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UC Davis quarterback hopes patience will pay off

Hunter Rodrigues may have to bide his time at UC Davis after transferring from American River College, where he passed for 23 touchdowns and rushed for 14 scores as a freshman in 2017.

Playing the waiting game is nothing new for Hunter Rodrigues. If it pays off for the quarterback at UC Davis as it did last season at American River College, the Aggies will be sitting pretty in 2020 with Rodrigues calling the signals.

Rodrigues waited in 2016 after graduating from Whitney High School in Rocklin. His statistics as a senior – 3,154 yards and 45 touchdowns passing to go with 642 yards and six touchdowns rushing – did not earn him a scholarship. He settled for going to American River and then taking a grayshirt season to avoid losing a year of eligibility.

Grayshirts can attend classes as part-time students, thus rendering them ineligible, until they go full time on scholarship. Such a scenario made sense for Rodrigues because American River was set at quarterback with Griffin Dahn.

Accepting that was much easier than going through a season as a glorified spectator on the sideline. And with nothing better to do, Rodrigues was occasionally summoned to feed the referees with an ample supply of footballs. Imagine the embarrassment of serving as a ball boy with his relatives and friends watching from the bleachers.

“That was a pretty long year,” Rodrigues lamented.

Jake Maier (15) keeps an eye on Rodrigues from the sideline during a recent practice at UC Davis.

One season at American River was enough for Dahn to receive a scholarship to Nevada. That opened the door for Rodrigues to become the starter for the Beavers in 2017. The 6-foot, 180-pound Rodrigues showed no fear or signs of rust in throwing for 2,191 yards and 23 touchdowns as well as rushing for 478 yards and 14 scores.

American River would have loved more of the same from Rodrigues in 2018, but the sophomore followed Dahn’s lead by being done after one year with the Beavers. A scholarship offer from UC Davis is to blame for his departure.

Jon Osterhout is entering his fifth season as American River’s head coach in need of a starting quarterback. Rodrigues’ return would have made his life easier – and his offense more potent –  but Osterhout will not stand in the way of an athlete he described as having “all of the intangibles you look for in a quarterback and certainly has the ‘it’ factor. Extremely athletic, quick release, high football IQ and natural ability to lead through his actions.”

That explains why UC Davis pursued Rodrigues even though it might be a year of two before he climbs the depth chart. This could turn out to be another season of standing on the sideline for Rodrigues, at least not as a ball boy.

The Aggies are set at quarterback with Jake Maier, who was the Big Sky Conference Newcomer of the Year in 2017 with 3,669 passing yards and 25 touchdowns as a sophomore. The transfer from Long Beach City College set school records for completions (306) and 300-yard passing games (nine) in a season. The offense is clearly his.

Rodrigues is battling sophomore Brock Johnson to be Maier’s understudy, and Johnson has an advantage in the competition. Johnson redshirted in 2017 after transferring from Georgetown, so this season will cost him a year of eligibility and leave him with two. If he is active for games, the Aggies might as well get some use out of him.

Redshirting Rodrigues would leave him with three years of eligibility. And with redshirts now allowed to play in as many as four games without losing eligibility, UC Davis gets a free look at Rodrigues. The possibility of redshirting did not stop Rodrigues from accepting the Aggies’ scholarship offer. Then again, it was the only one he got.

“I knew of Jake. He’s a great quarterback,” Rodrigues explained. “I always felt I was going to redshirt and learn from him.”

The first lesson comes Thursday at San Jose State.

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Love of football is former Bulldog’s legacy

Ryan Smith prefers to remember Demetrious Ward for how the Vacaville High School student lived instead of how the 18-year-old died in October 2014. Smith will judge Ward as the young man he knew as a teacher and coach instead of the one portrayed by media reports as a drug dealer who was shot for a small amount of marijuana.

Members of Ward’s family will defend him as a victim of being in a bad place at a bad time with bad people. There are those who will say he was asking for trouble by being out at 1:30 a.m. on a Monday, just six hours before he would have been going to school. And others will say Ward needed to learn a lesson and it is a shame the price of that lesson was his life.

Smith will not let those people decide how he remembers Ward. He will remember Ward for what he saw with his own eyes.

Kevin Ward has started the Solano Hurricanes youth football program in memory of his son Demetrius.

What Smith saw in 2012 was a freshman who skipped spring football workouts to stick with the track team even though he was just an alternate for the varsity boys 4×400-meter relay. Smith coached the relay runners at that time.

“ A track meet is a long day, “Smith said, “and the 4×400 is one of the last events. For a kid like him, it’s got to be boring.”

Vacaville had a strong 4×400 team with seniors Tanner Mahoney and Imi Edopai, and sophomores Daniel and David Mewborn. The four qualified for the Sac-Joaquin Section Masters meet, and Ward tagged along as usual. Smith did not attend the meet because his wife had given birth a day earlier, but he did get phone calls with updates.

One call came after Mahoney fell and was injured during the 800-meter trials. He had to be scratched from the relay, Fortunately, Ward was ready to go. Vacaville won its heat in the trials, advanced to the finals and placed second.

That finish sent the four to the 2012 state championships, where they were overmatched and bowed out in the trials. None of that would have been possible, Smith said, had Ward turned his back on track to go to spring football.

Football was Ward’s game. His headstone at Vacaville-Elmira Cemetery is in the shape of a football jersey with his last name and No. 21 on the back. Football meant so much to Ward that he was making efforts to be a better student in the fall of 2014, Smith recalled. 

“He really cared, He was getting good grades and was getting on track to graduate. He was turning around academically,” Smith said. “He was not getting into trouble at school. How could we know what was going on outside of school?”

Dulon Stevens, whose son Dulon Jr. was a football teammate of Ward’s, also noticed a change in Ward. “He was going through a lot of stuff, but he was making progress in life,” Stevens said. “There was some brightness in his future.”

One person who was well aware of Ward’s activities away from school is his father. Kevin Ward used tough love in an attempt to set his son straight, often reminding him that he alone would be accountable if he ran afoul of the law.

“He knew that if those were choices he was going to make, he would have to deal with it,” Kevin Ward said. “I told him if he was going to do the crime, he would have to do the time. Some kids just have to go out there and test the water.”

Kevin Ward prefers to remember his son in a positive light and has launched a youth football program, the Solano Hurricanes, in his memory. Kevin Ward is not concerned about competing with established programs for players.  He is not concerned that any publicity for the program will rekindle talk of his son’s untimely and senseless death.

“This is in my son’s memory. It’s not about what people are saying. You can’t put yourself in his shoes,” Kevin Ward said bluntly. “You have to move forward and don’t look back. There’s plenty of room for one more (program). There’s plenty of kids. They need to stay off the streets and stay in the books. The streets are not your friend.”

The Hurricanes will hear that from a man who hopes to turn his loss into victories for youngsters who love football as much as his son did.

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