The Aggies looked like they belonged upon joining the Big Sky. The second year of the Ron Gould era didn’t end so strongly.
In 2013, UC Davis rode workhorse running back Gabe Manzanares and a solid defense to a 5-3 record in its second year in the Big Sky Conference. Optimism was high, especially considering two of Davis’ three losses came to Big Sky powerhouses Montana State and Montana in Gould’s first year at the helm.
In Gould’s second season after taking over for the legendary Bob Biggs, pretty much everything that could go wrong did. The Aggies endured a brutal first month of the season that included losses at Stanford, Colorado State and at home to No. 2 Eastern Washington. During the rigorous grind, injuries piled up. Defensive standouts like defensive tackle Marques Barron, linebackers Ryan Dimino and Steven Pitts and safety Charles Boyett missed all or part of their senior seasons. Manzanares, a senior in 2014 who earned the Big Sky’s Newcomer of the Year award in 2013, also spent time on the shelf.
The result was a 2-9 record that included just a single Big Sky Conference victory.
“When we got back this winter, we were trying to dissect what went wrong and we realized all the mistakes we made and we told ourselves we aren’t going to do certain things this way ever again,” said senior offensive lineman Parker Smith. “We have to put the past behind us and only worry about the future. We can’t focus on the negative aspects of last year. We have to find the positives and build on that.”
Ben Scott may have been the primary positive UC Davis discovered a year ago. During a 1-4 start that included just a win over Division II Fort Lewis, the Aggies waffled struggled with senior London Lacy at the helm. The week before Montana State was set to come to Davis, Gould closed practice. The surprise: Scott, a sophomore, would start against the Bobcats.
Although the porous Davis defense couldn’t come close to stopping the red-hot Bobcats — MSU piled up a Division I record 77 points and 737 total yards — Scott shined. In his first career start, he completed 27-of-46 passes for 379 yards and four touchdowns. He threw for 257 yards and four touchdowns the next week against Montana. He threw for 301 yards and two scores against Northern Colorado, 298 and three touchdowns against Cal Poly and 240 and three more TDs against Sac State. In six starts, he averaged nearly 300 yards per game and tossed 19 touchdowns.
“The young man is really a natural leader and he’s a young man who really put the team on his back last year,” Gould said in an interview conducted in May. “To see the maturation over the second half of the season gave our team something to look forward to.”
The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder from Vacaville, California is a good combination of size and athleticism. He has one of the strongest arms in the league and he has good mechanics when throwing on the run. He’s also got a strong grasp of the Davis offense.
“Ben is really good with checks and he is so cerebral with the position,” Smith said. “He gets rid of the ball quick so as an offensive lineman, you have to love that. There is that sense of confidence where when we are doing player run practices, Ben knows everything. So we trust him.”
Part of Scott’s breakout second half went hand in hand with the emergence of Ramon Vargas. The 6-foot-3, 185-pound wide receiver broke into the lineup a month into the season. Against Montana State, he caught eight passes for 141 yards and a score. From there, he was off and running.
He totaled eight catches for 129 yards and two scores the next week against Montana and nine catches for 122 yards and two more scores against Northern Colorado. All told, he caught 41 passes for 665 yards and eight touchdowns, including four scoring receptions of more than 43 yards.
Smith said Keenan Doss, wide receiver who caught 22 passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns last season as a freshman, made great progress alongside Vargas in the off-season. Justin Williams and Manusamoa Luuga will try to replace Manzanares, a stud who rushed for more than 1,000 yards in Big Sky play alone in 2013.
“No one needs to be Gabe but three guys could be better than Gabe,” Smith said.
“He’s an upperclassmen who’s been in the fox hole,” Gould said. “He understands the wars, the battles so we will lean on him to rally some of the young players for us.
“The game is won and lost in the trenches on both sides of the ball. We have four out of five guys coming back this year. There’s some continuity that will take place because of those guys coming back.”
Smith has played guard and tackle throughout his career before earning honorable mention All-Big Sky honors as a center a season ago. The UC Davis media guide said he will return to left tackle in 2015 despite the fact that he says “center is my best position.”
“I love the cerebral part of it,” Smith said. “The part of being in control is awesome. I can tell people where to go and just get everyone on the same page.”
The offense had not problem scoring points last season. The Aggies averaged 27 points per game. The biggest point of concern will again be the defense. A season ago, the Aggies allowed nearly 38 points per game. Opponents piled up 482 yards per game, including 233 each contest on the ground alone.
“We were so banged up on the defensive side of the ball and we lost so many guys that we were counting on to play for us that we lost for the year early on,” Gould said. “With a year under these guys’ belt though, a lot of these young guys took a lot of reps and I hope that helps as we start this upcoming season. They know what it’s like to play in the best conference in the country.”
Davis returns nine starters on defense, including senior linebacker Artice Nelson, senior cornerback Shamawn Wright and junior strong safety Keleen Culberson. The secondary was a main concern as the Aggies gave up 281 yards per game and 27 touchdowns and intercepted just seven passes. Senior defensive tackle Kyle Devaughn returns after notching four of UCD’s 18 sacks last season.
UCD has a proud tradition on the gridiron. The Aggies have won 29 conference titles dating back to 1929, including a college football record 19 straight between 1971 and 1990 under legendary head coach Jim Sochor. The College Football Hall of Famer won 156 games and posted a 92-5 record in the Northern California Athletic Conference. Sochor helped mentor his successor, former UC Davis head coach Bob Biggs along with former Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti, former USC head coach Paul Hackett, former Boise State and Colorado and current Montreal Allouettes coach Dan Hawkins and current Washington head coach Chris Petersen.
Biggs handed off the job to Gould, who got off to a good start in his first year after 16 seasons coaching running backs like Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett at Cal. Gould’s third season will be key if Davis hopes to get back on track.
“We are trying to build a program as opposed to fielding a team,” Gould said. “These first two years, we’ve just been fielding a team. We want to build something sustainable. We will find out exactly who we are as the season begins but I’m optimistic about the growth of our team.”
Photos courtesy of UC Davis athletics.