Posted: Aug 16, 2019
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Poly lost three veteran offensive linemen to graduation since the 2018 season. A fourth, Apefai Taifane, could miss the entire 2019 season due to injury.
Harry Whitson started all 11 games at center as a senior after playing 30 games in his first three seasons as a Mustang. A third-team All-Big Sky Conference selection and a team captain in 2018, Whitson is now serving as a graduate assistant this fall.
Sam Ogee started the first seven games of the 2018 campaign at left tackle before an injury sidelined him the rest of the year. He played in 20 games as a sophomore and junior, was named to the Big Sky Conference's All-Academic Team three times and earned a spot in the Hampshire Honor Society.
Zach Shallcross, an All-Big Sky honorable mention, was a mainstay at right tackle all four seasons as a Mustang. He played in 37 games as a Mustang, starting 10 of last fall's 11 contests.
Taifane, winner of the California Community College Athletic Association's Male Scholar-Athlete Award in 2018, was a starter in seven games at Cal Poly last fall after transferring from West Hills College. He will undergo surgery and redshirt this year.
"Apefai is out for the year," said 11th-year Mustang head coach Tim Walsh. "We hope to have him next year. We'll see how the surgery goes."
The cerebral group allowed just 11 sacks all year, No. 3 in the Big Sky and 16th in the FCS, and helped Cal Poly to a No. 4 national ranking in rushing offense, No. 1 in time of possession and No. 5 in third-down conversions.
"Obviously losing three seniors who have a lot of experience is always a challenge, not just in how they played but their leadership," said Jim Craft, the third-year offensive coordinator (seventh season overall at Cal Poly) and offensive line coach. "That's three guys who played a lot of downs and Apefai was coming a long way before his injury. Hopefully we'll get him back someday, but the immediate thing is replacing the leadership.
"Having Harry Whitson as a graduate assistant — I just made a point of it (Wednesday) to the players — is a tremendous help, tremendous benefit. He sees things that comes from a player's perspective and his leadership is tremendous as a graduate assistant," Craft added. "That definitely helps."
With those four players out of the mix, many of the returnees have been moved around to fill the gaps.
Paul Trujillo-Langdon (pictured at left) moves from right guard to center while David Chellsen, with 10 games of experience as a junior a year ago, and sophomore Nicolo DiFronzo will battle for the nod at right guard and right tackle.
"Trujillo-Langdon had been a back up center for all his time here, so his transition to the starting center role isn't completely from scratch and he has a lot of experience and playing time, a lot of experience at center and guard," said Craft. "That's a positive. Being able to move him over to center — he's been doing that his whole career in some manner — so it's not completely fresh to him.
"David played some tackle as a sophomore and played a lot of that tackle/tight end position that goes hand in hand together," Craft added. "He's got experience in there. He spent last year primarily as a guard before moving to tackle, so playing guard isn't completely new to him. He's a guy who could probably play both positions, so we're keeping an eye on where the need is for Dave.
"Dave is just your steady Eddie, just does things right. He's been the program going on five years and you know he can write the playbook by hand right now. He knows it inside and out, knows most of the positions, so he just does things the right way. And obviously he's extremely bright," Craft said of the three-time Big Sky All-Academic Team member.
Tyler Whisenhunt (pictured at right), who earned second-team All-Big Sky accolades last fall at left tackle, is expected to remain there, though he practiced at right tackle in the spring. Whisenhunt played all 11 games on the offensive front last fall, beginning the year at right guard and moving to left tackle with the injury to Ogee. Junior Gaitan, who played in eight games last year as a sophomore, will get playing time at left tackle behind Whisenhunt.
"Tyler can really play any position," said Craft. "We could put him at guard. That's where he started as a freshman and sophomore. This year he's a starting tackle. He's the kind of guy that you can't have enough of. He can play any position and that helped out quite a bit having gotten that much experience."
Trujillo-Langdon, Whisenhunt and Chellsen all are seniors this fall.
"Between those three guys, you know there is experience there in multiple positions," said Craft. "That's not to say they don't have a lot to work on. There is consistency that we're always striving for. Consistency is what we're all striving to get better at. Those three guys at least give you some depth at multiple positions."
That leaves the job at left guard up to Wade Willet and D.J. Stuckey. Another candidate, redshirt freshman Daniel Machado, is currently battling the injury bug. Stuckey also will back up Trujillo-Langdon at center, along with Dominic Stellini-Splan, a transfer from City College of San Francisco.
"The sophomore class — DiFronzo, Willet and Stuckey — is just getting better and better," said Craft. "If you ask guys on our team, those are three guys who stand out in the weight room, they stood out in the offseason, how they do things, embracing the culture that we have in place offensive line-wise.
"Those are three guys who do things the right way," Craft added. "They are hard workers. They put themselves in a good position to be ready to play at this early stage of their careers. Obviously there are a lot of things to work out and a lot of things to clean up, a lot of details and little things to pay attention to, but we're pretty excited about their progress from spring to the first ten practices this fall, heading into whatever comes their way. They always happen to be on the field first."
Gaitan is in his fourth season at Cal Poly, including a redshirt year in 2016.
"Junior also brings kind of a steady mentality to the position at tackle because he has a lot of experience, being here for all that time," said Craft. "He doesn't have a lot of playing experience yet, but he doesn't make mental mistakes. He knows where he's supposed to be, knows what he is supposed to be doing. The consistency word is is his challenge. Like all of us, that's what we're striving for — to be is better every day, and Junior is developing that mentality and fighting for that extra position too."
Three redshirts — Vatulele Finau, Daniel Machado and Andrew Cokley — and true freshman Payson Campisano — hope to gain some playing experience this fall.
"Finau has done some really good things," said Craft. "He's shown some tremendous signs. Unfortunately Machado has had the injury bug to a degree. Cokley has moved around a couple different positions and finding his best fit is the challenge right now.
"Vatulele is a guy who is knocking on doors," Craft added. "He has all the tools to compete on the field this fall. If he can find a consistent level of play, both mentally and physically, then he will see some playing time.
"We're really excited about Payson," Craft said. "He's showing to be a tremendous athlete. he's obviously brand new. He's got just 10 practices under his belt. He needs to get stronger but he is a very good athlete."
Like all the other offensive linemen in camp, Campisano has much to learn in Cal Poly's Triple Option offense.
"Of course, it all starts on the offensive line," said Craft. "Every offensive coordinator will tell you that. Our guys will tell you that, especially with the Triple Option. "Even in our helmet-only practices, the amount of physicality that we have, that's where it begins.
"It's the ability to put your hand on the ground, line up and get the next play," Craft added. "To do it as fast as we do it, that's what we want to hang our hat on — the physical nature of what we do — and I think our offensive line certainly embraces that. If they don't, practices like we had (Wednesday) will certainly help remind them."
Cal Poly opens its 2019 season against the University of San Diego on August 31 at 2 p.m. inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium. Children 13 and under receive free admission on Youth Day. In addition, free clear bags will be distributed to the first 3,000 fans in attendance.
For tickets, click here.