Editor’s note: This is one installment of a 13-part series of capsules on the 2018 prospects, strengths and weaknesses of each football team in the Big Sky Conference. League play begins in the BSC on Saturday.
UC DAVIS AGGIES
Record last season: 5-6 overall, 3-5 in Big Sky play
2018 non-conference record: 2-1
Big question: Will Keelan Doss break every record in the book?
The Aggies had the best passing offense in the Big Sky last year, and Doss was by far the best receiver in the country. Because the Aggies didn’t make the playoffs, Doss didn’t end the year as the top receiver in FCS, but just in the regular season, he led all players at the FCS and FBS levels in receiving yards (1,499), receiving yards per game (136.3) and receptions per game (10.5). His total of 115 receptions was just two behind Cooper Kupp’s Big Sky record of 117, set in 2016, and Brandon Kaufman’s Big Sky record of 1,850 receiving yards, set in 2012, might also be in reach, especially if the Aggies reach the playoffs.
Idaho State’s Ed Bell set the record for receiving yards per game in 1969 with 152.2, and that one might be in Doss’s sights as well. A big receiver at 6-foot-3, 209 pounds, Doss can beat defenders with his size and his speed. UC Davis struggled last year despite Doss’s heroics, finishing just 5-6, but it’s always a good idea to bet on transcendent individual talent. If there’s one player in the conference who can drag his team to new heights this year, it’s Doss.
Offensive Player to Watch: Jake Maier, QB
Part of Doss’s rampage last year was due to the arrival of Maier, who transferred to UC Davis from Long Beach City College last year and instantly became one of the best quarterbacks in the conference. He finished second in the country in completion percentage (68.6) and sixth in passing yards (3,669) on his way to the Big Sky Newcomer of the Year Award. The Aggies were already the best passing offense in the Big Sky last year with 348.3 yards per game, but with Doss and Maier, can their ceiling get even higher?
Landing Maier proved dually beneficial for UC Davis. Not only did the Aggies get a strong-armed, confident quarterback who thrives in the run-pass option game but they also prevented Maier from going to Weber State. The Wildcats won 11 games and shared the Big Sky title last season.
This fall, Maier has completed 56.1 percent of his passes for 942 yards (314 per game) and four touchdowns. He threw for 354 of his 446 yards in Davis’ 44-38 win over FBS San Jose State. Redshirt freshman Ulonzo Gilliam also rushed for 132 yards and two touchdowns.
Maier threw for 302 yards and a touchdown in a 54-21 win over San Diego, the two-time defending Pioneer Football League champion who eliminated Cal Poly and Northern Arizona, respectively, with first-round road playoff wins each of the last two seasons. He managed to throw for 194 yards, including 13 completions for 106 yards to Doss, in a 30-10 loss at No. 9 Stanford.
Defensive Player to Watch: Nas Anesi, LB
Of course, despite having that explosive offense, UC Davis struggled last year, mostly because the defense couldn’t stop teams from running the ball. The Aggies gave up 209.8 yards on the ground in 2017, 11th in the Big Sky.
“We have to get a few more stops, which is hard,” head coach Dan Hawkins said. “We have to help a little bit more on offense. It’s always a field position game, a turnover game, a situational football game. But I thought we made some strides last year defensively. We just have to keep coming.”
They also lost their top tackler, senior linebacker Ryan Bua, which means it will be up to Anesi to be the run stopper they sorely need. The junior linebacker has an interesting background as a longtime rugby player and alumnus of St. John Bosco, the California high school that has one of the best football programs in the nation.
Anesi was a member of their 2013 team that was named national champions by Calpreps, USA Today and Maxpreps. At UC Davis, he was All-Big Sky honorable mention as a redshirt freshman in 2016, and had 65 total tackles last year, second on the team behind Bua. As the starting middle linebacker, he’ll have to lead the way on fixing the Aggies’ porous run defense, but Anesi has the pedigree to do it.
So far this season, he has 11 tackles, half a tackle for loss and an interception.
UC Davis second-year head coach on his first season as a head coach in the Big Sky: “I don’t know if there was any surprises,” Hawkins said. “I’ve known about this league for a long time and I’ve known there have been good coaches, a lot of teams that won national championships and I have a lot of healthy respect for it. People think, ‘Oh, you are going to come in and just wave magic pixie dust and make things happen’ and I’ve been around, seen these teams operate, the kind of players and the kind of coaches they have. Didn’t surprise me at all that it was a dog fight every week.”
Conference opener: Idaho at UC Davis 4:05 p.m. PST