Friday, August 04, 2006

The Bottom Line -- 2006 Season Preview Part Two/Page 1

Columnist Chris Kelly provides an inside look on the upcoming Great West Football Conference season

Aug. 3, 2006

What are they saying? The last two years the GWFC roundtable helped out on a weekly basis by contributing some thoughts on each game of the week. The contributors all cover Great West teams and know these teams as well as anyone. They're back and will continue to offer their insights and perspective throughout the course of the season. First off they'll start with some overall thoughts on this season's Great West race.

Kent Schmidt, I-AA West Columnist, "Cal Poly and UC Davis appear to be the top two schools again this year as they have been the prior two seasons and the GWFC title may be decided when the two meet October 7th in San Luis Obispo. The two will have to fend off opposition from North Dakota State but I think Cal Poly will wind up winning the title this year and again making the post season."

Jeff Kolpack, North Dakota State beat writer, Fargo Forum: "It's been hot and sunny all summer in the Upper Midwest, so it's kind of tough to start thinking football. But here it goes. Cal Poly lost some key players from last year starting with Chris Gocong. But in watching all five teams last season, my gut feeling tells me the Mustangs had the best overall talent. I'm not going to pick against a team that has James Noble in the backfield. And I thought receiver Ramses Barden was the most talented receiver in the league.

Davis has Jon Grant back at quarterback, but I'm a little suspect of the Aggies' defense with graduations and defections. SDSU returns solid running backs in Watson and Koenig. Like Davis, I'm not convinced its defense is good enough to win a league title.

Southern Utah needed some work from last year and how are we to know how good the new players are. But the fact a team has to depend on new faces is not a promising sign for this year.

That brings me to the team in my backyard. The Bison have a few question marks: How healthy is Steve Walker's knee? With Cinque Chapman academically ineligible, can Kyle Steffes carry the load all season? Is there any depth on the defensive line? NDSU overall keeps getting better in I-AA football, but at the same time, its schedule keeps getting tougher. The Bison play two I-A games and are on the road six weeks in seven games in one stretch.

By the time the GWFC season rolls around, the Bison stand a good chance of being either too beat up or too road weary.

So, the picks: 1. Cal Poly 2. UC Davis 3. NDSU 4. SDSU 5. SUU

Michael Mirer, U.C. Davis beat writer, Davis Enterprise: "My favorite thing about Cal Poly is its predictability.

I know that the Mustangs will struggle to score points consistently, but win games with their defense. They'll play a classic game with UC Davis that will come down to the final possession. And they'll have a Buck Buchanan winner/finalist that will go on to sign a pro contract. You can write those in with pen every year.

Does that sound cynical? Fear not because there will be something new this season. This is the year we start to list Cal Poly among the perennial playoff favorites in I-AA. And that's great for the league, which, despite its size and cohort of transitional teams, is one of the best in I-AA.

In fact: the top three teams in the GWFC (Cal Poly, North Dakota State and UC Davis) are as good as any comparable list you could make from any other I-AA conference. I'm taking the Mustangs this year because everything lines up perfectly for them in those two key match-ups. UC Davis has a young front seven, which will struggle to stand up to the option for 60 minutes. NDSU has a brutal schedule and some uncertainty offensively, which isn't good news, given that the Bison haven't done much offensively against the Mustangs in two years.

But it should be fun.

GWFC Projections (Listed in projected order of finish)

1. CAL POLY - Cal Poly's most successful season at the I-AA level last season saw them capture a share of the Great West conference title, beat Montana in Missoula, win a second Buck Buchanan award, and advance into the quarterfinals of the national playoffs. Couple a young, athletic offense with the best defense of the Rich Ellerson era and it not only makes the Mustangs the team to beat in the Great West, but a national championship contender.

