Expectations aren’t high for the UC Davis football team this season, but some of its star-studded athletes are used to being overlooked.
All-America senior wide receiver Keelan Doss was only recruited by the Aggies out of high school and junior quarterback Jake Maier bounced around from Sacred Heart University (2015) to Long Beach City College (2016) before settling down at UC Davis to become the 2017 Big Sky Newcomer of the Year.
The Aggies (5-6 overall, 3-5 Big Sky last season) were predicted to finish ninth out of 13 teams in the league by conference media and coaches.
“That’s a big reason why I decided to come back,” Doss said in regards to wanting to experience his first winning season at UC Davis before testing the waters in the NFL. “The thing that is funny about last year is yeah we went 5-6, but there was a couple games in there that we could’ve easily went 7-4 and there’s a couple games as well where we could’ve been worse than 5-6.
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“It’s just about putting everything together and overcoming that hump, and we’re right there.”
Here are five players to watch this season, which begins at San Jose State on Aug. 30.
All eyes, including NFL scouts, will be on Doss this season and for good reason.
The 6-foot-3, 200-plus pound behemoth is coming off a season in which he led Division I in receiving yards (1,499), receiving yards per game (136.3) and receptions per game (10.5) to go along with 115 catches.
That breakout season earned Doss a spot on the STATS Football Championship Subdivision preseason All-America first team.
“He’s a leader on and off the field,” Maier said, “and … he’s only getting better.”
If Doss and company hope to be the Big Sky’s No. 1 passing attack (348.3 yards per game) for the second straight season, it’ll start with Maier.
The 6-foot-tall team captain helped lead UC Davis to becoming the No. 1 ranked total offense (484.7 yards per game) in the conference for the first time in program history last year.
Maier also completed nearly 70 percent of his passes (306-446) for 3,669 yards, 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions en route to earning a spot on the All-Big Sky third team.
“There’s not a lot of quarterbacks you’re going to find that are smarter than this dude when it comes to football,” Doss said. “Just a special talent. ... Jake can get out the pocket and he can scramble and make plays for us that extend drives and lead to touchdowns sometimes.”
While Doss is sure to be a focus of defenses this fall, junior tight end Wesley Preece is another pass catcher to watch.
The Rocklin High School product finished last season with a team-high nine touchdowns to go along with 36 receptions for 568 yards.
This production earned Preece a spot on the STATS FCS preseason All-America first team alongside Doss. He also ranks No. 1 among HERO Sports’ top five returning Big Sky tight ends.
“He’s 6-5 and he can run like the wind, so he’s just a matchup nightmare,” Maier said. “Corners have a hard time with him because he’s so much bigger and linebackers have a hard time with him because he’s so much faster.
“There’s not a matchup where I don’t like Wes. He’s definitely my go-to guy. If it’s not Keelan, it’s definitely Wes.”
Junior linebacker Nas Anesi is a stalwart on the Aggies’ defense.
The lone defensive captain started all 11 games last year and finished second with 65 total tackles.
Anesi, who weighs in at 225 pounds, was also an All-Big Sky honorable mention as a freshman in 2016.
“He’s a linebacker who gets a bunch of tackles for us,” Maier said. “He’s the guy that sets the tone with his mentality.”
In a conference packed with talented wide receivers, senior cornerback Vincent White has his work cut out for him.
White, an All-Big Sky honorable mention last season, will be tasked with covering the opposing teams’ No. 1 wide receiver on a weekly basis.
Last year, White finished fourth on the team in total tackles with 49 and also totaled two forced fumbles and two interceptions in 11 games played.
“In my opinion, he’s one of the best cornerbacks in the Big Sky,” Maier said.