LONG BEACH — This season they are experienced, and that delights their coach, Mike Sheppard, who remembers too well last year when they weren't. He hopes those agonizing moments of lost poise, lost footballs and lost games will stay in the past and no longer tarnish a team that is capable of shining.
And when the Cal State Long Beach 49ers shine, they do so beautifully, marching down the field with precision and grace, led by senior quarterback Doug Gaynor, who stepped onto a major-college field for the first time last September in Eugene, Ore., and quickly completed his first 15 passes.
He went on to amass 3,243 yards in total offense--third in the country--and was an honorable mention All-American.
In six of the 49ers' seven defeats (they won four games), Gaynor threw huge scares into the opponents, including Pac-10 teams Oregon, UCLA and Arizona.
But he also threw 17 interceptions in 1984 and was usually under a heavy rush, although he often eluded that with speed not normally expected of a 213-pound devoted weightlifter.
Sheppard said he expects Gaynor to cut his interceptions in half this year because of experience and hard work.
"There are a lot of fine quarterbacks in the country and Doug is one of the finest," said Sheppard.
Gaynor, one of 15 returning starters, will have a variety of talented receivers to choose from when the season starts Saturday at 6 p.m. against Utah State at Veterans Stadium, most notably the swift and acrobatic Charles Lockett, a 6-foot, 175-pound junior split end who caught 75 passes last season, averaging 15 yards a catch.
Plenty of Passes to Go Around
But in Sheppard's complex system, everyone catches passes, which means there will be plenty for wide receiver Troy Ory, tight end Greg Locy, fullback Mark Templeton and freshman tailback Michael Roberts, especially when opponents double-team Lockett.
The 49ers gobbled up the yardage but sometimes choked before they reached the end zone last season. Gaynor threw 16 touchdown passes in 10 games but that was 17 less than nationally renowned Robbie Bosco of Brigham Young threw in 12 games, although they were nearly even in total yards per game.
And despite averaging 400 yards a game--50 more than their opponents, the 49ers averaged only 22 points, which was fifth in the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. The heck with total yards, give me points, says Sheppard.
They need them because opponents averaged 27.4 points against the 49ers.
Sheppard would like an improved running game to take some of the pressure off Gaynor and his receivers. He is depending on Templeton, a determined junior who is difficult to tackle, and Roberts, who last year played at Poly High and has lit up Sheppard's eyes with a combination of speed, intelligence and excitement.
The key returnees on a questionable offensive line that is charged with giving Gaynor sufficient time to pass are center John Stapleton, who was second-team all-PCAA last year, and left guard Dickson Falefia. They will be joined by senior left tackle Mike Lilly and two players who redshirted last season--300-pound right tackle Joe Iosefa and right guard Jim Brooks.
"It's improving," says Sheppard of the offensive line. Gaynor, for one, hopes so. He spent considerable time last year scrambling around in the backfield.
Long Beach's defense is strong along the line, which the school bills as the "Gold Rush."
Senior ends Chuck Meierbachtol and Tom Hensley, the team's defensive player of the year in '84, are tall and talented. The 6-foot-4 Meierbachtol had 51 tackles last season and the 6-6 Hensley had 47.
The tackles are Mark Faust and Don Hity, with Steve Sapp filling in.
Behind the line is concern.
"Our guys have not played together on defense," Sheppard said.
The 49ers lost two top linebackers, Marc Bevilacqua and Kevin Junior, to graduation. The starters will be Kevin Moore, second on the team in tackles with 71 a year ago; Gino Marchese, a redshirt in '84, and junior Steve Rahon.
The defensive secondary is without last season's star, John Hendy, but hard-hitting Anthony Reynolds is back at cornerback. The star of the secondary is likely to be Roger Beavers, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound free safety who last year played at Porterville (Calif.) College.
Long Beach has an untested punter in Dana Ramsey, a transfer from Long Beach City College, but its place-kicker, sophomore David Caylor, fully expects to win some games with his foot.
Caylor kicked a 55-yard field goal against UCLA last season and his tutor, former pro kicker Ben Agajanian, compares him favorably with Rafael Septien of the Dallas Cowboys and John Lee of UCLA.
The 49ers are expected to have a successful season--the consensus of football magazines is third place in the PCAA behind Fresno and Nevada Las Vegas.
"We'll be more poised and we'll hustle better," said Sheppard, in his second year as coach. "We haven't played so well (in practice). I just hope we play well enough to win."
The non-conference schedule certainly will be easier with Boise State, Eastern Washington, Hawaii and Tulsa instead of the Pac-10 teams.
In an effort to boost attendance, which averaged 7,500 last season, CSULB is experimenting with a new starting time--6 p.m.--for four home games.
So that means that on Saturday night, a few minutes after six, Gaynor will drop back to pass, hit a leaping Lockett and the 49ers will be on their way.