Defense - If there is one thing we've learned over the past few seasons it's that head coach Rich Ellerson knows defense. Every time the Mustangs appear to be in a situation where the defense will need to be rebuilt the Mustangs coach is able to reload without problems. I've talked about the complication of defending the Mustangs Double Eagle Flex defense, but Cal Poly's ability to plug in players who contribute immediately can't be understated either. The great news for Mustang fans is the defense doesn't need to be rebuilt in 2006 and stands to be better than any they've had over the past few years. This group has eight starters returning, a handful of all-American candidates, and a couple of guys who could win the Buchanan. Perhaps the one area of concern is along the line where the Mustangs lost both ends in Buchanan winner, Chris Gocong (23.5 sacks) and Matt Cachere (10.0 sacks). The foursome that will attempt to replace the losses at end are expected starters Adam Torosian (DE), and Carlton Gillespie (Quick end) along with backups Louis Sheppard and Ryan Shotwell. The starter jobs haven't been awarded yet and these battles will be hotly contested during fall camp. Still, the four have combined for 29 tackles at the college level. As untested as the ends are Chris White brings back a wealth of athletic ability coupled with great size at 6'3, 273. The senior defensive tackle, a first team Sports Network All-American, had 42 tackles along with 10.5 sacks last season. The final starter along the line is nose guard Sean Lawyer who notched seven tackles last season. While the line is the question mark heading into the season the rest of the defense is as solid as it gets. The secondary returns four starters, but not in the traditional sense. Randy Samuel, (54 tackles, 5 pd) a starting corner last season, moves over to strong safety this season to replace departed Aaron Williams. He's joined by free safety Kenny Chicoine, who has 15 career interceptions and is one of the best at his position nationally. The two starting corners are standout All-American Courtney Brown and Anthony Randolph. Brown, the Mustangs lock down corner with 4.5 speed returns this season after a strong '05 campaign which saw him nab seven picks and breakup 12 passes. He is considered by some to be one of the top two corners in I-AA and will probably play corner or free safety at the next level. Randolph (mentioned in Part I of the preview) moves over from his starting wide receiver position. Finally, the linebackers return virtually in tact. The loss of Tom Curiel doesn't hurt much when you have starters Kyle Shotwell (158, 13.5 for loss, 5 sacks) and Justin Peek (47 tackles, 6 fl, 2 sacks) returning as well as sophomore Mark Restelli. (83 tackles, 3 sacks) While Chris White is more of the lesser known potential Buchanan candidate, Shotwell is the big name most fans recognize from a huge season in 2005. The linebackers and secondary as a group could be the best in the nation, which should speak to their tremendous athletic ability. In fact, in Brown, Chicoine, Shotwell, and White you have players who are all among the top 5 at their position across the nation. This defense will get its accolades throughout the year, but the difference between a very, very good defense and a great, dominating defense rests in the play of the inexperience along the line.

Offense - The biggest difference in this years Mustang team should be the explosive capability of the offense. This group held its own last season but started a handful of freshman who return a year wiser. Now this group has aspirations of taking the program to the next level. In fact, Cal Poly is expected to start seven sophomores this season, all whom saw plenty of playing time a year ago so it's not a question of inexperience. One of those sophomores is James Noble, the key around which the offense is built. Last season Cal Poly averaged over 200 yards rushing per game (21st) the number will probably remain about the same this season if Noble has his say. The Mustangs are sure to feed their nearly 1600 yard back the ball at least the 18 carries he averaged last season. If he can repeat the successes of a year ago Noble is sure to find himself a Walter Payton candidate by year's end. To begin the season there's no doubt the opposition will game plan around stopping Noble and force quarterback Matt Brennan to beat them. Brennan came on last season when Anthony Garnett was injured during a game in Montana. After a brutal game at Davis, his football play was efficient enough to help his team win three key games which helped the Mustangs earn he school's first ever playoff birth. Brennan is a mobile quarterback with a big arm whose ability to run the option and improvise is a huge asset, but he must improve his passing this season. He finished under 50% completion rate throwing seven picks to just four touchdowns. Let's not forget, though, that Brennan was just a freshman last year forced into action. Expect that Brennan's comfort level has increased over the spring as well as his ability to lead this team. And feeling more comfortable surely goes hand in hand with the return of four starters along the offensive line, highlighted by (of course) sophomore center Stephen Field. Field stepped into a starting role as a freshman last season and hasn't looked back earning first team All-GWFC. He's already getting looks from pro scouts and could be a national All-American by years end, the kid is that good. Back are tackles Josh Mayfield and Dylan Roddick, as well as guard Julai Tuua. Another sophomore, Mike Porter, takes over at quick guard for Beau Finato. Cal Poly is known to generally have smaller offensive lines than their opponents which will be the case again in most instances this season. But the Mustangs prefer the smaller, quicker, more athletic lineman which has consistently been successful for them and their option. If fans enjoyed watching Noble last season, they should be very excited to watch the Mustangs sophomore receiving duo, Ramses Barden and Tredale Tolver. Barden led the team in receiving last season with 655 yards and nine touchdowns. His 6'6 220 frame and physical ability to go get the ball makes a difficult matchup for opposing cornerbacks. Barden, like Field, is also drawing some early interest from NFL scouts. He and Tolver (20 catches, 315 yards) will be the face of Cal Poly wide receivers for three years to come. Cal Poly is loaded offensively with dynamic talents at the skill positions along with a very good line. This group could be the ultimate compliment to a talented defense but it all rests on Matt Brennan's maturity as a quarterback.

