Posted: Apr 02, 2019
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — A dozen players who started at least five games last fall on defense return.
That's the good news.
On the flip side, 11th-year Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh must find a way to replace record-breaking All-American fullback Joe Protheroe, two-year starting quarterback Khaleel Jenkins, all-conference offensive linemen Harry Whitson and Zach Shallcross and both kickers.
"JoePro will be a tough guy to replace, but we have some real good players ready to step in," said Walsh as he begins 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 — will battle for the vacant quarterback position and there will be some shifting along the offensive line when the 2019 Spring Camp begins Wednesday at Doerr Family Field.
Practice sessions will be held each Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from April 3-27, culminating with the annual Spring Game on Saturday, April 27, at 1 p.m., likely also at Doerr Family Field.
Weekday practices begin at 6:20 a.m. while Saturday drills will start at 10 or 11 a.m. Scrimmages are planned for April 13 and 20. Cal Poly kicks off its 2019 campaign Aug. 31 against San Diego inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
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 — welcome back 58 lettermen, 33 of them on defense. The 2019 roster includes six returning starters on offense and a dozen on defense and Spring Camp also will include 17 redshirts, one grayshirt, 11 squad members (those who didn't play in any games last fall), four transfers and three 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 then 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."
On offense, Walsh is concerned about areas of inexperience, particularly right up the middle with the loss of Protheroe at fullback, Jenkins at quarterback and Whitson at center.
"We will miss those guys," he said. "Protheroe is a tough guy to replace, I have so much respect for Khaleel, not only as a quarterback, but the leadership he provided for us and the kind of young man he is, and our center has to do so much on offense."
The Mustangs finished 5-6 overall in 2018, winning four of their last six games and rebounding from a 1-10 mark two years ago. The 1-4 start in 2018 was due in large part to two factors — 15 lost fumbles and poor tackling.
"If we took care of the football, we could have been in the playoffs last year," said Walsh. "It's a matter of playing consistently and taking care of the football. If we do that, we will win a lot more football games this year.
"We got better on defense, considering how young we were," Walsh added. "Now the guys have to take another step. We won four of our last six games and we need to build on that. We have to improve tackling in space and the players have to understand their responsibilities in gaps."
Another addition to the football team's staff is the hiring of strength and conditioning coach Jordan Davis from Eastern Illinois.
"(Strength and Conditioning Director) Sara MacKenzie did a good job hiring the right person," Walsh said of Davis. "The players have totally bought in to Jordan's added enthusiasm and energy. We are stronger than we have been and I am looking forward to seeing how that translates on the field."
The 2019 schedule features a visit to Oregon State on Sept. 14 and Big Sky Conference home games against Montana State on Oct. 5, North Dakota on Oct. 19, Sacramento State on Oct. 26 and Eastern Washington on Nov. 16.
"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."
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 will have a tremendous opportunity in Spring Camp."
The depth chart at the opening of Spring Camp says "Jeffrey or Reid or Hamler" at the top, which means a very spirited battle looms 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 redshirt freshman Xavier Moore and sophomores CJ Cole and Will Semone 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 and Semone notched 19 yards on six carries.
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.
The 2018 group of stalwarts who helped Cal Poly's offense finish ranked No. 1 in the FCS in time of possession, No. 4 in rushing offense and No. 5 in third-down conversion will undergo some changes this fall due to the departure of Whitson, Shallcross and Sam Ogee.
Senior Paul Trujillo-Langdon moves from right guard to center while Tyler Whisenhunt, who earned second-team All-Big Sky accolades last fall, shifts to the other side of the line at right tackle.
Senior David Chellsen, with 10 games of experience a year ago, and sophomore Nico DiFronzo will battle for the nod at right guard and junior Junior Gaitan, who played in eight games last year, is the top candidate at left tackle.
That leaves left guard. Senior Apefai Taifane, a starter in seven games a year ago after transferring from West Hills College, is battling an injury and may not be available this fall. That leaves the job up to sophomores Wade Willet and D.J. Stuckey or redshirt freshman Daniel Machado.
Stuckey also will back up Trujillo-Langdon at center, along with Dominic Stellini-Splan, a transfer from City College of San Francisco.
"Depth is lacking on the offensive line," said Walsh. "Spring Camp will be huge for the offensive line."
Of the top 10 players at the three positions on the defensive front last year, only nose tackle Tiasamo Savusa is gone.
Sophomore Jojo Falo made five starts at defensive tackle, sophomore Pono Faaagi started seven games at nose tackle, sophomore Stanton Manumaleuna started eight games on the front line and sophomore Myles Cecil played all 11 games with seven starts at the defensive end spot. Cecil had 39 tackles, Manumaleuna 16, Falo 15 and Faaagi 11.
They will be challenged or backed up by several other players with playing experience, including junior Ryan Boehm at end, junior Richard Watkins from Moorpark College and sophomore Kain Su'a at nose tackle and senior Brando Phillips and junior Saia Fonongaloa at defensive tackle.
This is another very experienced group despite the losses of Rush linebacker Patrick Walker and Will linebacker Anders Turner to graduation.
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 position.
Senior Jayson Lee, who made 37 stops in seven games, sidelined with an injury in the other four contests, is the top candidate at Will, backed up by redshirt freshman Corey Thomas and junior Lance Vecchio.
Taking over for Walker at Rush will be one of four candidates — juniors Matt Wright and Joey Ruiz, sophomore Aaron Cooper and senior Chris Evagues.
Expect sophomore Fenton Will and redshirt freshman Timothy Miller to get plenty of playing time backing up Navarro at Mike and redshirt freshman Dustin Grein and senior Anthony Rosales to do the same backing up Shotwell at Sam.
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 spring depth chart at field cornerback and will be challenged by el Camino College transfer Jaylen Morgan along with returning lettermen Peyton Witcher and Ben Hakimi.
Senior Sharky Reza (15 tackles, five pass breakups in 2018) tops the field at boundary corner with senior Kameron Dennis (23 tackles in 2017 but missed the 2018 campaign due to injury) ready to do battle.
Senior Carter Nichols (59 tackles, five pass breakups in 2018) and junior Bradley Mickey (10 tackles) are the top two candidates at field safety while senior Kitu Humphrey (67 tackles, nine pass breakups) will be challenged by senior Freddie Gaines and redshirt freshman D'Angelo McKenzie, a transfer from Washington State at boundary safety.
Casey Sublette and Alex Vega, Cal Poly's kickers the last three years — Vega also is best remembered for his 49-yard field goal with four seconds left in the 20-19 win at Montana in 2015 — are gone, leaving all kicking chores wide open this spring.
"We will miss those guys," said Walsh. "They competed against each other very well and it was fun to have them around, but we have some new guys who can do it."
There are three kickers in Spring Camp, all vying for playing time, and a fourth kicker — Colton Theaker from nearby Arroyo Grande High School — will arrive in the fall.
Junior Mitch Souza was a redshirt last year after transferring from Fresno City College, where he averaged 37.7 yards on 37 punts with a long of 62 yards. He will face challenges from a pair of walk-ons — redshirt freshmen Holden Kooiker from Liberty High School in Issaquah, Wash., and Mason Davis from Durham (Calif.) High School.
Tyler Whisenhunt returns as the short snapper while junior Sawyer Sobelman is back to handle long snaps. Ryan McNab is expected to be the holder once again, backed up by Bradley Mickey.