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With the veteran Protheroe back, Cal Poly hoping for improved season

Cal Poly running back Joe Protheroe (5) runs for atouchdown in the first quarter of their NCAA football game with Nevada Reno at MacKay Stadium in Reno, Nev., on Sept. 2, 2016. Lance Iversen / USA TODAY Sports

FARGO — The days are 24 hours long in San Luis Obispo, Calif., too, so you wonder how Joe Protheroe makes use of every minute. The running back for Cal Poly and one of the top backs in the FCS has plenty going on.

Certainly, there's football and his Mustangs have been busy preparing for the season opener Saturday afternoon at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome against North Dakota State. Off the field, he and his wife, Ashley, recently welcomed their third child — and there's also this thing called school.

"I just dedicate myself," Protheroe said. "I can't lie, I can't take all of the credit. My wife does a lot of work. But I have to stay focused and keep in the back of my mind the purpose of why I'm doing this so my kids follow the same path, go to college and get an education."

It's been an interesting path in college for Protheroe. He graduated in 2013 from Clayton Valley Charter High School in Concord, Calif., where he ran for more than 3,000 yards in the 2012 season.

He signed a letter of intent with Cal Poly in February of 2013, but grayshirted his first year — meaning he could delay his arrival by a year and not have it count against his five-year eligibility clock. He played as a true freshman in 2014, and then started to assert himself with an all-Big Sky Conference year as a sophomore in 2015.

He ran for more than 1,000 yards in 2016, but had his year cut short last year after two games because of an injury. He received a medical hardship.

And so he's back trying to help the Mustangs reverse a 1-10 season last year.

"People don't understand how much he loves the game of football," said Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh. "He's truly addicted to the game and the other thing people don't understand is how good of a running back he is. He would be a great tailback — he would fit in really well with what North Dakota State does on offense."

He's labeled a fullback at Cal Poly, a position that lines directly behind the quarterback. He's often the first option in the triple option offense.

It's just not that easy to stop.

"He's exceptional," said Bison head coach Chris Klieman. "He gets the tough yards and he can break a big play on you. He's their bell cow. I don't care if you call him a fullback or running back, he could be in the I-formation and gain a lot of yards in our offense."

Certainly, the loss of Protheroe last year contributed greatly to the Mustangs' subpar season. There were other injuries, too, and Walsh said his program that is built on winning close games suddenly started losing the tight ones.

The best way to handle it, he said, was "to take ownership" on it, learn from it and move on.

"I think we attacked this offseason with more of a purpose," Protheroe said. "It was supposed to be my senior year last year and it was hard to watch my guys who I came in with go out."

Protheroe said he's been healthy since last February. He's been at Cal Poly longer than most.

His daughters — Jolene, Jordyn and Joelle — are all under 3 years of age. The entire family gets another run through FCS football, and perhaps beyond.

"I want to do it this season for my teammates and for coach Walsh," Joe said. "He's the one that gave me the opportunity. He got me up here and he got my family up here. I feel like I have to pay him back in the form of my performance. I've been working hard to put up good numbers this year."

Jeff Kolpack

Jeff Kolpack covers North Dakota State athletics, the Fargo Marathon and golf for The Forum. His blog can be accessed at www.bisonmedia.areavoices.com. On the radio, Kolpack & Izzo sports talk show runs from 9-11 a.m. every Saturday morning. April through August, the WDAY Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack runs from 8-9 a.m.

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