Our first Q&A of the season! The California Aggie was kind enough to answer our questions about the team. Give a read into your primer about the Aggies!
Which player on offense should Cal fans know about?
Senior quarterback Jake Maier is the real deal. Ever since he burst onto the scene for the Aggies in 2017, he has helped spearhead UC Davis’ offensive transformation. Maier threw 34 touchdowns and finished just a hair shy of passing for 4000 yards last season — all with a 65% completion rate and just 10 INTs in 557 attempts. What he lacks in conventional QB height, he makes up for and then some in arm strength, accuracy, and physical and mental toughness. Maier is the heart and soul of the UC Davis offense, especially now that the offense is without superstar wide receiver Keelan Doss.
How do you imagine the offensive game plan changing after the departure of star wide receiver Keelan Doss?
I don’t see the offense changing its up-tempo, run-and-gun style, but I do anticipate the ball to get spread around much more in the passing game. Maier has a pair of talented pass-catchers in Harrell and senior tight end Wes Preece, but he also has a threat out of the backfield in sophomore running back Ulonzo Gilliam, who was third on the team in receptions last season. They’ll all have to shoulder the large load once carried by Doss, and I’d imagine offensive coordinator Tim Plough will need to install some different schemes and new variations to the attack to get everyone involved.
Conversely, how do you feel about QB Jake Maier’s chances against a very strong Cal secondary?
Maier has shown that he can sling it against anyone, but in facing off with a quality defense like Cal’s, he’ll need to limit turnovers and get the ball out of his hands as fast as possible. Maier’s success (and the success of the UC Davis offense, really) will hinge on how well his supporting cast can match up against the Golden Bears. Can the offensive line protect him and open up holes for the backs when they need to run the ball? Can he trust his pass catchers in high-stress, third-and-long situations? If the Aggies can get the run game going and avoid long third downs, it will take the pressure of Maier to force passes downfield. Ultimately, he can do a lot on his own, but he’ll still need a little help from his friends.
Which player on defense should Cal fans know about?
The Aggies definitely lost a number of top-tier defensive talent in the offseason, but sophomore linebacker Montell Bland might be the man to pick up the slack. Bland quietly put together an impressive first season last year as a redshirt freshman. He’s not flashy and he doesn’t often get his name mentioned in postgame reports (yet), but he’s a quick, physical and talented middle backer who gets offensive players on the ground. Bland’s 78 total tackles ranked second on the team last season behind only Mason Moe, who was the Aggies’ best player on defense. Now that Moe is gone, expect Bland to be all over the stat sheet this year and fill that role of defensive MVP.
UC Davis had a solid secondary last year. How do you think they will adjust to the loss of DBs Isiah Olave and Vincent White (and/or their leading pass rusher LB Mason Moe)? How worried are you about the Cal passing offense?
The defense, in my opinion, is the Aggies’ biggest question mark heading into this season. They had a ton of senior talent on the defensive side of the ball last year in Olave, White, Moe, and others. I believe UC Davis’ defensive line and linebackers have the experience and the talent to remain competitive, but they’ll definitely need to find someone to get after the quarterback on a consistent basis like Moe did. And for a mostly brand new secondary, going up against the Golden Bears will be an even tougher task. The defensive backfield will need to have solid game plan and stay disciplined if they are going to keep the Cal offense at bay.
Who’s one under-the-radar or X-factor player who could swing this game for you?
Hard to say one, but a few come to my mind. On offense, it’s junior wideout Jared Harrell, and on defense it’s junior defensive back Erron Duncan. Playing mostly second fiddle to Doss last year, Harrell still hauled in 62 passes for 896 yards and five scores. He’s a speedy, deep threat-type, and has the ability to serve as a more than competent primary option in the pass game for the Aggies this season. Meanwhile, Duncan is a versatile DB who ranges all over the field. He has the speed and frame to cover both wideouts and tight ends, but he can also play down in the box and get physical with the linebackers to stop the run. He will be a key piece in this new-look UC Davis defense.
What does UC Davis need to do to win the game?
The Aggies need to force turnovers on defense and control the tempo on offense. Coach Dan Hawkins’ offense operates at a feverish pace, so if they can get Maier and the receivers into a rhythm early, they’ll have an opportunity to sustain drives and score points. And if the defense can force Cal to commit a few mistakes, UC Davis will benefit from more offensive possessions and more scoring chances.
What does Cal need to do to win the game?
Force quick three-and-outs and run the ball. The downside to the Aggies playing a fast-paced offensive style is that they struggle at times to keep the defense off the field — especially when the offense is not getting first downs. The way for Cal to jump in front and stay ahead is to prevent UC Davis from picking up first downs and then run the clock on offense. It will wear down the Aggie defense and open up the Golden Bears’ ability to open up their playbook.
How do you see the game going?
I anticipate an entertaining, physical football game. Going up against Pac-12 teams is always a real test for the Aggies, but they’ve recently shown that they can hold their own against anyone. Cal is a program bursting with potential and a desire to get back to glory, while UC Davis is trying to sustain a high-level of play after coming off its most successful season in school history at the Division-I level. Both teams will no doubt be hungry to open the season with a win.
Do you like keeping games within the UC family? Or would you prefer to play other D1 schools?
The UC-verse-UC games are always fun. Most students at Davis have many friends who go to Berkeley and other UCs, so it typically fosters a healthy rivalry between schools. But the Aggies have battled against other FBS teams before. They beat San Jose State pretty handily to open last season and then lost at Stanford in a game that the Aggies stayed competitive in for the majority of. There is also plenty of high-caliber talent at the FCS-level as well. UC Davis shares a home in the Big Sky conference with last year’s national runner-up, Eastern Washington — a team that the Aggies nearly beat on the road in the FCS quarterfinals last November. UC Davis will also take a trip to Fargo, ND on September 21 to play the defending national champion North Dakota State Bison. The hope is that playing these games will continue to foster a winning culture at UC Davis and get the program some much-needed exposure.
You had a couple of middling years under beloved former Cal coach Ron Gould, and then Dan Hawkins came in and made a pretty quick impact. What is Dan Hawkins doing differently/better than Ron Gould?
I can’t really speak to the program under Gould, but I know that bringing in Hawkins and his coaching staff really reinvigorated UC Davis football from the start. Hawkins is a proud Aggie alum, conscious of the rich tradition of success that UC Davis had for many years at the Division-II level. He fully embraces (and even preaches) the unique qualities of the university, and carries a ton of coaching experience from all levels. His passion and enthusiasm for UC Davis, along with his commitment to playing a more modern, exciting brand of football, has all contributed to the program’s quick turnaround.