From a superficial standpoint, the comparison is almost too obvious to resist. Time and again during Saturday’s annual Cal Poly spring football game, No. 17 shot into the backfield and made tackle after tackle, repeatedly disrupting opposing rushing attempts.
Only this time, the defender always around the ball wasn’t Kyle Shotwell, but rather Marty Mohamed.
A year after occupying the Mike linebacker spot vacated by Shotwell, Mohamed has been moved to the edge, where he can make plays as a flex, outside linebacker.
Regardless of where he officially fits in the Mustangs’ depth chart, the sophomore made his presence felt at Alex G. Spanos Stadium before about a thousand who witnessed a 30-minute slugfest of an intrasquad scrimmage won by Mohamed’s white-jersey team, 7-3.
“It’s an experience for me,” Mohamed said of his becoming a hybrid defensive end-linebacker. “It’s a little different from playing Mike linebacker, but it’s more of what I played in high school, so I’m more familiar with it. I mean, I love to hit people, so I’ll be down (on the line of scrimmage) to hit people every play, so I’m excited.”
Mohamed, a 20-year-old Brawley native who began his Cal Poly career projected as a free safety before redshirting, made 70 tackles as a freshman in 2007, trailing only then-senior Jason Relyea’s 71 and then-junior Mark Restelli’s 73.
“I felt like that was one of the successes (of spring practices),” Mustangs head coach Rich Ellerson said of Mohamed’s transition. “He really is a much more natural player in that position. Obviously he’s behind a little bit in his reaction system and some of the fundamentals associated with that job, but he’s the right guy, he’s the right athlete and he’s got the right temperament to play that position.”
Such a collective temperament will be at a premium this season for the Cal Poly defense, which returned just five starters from a unit that finished 62nd in the Football Championship Subdivision last season in total defense.
So many new faces leave most of the Mustangs’ obvious questions on that side of the ball, as only one starter from a year ago graduated from an offense that finished second in total offense in the FCS, behind only national champion Appalachian State.
It seems a reversal from previous springs, when Cal Poly was renowned on a national scale for its stalwart defenses, which led the nation in rushing defense in 2004, finished sixth overall in 2006 and along the way produced three consecutive NFL-bound recipients of the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the country’s best defender (Shotwell was bestowed the most recent one, in 2006).
While most of the current defensive starters were relieved of their duties early Saturday to make room for their younger peers, Mohamed was a mainstay for the duration, bringing down sophomore running back Mike Anderson on the game’s final play.
Mohamed wasn’t the only underclassman belonging to the Mustangs’ front seven to display promising quickness and anticipation, though.
From the linebacking core, senior Dominic Rickard, juniors Mike Montero and Tommy Gatta, and freshmen Keaton Taylor and Brandon Roberts all showed standout acceleration and delivered jarring hits.
Demonstrating balance between fortified run defense and penetration along the defensive line were, among others: senior end Sean Lawyer, sophomore end Lucas Trily, sophomore tackle Bobby Best, freshman tackle Erich Klemme and freshman end Kevin Hess.
Their respective work was largely done opposite either sophomore quarterback Tony Smith of the green-jersey contingent, or walk-on freshman signal caller Dylan Honaker, who capped a 64-yard procession by connecting with extending junior wide receiver Blaze Silberman for a 5-yard, go-ahead score with seven seconds remaining.
Smith, a transfer from Utah, replaced senior passer Jonathan Dally on the green shirts’ second possession. He routinely evaded pressure in the pocket, exhibited considerable mobility and lofted several high-arching throws downfield, although he sometimes overthrew targets or found himself swarmed by defenders due to not releasing the ball soon enough.
“We’re going to have to evaluate that really closely,” Ellerson said of Smith’s future, as several members of the Mustangs’ latest recruiting class had prep experience under center. “We’ll have to see where he is running our offense, because you’ve got to do more than run around back there – you’ve got to run the offense. But he’s a fine athlete.”
Senior quarterback Matt Brennan, who started 10 times in 2006 before backing up Dally a year ago, was listed as inactive Saturday. Ellerson declined to comment on his absence, and a message left Saturday for Brennan’s listing was not returned.
Prior to Smith’s entrance, a noticeably stronger Dally smoothly directed a 71-yard drive resulting in a 26-yard field goal by junior kicker Andrew Gardner.
Other seniors who played integral roles in the green contingent’s opening possession before heading to the sidelines were running backs Ryan Mole and James Noble and, at wide receiver, an indefensible Ramses Barden, who had to be corralled by multiple tacklers each time he caught a pass. Fellow senior wide receiver Tredale Tolver was inactive because he was participating with the Cal Poly track and field team in the Clyde Littlefield Texas Relays in Austin, Texas.
Also being required to perform only in what Ellerson deemed a “cameo” was a new-look offensive line now utilizing senior, three-time All-Great West Football Conference center Stephen Field at left guard.
“That’s been a success,” Ellerson said of the shuffled group’s progress through six weeks of February and March drills.
Taking Field’s place at the hub is sophomore Jason Cox, who gathered experience there after Field suffered an injury in 2007.
“Stephen was hurt and Jason came in and played so well,” Ellerson explained. “We played around with (the lineup) so much, by the time we finished the season we were excited about that combination of guys, and this spring we’re just that much more excited about it. That’s an extraordinary group inside.”
Needing to “catch up a little bit” with the other four, Ellerson added, is sophomore right guard Will Mitchell.
“He occasionally looks exactly like those guys, but not consistently,” Ellerson said.
Ellerson, though, voiced satisfaction with the game, in which offensive coordinator Ian Shields helmed the green-uniform half and defensive coordinator Payam Saadat its white-wearing counterparts.
“Guys did a great job of getting after each other,” he said. “But everybody walked off. A few guys were banged and bruised like you will when you play football, but nobody got injured, and that can keep you awake at night.”
Cal Poly, which finished last season 7-4 and ranked No. 24 in the Sports Network poll, opens the 2008 regular season Aug. 30 at San Diego State before facing two FCS foes who were 11-0 heading into the playoffs last season and then concluding at Football Bowl Subdivision power Wisconsin on Nov. 22.
“We better do all the things we need to do in the weight room for the next four-and-a-half months to not only survive a schedule like that, but to be successful with a schedule like that,” Ellerson said.
Mohamed, for one, already shares that sense of urgency.
” ‘Day one’ has already started,” he said.