UC Davis senior strong safety Aarynn Jones is so immersed in football that he can't escape the game even when asleep.
"I don't wake up in a cold sweat," Jones said. "But I'll tackle a running back, then wake up and go, 'Oh, wow! It isn't real.' Then I'll go back to sleep and start dreaming about the next play."
Jones, like his fellow Aggies, can pretty much recite in his sleep the mantra "Focus on the process; pay attention to the details."
Those words have been ingrained in his brain by first-year Aggies coach Ron Gould and new defensive coordinator Bert Watts.
It has taken hold in an aggressive and heady Aggies defense, led by the veteran secondary of Jones, senior cornerbacks Dre Allen and Jonathan Perkins and junior free safety Charles Boyett.
They have helped the Aggies win three of their past four games, lead the Big Sky Conference in pass defense (193.4 yards per game) and earn the respect of rival coaches.
"Their defense is very physical with a well-coached group of players," said Montana State coach Rob Ash, whose Bobcats host UC Davis on Saturday. " There have been times on film where this team has been very special."
While the play of UCD's line and linebackers has been notable, the defensive backfield has set the tone for a team that started 0-4 but is now 3-5.
Boyett and Jones have shown a nose for contact, reflecting the personality of Watts, a former Cal safety who led the Bears in tackles with 80 his senior year in 2002.
Boyett and Jones lead UC Davis with 53 and 51 tackles, respectively, and have combined for six pass breakups and three interceptions.
"Aarynn and Charles are tackling machines," Watts said. "They do a great job coming downfield and making a lot of plays at the line of scrimmage."
Perkins and Allen are lockdown corners. They have combined for 50 tackles, six pass breakups and two interceptions.
"They're instinct guys," Watts said. "With their experience, they see things and recognize things the younger guys can't yet. We've given them so much through new techniques and schemes, but you only have to tell them once. That's the benefit of experience."
Gould, a former defensive back at Oregon and Wichita State, credits experience and Watts' savvy play-calling for the Aggies' quick-striking tempo.
"It's not like it's their first rodeo," Gould said of the four UC Davis defensive backs. "They've been tested time in and time out. They've played against top teams year after year. Coach Watts has done a great job of putting those young men in positions to execute plays."
While Jones is recognized as one of the linchpins of the Aggies' defense, he deflects credit to Watts' game-planning while marveling at the attributes of his backfield buddies.
"He's given us more in our repertoire than we've had in the past," said Jones, from Moreno Valley in Southern California. "He loves to switch things up and give different looks to keep the quarterback guessing."
As for his backfield mates, his summations:
On Boyett: "Charles is a hitter and aggressive. He's smart, sticks with his reads yet can make adjustments when he sees a gap that needs to be filled."
On Perkins: "He's amazing the way he moves and turns his body. I can't stress enough how smart and athletic he is. He's always pointing out stuff, especially in run defense."
On Allen, his roommate: "He the smartest football-knowledge dude I've ever met. He watches film all the time. He's always pointing things out that help my game."
With underclass reserves Shamawn Wright and Patrick Wells also contributing, opposing quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers have had some long days.
But UC Davis will be tested Saturday in Bozeman, Mont.
Montana State is ranked No. 5 in the Football Championship Subdivision and has quarterback DeNarius McGhee, the Big Sky's 2012 Offensive Player of the Year.
McGhee, who passed for a season-high 313 yards in the Bobcats' 34-16 win over Weber State last Saturday, is only the third Big Sky player and 11th in college football history to pass for more than 10,000 yards and rush for at least 1,000 in his career.
Others to do it include Colin Kaepernick and Colt McCoy of the 49ers, Robert Griffin III of the Redskins and Russell Wilson of the Seahawks.
"We're excited to play McGhee," Jones said. "First and foremost, we respect him as a quarterback.
"His biggest attribute is his ability to scramble around and keep plays alive long enough for someone to get open. That's his game, and that's our challenge to try to contain."
Call The Bee's Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.