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Cal Football 2019: UC Davis Offensive Preview

Why UC Davis may pose a greater challenge than most Cal fans anticipate.

NCAA Football: UC - Davis at Stanford Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

UC Davis is coming off their best season since 2001, led by former Colorado coach Dan Hawkins. They were the #6 seed in the FCS playoffs last year, falling in the quarterfinals to eventual runner-up Eastern Washington in a heartbreaking finish. Their game against Stanford last year was closer than the final score indicated and they made KJ Costello look silly (he started off 2/7 with 2 INTs). Yes, UC Davis is an FCS team, but they are one of the best FCS teams in the country.

UC Davis has a number of players from last year’s team fighting for a spot on NFL rosters: WR Keelan Doss and LB Mason Moe signed UDFA rookie contracts, and DBs Isiah Olave and Vincent White were invited to rookie mini-camps. Doss likely should have been a mid- to late-round selection in the NFL Draft, but it seems teams were scared off by his pectoral injury at the NFL Combine. It’s not immediately obvious who can fill the void left by their talented defensive backs, but there are a number of wide receivers hoping to fill Doss’ shoes.

As an author’s note: it’s not exactly easy to find UC Davis football games, so I pulled most of the clips from their playoff game against Eastern Washington. Most of the highlights from the Stanford game are really just Keelan Doss highlights (he had 25 targets that game!), so I wanted to pull clips of players we’d see this year. Also, despite my predisposition against EWU for that atrocious red field, I was really impressed with EWU QB Eric Barriere. I felt like I was watching the EWU show in the Davis/EWU game, while UC Davis played the role of a supporting cast member.

Overview

UC Davis runs a no-huddle offense, trying to snap the ball within 15 seconds of the ball being set. They are led by 2018 Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year, QB Jake Maier, who threw for 3,933 yards with 34 TDs and 10 INTs last season. Maier led an offense that scored 39.7 points per game last season with 488.9 yards per game, so it’s pretty clear that the offense is their strength. The offense relies a lot on yards after the catch, so they’ll run a number of screen passes or swing passes out wide to a running back like RB Ulonzo Gilliam. The UC Davis offensive line struggled against both Stanford and Eastern Washington, and pressure on QB Jake Maier was key to forcing him to make mistakes. RB Ulonzo Gilliam is a speedy and elusive back, while RB Tehran Thomas is more of a power running back. UC Davis returns a number of talented receivers, such as TE Wes Preece, WR Jared Harrell, and WR Carson Crawford. It should be noted here that RB Ulonzo Gilliam was actually third in receptions last year, behind Doss and Harrell.

Let’s take a look at a position-by-position breakdown.

Quarterback

First, let’s take a look at some of the things QB Jake Maier does right. He doesn’t take too many deep shots in a game, but he was fortunate to have a receiver like Keelan Doss, who could come down with pretty much any ball in his general vicinity.

QB Jake Maier deep to WR Keelan Doss.
QB Jake Maier deep to WR Keelan Doss.
QB Maier to WR Doss for 22 yards on 4th and 17.
QB Maier to WR Doss for 22 yards on 4th and 17.

It should be noted here that while the other wide receivers are talented, I do think Maier will struggle a bit more without the big-play ability of a receiver like Doss. In any big-play situation, defenses knew the ball was going to Doss, but it often wasn’t enough to stop him. Watch the Stanford secondary in the play above: they knew where the ball was going and they still couldn’t stop it.

Maier isn’t really the type to take a bunch of shots downfield, but he does have nice accuracy on the shorter- to mid-range throws when he has a clean pocket.

QB Jake Maier hits WR Lance Babb with the back shoulder pass.
QB Jake Maier hits WR Lance Babb with the back shoulder pass.

On the flip side, this is hardly an issue unique to Maier, but he does struggle when he’s facing down pressure:

QB Jake Maier throws an INT as he doesn’t step into the throw while facing pressure.
QB Jake Maier throws an INT as he doesn’t step into the throw while facing pressure.

In the clip above, Maier panics a bit as he sees the unblocked defender barreling towards him, and he badly underthrows his receiver.

QB Maier’s pass is deflected for an interception.
QB Maier’s pass is deflected for an interception.

This is a good defensive play by Stanford, but you have to ask yourself: where was Maier trying to throw this football even if it wasn’t deflected? There’s no one at all on the left side of the field (those were offensive linemen near the ball).

