UC Davis football coach Ron Gould says it doesn’t take long to see which incoming freshmen are ready to compete and those who will need more time to transition from high school to college.
“We don’t know if a freshman is going to help us out or not unless we throw him right into the fire,” Gould, the Aggies’ second-year coach, said of his team’s grueling practices. “We look for what I call the (Interstate)-5 stare. You look into a player’s eyes to see if he’s telling you, ‘What am I doing here?’ That means he wants to jump in his car and drive right back down I-5.
“Then you have the other guys. ‘OK, I’m just playing another game. I’m ready to go.’ With freshmen, you’re dealing with two types of kids.”
The Aggies and rival Sacramento State have gone through two weeks of grinding workouts and have two more ahead in preparation for their respective Aug. 30 season openers.
Gould and Jody Sears, Sac State’s interim coach, are searching for every able body to help them improve on last season’s respective 5-7 performances.
Both coaches would actually prefer to redshirt every true freshman. But at depth-challenged Football Championship Subdivision schools like UCD and Sac State that can’t offer as many scholarships as the big colleges, the reality is they likely will need help from some of their newbies.
“It’s inevitable that a few freshmen are going to play for us,” Gould said. “We just don’t know who they are yet.”
Half of UCD’s 16 true freshmen last season played. That included All-Big Sky Conference honorable mention punter Colby Wadman.
Former Del Oro standout Russell Smith developed into a key starter for Sac State at linebacker as a freshman (though he sat out a year between high school and college) and a handful of others in the 2013 Hornets’ recruiting class played reserve roles, though most redshirted.
Gould said finding freshmen who are physically, mentally and emotionally ready to play at the college level is a challenge. They have to grasp a more complicated playbook, develop flawless techniques, pay intense attention to detail and keep personal issues such as homesickness at bay.
“There is a transition every kid goes though being away from home,” Gould said. “A young man wakes up and says, ‘Where’s my mom? Where’s my dad?’ Or he misses his girlfriend. We don’t know how they are going to transition with those things until they get here.”
Freshman defensive lineman Jordan Hoyt, who came to UC Davis during the summer to take early classes and bond with his new teammates, quickly learned how much he missed home in Chandler, Ariz.
“I thought I’d be excited to get out of the house and be independent,” said Hoyt, who was home-schooled. “But I’m a huge family man. I’ve always been taught to keep my family first. Within a week, I started to get real homesick. I realized my mom’s not here to cook my meals anymore. That’s been a big transition.”
For area players like UCD’s C.J. Spencer (Inderkum High School) and Sac State’s Nolan Merker (Sheldon) and Tyler Meteer (Del Oro), the biggest fall camp challenges have been dealing with the intensity of practices and the unrelenting days of film and playbook study.
Meteer, a linebacker and The Bee’s Defensive Player of the Year last season, came from one of the state’s top programs at Del Oro, a CIF State Bowl participant in 2013.
But top-level high school intensity is no match for what Meteer is facing at Sac State.
“Del Oro had a good program as far as work ethic, but nothing can prepare you for this,” Meteer said. “These are the best guys from every high school, so there’s no weak links here. Everyone is good, everyone is fast and everyone is strong.”
Merker, a walk-on quarterback who threw eight touchdown passes in one game last season, shredded opposing defenses with his heady play and improvisational moves. Now, he has to stick to the script of a detailed playbook that beats any prep advanced placement course for mental gymnastics.
“The complexity of the schemes are a big jump from high school,” Merker said. “You could get away with things in high school, but there’s no room for errors here.”
Spencer got his UCD playbook shortly after he signed his national letter of intent in February. He studied it religiously.
“I thought I knew it pretty well. Then once practice started, it’s a whole other level,” Spencer said. “Just trying to know what the defense is doing is a challenge in itself. They have so many different coverages and disguises. You have to know a lot more than just where to throw the ball.”
The Sac State and UCD freshmen also are getting a crash course in time management.
During fall camp, they roll out of bed around 5:30 a.m. They spend the day in meetings, watching film and preparing for practice or practicing. They usually don’t return to their dorm rooms until 9 p.m. or later. Between then and lights out at 11, they have their noses in their playbooks.
“You are tired all the time, but that comes with having to be mentally and physically tough,” Meteer said. “It’s a grind, I’m not going to lie, but every other school is doing it, so we’ve got to keep grinding.”
Their schedules will get more demanding when classes start – Sac State on Sept. 2 and UCD on Oct. 2.
But no one can call Spencer, Hoyt, Merker or Meteer slackers.
Spencer and Hoyt hope to one day have careers in medicine. Meteer is majoring in civil engineering. Merker, who has yet to declare a major, had a 4.2 weighted grade-point average in high school.
“It’s not going to get any easier when classes start,” Meteer said. “But that’s why we’re here, to get an education. We’ll just have to find that balance between studying for class and studying for football.”
Spencer took a couple of summer school classes at UCD to try to acclimate to the tougher academics ahead and was pleased to come away with a 3.42 GPA.
“Taking summer classes was helpful because you learn how to study for tests that are more complex and demanding than in high school,” Spencer said. “Class is definitely going to be a handful, but with the study halls and the tutoring help they offer, it’s almost impossible to fail if you apply yourself.”
One thing the freshmen already grade out as an A-plus are their veteran teammates, who, Merker says, have been “really welcoming.”
Sears and Gould expect their seniors to take wide-eyed freshmen under their wings and, as Sears says, “show them the way we do things, teach them our culture.”
Sears remembers walking on as a wide receiver at Washington State in his hometown of Pullman, Wash., in the late 1980s. It wasn’t the insanity of Bear Bryant’s “Junction Boys” at Texas A&M in the 1950s, but it still was a more Darwinian time than today.
“Back in the old days, it was a little rough and tough,” said Sears, who lettered his final two years with the Cougars. “You had to have a little edge to you.”
The energetic and vocal Sears isn’t afraid to use the word love when he talks about his “player-led, not coach-driven team.”
“Our freshmen have got to learn the intensity of our practices, the urgency in which we do things,” Sears said. “But they’re also a little nervous, a bit anxious. They’re going through all these emotions, and they’re going through a little bit of culture shock.
“So they need to know that they are loved and that their teammates are welcoming them into the family. That’s something positive that they can embrace.”
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.