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Hard Lessons : For Fullerton’s Dan Speltz, El Camino Magic Is History

It’s nearly October, and the hard lessons of September are still stinging a bit for Dan Speltz, who is in his first season at quarterback for Cal State Fullerton. For example:

Hard Lesson No. 1--how to lose.

After throwing 25 touchdown passes and guiding El Camino College to a perfect 11-0 season--and the state and honorary national community college titles last year--Speltz came back to earth on Sept. 3.

Speltz hadn’t been on the low end of the scoreboard since Nov. 22, 1986, when El Camino lost to Golden West.

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That is, until Southwestern Louisiana stuffed Fullerton with a 24-9 loss at Lafayette, La. Speltz was intercepted twice and lost four fumbles. The Ragin’ Cajuns manufactured a pair of touchdowns out of three of Speltz’s turnovers.

Then there was the Titans’ predictable 45-10 defeat at Morgantown, W. Va., to the 12th-ranked West Virginia Mountaineers.

Since then, the Titans have leveled their record at 2-2 by downing Nevada-Las Vegas and Pacific. But 6-3, 200-pound Speltz is still taking things one game at a time.

“If it’s not happening right away, you can’t make it worse by getting down on yourself,” Speltz said. “On every snap you’ve just got to concentrate on what your goal is for that play.”

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Which brings us to Hard Lesson No. 2--how to spend most of a Saturday afternoon fleeing out of the pocket, and then winding up on your back, trying to knock the dirt out of the ear holes of your helmet.

For Speltz, the quick-passing days of El Camino are ancient history. Behind a ragged Titan offensive line, Speltz has been sacked 13 times for a net loss of 76 yards.

But Fullerton Coach Gene Murphy is quick to lift the blame from Speltz’s shoulder pads.

“If something goes wrong, people always point the finger at two positions--quarterback and cornerback,” Murphy said. “It’s just the nature of football. Dan Speltz’s stats aren’t good, but there are a lot of breakdowns on this team that have nothing to do with Dan Speltz.”

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Breakdowns like dropped passes. Or running backs blocking the wrong people. Or receivers running the wrong patterns. Add to that the inconsistency of the offensive line and you get Speltz eating turf on a consistent basis.

In all fairness to the Titans, many of the above problems have been a direct result of Hard Lesson No. 3--how to learn a new offensive system in three weeks before your season opener.

That’s how long Fullerton had to iron out offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger’s new scheme, which was set into place when his predecessor, Jerry Brown, left the Titans to become an offensive assistant coach for the Minnesota Vikings.

Speltz and his mates on offense are still exorcising Brown’s demons. But the Titans’ offense is improving game by game, and Fullerton could challenge for a California Bowl bid with a strong showing in the Big West Conference.

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The worst is over for Speltz and the Titans. At least, it will be after Saturday.

Saturday afternoon, look for Speltz to review Hard Lesson No. 1--with a smattering of No. 2--when Fullerton travels to Wyoming for a date with the 18th-ranked Cowboys.

It could be a long day in Laramie for Speltz. First, four Titan tailbacks--one for each week--have fallen to injury. On Saturday, Fullerton’s tailback will actually be a fullback, Tim Byrnes.

And second, the Cowboys (4-0) just grounded Air Force, 48-45, last week. They boast an offense that has as many weapons as an armored division--62 formations, Murphy said--and a defense that loves to blitz.

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“If they put six guys up there on the line, we know they’re gonna’ be coming,” Murphy said. “We’ve got to watch out for outside linebackers blitzing.”

That, Speltz said, could work to the Titans’ favor.

“The blitz is either gonna’ stuff us or we’re gonna’ get a big play out of it,” Speltz said. “We might be able to throw over the blitz.”

One thing’s for certain: Speltz will be on the run. If he gets another taste of Hard Lesson No. 2, however, it may be snow he’s eating instead of grass. Wyoming’s field was covered with 3 inches of snow on Wednesday.

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“We’re going to be bringing our snow gear,” Murphy deadpanned Thursday.

Of course, Wyoming could be in trouble if Speltz gets on target. The 2,342 yards that the Rolling Hills High School graduate passed for last year weren’t a fluke. And he was intercepted only eight times in 1987 at El Camino. Murphy must have thought he was getting Dan Marino, not Dan Speltz.

But in Titan orange and blue, Speltz has had his passes picked off four times. His completions are down to 43%, and he’s passed for only 464 yards this season. His only touchdown pass came last week when he hit Rocky Palamara on a 7-yard slant against Pacific.

Palamara had six receptions in that game. But he’s not the kind of receiving threat that Dwight Pickens was for El Camino last season.

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“Each game you just take what the defense gives you,” Speltz said. “Pacific was double-covering our outside guys, so we went underneath to Rocky a lot.”

But Speltz’s success in finding Palamara last week may be a sign that he’s about to break out of his slump. His former coach at El Camino, John Featherstone, is one who thinks Speltz has the mental toughness to do it.

“He’s a throwback to the Billy Kilmer-type quarterback of the old days,” Featherstone said. “If Dan had his druthers, I think he’d be playing in big old high-tops. He’s a tough nut, that’s for sure.”

Featherstone said Speltz exhibits a quiet sort of leadership. He isn’t the type of quarterback to start hollering in the huddle to motivate his teammates.

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“A lot of times talk is cheap,” Speltz said. “Just because you say things doesn’t mean you can get ‘em done. If you’re just talking and you don’t get it done, you go from bad to worse.

“I hope my teammates believe in me. If they do, we’ll turn it around.”


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