Big Sky Conference

Peerless season culminates with Payton finalist for Davis WR Doss


Tim Plough considers Keelan Doss the queen on his chessboard.

In his first year as the offensive coordinator for his alma mater UC Davis, Plough moved the diverse, explosive wide receiver all over the field. More often than not, Doss put his opponents in check.

“Our offense and our team is dictated by him. When he is on, it’s tough to stop us,” Plough said last month.

“Any guy who can play inside and outside is a rare guy. Only a few guys can really do that and he does that extremely well. That’s how you get guys who catch over 100 passes because they can move to various parts on the field. That’s his greatest strength: he’s very diverse in where he can play.”

That versatility helped Doss go from a second-team All-Big Sky Conference wide receiver as a sophomore during a 3-win season by the Aggies to a consensus All-American and the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year.

UC Davis junior wide receiver Keelan Doss/ by Wayne Tilcock, Davis athletics

“I’ve seen some great players in this conference and I would put this season up against all of those,” said Plough, who coached at Davis during the Aggies’ first year in the Big Sky in 2012 before spending 2013 until 2016 at Northern Arizona, the final two as the OC. “We are fortunate enough to coach guys like that because he’s a great player but he’s also a really good dude.”

At NAU, Plough helped quarterback Case Cookus to 2015 FCS National Freshman of the Year honors. He helped Ify Umodo get a shot in the NFL and helped cultivate the supreme talent that is two-time All-American wide receiver Emmanuel Butler.

But Doss’s junior season is superior to any that have come in Plough’s offenses. In 2017, Doss led all of college football with 115 catches for 1,499 yards. He caught seven touchdowns and became a consensus All-American, the first Aggie to ever earn such recognition.

On Friday night in Frisco, Texas, STATS LLC will announce the winner of the Walter Payton Award presented to the most outstanding offensive player in the FCS. Doss is one of three finalists along with Sam Houston State quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe, the Southland Conference Offensive MVP, and South Dakota quarterback Chris Streveler, the Missouri Valley Offensive MVP.

“Like so many great players, one thing that goes unnoticed is he’s just a hard, hard worker,” UC Davis first-year head coach Dan Hawkins said in an interview with Skyline Sports last football season. “He’s very unselfish, he’s very humble. He will play scout team, special teams, do whatever it takes.

“He’s a big, strong, fast guy who can go get things but he’s not a selfish guy. He’s extremely hard working, humble and he comes out every day trying to prove something.”

UC Davis wide receiver Keelan Doss/by UC Davis Athletics

If Doss wins the Payton, he will become the third wide receiver to win the Award. Eastern Washington legend Cooper Kupp won the award in 2015 before being drafted in the 2017 NFL Draft. Kupp put together a standout rookie season for the Los Angeles Rams, catching 62 passes for 869 yards and five touchdowns as the team won the NFC West for the first time since 2003. Villanova’s Brian Finneran won the 1997 Walter Payton Award before going on to catch 238 passes and 19 touchdowns in an 10-year NFL career.

Although Doss was the star of the Aggies and of Big Sky offensive players this season, he gives all the credit to those around him.

“Coach Plough, that’s my dude,” Doss said in October. “He sets me up, puts me in good positions to receive the ball and I just have to make plays for him. We have a great quarterback, a great offensive line so my job is easy. All I have to do is catch the ball and they do all the hard work.”

Davis won three games during Doss’s sophomore season despite the 6-foot-3, 206-pounder catching 66 passes for 911 yards and 10 touchdowns. He earned Sophomore All-American honors from Hero Sports despite coming of a redshirt forced by a season-ending knee injury.

Hawkins, a well-respected coach who helped lay the foundation for Boise State’s rise to FBS prominence over the last two decades and a former head coach at Colorado, returned to his alma mater after Ron Gould won seven games his last three years and was dismissed.

Hawkins, Plough and the rest of the Davis coaching staff started in right away on revamping the Aggie culture. Doss set the pace from the first day.

“The cool thing for us was we got to come in and say, ‘Hey, here’s what we think you’re good at, here’s how we are going to use you,” Plough said. “He dove into that and really took pride in really trying to find different ways to breed success.”

Success came more frequently as the Aggies equaled last season’s win total by the fifth week of the season. UCD pushed Eastern Washington down to the wire before losing 41-38. The Aggies sat at 5-4 after a 56-17 explosion against Idaho State but lost to Big Sky champion Southern Utah (47-27) and at rival Sacramento State (52-47) to finish 3-5 in Big Sky play, 5-6 overall.

UC Davis wide receiver Keelan Doss/ Wayne Tilcock,

“Every year, we come in thinking we can win and playing that way but this year, I feel like we have been changing everything with the belief around the program and we want to start something new,” Doss said following the 3-2 start. “As a team, we are playing that confidence, that mojo, that swag that we have been missing.”

 The Aggies led the Big Sky in passing offense (348.3 yards per game) thanks to Doss and Big Sky Newcomer of the Year quarterback Jake Maier. The junior college transfer completed 68.6 percent of his passes for 3,669 yards and 26 touchdowns. He credited Doss for his instant acclimation to Division I football.

“He does things like no one I’ve ever played with,” Maier said earlier this season. “No matter where he lines up, you can look for Keelan and it seems like he’s always open.”

Plough said Doss’s dominance stems from not only his ability to line up all over the field but also his ability to read and beat every type of coverage.

“If you press him, he’s going to win over 90 percent of the time and if you double him, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s covered because he can figure out how you’re leveraged to get open,” the former UC Davis quarterback said. “That’s what the special players can do. It’s not as easy as ‘let’s just double him’ because he is going to line up in four or five different spots, use your leverage against you and get open.”

Doss idolizes a full spectrum of players, from Kupp, the obvious blueprint if Doss hopes to go from the Big Sky to the NFL to Los Angeles Chargers Keenan Allen. The Pro Bowler played collegiately at Cal while Doss was growing up in Alameda in the Bay Area.

All 32 NFL teams stopped by Davis during the 2017 season, Plough said. That attention only fed Doss’s already high aspirations.

Davis’ offensive coordinator has challenged his stud pupil daily to act like a pro every single day. Can Doss come to work and treat every single meeting, film session and practice as a NFL player would?

Doss will graduate in the spring and will have the pressing decision: enter the NFL Draft or stay for his senior season and chase Davis’ first winning campaign since joining the Big Sky in 2012.

UC Davis wide receiver Keelan Doss/ UC Davis athletics

“The second thing I challenge him with is how do you want to leave this program.?” Plough said. “What kind of mark to you really want to leave?

“If he can leave us in a state where this program is where we think it can go, what a great feeling for a young guy like that to walk out with a degree, have a chance to play in the NFL and really turn a program around and put it on the trajectory where we all think it can go once we get everything rolling, that’s leaving a legacy.”

Regardless of what happens this spring, Doss will have a chance to etch his name alongside other Payton Award winners like Jimmy Garoppolo, Tony Romo, Brian Westbrook, Steve McNair and Kupp if he claims the trophy tonight.

If you ask Hawkins, Doss has already proven himself.

“Keelan is the best receiver I have ever coached no doubt,” Hawkins said. “I have never had a guy that has this size, this speed and this physical ability, and with all the intangibles.”

Photos courtesy of UC Davis. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

Recommended for you