QB Jake Maier throws an INT when he attempts a throw deep to a bracketed WR Keelan Doss, put in a position where Doss had no chance on the ball.
QB Jake Maier throws an INT when he attempts a throw deep to a bracketed WR Keelan Doss, and the ball is put in a position where Doss had no chance at it.

Maier also showed an over-reliance on WR Keelan Doss. In the above clip, we can see that Doss is bracketed by the defenders, and the ball is not put in a position where Doss even has a chance at it. It was an ill-advised throw, and it was off-target to boot.

We know that Cal has the best secondary in the FBS, but generating pressure on Maier will be instrumental to force him into making mistakes like the ones we see above.

Running backs

UC Davis relies primarily on two running backs: the 5’9” 185 lb. shifty RB Ulonzo Gilliam, and the 5’11” 215 lb. power runner RB Tehran Thomas. Gilliam is a reliable receiver as well, so UC Davis often utilizes him as a receiver for a swing pass (similar to how Washington State utilizes their RBs in the passing game) or a screen pass with wide receivers blocking for him (e.g. a bubble screen).

Gilliam is a shifty runner who does a good job of finding his running lane, and he’s able to make defenders miss.

Jet motion by WR Keelan Doss sets up a TD run by RB Ulonzo Gilliam.
Jet motion by WR Keelan Doss sets up a TD run by RB Ulonzo Gilliam.
RB Ulonzo Gilliam with another TD run up the middle.
RB Ulonzo Gilliam with another TD run up the middle. Watch the safety completely whiff on the tackle.

Gilliam carved up Eastern Washington for 132 yards on 26 carries on a lot of plays like this; runs up the middle. He has good vision, and I expect he will be a big part of the UC Davis offense this season.

Receivers

It’s unlikely anyone will fill the role WR Keelan Doss did last season (he was roughly a third of the receptions and receiving yards, and his play in clutch situations can’t be understated), but UC Davis is still returning a bevy of talented receivers. The #2 receiver behind Doss last year was WR Jared Harrell:

Nasty stiff arm by WR Jared Harrell.
Nasty stiff arm by WR Jared Harrell.

Harrell is the tallest starting receiver at 6’2”, but he had a lot of short catch-and-runs (like the one above) in the few games I watched. I was very impressed by the hands of WR Carson Crawford:

Great hands by WR Carson Crawford, pass questionably ruled incomplete.
Great hands by WR Carson Crawford, pass questionably ruled incomplete (out of bounds).

It should also be noted here that Carson Crawford was a quarterback in high school, and so he was frequently used for the double-pass trick play:

Double pass by (former high school QB) WR Carson Crawford to WR Jared Harrell.
Double pass by (former high school QB) WR Carson Crawford to WR Jared Harrell.

Yes, I know this wasn’t technically a double-pass, but the idea is the same. The play was successful above, but they also tried the same thing three times (unsuccessfully) in the Stanford game, which was pretty much any time they were in the red zone. They also ran a trick play in the red zone against EWU, where QB Maier pretended to change the play at the line of scrimmage, and as he walked along the line pretending to change the play (technically the man-in-motion), they snapped the ball to Gilliam, who handed it off to WR Darius Livingston on an end-around, and Livingston attempted to throw to a covered Maier for an interception in the end zone. The point of all this being that you can expect UC Davis to get tricky if they find themselves in scoring position.

Miscellaneous

This might be a useless comment after an entire off-season of practice, but sophomore center Connor Pettek consistently snapped the ball too low for QB Jake Maier. Maier did a good job of handling the snaps, but poor snaps often throw off the timing of hand-offs and other such plays. Their special teams were pretty decent, as punter Daniel Wheelan is a pretty good punter, and kickers Max O’Rourke and Matt Blair have FG-longs of 45 and 51 yards, respectively.

Summary

UC Davis will run a pass-heavy attack with QB Jake Maier and try to replace the production they lost in WR Keelan Doss. Expect Maier to get the ball to his play-makers in space, and expect UC Davis to get tricky in the red zone. I think it is unlikely that Maier will try to test the Cal secondary, so look for RB Ulonzo Gilliam to have a larger role in this game. If Cal can shut down the UC Davis run game, it will definitely be a long day for them on offense. Cal opened as 12.5 point favorites (this is the same point spread for Cal against Colorado last year), which means that most people aren’t expecting the Cal offense to score very much. UC Davis does struggle to defend dual-threat quarterbacks, and they are replacing both starting corners, so if the Cal offense struggles in this game, it might be time to sound the alarm. UC Davis is one of the best FCS teams in the country though, so the game might be a lot closer than a casual fan might expect.