SAN LUIS OBISPO — The offseason has been anything but normal for the Cal Poly football program.
It started when 11-year head coach Tim Walsh retired on Nov. 25, two days after the Mustangs closed out the 2019 campaign with a come-from-behind 28-21 win at Northern Colorado.
Seventeen days later, Beau Baldwin, the highly successful head coach at Eastern Washington — 2010 NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision national champion — who served the last three seasons as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Cal, returned to the head coaching ranks, this time with the Mustangs.
After helping the Bears to a Redbox Bowl victory over Illinois on Dec. 30 inside Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Baldwin spent the first month of the new year attending the American Football Coaches Association Convention in Nashville, assembling a coaching staff and recruiting prospective student-athletes.
By the time February rolled in, it was time to meet the coaches to develop a philosophy, both offensively and defensively, and meet with the players individually to map their schedules and get to know them a bit closer.
In late February and early March, it was time for Baldwin to take a tour of California for meet and greets with Cal Poly alumni, boosters, supporters and other people connected with the Mustangs. On March 12, everything came to a halt.
With the COVID-19 virus spreading around the world, the Big Sky Conference suspended spring football. On March 23, spring football was canceled.
“We were hoping to be able to get back on the field, but it’s out of your control,” Baldwin said of the decisions.
Of the 13 Big Sky schools, only UC Davis was able to complete its Spring Camp (actually Winter Camp since it ended March 6). Portland State completed 14 of its 15 practice sessions, canceling just the Spring Game, while Montana, Southern Utah, Northern Colorado and Weber State completed between two and six practices.
The remaining seven schools, including Cal Poly, never snapped the ball and won’t be able to this spring.
“We’ll just have to be strategic with what we’re doing,” said Baldwin. “Just like when we can go to a concert again, it’s so far out of our control. It’s definitely not an advantage not to be able to get it in, but at the same time everyone is struggling through things right now.
“Sometimes more important than spring ball is what you do from a weight training standpoint, a lifting standpoint and everything from the culmination of spring ball all the way through to August camp,” Baldwin added. “We’re all in the same boat. It’s tough. It’s just a matter of handling whatever you can do and control without getting too stressed and worrying about the things you can’t control.
“We’ll be meeting with the players more, position by position, and just keeping in touch with the guys and making sure they get this workout in and that workout in. We’ll just be staying in touch, making sure they’re doing well and finding ways to still stay active and do everything they can to get prepared for the online classes and make sure they’re locked in when they get going on April 6.”
For now, the players are performing movement drills, weight room work, joining what (Assistant Strength and Conditioning) Coach Jordan Davis was already doing, station drills bags ropes and different drills, allowing us to see where the players are athletically, where they were shape wise. “And we ran them in different sprints to just get a true feel for where we are as a team at this moment,” said Baldwin.
When the 2020 campaign begins with games Sept. 5 and 12 at Football Bowl Subdivision schools Louisiana-Monroe (ULM) and Cal, Mustang fans will see plenty of changes.
“They’re going to see an exciting offense,” Baldwin promises. “Our goal will be to be extremely balanced so that we have a chance to keep the defense guessing and not knowing exactly what we’re going to do.
“We’re going to have an offense in which we can stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. We’ll be multiple enough to take advantage of whatever our strengths are, too. There’s enough stuff in our package and playbook that will give us a chance to take advantage of what our strengths are on our roster.”
The base 3-4 defense remains on the table, “with the ability to get in and out of things,” Baldwin added.
If and/or when Fall Camp opens in late July, Baldwin and his coaching staff will be focusing on the fundamentals.
“We’ll be developing the fundamentals of what will fit what we will do on the field,” said Baldwin. “It will be less scheme in the first couple days and more truly fundamental, such as what we believe the proper O-Line stance will look like, what we believe the proper wide receiver stance is going to look like, where we want our eyes at linebacker — just really the fundamental stuff and then working on fundamental movement and progress more and more on some scheme things as we go.
“We need to develop better pass protection and we will be implementing a new system and terminology, both offensively and defensively,” Baldwin added. “It will be like building a foundation, building a house that way, the proper fundamentals, the little things from a technique standpoint. You can’t build that thing from the ground up. You have to lay down the foundation.”
Along with the approximately 80 or so returnees will be 28 newcomers who signed a National Letter of Intent back in December and February along with a small number of walk-ons. Will any of the first-year Mustangs touch the football in a game this fall?
“That’s hard to say,” said Baldwin. “Anyone with size and a little more length might have a chance. Whether it be guys on offense or defense, guys who can provide a little more length have a chance to fill some gaps. It’s a guessing game right now. Coaches are pretty non-committal because you really don’t know. The guys have to come in and earn it.”
Discussion prior to every season always includes the personnel at quarterback. It will be no different this fall, but Baldwin is quick to point out that, even though starter Jalen Hamler returns for his sophomore season, the quarterback position as well as every other position, both offensively and defensively, is up for grabs.
“At the end of the day, not just the quarterback position, but everywhere, the players understand that the positions are wide open and no one has proved anything within our offense or defense,” Baldwin said with emphasis.
