SAN LUIS OBISPO — Cal Poly improved its victory total from 2017 to 2018 by four games. If the Mustangs can make similar improvement this fall, they will be in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision playoffs for the fifth time in program history.
That might be a bit of a tall order. given that coach Tim Walsh’s Mustangs take on Pac-12 member Oregon State, all three teams which shared the Big Sky Conference title a year ago, eight-time defending Pioneer League champion San Diego — which has qualified for the FCS playoffs four times in the last five years — and five teams in the preseason top 25 FCS polls.
"Once again one of the toughest schedules in the FCS with five 2018 playoff teams and a Pac-12 game on the road," said Walsh. "It should be exciting and we look forward to continuing our momentum we ended with in 2018."
The Mustangs were 5-6 last fall, winning four of their last six games after a 1-4 start, and finished tied for sixth place with Montana in the 13-team Big Sky at 4-4.
Following compliance and team meetings Thursday, Walsh's Mustangs tackle the first of 25 practice sessions Friday afternoon at 2:45 inside Doerr Family Field in preparation for the 2019 season opener Aug. 31 against San Diego inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium. A total of 20 walk-throughs are planned as well for this, the 101st season of Cal Poly football.
Entering his 11th season at the helm of the Mustang football program, Walsh and his coaching staff welcome back 56 lettermen, including 16 players who started five or more games.
Ten of the returning starters are on defense while the offense must replace three starters right up the middle — center Harry Whitson, quarterback Khaleel Jenkins and record-breaking fullback Joe Protheroe — along with three other offensive linemen and a slot back.
"JoePro will be a tough guy to replace, but we have some real good players ready to step in," said Walsh as he continues his search for a fullback who will have a tough time matching Protheroe's numbers — school records for rushing yards in a season (1,810) and career (4,271) along with 35 career touchdowns, five 200-yard games, 23 career 100-yard performances, 861 career carries, a pair of 1,000-yard seasons and seven All-America awards as a senior.
A trio of Mustangs — Jalen Hamler, Kyle Reid and Jake Jeffrey — are battling for the vacant quarterback position.
Walsh and his coaching staff — with two new members, Wes Nurse replacing Allen Brown as cornerbacks coach and Josh Letuligasenoa replacing Matt Ta'ufo'ou as outside linebackers coach — also welcome back 22 redshirts and injured players, one grayshirt, 10 squad members (those who didn't play in any games last fall), four transfers and six walk-ons.
"We have a lot of guys back on defense," said Walsh. "It was a young group last year, and a lot of reasons for mistakes that can't be used this year.
"We are seven or eight deep at linebacker and we have a lot of experience in the secondary with those players playing a lot of downs," Walsh added. "We have a lot of young guys in the mix ready to play and it will make things very competitive. We could be deeper than in my previous 10 years at Cal Poly."
Fall Camp runs through Friday, Aug. 23, with practice sessions at 9:10 a.m. or 2:45 p.m. and, after two days off, Cal Poly begins final preparation for the Toreros on Monday, Aug. 26. Kickoff for the Youth Day season opener against San Diego is at 2 p.m.
A position-by-position look at the 2019 Mustangs:
Four solid candidates have emerged in the battle to replace Protheroe.
Senior Trey Nahhas battled injuries early in his Mustang career and has seen limited duty on offense and special teams. Sophomore Duy Tran-Sampson is primed for a breakthrough season, redshirt freshman Ryan Rivera has made the switch from linebacker to fullback and grayshirt Dusty Frampton is in camp after recovering from an injury in his final game in high school.
“Nahhas has been waiting for his chance, Tran-Sampson is a lot different from most guys and has spent a lot of time in the weight room, Rivera has made the transition from defense to offense and Frampton was one of the best rushers in the state before his injury,” said Walsh.
“Those guys had a tremendous opportunity in Spring Camp and will have more chances to prove themselves in Fall Camp.”
