal Poly; but UCLA transfer Dominique Johnson, who tallied 34 receptions for 343 yards last season, has been cleared to play in Saturday’s contest.

Not to mention a young offensive line that Walsh described as the team’s Achilles’ heel.

“We’re getting better at o-line and tackling,” he said. “The young players on the offensive line will get better, we understand that’s our Achilles’ heel, they need to stay healthy on the line until our guys can catch up.”

Walsh, who spent the past 14 seasons with Portland State, guarantees improvement once the offense gets some game-time repetitions and finds its rhythm. But there are still some things he can’t predict.

“Nobody knows about the kicking game, but what I do know is in week one or week two kicking can win or lose games for you,” Walsh said.

Especially when the Mustangs take on Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) opponents Ohio and San Jose State on the road in the second and third weeks. And with the rise and fall of Andrew Gardner, Cal Poly fans are well aware.

The former Mustangs kicker made a name for himself after a game-winning field goal against FBS team San Diego State in the opener. But the next week in Montana, Gardner wasn’t so lucky. Then there was his infamous three missed extra points in the overtime loss at Wisconsin.

But two kickers are better than one; this season Cal Poly has two juniors vying for kicking duties — Chris Pinto and Jake West.

Sacramento State has some holes to fill as well. They are coming off a 38-3 loss handed to them by UNLV. Sophomore Terrance Daily rushed for 101 yards and safeties Delonte Gordon and Zach Schrader each had a career high 13 tackles to lead the Hornets defense.

But analyzing opponent’s strategies and reviewing film can only go so far, Walsh said. Polls gauge a game’s outcome; coach’s organize the depth charts based on perceived talent. But no one can truly predict what will happen when it’s game time.

“I think that (tangible improvements) do carry over into a game, how much of it remains to be seen, because when you turn the lights on in Spanos Stadium Saturday, you have to go see how your own people react.”

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