They say change is good. But when a football team loses 88 percent of its starters over the course of a year, change can also be a headache.
There are changes galore for the College of San Mateo football team, which opens the 2018 season by hosting College of Siskiyous at 1 p.m. Saturday.
From a new head coach, who has been with the program since 1997, a new name —with the same face — at quarterback and three full-time, returning starters for a team that went 11-2 and earned a spot in the state championship game.
Mix in a grueling schedule in which every team made the postseason in 2017 and it adds up to a difficult follow up to last year’s state runner-up finish.
“It’s a young team in a lot of respects, when you look at it overall,” said head coach Tim Tulloch, formerly the team’s longtime defensive coordinator and served as co-head coach with Bret Pollack (who has been with the program since 1994), who continues his offensive coordinator duties.
“We’re kind of where we were two years ago,” Tulloch continued. “We were young and it took us a few games to click and get going.”
Tulloch said he returns only three true starters from last year’s squad, but there are a number of players who saw significant playing time who will most likely rotate into the starters spots.
“Last year’s team was fairly sophomore heavy. We had 33 guys sign scholarships (at four-year schools). Then we also lost four key freshmen (to scholarships as well),” Tulloch said.
Just because a player was a backup last season doesn’t make him a lock as a starter this year. The CSM coaching staff uses a system in which every player is in a competition for the starting job every week.
“It’s going to be the same this year,” Tulloch. “We’re always going to have open competition.”
Despite the paucity of returners, the ones who are coming back for a sophomore season are the right guys. The Bulldogs return part-time starting quarterback Kamalii Akina, who went by “Shawn” for most of 2017. Regardless of name, Akina proved last season he is fully capable of handling the Bulldogs’ option-read offense. Last season while sharing duties with Miles Kendrick — who signed with University of Kansas — Akina (SO., St. Francis) appeared in 10 games, making four starts, throwing for 1,031 yards and eight touchdowns with a 62.5 completion percentage (60 for 96).
His experience gives him the edge in the quarterback competition, which also includes Matt Adamkiewicz (SO, Christopher-Gilroy), Tre Hines (FR, Dublin) and Aajon Johnson (FR, Menlo-Atherton).
“It just hasn’t been as clear cut as you would expect (when it comes to who will start). They’re all making progress and improving. That keeps it closer,” Tulloch said. “We’re leaning toward the guy (Akina) with returning experience. He’s been the most productive in the fall. He proved it last year and proven it this summer in camp that he’s earned the opportunity.”
Akina will have a familiar weapon on the flank in sophomore Rajae Johnson (SO., Jennings-Missouri), a 1,300-yard receiver for the Bulldogs last season. Johnson caught 56 balls for 1,385 yards in 2017, pulling down 14 touchdowns in 13 games. He scored in a dozen games last season, during which he had seven 100-plus yard games and two 200-plus yard games.
“He’s had a good spring and summer in the weight room,” Tulloch said. “He’s getting more polished with his route running. He’s getting more physical.”
And the chemistry he already has with Akina should enable the offense to get up a speed a lot more smoothly.
“The quarterback-receiver chemistry is huge. That is something we can hopefully lean on,” Tulloch said.
The Bulldogs won’t have to lean on the passing game exclusively, however. Not when you have a returning 1,000-yard rusher in Cameron Taylor (SO., Hillsdale). Not what you call a big back, the 5-10, 190-pound Taylor is deceptively strong and faster than people think. He showed his senior year totals at Hillsdale — when he ran for 2,113 yards and helped lead the Knights to the 2015 CCS Division 4 championship game. After a grayshirt season in 2016, Taylor moved into the starting lineup last season and became just the seventh CSM running back to run for 1,000 yards or more in a season. He finished with 1,056 yards and 17 touchdowns.
“He’s not your 6-2, big running back,” Tulloch said. “He’s a different kind of back. He’s a different type of dynamic.”
Joining Taylor in the backfield is Rashaan Fontenette (So., Oak Grove) also rushed for more than 2,500 yards his senior year of high school in 2015. Last season, he gained 559 yards in limited offensive duty. He was needed more as a kickoff return man and he certainly helped put the CSM offense in a good position with her 36 yards per kickoff return in 2017.
The offensive line is still a work in progress after every starter from 2017 received a scholarship to a four-year school.
“Even some of the backups signed (scholarships),” Tulloch said. “You lose experience and leadership, but it also opens spots for guys to come right in and start.”
The experience on defense might be even thinner the offense. While there are plenty of players who say regular action, most will be assuming a starter’s role.
But like the offense, the CSM defense has some key pieces in place in 6-2, 265-pound defensive end Sosaia (Billy) Tuitavake (SO., Serra) and 6-1, 225-pound linebacker Barry Palu (SO., Burlingame).
“Billy played a bunch for us at defensive end (last year). He’s just a kid who is quick twitch. He’s got a motor that doesn’t stop,” Tulloch said. “Barry’s a high football IQ guy. He can play a lot of different positions. He’s active as far as being around the ball and active as far as blitzes and pressure situations.”
Despite having such little returning experience, the expectations for CSM will not change. They will still expect to contend for the National Bay 6 Conference title and a spot in the state championship playoffs.
“Each year you have your own identity, own chemistry and their own feel,” Tulloch said. “What I love about this group is the way they work. … They trust in the coaches and the process.
“What you lack in experience you hope you can make up for in other ways. … We’re hoping the toughness (of this team) will show up in games.”