The depth chart at the opening of Fall Camp, just as it did in the spring, says “Jeffrey or Reid or Hamler” at the top, which means a very spirited battle remains at the signal-calling position.
Jeffrey has the most experience. He started the last six games of the 2017 campaign after Jenkins went down with an injury, completing 53 of 108 passes for 727 yards and two touchdowns, and played in eight games last fall as well, connecting on 15 of 28 passes for 208 yards.
Reid saw action in six games a year ago, mostly in the final minutes of the games, and Hamler was a redshirt last fall after passing for 4,372 yards and 49 touchdowns with just six interceptions in 342 attempts and rushing for 1,437 yards and 21 more scores in his varsity career at Lawndale High School.
“We have two young guys who are extraordinary athletes and smart,” said Walsh. “They manage things well. Hamler will battle Reed, with Jeffrey in the mix too. They athleticism of Hamler and Reid are very exciting to us. They both are very athletic.”
Junior Drew Hernandez and senior J’uan Campbell — primarily a wide receiver last fall — will battle for the starting nod at the W position while junior Lepi Lataimua, a converted defensive back, redshirt freshman Xavier Moore and sophomore CJ Cole are locked in a fight for the job at the S spot.
Hernandez rushed for 453 yards in 10 games a year ago while Campbell added 195 yards and two touchdowns. Both also made three catches.
As a true freshman, Moore played in four games, preserving his redshirt under the new NCAA rule, and carried the ball once for 11 yards. Cole added 60 yards on just five trips.
Expect the slot backs to carry more of the load with the ball this fall due to the departure of Protheroe.
Only one Mustang had double-digit catches a year ago and he’s back for his senior campaign.
All-Big Sky third-team selection J.J. Koski made 33 catches for 666 yards and four touchdowns in 2018 and enters his final year as a Mustang with 79 receptions for 1,443 yards and 10 scores.
Also back are juniors Quentin Harrison (six catches, 130 yards, three touchdowns) and Ryan McNab (2-18-0), sophomores Eli Shelton and Michael Roth and redshirt freshman Leonte Huerta-Moore.
This is another very experienced group despite the losses of Rush linebacker Patrick Walker and Will linebackers Anders Turner and Jayson Lee.
Junior Matt Shotwell, the Mustangs’ top tackler with 90 stops a year ago and an All-Big Sky honorable mention, returns at Sam linebacker and senior Nik Navarro, No. 2 on the squad with 83 tackles, is back at the Mike linebacker spot.
Sophomore Aaron Cooper has emerged as the top candidate at Will while junior Matt Wright enters Fall Camp No. 1 on the depth chart at Rush.
Expect seniors Chris Evagues (Rush) and Anthony Rosales (Sam), junior Joey Ruiz (Rush), sophomore Fenton Will (Mike) and redshirt freshmen Timothy Miller (Mike), Dustin Grein (Sam) and Corey Thomas (Will) to get plenty of playing time as well.
Dominic Frasch, the national leader in passes defended a year ago, along with Jerek Rosales and Aaron Johnson have moved on, but the secondary has plenty of returning experience just like the other defensive positions.
Junior Kevin Howell, the transfer from Nevada a year ago, played in nine games in 2018 and is No. 1 on the fall depth chart at field cornerback and will be challenged by El Camino College transfer Jaylen Morgan along with returning lettermen Kameron Dennis, Peyton Witcher and Cameron Crump.
Senior Sharky Reza (15 tackles, five pass breakups in 2018) tops the field at boundary corner with junior Daniel Fox ready to challenge.
Senior Carter Nichols (59 tackles, five pass breakups in 2018), senior Freddie Gaines and sophomore Brandon Davis are the top three candidates at field safety while senior Kitu Humphrey (67 tackles, nine pass breakups) will be challenged by junior Bradley Mickey (10 tackles) and redshirt freshman D’Angelo McKenzie, a transfer from Washington State, at boundary safety.