Pat Harlow was not surprised to hear that Jake Parks rarely removes his helmet during football practice at UC Davis. That Parks is starting at right guard as a true freshman was hardly breaking news. Harlow predicted as much last fall when he coached Parks at JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano.
Parks will be in a much colder climate than San Juan Capistrano on Saturday when the Aggies travel to face Eastern Washington in the FCS quarterfinals. Roos Field in Cheney should be as chilly as it was on Nov. 10, when the Aggies could not handle the 30-degree temperature or the Eagles in a 59-20 loss. UC Davis will be seeking revenge and its first victory in eight tries against Eastern Washington with its season on the line.
Keeping his helmet on his head might be a good idea for Parks to avoid losing body heat. Then again, he does not take off his helmet all that often. Most of his teammates take advantage of any break during practice to remove their helmets or prop them on top of their heads. Parks does not remove his because doing so at JSerra was prohibited by Harlow, who required his players “to be strapped up all the time.”
“That’s hard to get through to some kids,” Harlow said, “but not Jake. That’s just the kind of kid he is.”
If it takes one to know one, Harlow is the perfect person to ask about a talented offensive lineman. Harlow switched from defense to offense at USC and started at tackle for two seasons. He was selected by the New England Patriots in the first round of the 1991 draft and spent eight seasons in the NFL, including the last three with the Oakland Raiders. The 2018 season was his second at JSerra.
Having a former NFL lineman to show him the ropes has certainly paid dividends for Parks, but Harlow refuses to take any credit. It is not as if Harlow went out of his way to push Parks more than any other player at JSerra. Parks did not need anyone to push him because he “has a really high work ethic. He doesn’t miss an opportunity to work,” Harlow said. “After he committed to Davis, he put in the work in the offseason. And he did it with a purpose.”
That purpose was to ensure he would be ready to battle for a starting job with the Aggies. Harlow and his assistants told Parks last year that they all expected him to start in his first season at UC Davis. Parks must have believed them. Once such an opportunity came his way at UC Davis, he stepped forward and has yet to retreat a single step.
“If anyone tells you that a freshman is going to play 900 snaps, they’re full of it,” said Tim Keane, who coaches the offensive line at UC Davis. “Jake made the decision that he wanted to come here and put himself in an opportunity to start. When the door opened up and there was an opportunity, he took it and has never looked back. He’s holding his own. The moment has never been too big for him.”
Any coach would love a player who eats, drinks and sleeps football. As much as Keane appreciates Parks being an eager beaver, he hopes Parks will eventually make and take the time to get away from the game.
“He’s a guy who will send me text messages and ask him to send him a cut up of some NFL film for him to watch,” Keane said. “When he has an hour of free time, he wants to watch film. That’s just who he is. I want to tell him to go play Fortnite or something.”
Tim Keane has been on his planet long enough to know quite a few folks. What the UC Davis offensive line coach does not know is why several of them decided to send him a text message on Nov. 20. The messages were eerily similar in that each made reference to the 13 football coaches in the Big Sky Conference and how those men made their the all-conference selections.
UC Davis was well represented with quarterback Jake Maier being named the Offensive Player of the Year and wide receiver Keelan Doss being the selected to the first team for the second time. Linebacker Mason Moe, defensive back Vincent White and tight end Wes Preece were second-team selections. Defensive back Isiah Olave, wide receiver Jared Harrell and running back Ulonzo Gilliam were named to the third team. Running back Tehran Thomas, return specialist Namane Modise and punter Dan Whelan earned honorable mention.
A school-record 11 honorees for the Aggies makes it easy to under why Keane was bombarded with messages after the All-Big Sky selections were revealed. Congratulations were in order for second-year head coach Dan Hawkins and each member of his staff. The messages that Keane received were more snippy than congratulatory, however.
Keane was not all bothered that one of his offensive linemen was not honored, but it sure seemed like quite a few of friends were. After all, Maier was sacked just five times in eight Big Sky games. That matched Cal Poly San Luis Obispo for the fewest sacks allowed in the conference even though UC Davis had 246 more passing attempts.
“Maybe it’s just that our offensive line is so good,” Keane said, “that none of them stand out.”
UC Davis shared the Big Sky championship with Eastern Washington and Weber State. Eastern Washington had all five of its starting offensive linemen honored, and Weber State had three. UC Davis did not get as much a pat on the back for an offensive or defensive lineman. Others can be upset about that, but Keane put it in perspective after the text tsunami.
“It was surprised by how many text messages I got. It kind of caught me off guard,” Keane said. “My response is that in the last two years we’ve had the Offensive Player of the Year in the conference. What better compliment for an offensive line than two years in a row having the top offensive player in the conference (Doss won in 2017). It all starts with those five guys.”
Credit will come in time for sophomores Colton Lamson and Kooper Richardson, redshirt freshman Connor Petek and true freshman Jake Parks. Nine of the 11 offensive starters for UC Davis in Saturday’s 23-16 victory over Northern Iowa will return in 2019. Doss and left guard Ramsey Hufford will depart as seniors. A 10-2 record in 2018 might be just the beginning of winning for the Aggies, who will travel to face Eastern Washington in the FCS quarterfinals.
Keane was an offensive lineman at UC Davis from 2003 to 2006 and started at center in his last two seasons. He can speak from experience in acknowledging that obscurity comes with the job description of a lineman. Keane prefers it that way. So do his linemen, especially since Keane said none of them has raised an eyebrow over the all-conference selections.
“Those guys are blue collar,” Keane said. “They live in the shadows. They don’t want any credit.”
