Young line works fine for UC Davis

Coach Tim Keane huddles with his offensive linemen during Saturday’s FCS playoff game against Northern Iowa. UC Davis won 23-16 to advance to the quarterfinals.

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.

Freshman Jake Parks provides protection for quarterback Jake Maier against Northern Iowa.

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.”

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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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Written out? UC Davis tight end erases doubt

Wesley Preece would have likely won the Best Supporting Actor award in 2017 if UC Davis staged a football version of the Academy Awards. As wsenior ide receiver Keelan Doss was stealing the show last season by catching 115 passes for 1,499 yards, Preece had a team-high nine touchdown receptions at tight end.

A nomination for the 2018 sequel would have been unlikely for Preece after one month. The junior went from catching at least two passes in each of 11 games last year to having just four receptions in the first four games this season. And three of those four were in the season opener Aug. 31 at San Jose State.

With his hands so idle, Preece could have raised one and asked why he is being written out of the script. Little has changed for Doss, who had 32 receptions in the first four games, so what gives with Preece? When quarterback Jake Maier calls the shots, Preece is difficult to overlook at 6-foot-5 and 238 pounds.

Tight end Wesley Preece, a Rocklin High graduate, went from catching one pass in three games to three touchdown receptions in one game.

Maier has had eyes for other receivers this season, however. Saturday’s 49-36 victory at Northern Colorado was the fourth consecutive game in which UC Davis had at least 10 players catch a pass. The Aggies did not reach double digits in 2017 until their fourth game, and that was only time they did so last season.

A growing cast makes it difficult for offensive coordinator Tim Plough to spread the wealth without a player or two settling for less. And even when Plough creates the right mix, an opponent’s defense can sack it.

“It’s not like (Preece) has diminished in our game plan,” said Paul Creighton, the tight ends coach. “It’s that teams have done things to take (Doss) and (Preece) out of the game plan. We watch a team on film and then they come out to play us and they have a different game plan because of (Doss) and (Preece).”

Whatever Northern Colorado’s strategy was, it did not work. Doss caught 11 passes  for 161 yards and a touchdown. Preece has his second career hat trick by turning three of his four receptions into touchdowns.

So much for Preece being written out and off. He leads the Aggies in touchdown receptions with four. Doss, sophomore wide receiver Jared Harrell and freshman running back Ulonzo Gilliam each have two.

It will be interesting to see what Idaho State’s defense will do to contain Doss and Preece when the Bengals visit Davis at 4 p.m. Saturday. Preece will be ready for anything and take what comes his way. Head coach Dan Hawkins has preached for the players to focus on the puzzle instead of a piece or two.

“Coach Hawk changed the culture here,” said Preece, a 2016 Rocklin High School graduate. “so it is more about the team than the individual player. If we’re winning by 30 points and I don’t get a catch, I don’t care. If you take me away or you take away (Doss), then we’ve got Jared Harrell and Khris Vaughn.”

The Aggies also have Gilliam,who might be the best back UC Davis has had in recent years. He has rushed for a team-high 334 yards and six touchdowns. Gilliam has also earned an invitation to the passing party and is second to Doss in receptions with 21. Doss now has 43.

Preece deserves some credit for Gilliam’s productivity because he has worked to become a better blocker. When Preece is not targeted by Maier, he contributes to the offense by doing the dirty work of blocking.

“Look at tight ends in the NFL and they’re all good receivers.” Creighton said. “What separates the good ones from the great ones is being an asset in the run game. That is something (Preece) has spent a lot of time working on. He focuses on what he needs to get better at 100 percent of the time and never fixates on what he’s good at. Sometimes, it’s almost to a fault. It’s like you have to tell him that he’s pretty damn good.”

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Last call at UC Davis; NFL put on hold

Keelan Doss has a tough act to follow, and it happens to be his own. The UC Davis wide receiver believes he can produce a sensational sequel, and that is why he has returned to the Aggies for his senior season.

Senior wide receiver Keelan Doss (3)  jokes with sophomore tight end Christian Skeptaris in the spring game Saturday.

No one could have blamed the 6-foot-3, 206-pound Doss if he had decided to enter the NFL draft. There is little left for him to prove at UC Davis after a record-breaking junior season in 2017. He now owns the single-season records for receptions (115), receiving yards (1,499) and 100-yard receiving games (nine).

Doss led all of Division I (FBS and FCS) in receptions per game at 10.5 on his way to becoming a first-team Associated Press All-American and the Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Year. He was also one of three finalists for the Walter Payton Award, which is presented to the top offensive player in FCS.

All of those numbers do not mean as much to Doss as the Aggies’ record in the four years since he arrived from Alameda High School. A fifth-year senior who redshirted in 2015, Doss has yet to enjoy a winning season at UC Davis. Last year’s 5-6 record was a step in the right direction after the Aggies went 3-8 in 2016 and 2-9 in 2015 and 2014. UC Davis has had not a winning season since finishing 6-5 in 2010.

“(Doss) feels like he has unfinished business here at UC Davis,” said Aggies coach Dan Hawkins, who sparked the resurgence in 2017 by returning to his alma mater after Ron Gould was fired. “What a lot of people don’t know is how genuine he is. He’s humble and he’s team-oriented. He looks at the big picture.”

Doss led all of Division I in receptions per game in 2017 at 10.5.

Hawkins added that he did not attempt to sway Doss to stay and would have understood had Doss opted to go.

“We talked about it, but he was already under a lot of pressure,” Hawkins said. “I told him, ‘We’re here for you and I’m here for you no matter what you decide.’ I’m not really surprised that he’s back. I’m excited.”

Doss certainly did not need another person, especially his head coach, trying to tell him what to do. He already had enough people taking sides. As much as he appreciated all that, he could have done without it.

“At the end of the day, it was my decision,” Doss explained. “My decision was ready about a week before the (Jan. 15) deadline (to enter the draft). I weighed everything out. There was a lot of thought going into this process.”

One thought for Doss was wondering whether he had what it will take to play in the NFL. It would be safe to say it will take more than a great pair of hands. Doss readily admits his skills could use a little polishing. His versatility could also use some work because he will be asked to do far more than catch passes.

A rookie receiver could be asked to return kickoffs and punts. He could be asked to tackle kickoff and punt returners. Doss has not had to play on special teams at UC Davis because of his value to the offense.

That may change in 2018, however. Doss played on the punt coverage unit Saturday as UC Davis concluded its spring workouts with an intrasquad scrimmage. He said it was a “mutual” decision with the coaches.

“Some people have said they are surprised that I don’t play on special teams,” Doss said. “I want to show I can do it.”

Want to bet he will?

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