They get football crowds excited and help depth-challenged Sacramento State and UC Davis battle in the competitive Big Sky Conference.
They’re the unsung players who seemingly emerge from thin air each season to make big plays and become fan favorites.
Garrett Safron came to Sac State as an unknown walk-on from Santa Monica five years ago and is now the most decorated Hornets quarterback in history.
Gabe Manzanares, a little-used community college reserve, walked-on at UC Davis, where he emerged as one of the best running backs in Aggies history in earning Big Sky Newcomer of the Year honors last season.
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This year it’s junior wide receivers Nnamdi Agude of Sac State and Ramon Vargas of UC Davis who have announced their arrivals in a big way.
The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Agude leads the conference and is fourth nationally in the Football Championship Subdivision in receiving yards with 859 while catching 50 passes and scoring seven touchdowns.
The 6-3, 185-pound Vargas is UCD’s top receiver with 20 catches for 323 yards and three touchdowns despite having only played in the past three games.
Both are tall, sure-handed targets with speed who are slippery in pass routes.
Yet entering the season, the two had a total of four catches between them in playing only token minutes.
“Every season you hope to get one or two players who step up and say, ‘It’s my time,’” said UC Davis coach Ron Gould.
In their minds, Agude and Vargas thought it was their time when they stepped on their respective campuses after starring for Southern California high schools.
They quickly realized how much they needed to learn and that older, experienced receivers weren’t about to step aside so they could play.
“You always want to be in the game, and it’s hard to watch,” said Agude, who redshirted as a freshman. “But we had some ballers and playmakers on the team the last two years.”
Agude watched last season as the trio of senior Morris Norrise, junior DeAndre Carter and sophomore Shane Harrison caught most of the passes from Safron.
“I’ve got to tip my hat to Nnamdi,” said Sac State coach Jody Sears. “We really challenged him last winter and spring. Here is a guy coming into his fourth year with all this talent and skill and he’s only caught three balls. We told him it’s time to step up.”
It didn’t hurt that the Hornets recruited former Nevada player Dominic Coulter to challenge for the No. 3 receiver slot behind Carter and Harrison (who later became academically ineligible).
“I thought the coaches didn’t trust me to be the next guy to step in,” Agude said. “That only made me more determined.”
He and Carter have become a dynamic duo, combining for more than 60 percent of Sac State’s catches and two-thirds of its receiving yards.
The Corona native has had five 100-yard receiving games, and with 14 more receiving yards, he will move into Sac State’s single-season top 10.
While Agude made an impact from the start this season, Vargas had to wait longer to get on the field. He wasn’t even on the depth chart when the Aggies opened the season at Stanford on Aug. 30.
But Vargas kept working hard on the scout team, and with a couple of injuries to starters or backups, got a chance to play at Portland State on Oct. 4, catching four passes for 53 yards in the Aggies’ 23-14 loss.
But his breakout game came the next week when he caught eight passes for 141 yards and made a spectacular one-handed touchdown catch in the Aggies’ 77-37 homecoming loss to Montana State.
“When he was on the scout team, he worked hard every single day, competing against the starters on defense, causing the guys fits,” Gould said. “I’m not surprised by his emergence.”
Vargas figured if he kept working hard, the coaches would eventually take notice.
“I believed I could play, but that I just had to be patient throughout the whole process,” he said. “I think the coaches appreciate when a player takes scout team as seriously as I did.”
Vargas and sophomore quarterback Ben Scott, who has started the past two games after taking over from senior London Lacy, have developed a good connection.
After catching eight passes for 129 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-28 loss to No. 12 Montana on Oct. 18, the Huntington Beach native became the first Aggie since 2010 to have two consecutive 100-yard-plus receiving days.
While an assistant coach at Cal, Gould said he coached six walk-on fullbacks who eventually became starters, earned scholarships and have played or are playing in the NFL.
“That was a tribute to their drive and hard work,” Gould said. “We are seeing the same thing with Ramon. He knows he is a really good receiver who can be exceptional. So he works on his craft every day.”
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.