SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. - The Cal Poly football team opened training camp Friday afternoon with a sense of optimism and hope.
After enduring a difficult one-win season in 2017, followed by a slow start last year, the Mustangs played well in the second half of the 2018 campaign, setting up what Head Coach Tim Walsh believes could be a turnaround year.
"I think we finished strong last year," said Walsh, now entering his 11th season as head coach. "So the returners that we do have I think have a positive attitude about some of the things we accomplished the last five weeks of the season last year and I think there's been some carry over."
Under ideal weather conditions, the Mustangs held the first of 25 practice sessions the team has scheduled before the season opener at home versus San Diego on Saturday, Aug. 31.
For the team to return to the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs, it appears the team will likely rely on its defense.
"There's no question that we're going to be counting on the defense to have a big part in who we are," said Walsh. "We really have nine or 10 guys that started on defense and in the last couple of weeks, we played pretty good defense, so that's a good sign for us going into the season."
As always, Cal Poly figures to be one of the nation's top rushing offenses. However, for the first time since 2013, the team won't have record-setting Joe Protheroe on the roster.
The All-American fullback broke numerous program records during what is sure to be a Cal Poly Hall of Fame career from 2014-2018.
Having graduated, Protheroe leaves a huge void in the backfield that will be difficult to fill.
In addition, Cal Poly must replace its starting quarterback and center, both of whom also graduated last year.
However, Cal Poly has a trio of quarterbacks, including junior Jake Jeffrey, sophomore Kyle Reid and freshman Jalen Hamler that Walsh believes will be able to step in and lead the Mustangs to success.
"We really think we have three quarterbacks that can play and play at this level and have proven they can play at this level by what they did in the spring," said Walsh. "It's just a matter of who we determine is going to be the number one, the number two and the number three and it's quite possible that people might see all three of them early in the season."
Challenging the Mustangs will be a difficult schedule that is ranked among the top 20 most difficult in FCS.
The Mustangs face all three Big Sky co-champions from from last season, five FCS playoff teams from last season, and a Pac-12 Conference opponent in Oregon State.
"There's a lot of big games on our schedule, but that's the history of the Big Sky," said Walsh. "I asked our team last night and a couple of guys raised their hand and asked about Oregon State and I said that doesn't win the Big Sky championship. Yes, we play Oregon State, but the Big Sky championship is going to be won or lost during that 8 weeks and after our first three weeks, we need to be ready to make a run for eight straight quality opponents that the Big Sky possesses every year."
Something for fans to keep an eye on this season are a handful of local products.
There are 10 players with local connections, including four players from St. Joseph High School, two each from Arroyo Grande and San Luis Obispo high schools and one each from Nipomo and Bishop Diego high schools.
"Having (kicker) Colton Theaker here from Arroyo Grande, I think he's going to be an impact player as a true freshman," said Walsh. "We have a lot of high expectations for him and hopefully he can meet him. You have Fenton Will (St. Joseph), Bradley Mickey (Arroyo Grande) and Dominic King (St. Joseph), those guys are all going to have roles within the defense. What they're going to be remains to been see depending on what they do over the next couple of weeks. (Slotback) CJ Cole (St. Joseph) finished extremely strong last year in spring, so he has a lot of eyes wide open from the coaching staff. We're going to have eyes on him and watch to see what we can do. That's five players from the Central Coast that I think are going to compete to get a lot of minutes on the football field and they could have a lot to do with our success this year."
Other local players on the roster includes defensive back Peyton Witcher (Nipomo), linebacker Matt Shotwell (Bishop Diego), defensive lineman Charles Lincoln (San Luis Obispo) and linebacker Timothy Miller (St. Joseph) and offensive lineman David Chellsen (San Luis Obispo).
Cal Poly plays five home games this season at Alex G. Spanos Stadium, including the home opener at 2:05 p.m
The four other home opponents are Montana State, North Dakota, Sacramento State and Eastern Washington.
The final four home games are all scheduled to kickoff at 5:05 p.m.