SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — The 2017 Cal Poly football season was disappointing to everyone associated with the program. The Mustangs were 1-10, their lone win against winless Portland State, and the numbers on offense fell dramatically from the previous four campaigns in which Cal Poly led the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision in rushing.
Tenth-year Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh isn't dwelling on the past. Instead, he wants his 2018 squad to use the rare unsuccessful campaign of a year ago as an incentive for a return to the team's winning ways of the 21st Century.
While the first 16 teams went 106-76 with 13 winning campaigns in the current century, last year's squad struggled both offensively and defensively. Injuries were a big factor, with fullback Joe Protheroe and quarterback Khaleel Jenkins out of action for the majority of the season along with six other starters, including four of the six team captains.
"Some of the injured players are now healthy and they are going to help us," said Walsh.
Protheroe, a two-time All-Big Sky first-team honoree as a sophomore and junior, went down in the second game of his senior campaign at San Jose State. He had not used a redshirt year, so will bring his 2,471 career rushing yards with him into the 2018 season.
Jenkins (pictured at left) started the first five games of 2017 before he was sidelined, completing 28 of 66 passes for 597 yards and eight touchdowns while also rushing for 377 yards and four more scores. He will miss Spring Camp as he undergoes a second operation, but should be ready in the fall.
Injuries also claimed starting linebackers R.J. Mazolewski and Charlie Davis along with offensive lineman Colin Goebel, all of whom used up their eligibility last fall, but offensive linemen Zach Shallcross and Sam Ogee along with defensive backs Dominic Frasch, Aaron Johnson and Carter Nichols all return healthy this spring.
To be sure, injuries weren't the only issues.
"One thing everyone needs to understand is that it wasn't just the offense, but we didn't play well defensively either," said Walsh. "We can improve in every single area of the game.
"The good thing is that the corrections that need to be made can be done in the spring," Walsh added. "One of the positives from last year was that, of the first nine games, almost every one was winnable even though we didn't play well. If we clean some things up, we can turn things around into a successful season in 2018."
On offense, Cal Poly's rushing numbers dropped from 343.5 yards per game in 2016 to 231.7 last fall. The Mustangs scored 34.7 points a contest in 2016 and just 18.5 points last fall. Cal Poly led the nation in lost fumbles with 17, allowed more than twice the number of sacks (15) than a year earlier and its third-down conversion percentage slipped from 54 percent to 37 percent.
"We have been making a full examination of our offense by evaluating each and every game, the play selection, and also looking back on the previous four seasons when we produced a lot of points and yards in an attempt to determine why we weren't as successful in 2017," said Walsh.
On the other side of the ball, the Mustang defense gave up four more yards per game rushing and 24 yards per contest passing, but the scoring average dropped slightly from 32.8 to 32.0. Opponents completed 64.9 percent of their passes against Cal Poly last fall, the highest in the Big Sky, and the Mustangs were No. 7 with 21 sacks and No. 8 with seven interceptions.
Another statistic that alarmed Walsh concerned big plays. Cal Poly executed 32 long plays (20 or more yards) on offense, but surrendered 77 such plays on defense.
"Part of the problems we had on defense was the lack of offense," said Walsh. "Our philosophy is to generate a lot of yards and points on offense, hold onto the ball for long periods of time and run 80 or more plays a game, thus helping out the defense. We didn't do that. In addition, we need to get our players in better position to not allow big plays to happen."
Cal Poly opens Spring Camp on Wednesday with 47 lettermen (25 on offense, 20 on defense and a pair of kickers), including 12 who started at least four games on offense and five on defense. A total of 23 redshirts and 11 squad members return as well, along with eight transfers, four of whom will participate in spring drills, and a small number of walk-ons.
The 15th and final practice of the four-week Spring Camp will be the annual Spring Game on Friday, April 27, at 7 p.m. inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
The 2018 schedule may be Cal Poly's toughest in its 25-year Division I history. Though there are no Football Bowl Subdivision teams on the slate, the season opens with North Dakota State, which has captured six of the last seven FCS championships, and also includes non-conference games against Brown of the Ivy League and fellow Big Sky Conference member Weber State.
The Mustangs will face perennial Big Sky powers Montana, Montana State and Eastern Washington during conference play. Southern Utah, which shared first place with Weber State last fall, and Sacramento State and Northern Arizona, which finished tied for third with Eastern Washington, also are on Cal Poly's schedule this fall.
"Obviously the schedule is not conducive to turning a 1-10 season into 10-1," said Walsh. "We will play some of the best teams in the country in the first five weeks, so we will build on the positives, accept the challenges we have in front of us and do what we did in our first five years in the Big Sky — compete for a conference championship."
