Blocking and tackling was a bit louder Aug. 14 when the Cal Poly football team practiced in full pads for the first time during training camp.
Head coach Rich Ellerson said the Mustangs had already been doing roughly 80 percent of the drills seen during Monday’s practice, which lasted nearly three hours at the track and field facility. The difference between full pads and a shell was noticeable, however.
“It does change the way we practice,” middle linebacker Kyle Shotwell said of using full pads. “We come out here a lot and try to emulate things that we would like to do in theory. But here today we were able to finally say, ‘Can you get this guy to the ground?’ We saw the guys who could and we saw the guys who couldn’t. It was really the first day where we can judge who’s who.”
Shotwell led the Mustangs with 158 tackles and had five sacks and two interceptions as a junior last year.
Cal Poly is coming off a season in which it went 9-4 and reached the quarterfinals in its first appearance in the Division I-AA playoffs.
“The best part of it was our enthusiasm,”?Ellerson said. “We’ll look at that tape and we’ll see that the things we added to the practice are kind of a mixed bag. There are a ton of things that we need to be better at in those drills.”
Practice began with the first-team offense calling an audible, sending a man in motion and getting the snap off without vocalizing. The drill was designed to simulate crowd noise.
“The play starts as soon as the other team breaks the huddle,” Shotwell said of pre-snap maneuvers. “(Coaches) do a good job of emulating a hectic situation.”
Practice then broke into eight groups, the largest of which being kickoff coverage and open-field tackling.
While starting quarterback Matt Brennan showed good judgment in often throwing the ball away instead of firing into double- or triple-coverage, backup quarterback Keoni Akina showed solid mobility.
Twice in seven-on-seven drills, Akina tucked the ball in and scrambled for a first down. His favorite target was receiver Jono Grayson, who made a diving catch over the middle and another first-down grab along the right sideline.
A new potential part of the offense was on display in redshirt freshman H-back Jon Hall, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound tight end who often lined up in the backfield. He replaces the graduated Adam Martinez and Adam George, who were more geared toward lead blocking and carrying the ball than running routes.
“It’s big shoes to fill so I’ve got to work hard,” Hall said. “It was really fun finally to see what everyone can do (in full pads). You can do cut-blocking and have more contact.”
Hall joins a young offense featuring five sophomore starters, including standout tailback James Noble.
“(Hall) is a little different than the guys who have played that position the last couple years,” Ellerson said. “Those guys were fullbacks that did some things that a tight end does, and with Jon it’s going to look more like a tight end doing things that a fullback does. He has tremendous hands, runs well and is a physical blocker.”
The defense returns eight starters after having defensive end Chris Gocong and linebacker Jordan Beck chosen in the third round of the NFL Draft in consecutive years.
After two defenders dropped consecutive interceptions in seven-on-seven drills, Shotwell came up with a pick and ran it back more than 20 yards on the ensuing play.
“I definitely accept the challenge of stepping up and being a leader on this team,” Shotwell said. “(Gocong and Beck) set great examples for me. I’m surrounded by a ton of great guys.”
The Mustangs break training camp Aug. 24 and return Aug. 27 to prepare for the season opener Sept. 2.