Cal Poly improved its victory total from 2017 to 2018 by four games. If the Mustangs can make similar improvement this fall, they will be in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision playoffs for the fifth time in program history.
That might be a bit of a tall order, given that Coach Tim Walsh's Mustangs take on Pac-12 member Oregon State, all three teams which shared the Big Sky Conference title a year ago, eight-time defending Pioneer League champion San Diego — which has qualified for the FCS playoffs four times in the last five years — and five teams in the preseason top 25 FCS polls.
"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." The Mustangs were 5-6 last fall, winning four of their last six games after a 1-4 start, and finished tied for sixth place with Montana in the 13-team Big Sky at 4-4.
Following compliance and team meetings Thursday, Walsh's Mustangs tackled the first of 25 practice sessions Friday afternoon inside Doerr Family Field in preparation for the 2019 season opener August 31 against San Diego at Alex G. Spanos Stadium. A total of 20 walk-throughs are planned as well for this, the 101st season of Cal Poly football.
Entering his 11th season at the helm of the Mustang football program, Walsh and his coaching staff welcome back 56 lettermen, including 16 players who started five or more games. Ten of the returning starters are on defense while the offense must replace three starters right up the middle — center Harry Whitson, quarterback Khaleel Jenkins and record-breaking fullback Joe Protheroe — along with three other offensive linemen and a slot back.
"JoePro will be a tough guy to replace, but we have some real good players ready to step in," said Walsh as he continues 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 — are battling for the vacant quarterback position. 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 — also welcome back 22 redshirts and injured players, one grayshirt, 10 squad members (those who didn't play in any games last fall), four transfers and six 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 that 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."
Fall Camp runs through Friday, August 23, with practice sessions at 9:10 a.m. or 2:45 p.m. and, after two days off, Cal Poly begins final preparation for the Toreros on Monday, August 26. Kickoff for the Youth Day season opener against San Diego is at 2 p.m.
-Provided by Cal Poly