After a 55-0 win over Savannah State in their Senior Day season finale Nov. 18, Cal Poly football players – both on the way out and returning – predicted a bright future for the program.
Coming off a 7-4 season, the Mustangs can return up to seven players on offense and five on defense who started Nov. 18 and most of the rest of the year.
But Cal Poly knows it has to pick up the pace on offense, where it struggled much of the season. When excluding games against Division II Fort Lewis and Savannah State (2-9), which has lost 22 straight to I-AA foes, the Mustangs were held to 16.6 points per game.
That’s in contrast to last year, when Cal Poly averaged 27.2 points per contest while playing its entire schedule against I-A and I-AA teams.
“It’s the same guys,” sophomore tailback James Noble said of next season’s offensive unit. “We’ve just got to put it together. This year we kind of struggled a little bit, but next year I think we’ve got some guys who will step it up. Me personally, I’ll try to step up and become more of a leader. Basically, try to set the tone for next year.”
Noble, a Walter Payton Award candidate, rushed for 1,009 yards and seven touchdowns this season. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry and 100.9 per outing.
Alongside Noble, the depth returning in the backfield is impressive. Here is a position-by-position breakdown of who is on the way out and what role returning players might have next season:
Sophomore Matt Brennan threw for 1,208 yards and 10 touchdowns with seven interceptions this season. He completed only 45 percent of his passes, but ran the option well with 344 rushing yards.
While backup Cordel Webb is a senior, two of Brennan’s reserves will be returning for their senior seasons in Keoni Akina and Nick Emmons.
Both are transfers. Akina (Northern Arizona) and Emmons (El Camino College) rushed for 28 and seven yards, respectively, this season. Neither threw a pass.
Also entering the fold could be 6-foot-2 redshirt freshman Mike Anderson, who threw for 2,001 yards and 16 touchdowns as a senior at Los Osos High in Rancho Cucamonga in 2005.
Not only does Noble return, but his backup – sophomore Fred Hives II – will also.
Hives II saw time at both tailback and fullback this season. The 210-pounder carried 39 times for 221 yards and two touchdowns and offered a change-of-pace back for the shiftier Noble (5-6, 180).
Redshirt freshman Jaymes Thierry carried five times for 45 yards Nov. 18.
On top of all that, starting redshirt freshman H-Back Jon Hall will return. In addition to picking up 91 yards and a score on 11 touches, Hall’s blocking skills developed nicely throughout the season.
Where to begin?
This is the position from which at times players have had to switch because it was too crowded.
One of the most gifted players in I-A or I-AA will return in 6-6 sophomore Ramses Barden, who has hauled in 82 passes for 1,479 yards and 14 touchdowns in two seasons.
Sophomore speedster Tredale Tolver (5-9, 175) is able to stretch the field and a solid complement to Barden. Tolver caught 12 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown this season.
Other notable returnees who made an impact this season include slot backs Ernie Cooper (14 touches, 126 yards, three TDs) and Jono Grayson (five touches, 39 yards). Cooper is a sophomore and Grayson, who led the Mustangs in kick return average (27.5), a freshman.
Quick tackle Josh Mayfield, quick guard Julai Tuua and strong guard Will Hames III will need to be replaced.
Sophomore center Stephen Field and junior strong tackle Dylan Roddick will return, however.
The 280-pound Field was good enough to start all 13 games as a redshirt freshman last season and started 10 this year.
Possible starters next season include sophomore quick tackle Pat Koligian, redshirt freshman quick guard Justin Reece, sophomore interior lineman Mike Porter and junior tackle Perris Kelly.
Though preseason first-team All-American nose tackle Chris White (30 tackles, five sacks) will be missed, all the defensive ends come back.
Redshirt freshman Ryan Shotwell burst onto the scene with 51 tackles, tied for the team lead with seven sacks and led the Mustangs with 10 quarterback hurries.
Other ends coming back are juniors Adam Torosian (28 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Louis Shepherd (10 tackles) as well as redshirt freshman Carlton Gillespie (11 tackles, two sacks).
It might be difficult to replace Buck Buchanan Award candidate Kyle Shotwell (122 tackles, seven sacks, two forced fumbles), but the same thing was said when 2004 Buchanan winner Jordan Beck graduated.
Shotwell’s backup, junior Wes Pryor (5-10, 195) plays bigger than his size. He had 13 stops, a fumble recovery and blocked two punts this season.
Sophomore rover Mark Restelli (57 tackles, team-high nine pass breakups) and junior outside linebacker Jason Relyea (71 tackles, 2.5 sacks) are both back.
Junior rover Mark Cordes (11 tackles, one INT) might see more time on the second level of the defense.
This is the one area where the cupboard will almost be empty.
Shutdown cornerback Courtney Brown, ball-hawking free safety Kenny Chicoine and steady strong safety Randy Samuel will all need to be replaced in the starting lineup.
Junior Andre Thomas (22 tackles, two pass breakups) came on strong in the final four games of the season and resembles Brown in the way he plays. Thomas was elevated to the first-team defense during the San Diego State game.
Gene Grant, a 5-10 sophomore who had 10 tackles (seven solo) and two pass breakups this season, is likely to see more playing time.
A potential replacement for Samuel is redshirt freshman David Fullerton.
Senior kicker Nick Coromelas was 12 for 18 this year, including 9 for 11 to finish the season. He also filled in admirably for injured junior punter Tim Chicoine, averaging 41.5 yards and landing 17 of his 44 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
Tim Chicoine averaged 42.3 yards per punt in 2005.
Kenny Chicoine was a reliable punt returner (8.5 average) and will need to be replaced.
Kick returner is a mystery. Sophomore Matt Kirschner, Noble, Tolver, Samuel, Grayson, Peek and Hall all returned kicks this season. Five of those seven players will be back.
The Mustangs have gone 32-14 over the last four seasons largely because of their unique double-eagle flex defensive scheme, which looks like everything from a 3-4 to a 5-2 during the course of a game.
Cal Poly was sixth among 121 I-AA teams in fewest total yards of offense allowed per game this season at 248.3.
For his part, Restelli is optimistic for both sides of the ball.
“We’re about to have a really veteran offense because we don’t lose too many players,” Restelli said. “Our skill positions are all going to be vets next year. On defense, we’re just going to have to worry about our secondary because we lose everybody. We’re going to be getting a whole new secondary next year.”
“You could see us with maybe three seniors starting on defense and one senior starting on offense next year,” he said. “The good news is, they’ll be a veteran junior and sophomore class. They’ve played a lot of football and will be ahead of the curve.
“We’re excited about our redshirts now. We think we prepared well for that. That’s where the journey stays interesting.”
Kyle Shotwell said the system Ellerson and his staff have honed is what will keep the program moving in the right direction.
“We have such good coaches that they can make an average player good,” he said. “Coach Ellerson is such a good coach, I can’t see our defense suffering very much at all. It’ll be exciting to see who the next guys are to step up, see the next guy on the Buchanan list. It’s only a matter of time before that’s going to happen.”
While Noble and Restelli each still have two years of eligibility remaining, they are starting to think about reaching the plateau of I-AA before their collegiate careers are over.
“We’re going to have to step up as the new leaders,” Restelli said. “Do better than this year. National championship.”
Added Noble: “My main goal is getting a national championship. That’s what we’re working toward right now.”