Of all the teams in the Big Sky Conference, none is defined by the status quo as much as the Mustangs of Cal Poly.
Since Tim Walsh became the head coach in 2009, the Mustangs have used his unchanging triple-option system to rack up the yards with consistency.
In fact, Cal Poly’s triple option identity goes all the way back to Rich Ellerson’s tenure as head coach between 2001 until 2008. In 2009, Ellerson took over at Army for Stan Brock. Walsh, the head coach at Portland State from 1993 until 2006, had been Brock’s offensive coordinator the previous two seasons, coincidentally learning the nuances of the triple option offense.
This year, though, Cal Poly faced with a wholesale identity change. And how the Mustangs handle it makes them one of the more interesting Big Sky teams.
No, the system isn’t changing, but with Khaleel Jenkins and Joe Protheroe gone, Walsh will head into the season having to replace both his quarterback and fullback in the same year for the first time since 2013.
That year, Chris Brown and Brendan Howe replaced Andre Broadus and Deonte Williams at quarterback and fullback, respectively. The Mustangs were coming off of a share of the 2012 Big Sky Conference championship in their first year in the league.
This year, the Mustangs have a cast of characters competing to replace Jenkins and Protheroe, a Big Sky legend and the most prolific fullback in the history of the Big Sky after finishing his career with 4,271 yards and 35 touchdowns.
“We lost three guys right up the middle: the center (Harry Whitson), the quarterback and the fullback, they were all three legitimate players. And then who replaces them? We’ll see,” Walsh told Skyline Sports at the Big Sky Kickoff. “I think it’s going to take a couple of weeks. I think that we had a good idea after spring, but we’ve got to see exactly how they all progress in the first couple of weeks before we make the decisions there.”
Poly finished 5-6 in 2018, but closed strong, winning three of its last four.
Here are three things to watch for the Mustangs this year.
QUARTERBACK AND FULLBACK
It’s an important question because, more than anything else, these are the two positions that make the triple option go. With returning talent on the outside and at slotback, finding the right answers at those positions could be the thing the Mustangs need to snap a streak of two consecutive losing seasons. Cal Poly qualified for the playoffs in 2012 and 2016, narrowly missing a berth in 2014 in Brown’s senior year.
At quarterback, it’s a three-way battle, with youngsters Kyle Reid, a sophomore, and Jalen Hamler, a redshirt freshman, appearing to be ahead of Jake Jeffery, a junior who actually has the most experience of the trio.
Jeffery started six games in 2017 after Jenkins suffered an injury, but at the Kickoff, Walsh gushed about the two younger triggermen instead.
“We’ve got two young guys that are extremely athletic, much more athletic than maybe anybody I’ve had since I’ve been here,” Walsh said.
The fullback competition is even more crowded.
Senior Trey Nahhas is returning with some experience, but battled a knee injury even into the beginning of fall camp.
As with the quarterbacks, Walsh said he was impressed with the athleticism of sophomore Duy Tran-Sampson, who’s 215 pounds and ran under 11 seconds in the 100 meters in high school.
Then there’s converted linebacker Ryan Rivera and gray shirt freshman Dusty Frampton, one of the top rushers in California high school history.
Because the triple option is so regimented and structured, it’s not actually that difficult to adapt to coming out of high school, aside from a steep learning curve at the start, said senior wide receiver JJ Koski.
“I think it’s just changing your mindset, right? You can’t come into it with the same mindset you had in high school, because we’re not running the spread, we’re not running pro-style, we’re running a completely different system,” Koski said. “(But once you) have the locked-on mindset on the triple, you’re ready to execute it. Whoever gets their name called, I think that they’ll step in and execute it.”
DEFENSE STEPPING UP
On defense, a young unit took its lumps a year ago, low-lighted by giving up 49 points to Montana State, 52 to UC Davis and an even 70 to Eastern Washington.
This year, though, 10 starters are back.
“We had a very young D-line, they all were pretty much first-years last year, first-time starters,” defensive back Kitu Humphrey said. “So I think them getting a year of experience under their belt, we have higher expectations for them going in, and just higher expectations for everyone on the field. … There’s a great deal that it does for you to have that year under your belt, be more comfortable going in, kind of know what to expect, understand the speed of the game.”
The defensive line will be an area to watch for the Mustangs, who couldn’t get pressure to opposing quarterback at all last year. Myles Cecil’s one sack from a year ago leads all returning D-linemen.
Behind that group, though, Cal Poly has a sneaky-good group of returning linebackers, led by Matt Shotwell and Nik Navarro, who both went over 80 tackles last year.
Walsh called Shotwell, the younger brother of 2006 Buck Buchanan Award-winning former Mustang Kyle Shotwell, one of the most underrated players in the league.
“He’s faster than people think,” Walsh said. “He’s only 225 pounds and he’s as tough as they come. So if you can put speed and toughness at linebacker, than you have a pretty good formula for success. And then I think he has a great desire to get to the football, and a great desire to win, win at everything.”
In the secondary, Humphrey was nearly as good, with 67 total tackles.
Those three are good pieces to build around. If the youngsters learned from the lumps they took last year, Poly could be much improved on that side of the ball.
The uniqueness of the triple option is that it’s very difficult for a defense to stop. But the flip side of that is sometimes it will stop itself.
Because they don’t have as much big-play potential as other teams who run other systems, the Mustangs need to put together a lot of long drives to score, and every one of those plays is a potential turnover, especially if a team is fumble-prone.
Nothing illustrated this paradox better than Cal Poly’s offense in 2018. Despite averaging a more-than-comfortable 420 yards per game, they put the ball on the ground 25 times, more than twice a game, and lost 15 of those.
The Mustangs’ defense forced just 11 fumbles. They recovered eight of those, a high ratio, but still, that left the team minus-seven on fumbles in just 11 games, a difference of an extra possession for the opposition in two of every three games.
“When we won the conference (in 2012), we lost three fumbles the entire year. We lost eight fumbles last year that were returned for touchdowns,” Walsh said. “Ball security, ball security, yeah, those words are really important. … It cost us an opportunity to win games, and if we took care of the football better last year, we were probably a playoff team.”
It’s the one thing that can force the well-oiled Poly offense to slam on the brakes. Fumbles are mostly luck from year to year, but the Mustangs still preach ball security.
“The coaches are going to say it every day and we’re going to work on it every day, but it’s more of a mindset for our offense,” Koski said. “Each individual has to take care of that ball, because we’ve been in some tight games and we’ve just kind of faded away because we couldn’t take care of the ball. … So it’s just the individuals stepping up and taking care of the ball every time you get a chance with it.”