Donovan Aird

Basketball is in mid-season. Baseball and softball are just starting. Football? Football never stops.

The Cal Poly football team opened its spring practice drills Wednesday morning on the I field in the first of sessions that will run through March 8 leading up to its spring game.

“It feels really good to see familiar faces,” Mustangs senior quarterback Jonathan Dally said. “We usually do in meetings in the morning but it feels good to strap up, put the helmets on and be back out here practicing in the full swing of things.”

One of 10 offensive starters returning from last season’s 7-4 squad that finished second among all Football Championship Subdivision teams in total offense, Dally completed 54 percent of his 192 passes in 2007 for 2,238 yards and 29 touchdowns with five interceptions. He finished second in the country in passing efficiency and also rushed for team highs of 763 yards and 12 scores.

Overall, Cal Poly’s offense compiled 487.1 yards per game, taking a backseat only to national champion Appalachian State’s 488.3.

But Dally, who, along with the rest of the Mustangs, was a rookie in their triple option-based scheme, feels they can better last year’s output.

“We know the offense better,” he said, adding “little mistakes, mental errors” and turnovers, of which they had 26 last season, stand to be corrected.

Adding a wrinkle to Cal Poly’s attack could be offensive coordinator Ian Shields, the Mustangs’ co-offensive coordinator from 2004 to 2005 who was hired to take the place of departed offensive coordinator Joe DuPaix, who accepted a position coaching slot backs at Navy.

“It’s exciting,” Dally said of Shields’ tutelage. “He’s a football mastermind, and easy to work with.”

The only imminently foreseeable depth-chart change for Cal Poly’s offense is senior, three-time All-Great West Football Conference First Team honoree Stephen Field moving from center to left guard.

Sophomore Jason Cox, who started two contests last season while Field tended to a toe injury, is penciled in as his replacement at the hub of the offensive line.

Cal Poly’s defensive turnover in personnel, though, will not be so minimal.

Just five starters – senior Martin Mares and junior Xavier Gardner at cornerback, junior strong safety David Fullerton, senior rover Mark Restelli and senior defensive end Sean Lawyer – return to the Mustangs’ 3-4, double-eagle flex-based defense which finished 62nd in the country last season in total defense, allowing 370.4 yards per game.

Pivotal for the unit’s cohesion and formidability could be sophomore nose tackle James Chen, who’s expected to fulfill his role anchoring the Mustangs’ defensive front after suffering a season-ending knee injury in last year’s opener.

Of the vacated spots, free safety appears to be the most contested.

“We have some holes,” Cal Poly defensive coordinator Payam Saadat said. “Free safety is one.”

The frontrunners vying for that position appear to be senior Ernie Cooper and redshirt freshman Greg Francis.

Getting to the quarterback faster also figures to be one of the Mustangs’ primary defensive objectives.

“We’ve got to get better at getting to the QB,” Saadat said. He added that even their three best pass rushers – Lawyer and junior outside linebackers Ryan Shotwell and Carlton Gillespie – should approach practice like their starting spots depend on it.

A season ago, Gillespie amassed a team-high four sacks, while Shotwell added three and Lawyer two-and-a-half, respectively.

All competition aside, Mustangs coaches and players alike say they’re happy to get back on the field in itself.

“You wait for these moments, being out on the football field,” Saadat said. “You kind of get stir crazy being in the office a lot, so we’re excited about it. We do what most teams do in the country – we get out here and get back to the fundamentals of things.”

The practice sessions will culminate in a spring game tentatively scheduled for 11 a.m. April 5 at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.

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