“It’s going to be wide open,” Baldwin added about the group of signal callers. “Jalen did some really good things and I am excited about what he can bring back. I know it was in a different offense, but I am excited about what he can bring to the table.”
As a redshirt freshman, Hamler completed 57 percent of his passes (62 of 108) for 1,156 yards and a dozen touchdowns. He was intercepted just five times. Hamler also called his number 194 times in the Triple Option, rushing for 522 yards and another nine scores.
Junior Kyle Reid also returns. He stepped in for Hamler in the second quarter of the season finale at Northern Colorado and rushed for 143 yards and one touchdown while completing four of nine passes for 45 yards as Cal Poly bounced back from a pair of 14-point deficits for the seven-point win.
Also in camp this fall will be junior Conor Bruce, redshirt freshman Cole Powers and two newcomers — junior Hunter Raquet from Monterey Peninsula College and freshmen Jackson Pavitt from Cardinal Newman High School in Santa Rosa, Calif., and Kahliq Paulette from Veterans Memorial High School in San Antonio, Texas.
“It’s going to be wide open,” Baldwin reiterated. “I can’t tell you much because I just have not gotten the feel yet.”
A look at the other positions, starting with the offense, which likely will use a formation of three wide receivers, one running back and a tight end for most plays:
No longer using the term “slot back,” the running back position is led by Duy Tran-Sampson, Cal Poly’s 23rd 1,000-yard rusher with 1,037 yards and eight touchdowns as a sophomore fullback a year ago. Tran-Sampson produced four 100-yard games and scored a pair of touchdowns in three contests.
Drew Hernandez, who rushed for 399 yards and one touchdown as a junior in 2019, and Lepi Lataimua, who gained 274 yards and scored once, also as a junior, return as well.
Other running backs on the roster include junior Will Semone, sophomore Mark Biggins and redshirt freshmen Shakobe Harper, Sam Stewart and Dorien Mars.
Just in case a fullback is needed, Tran-Sampson, Stewart and Semone will fill that spot. Semone gained 12 yards on one carry at Idaho a year ago.
With J.J. Koski, Cal Poly’s leading receiver the past three seasons, gone, pass catching duties will fall into the hands of senior Quentin Harrison at the left wide receiver position, sophomore Xavier Moore at the right spot and junior Eli Shelton at the “F” position, though there are several capable backups as well.
Harrison caught 17 passes, five for touchdowns, in 2019 while Moore had three, including an eight-yard scoring grab against Oregon State, and Shelton one.
Also high on the spring depth chart are junior CJ Cole and sophomore Leonte Huerta-Moore at the left spot, seniors Juanie Campbell and Ryan McNab at the “F” position and redshirt freshman Mitch Anderson on the right side.
Campbell missed most of the 2019 season due to injury, playing in the final four games to preserve his redshirt option. As a junior in 2018, he caught three passes and rushed for 195 yards and two touchdowns. McNab, also a holder on special teams, missed most of the 2019 campaign as well due to injury.
Cal Poly rarely used a tight end since adopting the Triple Option offense in 2007. In fact, Nick White was the lone tight end listed on the 2018 and 2019 rosters, utilized primarily just for short-yardage situations.
White returns for his final season in a Mustang uniform and will be challenged by junior Michael Roth and sophomore Ryan Rivera.
Tyler Whisenhunt (eight starts at left tackle), Paul Trujillo-Langdon (11 starts at center) and David Chellsen (six starts at right guard) all have exhausted their eligibility, leaving the coaching staff with 60 percent of the positions along the offensive front to fill.
Junior Nicolo DiFronzo, who started the final five games at right guard in place of the injured Chellsen, returns along with left guard Wade Willet, a junior who started all 11 games a year ago. Also returning are De’Jon Stuckey, who started eight of the 11 games at right tackle, and Vatulele Finau, who made five starts at left tackle and right tackle. Both are sophomores.
Apefai Taifane from American Samoa, who missed the 2019 season due to injury after making seven starts at left guard as a junior in 2018, also returns along with junior Drew Gilmore. Dominic Stellini-Splan, the transfer from City College of San Francisco who redshirted last year, is on the 2020 spring depth chart at center.
Heading into spring camp, the depth chart had Gaitan atop the left tackles, Willet at left guard, Stuckey and Finau at center, DiFronzo at right guard and junior Garrett Weichman, a transfer from Orange Coast College who utilized his redshirt a year ago, at right tackle.
The younger players ready to challenge the veterans on the offensive line include redshirt freshmen Payson Campisano, Charles Lincoln, Andrew Cokley and Mohab Wahdan along with sophomores J.T. Lyon, Daniel Machado and Kyle Reis. Sophomore Eli Otero, a transfer from American River College, is in the mix at right tackle as well.
This is one of the more experienced groups for the 2020 Mustangs as junior Myles Cecil at defensive tackle and senior Ryan Boehm at defensive end both started all 11 games a year ago.
