Artice Nelson admits he was spoiled at Del Campo High School.
The linebacker played on varsity football teams that had a combined record of 21-4 with two league titles and one Sac-Joaquin Section championship.
But now in his fifth year at UC Davis, Nelson has yet to experience a winning season in college and hopes to help end that trend.
“I want to get closure with football,” Nelson said. “I would love to be in the class that turned things around and helped UC Davis become a top-25 (Football Championship Subdivision) team.”
The Aggies are coming off a disappointing, injury-plagued 2014 season in which they won two games and finished last in the Big Sky Conference.
Outside Davis, expectations are again low for the Aggies. Media members who cover the 13 Big Sky football teams and the conference coaches picked UC Davis to finish 11th and 12th, respectively, in preseason polls.
But Nelson is anticipating a reversal of fortune, one he hopes will be as dramatic as the Aggies’ 2014-15 men’s basketball that team won the Big West Conference regular-season championship after finishing last the prior season.
“Whenever I see the basketball coach (Jim Les), I thank him for everything he has done,” said Nelson, a regular at UCD home basketball games last season. “He’s set the bar high for the entire school.”
No matter the predictions, the football team’s expectations are pretty high, too. The Aggies return 66 lettermen and 14 offensive and defensive starters from a team that was ravaged by injuries in 2014, yet remained competitive in most games.
Though the 2-9 Aggies posted the program’s worst record since 1960, Nelson had the best season of his college career.
I would love to be in the class that turned things around and helped UC Davis become a top-25 (Football Championship Subdivision) team.
Fifth-year senior linebacker Artice Nelson
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Nelson played more snaps than expected after seniors Ryan Dimino, a longtime friend and teammate of Nelson’s at Del Campo, and Steven Pitts suffered injuries that knocked them out of a combined 12 games. Nelson started five games and finished as the team’s No. 2 tackler with 60 tackles, including a season-high nine tackles with a forced fumble in the Causeway Classic loss to Sacramento State.
UCD has made strides to help cut back on injuries during spring and fall camps as coach Ron Gould instituted new forms of conditioning and training while emphasizing concussion care and nutrition.
The changes dramatically reduced injuries in the spring, but not in Nelson’s case. Toward the end of spring practice, he tweaked his back – he’s had two back surgeries and a hernia operation during his football career – and missed most of the offseason workouts while rehabilitating. Nelson probably won’t start Thursday’s season opener at Nevada.
But Nelson said his uncertain starting status illustrates how talented and experienced the Aggies are at linebacker. Seniors Jonathan Bias and Travon Brooks and projected starters Ryan Bua, Brady Stibi and Russell Reeder, all juniors, are among the battle-tested linebacker corps.
I like his leadership, and I think he’s one of the toughest kids I’ve ever been around.
UCD coach Ron Gould on Artice Nelson
“A lot of people talk about me being the leader on defense, so it’s scary to think about how good our defense is if I don’t have a starting position,” Nelson said. “I’m still getting my legs underneath me. But I don’t worry about who is playing as long as we are winning games. Our chemistry right now is off the charts.”
The defense will need to be much improved if the Aggies hope to challenge perennial Big Sky heavyweights Eastern Washington, Montana State and Montana and in-state rivals Sac State and Cal Poly.
Last year, the Aggies were worst in the conference in points allowed per game (37.8), third worst in yards allowed (481.5) and second worst in forced turnovers (12). UCD also had the worst percentages in pass defense efficiency and third-down conversions allowed.
Gould knows Nelson will be a part of the solution.
“I like his leadership, and I think he’s one of the toughest kids I’ve ever been around,” Gould said. “He’s a young man who shows up to practice with a hard hat, steel-toed boots and two lunch pails because he knows there’s nothing pretty or fancy about what we’ve got to get done.
“He’s had to battle through a significant amount of injuries over the years, yet he keeps coming back. He gives us everything he has.”
As his football career winds down, Nelson said his perspective about UCD has changed remarkably since he first arrived. The managerial economics major said he’s grown up a lot and is particularly appreciative of former UCD coach Bob Biggs, who recruited him and helped mentor him.
“When you are 18, all you’re thinking about is playing in the NFL,” Nelson said. “If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t go anywhere else. Coach Biggs has helped me a lot. He’s introduced me to a lot of guys who have played here years before about job opportunities and internships. I’m truly blessed and feel that being here has set me up for life.”
College football previews
- Sunday: The national scene
- Monday: Stanford
- Tuesday: Cal
- Today: UC Davis
- Thursday: Sacramento State
KEYS FOR THE AGGIES
Ready to lead
Quarterback Ben Scott showed the kind of poise and confidence after becoming the starter midway through last season (1,734 yards and 19 touchdowns) to create a buzz among alumni who remember when UCD used to produce pro-ready quarterbacks. With a cadre of talented and experienced receivers led by Ramon Vargas, Keelan Doss and Alex Cannon, the Aggies could have one of the conference’s most surprising passing attacks.
Carrying the load
With Gabe Manzanares (2,116 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns the last two seasons) gone, coach Ron Gould will look to keep his impact churning with junior Manusamoa Luuga and sophomore Justin Williams, who were in a tight battle to become Gould’s latest workhorse back. But can they inspire, too?
Rush to judgment
UCD ranked at the bottom or near the bottom in many defensive categories last season largely because of an inconsistent pass rush that produced only 19 sacks. Gould looks for seniors Walter Earnest and Kyle DeVaughn and juniors Inoke Raikadroka and Zak Pettit to pressure some of the most potent offenses in the Football Championship Subdivision.
The Aggies last season played their toughest schedule in school history that included Stanford of the Pacific-12 Conference and Colorado State of the Mountain West Conference and paid a price with injuries and loss of confidence. Although UCD this season faces two Football Bowl Subdivision teams – Nevada and Hawaii – they play only one of the Big Sky’s big three, Montana, which visits Aggie Stadium on Oct. 3.
Lining things up
UCD ranked second in the Big Sky last season in fewest sacks allowed (14), and the offensive line should remain a strength, anchored by versatile Parker Smith . The 6-foot-4, 290-pound senior, who has played right and left guard, right tackle and center, now moves to left tackle to protect Scott’s blind side.
vs. South Dakota
at North Dakota
vs. Northern Arizona
at Northern Colorado
vs. Southern Utah
at Weber State
vs. Cal Poly
at Sacramento State