Seldom-used senior earns respect

C.J. Spencer had 60 minutes of fame in 2015 when he threw for three touchdowns and ran for one as UC Davis rolled past Sacramento 35-21 in the Causeway Classic.

If it could only be 2015 again, if only for one November afternoon and one Causeway Classic. That would be plenty for C.J. Spencer, who would love to turn back time to when he started at quarterback for UC Davis.

Spencer did not come to Davis from Inderkum High School in 2014 to settle for playing quarterback only when the Aggies go to the Wildcat formation. He did not come to be a receiver or to contribute on special teams. His plan was to be the backup to junior Ben Scott in 2015 and then compete to be the starter in 2016.

The timeline accelerated, however, when Scott sustained a neck injury and missed the last three games in 2015. Spencer had a tough time in his first start, a 23-3 loss at Weber State, but he got it going in the second against Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns in a 55-38 loss.

His numbers showed Spencer was capable of leading the offense even as a redshirt freshman. The only number that mattered to Spencer was the zero in the win column for the Aggies. Two starts, two losses, too bad. UC Davis was 1-7 with Scott starting in 2015, so no one expected Spencer to save a sinking ship.

Then came that one November afternoon, that one Causeway Classic at Sacramento State with the 2-8 Hornets facing the 1-9 Aggies. The game was meaningless to anyone not strolling the sidelines on Nov. 21, but Spencer approached it as an “American Idol” audition. If he could lead the Aggies to victory, he would make a much better case to unseat Scott in 2016 and spend three seasons in the spotlight.

UC Davis won 35-21 after jumping out to a 21-0 lead with Spencer passing for two touchdowns and running for one in the first half. He added his third touchdown pass in the third quarter and finished with 312 yards.

Consecutive 300-yard passing performances. Five touchdown passes and no interceptions in his last two starts. Spencer’s case to retain the job would have only been stronger if it had been injected with steroids.

Now it is 2018. Spencer took one snap last Saturday as the Aggies routed the Hornets 56-13 in the Causeway Classic, which was moved from Aggie Stadium to the University of Nevada to escape the smoke. The game was played at an alternate site, but Spencer spent most of it in a familiar location – the sideline.

Spencer’s last glimmer of hope came in 2016 when Scott graduated. It vanished once Jake Maier arrived. The Long Beach City College transfer proved he was worthy, throwing for 3,6698 yards and 26 touchdowns. At least Spencer caught five of Maier’s school-record 306 completions in brief duty at wide receiver.

Playing second fiddle to Scott was difficult for Spencer because Spencer believed he was every bit as capable of running the offense. “There were reasons why I didn’t start,” Spencer recalled. “Some of the reasons were right and some of them were wrong. I respected that, but I’m not going to say I agreed with it.”

Such is not the case with Maier. “I know I’m good and I can compete, but Jake’s at another level,” Spencer said. “I knew he’s a great quarterback. It’s kind of difficult to take, but at the end of the day we’re winning.”

Success has arrived at long last for the Aggies, who are 9-2 and shared the Big Sky Conference championship with Eastern Washington and Weber State. UC Davis is in the FCS playoffs for the first time and will host the winner of Saturday’s first-round game between Northern Iowa and Lamar  (Texas) on Dec. 1.

Winning has made it easier for Spencer to accept being a role player. He could have transferred or quit after Maier came aboard. He could have badmouthed the coaches and complained to teammates. His college career did not turn out as he had hoped, but there is more to football than playing time.

“I stuck around because these are my teammates.The bond with your teammates will last long after your collegiate career,” Spencer said. “The process was difficult for me. I’m not going to lie. At the same time, everybody has to face reality.”

What is real for Spencer is his teammates’ respect. “C.J.’s the ultimate Davis guy,” wide receiver Keelan Doss said. “What I mean by that is he’ll do whatever’s best for the team. To have that self-discipline to come out here and keep doing what you’re doing every single day knowing that you’re not necessarily in the spot you want to be, I can’t say enough good things about him.”

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