Mark Farley chuckled when informed in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon that the current temperature in Davis was 62. The Northern Iowa football coach got the last laugh by replying “It’s 72 in the dome.”
Farley’s Panthers will not have the advantage of playing in the climate-controlled comfort of the UNI Dome on Saturday, however. At least they will be able to go outside to practice in Aggie Stadium on Friday as they prepare to face UC Davis in the FCS playoffs. And even with a slight chance of rain, Davis will be far more hospitable than the subfreezing temperatures outdoors in Cedar Rapids.
Farley is not the meteorologist, but he believes there will be a fair amount of heat as soon as the game kicks off at 4 p.m. He expects the outcome will be decided by which quarterback has the hot hand. Although Farley gushed over UC Davis junior Jake Maier, the Offensive Player of the Year in the Big Sky Conference, he is confident senior Eli Dunne will rise to the occasion.
“Their quarterback is a winner,” Farley said of Maier. “He seems to make plays at the most critical times. He brings the energy to that football team from what I see. The guy who makes their whole thing turn is their quarterback.”
Maier has turned his right arm loose since arriving at UC Davis in 2017. He made a name for himself in 2016 at Long Beach City College, where he threw for 3,689 yards and 38 touchdowns after wasting 2015 as a redshirt in Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. Maier wasted no time last year in winning a starting job with the Aggies and was honored as the Big Sky Newcomer of the Year after passing for 3,669 yards and 26 touchdowns.
This season has been more of the same for Maier, who has thrown for 3,387 yards and 31 touchdowns, but UC Davis is breaking new ground like a rototiller. The Aggies shared the Big Sky championship and are in the FCS playoffs for the first time in 12 years as a Division I program. Whenever this season ends, the 2018 edition of the Aggies might well stake a claim as the best team in the program’s 100-year history.
Dunne’s career at Northern Iowa has been far more conventional. He redshirted in 2014, played in four games as a backup in 2015, started four games in 2016 and then became the full-time starter as a junior in 2017. Just when it seemed Dunne had earned job security, he was benched at halftime of the 2018 opener at Montana with Northern Iowa trailing 26-0. Farley had no choice but to go with senior Colton Howell after Dunne completed just five of 20 passes for 27 yards in the first half of what turned into a 26-23 loss.
The tables turned the following week at Iowa when Howell started and struggled. Dunne got the call in the second half with the Panthers trailing 21-0 and threw two touchdown passes in the 38-14 loss. Those 14 points were not the only reason Farley decided to go back to Dunne as the starter. Farley was impressed with how Dunne handled his benching by learning not to takes tarting for granted.
“(Dunne) took it the way you would want him to take it,” Farley said. “He had to earn his position back. He had to turn to himself to fix what was wrong. It’s not how old you are, how many games you’ve started and what you did last week. You’ve got to be productive on Saturday.”
Montana is the one common opponent for UC Davis and Northern Iowa in 2018. Like the Panthers, the Aggies trailed by double digits at halftime against the Grizzlies. Unlike Dunne, Maier turned it loose in the second half by throwing for three touchdowns and running for one as UC Davis rallied for a 49-21 victory.
It would be safe to say Farley knows that all too well.
Isiah Olave spent Thanksgiving Day in Columbus, Ohio of all places. The UC senior defensive back took advantage of the Aggies’ first-round bye in the FCS playoffs to make the trip with his parents and brother. Josh was available to go because his sophomore season at Azusa Pacific came to an end Nov. 17 with a fist-round loss in the Division II playoffs.
Josh is a cornerback and was a first-team selection to the All-Great Northwest Athletic Conference team after leading the conference in interceptions with five. That is four more Isiah has in his final campaign at UC Davis. Isiah could change that Saturday when UC Davis plays its first Division I playoff game by hosting Northern Iowa at 4 p.m.
There is no chance of Isiah matching his brother’s all-conference honor, although Isiah was a third-team selection in the Big Sky Conference. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Isiah ranks third for the Aggies in tackles with 53 and has held his own against taller receivers.
His youngest brother fits the description of a tall receiver because Chris is 6-1. Chris is also the reason why Isiah, Josh and their parents made the trip to Columbus. It was not so such for Thanksgiving as it was to hopefully watch Chris put his hands to good use for Ohio State in last Saturday’s showdown with Michigan. And to their delight, Chris did just that and in more ways than one.
Two receptions and two touchdowns would have been nore than enough to make his family’s trip worthwhile. Chris added the whipped cream to their pumpkin pie by blocking a punt in the third quarter that the Buckeyes returned for a touchdown and a 34-19 lead on their way to a 62-39. The Wolverines had never allowed so many points. They can blame Chris for 21.
That their football schedules worked out for Isiah and Josh to watch Chris play made his breakout performance all the more special. “He has put all in the work and to show out at that level, I’m so proud of him,” Isiah said. “I’m always trying to help him out. He’s a smart guy. He gets it.”
Ohio State’s 11-1 record does not come as a surprise. That UC Davis is 9-2 and shared the Big Sky championship would surprise most everyone except Aggies head coach Dan Hawkins, his assistants and the players. This is Isiah’s fifth year at UC Davis after redshirting in 2016, and the Aggies won just seven games in the first three. They won five in 2017 after Hawkins returned to his alma mater and restored pride in the program.
“That 5-6 season gave us newfound confidence,” Isiah said. “That’s really helped us out this year. We worked our tails off in the summer. We all thought we had a shot to do something bigger.”
Aggie Stadium will be loaded Saturday when UC Davis takes aim at its first postseason victory since the Division II playoffs in 2002.