The Cal Poly coaching staff has two new faces and a promotion from within.
James Jones III, associate head coach and defensive coordinator at Northern Colorado the last two seasons and who has coached at the college level for over two decades, joins the Mustang coaching staff with the defensive line, replacing Payam Saadat, who accepted a position as defensive coordinator at Portland State.
Matt Ta'ufo'ou, a linebacker at Iowa State for three seasons who has worked in the private sector as a bank operations manager for five years, returns to the sideline and will coach the outside linebackers at Cal Poly in place of James Emma, now linebacker coach and recruiting coordinator at Cal Lutheran.
And Kenneth McMillan, a student manager for five seasons at Cal Poly and a recent graduate in kinesiology, has been elevated to an assistant coaching position with the H-Backs (fullbacks), replacing Eric Coleman, who was named offensive coordinator at Occidental College.
A position-by-position look at the 2018 Mustangs:
Though Jenkins will miss Spring Camp, his absence will give the coaching staff the opportunity to look at several candidates to serve as his backup.
"We would love to give him more opportunities to become what we think he can be," Walsh said, "but he needs another surgery and should be back in the fall."
Stepping into the breach are Jake Jeffrey, who started the final six games of the 2017 season and completed 53 of 108 passes for 727 yards and two touchdowns, along with redshirt freshmen Kyle Reid and Conor Bruce.
"We know what Jake can do, but we want to see in camp what Reid and Bruce can do," said Walsh. "All three are looking forward to getting opportunities to get better."
Reid passed for 2,147 yards and 20 touchdowns as a senior at Los Gatos High School two years ago while Bruce Bruce completed 37 of 63 passes for 747 yards and 10 touchdowns in five games, missing the final six games due to a fractured fibula, as a senior at Garces Memorial High School in Bakersfield two seasons ago. Bruce also rushed for 432 yards and six scores.
Also in the signal-calling battle is junior southpaw Danny Prieto, who completed 161 of 288 passes for 1,514 yards and 15 touchdowns during the 2015 season at El Camino-Compton Center and is a graduate of Newbury Park High School.
"Prieto has all the athletic ability to do what needs to be done," said Walsh. "His ability to run could get him in the mix."
Jared Mohamed filled in admirably for the injured Protheroe, rushing for 1,172 yards and four touchdowns en route to first-team All-Big Sky honors. Mohamed is gone and Protheroe (pictured at right) is back, though "how much he practices in the spring remains to be seen," Walsh said.
"He will be at 100 percent in the fall, but we will not push him this spring," Walsh added.
Getting most of the reps in spring ball at the H-Back position will be juniors Trey Nahhas and Raven Middleton along with redshirt freshman Duy Tran-Sampson. Nahhas played in eight games last fall, but did not have a carry or a catch, while Middleton played in seven contests with no carries or catches. Tran-Sampson rushed for 5,054 yards and 41 touchdowns in his final three varsity seasons at Claremont High School, averaging 6.9 yards per carry.
"We'll be looking for who will play Nos. 2 and 3 behind Protheroe," said Walsh. "Tran-Sampson is a big, fast 214-pound athlete and we need to find out if he can do all the things required at that position. He will get a lot of reps this spring."
Junior Will Gallo will miss Spring Camp due to shoulder surgery.
Davis rushed for 99 yards and caught five passes last fall, Dunu earned 215 yards and two touchdowns on the ground and caught one pass in 2017 and, as a true freshman, Mortensen gained 206 yards and two scores and caught seven passes, one for a touchdown.
"Mortensen and Dunu could be special players for us," said Walsh, "if they put time into being complete players. Timing, the paths they take and blocking all are critical at this position. They have the ability to run with the ball, but they have to block as well."
"Davis, Green, Hernandez and Cole will get opportunities as well, and Semone has demonstrated be can play the position as well," Walsh added.
Juniors J.J. Koski (team-leading 28 catches, 454 yards, three touchdowns in 2017) (pictured at left) and Jake Smeltzer (6-77-1) head a large list of candidates at the X-Back and Z-Back positions.
"We weren't very good at blocking on the perimeter last year and that will be a focus of Spring Camp," Walsh said.
Senior Harry Whitson (pictured at right), who has played in 30 games over the last three seasons at left guard, will be the snapper this fall. Sam Ogee (six starts in 2017) returns at left tackle, Zach Shallcross (eight starts) is back at right tackle and the leading candidates at guard are Paul Trujillo-Langdon (10 games, four starts a year ago) on the left side and Tyler Whisenhunt (11 starts) at right guard.
