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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