FULLERTON — Gene Murphy enters his second decade as Cal State Fullerton's football coach much the way he began his first decade with the Titans--in the dark.
When Murphy began preparing for the 1980 season, his first at Fullerton, he had no idea how good--or bad--his team was and how his players would perform under game pressure.
Ditto for 1990.
The Titans return only four defensive starters, two offensive starters, and 21 lettermen from a 1989 team that went 6-4-1. Of Murphy's 100 or so players, about 60 are new to the program. All the skilled-position players on offense, with the exception of returning receiver J.J. Celestine, are first-time starters.
"It will be interesting and fun to watch because there are so many question marks," Murphy said. "I've never seen these guys play in games before. I know what a few of them can do, but don't know about most of them."
And don't look now, but after Saturday's opener against Division II Sonoma State, the Titans travel to Auburn to face the third-ranked Tigers, then to Mississippi State, Akron, and two-time defending Big West Conference-champion Fresno State.
Not exactly the kind of September schedule that promotes the rebuilding process.
"My biggest concern is not so much the opponents but how beat up and tired we'll be going into the Fresno State game," Murphy said. "We'll have game experience. Whether it's positive or negative experience remains to be seen."
Murphy's goal isn't to succeed in September; it's to survive it. If the Titans stay healthy and are not totally demoralized by the atrocities they are expected to encounter at Auburn and Mississippi State, the 11th-year coach believes Fullerton can finish in the upper half of the Big West standings.
"What the players have to do is win the first game, and in the three games before Fresno State, they have to improve as a team, regardless of what it says in the win and loss columns," Murphy said. "They have to find their personality. They have to feel comfortable playing with each other."
Of course, it's not easy getting comfortable in front of 75,000 screaming Auburn fans, hungry to see their superior Tigers dismantle the Titans in what will be Auburn's season opener Sept. 8.
But even though the game might be ugly, it could reveal a lot about what the Titans are made of.
"You can find out more about a team's personality when confronted with serious odds than when you have a cakewalk of a game," Murphy said. "We can find out a lot about the character of our team.
"Another positive thing is that games like that are what college football is all about. We'll see 70,000 people in the stands, and if that doesn't get your juices flowing, you might as well get the spade out, dig a hole and jump in."
Murphy needs a pretty big shovel to fill all the holes in his offense. Absent are quarterback Dan Speltz and running back Mike Pringle, who together accounted for 98% of the Titans' total offense in 1989. And it will be difficult to replace receiver Rocky Palamara, who caught 69 passes for 1,024 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Senior Paul Schulte, who was Speltz's backup for the past two seasons, beat out redshirt freshman Terry Payne for the starting quarterback job, and senior Deon Thomas edged out junior Reggie Yarbrough for the starting tailback job. But all four are expected to see considerable action in Fullerton's first three games.
Celestine, junior Kerry Reed and junior Greg West, who has only practiced with the Titans for a week since becoming eligible, will be the starting receivers.
"You can look at that as a strength or weakness of the team or the individual," Murphy said of West's quick ascent to a starting role. "Is he that good or are we that bad? I would hope it's the former."
Fullerton's offensive line returns only one starter, senior guard Shannon Illingworth. But Murphy has been pleased with the progress of senior guard Tim Drevno, tackles John Cotti, a redshirt freshman, and Mike Simmons, a 6-foot-7, 330-pound senior transfer from Arizona State.
The Titans' best players are on defense, where senior outside linebacker Clarence Siler, senior free safety Terry Tramble and senior cornerback Nuygen Pendleton return. Tramble, an all-conference performer at cornerback last season, has moved to safety to make room for senior Darrell Bruce. Sophomore Howard McCrary will play rover.
"Pendleton is as good a cover guy as we've had here, and Tramble and Bruce are very physical football players," Murphy said. "We'll have a strong secondary."
Fullerton also appears to be strong at linebacker, with Siler and newcomers Stan Breland, a transfer from San Bernardino College, and Lorenzo Hailey, a transfer from College of the Sequoias.
With so many inexperienced players, Murphy can at least take comfort in knowing he has a proven commodity in sophomore punter/kicker Phil Nevin, who made 15 of 21 field-goal attempts, 33 of 33 extra points and averaged 39.1 yards per punt last season.