The depth chart leaders will be challenged by several returning lettermen and Apefai Taifane, a center at West Hills College in Coalinga last fall who earned the California Community College Athletic Association's Male Scholar-Athlete Award earlier this year after earning first-team all-state and All-America honors in December.
"The key to this group will be the development of the younger players," said Walsh. "Several of them improved as freshmen, Gaitan needs to give us some downs, we hope Hickman can mix it up a little and Taifane will get some reps at tackle and center and maybe even at guard. He faces a learning curve, but is really athletic and hopefully in shape."
There are a lot of question marks along the defensive front with the departure of tackles Jack Ferguson and Caleb Melton, nose tackle Augustino Elisaia (a second-team All-Big Sky selection last fall) and ends Leroy Mealancon and Miles Williams.
Six of the top candidates for the three positions on the line are freshmen — Air Force Prep transfer Jojo Falo and redshirt freshmen Pouono Faaagi, Kain Su'a, Stanton Manumaleuna, Nickolas Figueroa and Myles Cecil.
Also contending for playing time are sophomore Saia Fonongaloa, who played in four games last fall, and senior Tiasamo Savusa, who made nine tackles in 10 games a year ago. Sophomores Chris Flood and Sean Davitt will get plenty of reps in Spring Camp as well.
"We lost three, four, five really good players," said Walsh, "so there are a lot of questions on the defensive line entering Spring Camp. Savusa and Fonongaloa are the leaders. They have been here and done that.
"We have a number of good players ready to fill the gaps, but we need to find guys who can play."
Outside linebackers Jayson Lee (60 tackles in 2017) and Anders Turner (eight tackles) return but the inside slots have been vacated by R.J. Mazolewski (66 tackles) and Mason Montgomery (92 tackles), the team's top two tacklers of a year ago.
Either Turner or Lee could move from Will to Rush to utilize the talents of both players at the same time. As Spring Camp opens, Rush linebacker is a battle between a pair of special teams standouts of a year ago, Matt Shotwell and Patrick Walker, along with sophomores Lance Vecchio and Ryan Boehm and redshirt freshman Aaron Cooper.
Junior Nik Navarro heads the list of Mike linebackers that also includes fifth-year senior Grant Alton and redshirt freshman Fenton Will. At Sam, sophomore Joey Ruiz will be challenged by Mt. San Antonio College transfer and All-American Anthony Rosales and Will.
"We have lots of good young linebackers," said Walsh. "Several have experience on special teams and we will have some guys coming in the fall who will push the outside linebackers."
That group includes Matt Wright of Hartnell College and Chris Evagues of Saddleback College.
Considered the most experienced of the defensive positions, the secondary was slowed by injury last fall, particularly senior cornerback Dominic Frasch, who missed two games late in the year, and sophomore safety Carter Nichols, sidelined the final eight weeks of the 2017 season.
At boundary cornerback, junior Mark Reza played all 11 games and made 41 tackles and intercepted two passes last fall. He will be backed up by Nevada transfer Kevin Howell, senior Jerek Rosales (a redshirt last fall) and junior Peyton Witcher.
Boundary safety B.J. Nard completed his eligibility last fall and will be replaced by junior Kitu Humphrey (48 tackles) (pictured at right), senior Aaron Johnson (who missed five games due to injury in 2017) or sophomore Lepi Lataimua. Switching from field safety, Humphrey will not participate in Spring Camp due to offseason surgery.
"We've got to keep healthy back there," Walsh said of the secondary. "We feel the cornerbacks (Frasch, Reza and Dennis) all can compete and feel real good about them. we also expect some really good things from Fox and Howell will be here in the spring. One of them could be moved to safety to help out there.
"At safety, Johnson needs to live up to the expectations we have. He has the body to play the position. Lataimua has made a strong showing on special teams and Hurst, Mickey and Davis all will get a lot of turns this spring."
Casey Sublette (pictured at left), who has handled virtually all kicking chores the last two years, returns for his senior campaign after averaging 40.3 yards per punt and 59.2 yards per kickoff with nine touchbacks while making all 26 PAT kicks and seven of nine field goals a year ago.
Senior Alex Vega and walk-on Matt Keeth will back up Sublette.
Sobelman, Whisenhunt and Shotwell are the candidates to replace Montgomery as Cal Poly's long snapper while McNab returns as the holder.
Koski will return punts while Frasch, McNab and Mortensen all returned kickoffs a year ago.