Editor’s note: This is one installment of a 13-part series of capsules on the 2018 prospects, strengths and weaknesses of each football team in the Big Sky Conference. League play begins in the BSC on Saturday.
CAL POLY MUSTANGS
Record last season: 1-10 overall, 1-8 in Big Sky play
2018 non-conference record: 1-2
Big question: Are the injured guys fully back?
Cal Poly made it to the FCS playoffs in 2016 with Joe Protheroe running for a Big Sky Conference-pleading 1,334 yards and guard Harry Whitson making All-Big Sky as a sophomore. The Mustangs brought both of them back in 2017, but Protheroe suffered a season-ending injury in their second game. Emerging quarterback Khaleel Jenkins followed Protheroe to the sideline with a knee injury after five games, a week after he ran for 202 yards against Idaho State. To finish the trifecta, Whitson went down after playing in seven games. The injuries devastated the Mustangs, who limped to the end of the season at 1-10.
“Did injuries have something to do with it? Yeah,” head coach Tim Walsh said. “Not only the injuries on the field, but we lost three captains. Your leadership, when they are out for the year and they are not traveling with you … you lose a lot of your football team, the guys you trust and the guys you need. Injuries were as devastating mentally as they were physically to our team.”
Protheroe, Whitson and Jenkins entered the season at full strength going into 2017, which could make Cal Poly a dark horse (forgive the pun – and the cliché) this year despite the struggles last year. Jenkins suffered a knee injury in Cal Poly’s 49-3 loss at No. 1 North Dakota State. He did not play in Cal Poly’s 24-17 loss at Weber State. Jenkins rushed for 69-yards and a touchdown while throwing for 81 yards in the Mustangs’ 44-15 win over Brown last week.
Having a dominant offensive lineman, a dynamic quarterback and maybe the best tailback in the conference is a great foundation for Poly’s triple-option and could make them very dangerous — if all three are back to 100 percent.
Offensive Player to Watch: Joe Protheroe, FB
Although he’s listed as a fullback, Protheroe is about as far from the solid blocking back the term usually conjures up. The Mustangs line him up deep and use him as the dive back in their triple option, a role that suits Protheroe just fine. He backed up Brandon Howe as a freshman in 2014, then broke out with 779 yards in nine games and a first-team All-Big Sky nod in 2015. Injuries limited him that year, but he was fully healthy in 2016 and romped to a Big Sky rushing title with 1,334 yards, nearly 300 more than anyone else in the conference. He then had 164 yards in a game and a half to start the 2017 season before getting hurt against San Jose State. At 5-foot-11, 230 pounds, Protheroe is the quintessential power workhorse back. Add in an offense perfectly tailored to get him carries and unleash his talents, and that explains why he’ll be expected to have a huge bounce-back year.
Last week, Protheroe’s successful return continued. He carried the ball 43 times for 228 yards and three touchdowns, all three career highs, in the win over Brown. He managed 57 yards on 15 carries against the Bison. He had 22 carries for 60 yards against Weber State.
Defensive Player to Watch: Kitu Humphrey, S
Cal Poly was atrocious against the pass last year, finishing dead last in the Big Sky by surrendering 293.5 yards per game. That sunk a defense that finished a promising second against the run. With Protheroe, Jenkins and Whitson back, the triple option offense should be running smoothly again, leaving the secondary as the biggest weakness on the squad.
Humphrey, a hard-hitting safety who was sixth on the team last year with 48 total tackles, will be expected to help fix that. The juniors showed last year that he can make plays in the backfield (a sack and four tackles for loss) and in coverage (two interceptions and 11 total passes defended, which tied for seventh in the conference). This season, Humphrey has 16 tackles and five pass breakups.
Humphrey should be bolstered by a talented linebacker unit anchored by Matt Shotwell, the fourth Shotwell brother to play linebacker for the Mustangs. His brother Kyle Shotwell won the 2006 Buck Buchanan Award as the top defensive player in the FCS. The Cal Poly linebackers also feature Nik Navarro, a junior who leads the Mustangs with 26 tackles and four tackles for loss.
Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh: “As things got worse, they got worse,” Walsh said. “That’s where I have to take ownership and not allow that to happen. I do think that was a good group of kids and I do this for the reason of wanting to see young people be successful and share joy in the locker room because of all the hard work. It was a difficult year. But it was also a motivational year not only for me but for my coaches and our players. We have to get back to playing how Cal Poly plays.”
Conference opener: Cal Poly at Eastern Washington 1 p.m. PST