Schedule - While the Mustangs schedule is loaded, it's probably as favorable as a team can get considering the difficult competition. Cal Poly opens with three games that should put them at 3-0. Then San Jose State, U.C. Davis, and South Dakota State are cushioned by a game with Southern Utah and a bye making the first eight weeks of the season pretty bearable. It's not until the stretch run that the Mustangs will see a monster test with three consecutive road games: San Diego State, Montana, and North Dakota State. A playoff birth could be hinging on the outcomes of all of those final three games.

Key Game - @ Montana, 11/4. Yes, the Davis game is important but this game is the benchmark against which all I-AA teams are measured. Last season when the Mustangs beat the Grizzlies for the first time in 11 tries it removed the monkey from the Mustangs back, and picked up the school's first ever playoff win in one swoop. Montana is I-AA football and any team aspiring to win a national championship has to go through the Griz. Cal Poly has those aspirations so they need to prove last year's result wasn't a fluke.

2. UC DAVIS - The Aggies had a Jekyll and Hyde season of sorts, losing games they should have won yet winning tough games against Cal Poly, at North Dakota State and Stanford. UCD was still able to preserve their winning streak, which now stands at 36 years. Another tough schedule awaits, but with almost the entire offense returning and key components of the defense also back, the Aggies are my pick to finish 2nd in the Great West.

Offense - Over the years the Aggies have been known for their offense and this year appears to be one of those years where this Aggie fans should be very excited about the prospects of a huge 2006 season. After all, the UC Davis returns nine starters on offense including their quarterback, top receiver, and running back. The quarterback, Jon Grant, is back for his senior season and his experience in the offense will be a huge benefit. He leads an offense that averaged nearly 270 yards passing a game last season, good enough for 17th nationally. Grant has shown signs of brilliance and an ability to win the big game over the course of his first two seasons at quarterback so expect those numbers to shoot even higher in 2006. That's especially true because Grant is surrounded by big talent, specifically his All-American wide receiver Tony Kays. Both Grant and Kays were profiled in part I of the preview and that will be the first of many, many times these two will be talked about together. Grant will look to his star receiver more often as Kays touchdowns numbers improve this season as the most experienced receiver on the team. While Kays is one of the top wide receivers in the nation, the receivers behind him are young. Brandon Rice started every game a season ago, but only managed 10 grabs with one score. He came in with big expectations and as only a sophomore this year it will be the year the Aggies need him to contribute more. Expect Rice to clear 40 catches this season as he could easily be the breakout player of the year this season with his ability. Other receivers Chris Miller, Chris Carter, and Kale Turner will all make contributions, with Carter grabbing the third starter spot. Carter could be one of the conference's big surprises in 2006. His combination of strength and speed should open up the vertical game for the Aggies, something that hasn't been available in a couple seasons. This starting receiving core could be as good as the Ags have had in a few years, which says something considering the positions history. Grant should have the time to throw the deep ball more often as well thanks to a line that returns all five starters. Across the line (left to right) Kyle Skierski, Jonathan Compas, Tim Keane, Greg Belasis, and Eliot Vallejo are all back in 2006. Sophomore Mario Gonzales, who filled in at guard when Compas went down with injury last season, provides experienced depth. The leader of the unit is Eliot Vallejo, who is making a lot of noise with scouts heading into the season. The UCLA transfer struggled two seasons ago with a bad hand injury which he gutted out and played through. He came back to dominate last season and is now projected as the highest Great West player to be drafted in next seasons NFL Draft. Josh Buchanan, small school scout for the Magnolia Gridiron Classic and Las Vegas All American Classic, says Vallejo grades as a 5th-7th round pick next April. Currently, Buchanan ranks Vallejo as the best non I-A tackle. The final piece of the offense is the running game, something which continues to dog the Aggies. Last season UCD averaged an anemic 99.5 yards per game 113th (out of 121) among I-AA leaders. Despite the lack of running success, the Aggies do return their top four runners in Nelson Doris, Demario Warren, Alex Garfio, and Marcus Nolan. The Aggies will attempt to red-shirt Garfio, who will only be pressed into duty if injuries once again stack up. That means it comes down to Doris, Nolan, and Warren to spark the rush attack, and in that order. Doris will start and see the most carries with Nolan and Warren to follow. The newly installed fullback in the Davis offense will be used occasionally with Grant Ayvazan, Justin Bonetto, and Bryan Harrison in the mix. This offense is loaded with talent but it will all come down to the Aggies ability to effectively run the ball that will be the difference in this team hanging some eye-popping numbers on the board as well as surviving a brutal opening month on the road.

