With fall football camp opening Monday for UC Davis and Tuesday for Sacramento State, both programs seek credibility, hoping to prove pundits wrong.
Big Sky Conference coaches and journalists who cover the sprawling 13-team, nine-state Football Championship Subdivision league consider the annual Causeway Classic the only meaningful game again this season for the Aggies and Hornets.
In preseason polls, the coaches picked Sac State to finish 11th and UCD last, and the media have the Aggies 12th and the Hornets last. Both picked Northern Arizona to win the league title.
UC Davis and Sac State were 2-9 last season. The Aggies were 2-6 in the Big Sky for 11th place; Sac State was 1-7 and tied Idaho State for last place. The Aggies won local bragging rights, beating the host Hornets 35-21 in the Causeway Classic.
Third-year Sac State coach Jody Sears had to play numerous freshmen last season after the departure of a large class of seniors from a 2014 team that finished 7-5. The Hornets were at or near the bottom in several Big Sky Conference statistics last season, including last in scoring offense (19.6 points per game).
“We made a conscious decision that we were going to build the thing from the ground up,” Sears said during the recent Big Sky Conference media days in Park City, Utah. “When you do that, you are going to go through some trials and go through some adversity, especially when you’re playing as many young players, freshmen, that we played. But the good news is that they are a year older. … Now it’s time for them to callus up, scar up and take a step forward.”
Leading the sophomores will be linebacker Manoah Pearson and quarterback Nate Ketteringham.
Pearson, second in tackles with 77 last season, was the only Sac State or UCD player picked for the All-Big Sky Conference Preseason first team. The 6-foot, 225-pound Pearson is the latest in a string of talented, bruising Sac State linebackers that includes Todd Davis and Darnell Sankey, both with the Denver Broncos.
Ketteringham was expected to redshirt last season, but when Daniel Kniffin, Kolney Cassel and Nolan Merker were injured, Ketteringham played the final six games and passed for 1,410 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Sears brought former Eastern Washington and Washington State head coach Paul Wulff to help build a strong running attack that will feature senior Jordan Robinson. Sac State was last in the conference and 109th in the FCS is rushing yardage last season at 107.5 yards per game.
The Hornets open the season Sept. 3 at home against Division II Western Oregon before playing at Fresno State on Sept. 10.
The Aggies have been plagued by injuries the last two seasons, though that’s allowed coach Ron Gould to test underclassmen who now have experience.
Gould, in his fourth season, is looking for the Aggies to play “four quarters” consistently, as they did last October to upset Northern Arizona 38-24 on homecoming day at Aggie Stadium, which helped cost Lumberjacks an FCS playoff berth. Ben Scott, who threw for 289 yards and three touchdowns, overshadowed quarterback Case Cookus, the 2015 FCS Freshman Player of the Year.
Scott is the incumbent at quarterback, but he could be pressed by sophomore C.J. Spencer, who was impressive in the Aggies’ final two games last season after Scott was injured. The former Inderkum High School star accounted for four touchdowns in the Aggies’ win over Sac State.
Among the top veterans for the Aggies, who open the season Sept. 3 at Oregon, are running back Manusamoa Luuga, linebacker Russell Reeder, wide receiver Chris Martin, center Kevin Gavigan, safety Darryl Graham and punter Colby Wadman.
Gould said the Aggies won’t be intimidated by heavily favored Oregon, where Gould played defensive back.
“It’s not who we play, but how we play,” Gould said. “All our concentration and energy is going to be on us.”