The nose tackle spot was manned by senior Richard Watkins (seven starts), junior Pouono Faaagi (one start) and senior Jojo Falo (one start), who suffered a season-ending injury on the first offensive play of the 2019 season and was granted a medical redshirt.
Challengers for the starting nods include senior Saia Fonogaloa and junior Kain Su’a at nose tackle, senior Chris Flood at defensive tackle and senior Griffin Kemp and junior Chase Windham at defensive end.
Matt Wright, who had another year of eligibility remaining after making 12 tackles in six starts at Rush, has graduated, but senior Joey Ruiz (six starts, 39 tackles, five for lost yardage) returns to the renamed Buck position.
Also battling for the starting nod are senior Lance Vecchio (eight tackles in 11 games) and sophomore Dustin Grein (two tackles in five games).
At Sam, sophomore Aaron Cooper returns after making all 11 starts in 2019 at an inside (Will) linebacker position and recording 67 tackles (30 solo), including six for lost yardage, one sack and seven pass breakups.
Also on the depth chart and challenging Cooper is sophomore Corey Thomas, who played all 11 games a year ago and made five tackles.
As is the case with the outside linebackers, one starter is gone but the other returns.
Matt Shotwell returns at Will for his final season at Cal Poly, seeking to build on his team-leading 89 total tackles of a year ago. Also on his stat sheet were 7.5 tackles for lost yardage, two interceptions, a pair of pass breakups and one forced fumble.
Shotwell faces challenges from senior Laipeli Palu, who played in six games with one start and made 14 tackles as a junior, and junior Aarmon Euwing, who played in four games to preserve his redshirt year.
Mike linebacker Nik Navarro has graduated after making 32 tackles in eight games last fall, but sophomore Timothy Miller (nine games, one tackle) and junior Fenton Will (11 games, three starts, 38 tackles) return to battle for the starting nod. Both are St. Joseph (Santa Maria) High School graduates.
Another candidate at Mike is freshman Judaea Moon, who gained experience by playing in four games during his redshirt season last fall.
The defensive secondary took a big hit as five players who combined for all 44 starts at the four positions — cornerbacks Kevin Howell, Kameron Dennis and Sharky Reza along with safeties Carter Nichols and Kitu Humphrey — have graduated.
Senior Jaylen Morgan played in four games a year ago and sophomore D’Angelo McKenzie three, but that’s the extent of the experience among the returning cornerbacks.
At boundary corner, McKenzie, Crump, Morgan and sophomore Julian Reed, a transfer from American River College, are the candidates. The trio at field corner are senior Ben Hakimi, redshirt freshman Isaiah Jernagin and junior Jamarri Jackson, a transfer from College of San Mateo and Northern Arizona.
There is a little more experience among the returning safeties than at cornerback.
The veterans include senior Freddie Gaines (11 games played) at boundary safety and senior Bradley Mickey (21 tackles, one interception, three pass breakups in 11 games) and junior Brandon Davis (five tackles, one fumble recovery in 11 games) at field safety.
Bidding for playing time at boundary safety will be juniors Caden McCloughan, a transfer from Foothill College, and Matthew Stuppiello III, a transfer from Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. Both were redshirts a year ago.
At field safety, Mickey and Davis will be challenged by freshman Dawson Hurst, who played in three games during his redshirt season a year ago, and junior Trevor Owens, a transfer from Butte College.
The kicking corps appears to be intact, possibly for another couple seasons.
Sophomore Colton Theaker made each of his 34 PAT kicks and connected on seven of 13 field goals with a long of 52 yards versus UC Davis. He also averaged 59.9 yards per kickoff with 22 touchbacks.
Junior Mitch Souza averaged 42.4 yards on 54 punts in 2019 with 12 inside the 20-yard line, 11 fair catches and nine punts of 50 or more yards.
Matthew Hoffman was a redshirt last year and will back up both Theaker and Souza.
Mickey and McNab are expected to handle holding duties while senior Sawyer Sobelman returns to serve as the Mustangs’ long snapper.
Those who will return punts and kickoffs will be determined in the fall, but the leading candidates appear to be Mickey, Campbell and Moore for punts and Harrison and Moore for kickoffs. Mickey averaged 6.2 yards per punt return in 2019 while Harrison averaged 19.5 yards and Moore 21.6 yards per kickoff return.
Following the pair of FBS foes to open the 2020 season, Cal Poly faces five FCS schools who qualified for the playoffs last fall, including San Diego in the home opener Sept. 19 and all four Big Sky schools who reached the postseason.
“We have been down this road before,” said Baldwin. “I look at it as a great opportunity for the guys. It will be a long road trip the first trip of the year. When it’s the first one, it’s not always as tough as in the middle of the year. You have all that time to prep for the first road trip.”
The Mustangs host Weber State on Oct. 3 and visit Sacramento state on Nov. 7, the two schools who shared the Big Sky title in 2019. Cal Poly also visits Montana on Sept. 26 and Montana State on Oct. 10, the other two Big Sky teams in the playoffs.
“It will be a tremendous challenge, but it’s an opportunity,” Baldwin added. “That’s what I tell the team.”