Defense - It will be hard to repeat the successes of last season's defense which posted some astounding numbers. Last year's unit finished 7th in the nation in yards allowed per game (282) as well as 2nd nationally against the run allowing a meager 87.5 a contest. Considering the competition that's pretty impressive! The defense has a solid core of talent coming back but the questions remain at linebacker where the Aggies lost all three starters to graduation. To boot, Josh Edwards, who started a few games at backer last season, transferred. The good news is the Aggies are loaded with terrific athletes at linebacker, but surely they'll be some growing pains as inexperience is at all three positions. Slated to start at Sam, Middle, and Will are Jesse Kailahi, Dave Heckman, and Chris Buck, respectively. These three have combined for just 16 tackles in the short collegiate careers. Chris Carter, Tyler Pringle, and spring transfer Alex Cook will provide depth at the each position but experience is a major the concern at linebacker. These guys will have to mature quickly considering the teams second game is against a powerful Texas Christian rushing attack. Along the line the Aggies are in great shape, despite losing Thomas Blake (5.5 sacks) who transferred to UCLA. Back is Mike Ng (8 tfl, 3 sacks) as well as James Amos (11 tfl, 6.0 sacks) holding down the end spots. The interior also has both starters back with Naveen Daftari and John Faletoese both returning. Faletoese had a big impact last season as a freshman 11 tackles for loss and four sacks. His natural physical ability and impact on the line last season has some around the program mentioning he could be one of the best ever at his position by the time he leaves Davis. While the starting four pack tremendous talent fans won't know much about the 2nd group. Andy Rice (DE, RS Fr.), Mason Thomas (DE, RS Fr.), Pat Michelier (DT/DE, RS Fr.) and spring transfer Travis Dulli (DT, Jr.) all should figure prominently in the rotation. The depth along the line is untested but the starting four is as good as any in the conference. The secondary is also an area of strength as the three starters return along with another player who saw a lot of time last season. They rank as the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th tacklers on the team. The cornerbacks are led by Nevan Bergan, who picked off seven passed and had 10 breakups last season. Heading into the 2006 season he's ranked as the 8th best at his position by The Sports Network. The other starter will be Adam Cook, who didn't start last season but played significant minutes with strong contributions. (4 picks, 7 breakups) The depth at corner will come from junior Brandon Brown, who will be the top backup to both Bergan and Cook. Brown, whom the coaches think can be very good and a significant contributor this season will also be the starting nickelback. Kenny Brown, a sophomore, will also see some time at the position. The safeties will be led by Jonathan Barsi and Luis Amaral. Amaral was in on 44 stops last season from his strong safety spot, while Barsi had 38 tackles at free. These two are a solid duo whose experience will make the defensive backfield a major strength in 2006. Providing the depth at Free Safety will be Nero Evero, younger brother to former Aggie star Ejiro. Brady McClendon, a juco transfer who sat our last season with a red-shirt, will spell Amaral. The Aggie defense returns a significant core of talented individuals, but the difference in an 8-3 or 5-6 season could very well lie in maturity of the new faces at linebackers.

Schedule - The Aggies will certainty rack up the miles over the first five weeks of the season as they begin with five road games. And none of the games are gimme's either as UCD opens with their "easiest" game in Northern Colorado. That statement right there should tell you how tough the next four are - D1-A Texas Christian, Montana State, Youngstown State, and Cal Poly. All four of those teams will start the season ranked in their respective polls. The back half of the schedule lets up a bit considering five of six are at home with games against Southern Utah, Sacramento State and San Diego.

Key Game - @ Cal Poly 10/7. Two years in a row and the most important game on the Aggies schedule has not been Sacramento State. The Aggies will continue to hate their rivals up highway 80, but until the Hornets prove they can stay within 20 points the Cal Poly game is far and away the key game on the schedule. Four of the last five years the game has been decided by seven points or less and that is likely to continue this season. Plus the Mustangs are the biggest competition to the Aggies winning the conference championship. The only shame is that the game is being played in early October instead of late November.


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