Ailene Voisin

Only UC Davis recruited him. Now nation’s leading receiver has pros’ attention

UC Davis star receiver Keelan Doss talks goals, life, Causeway Classic

UC Davis wide receiver Keelan Doss is having a standout season for the Aggies.
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UC Davis wide receiver Keelan Doss is having a standout season for the Aggies.

Keelan Doss would sign with UC Davis all over again, and somewhat surprisingly, is even thinking about returning for a fourth season simply because he enjoys college and is something of a nester.


The problem is, he simply got too good, and since he went to UC Davis, we already know he is smart. He will make the wise decision in the spring, when the NFL draft and his graduation loom.

In his three years with the Aggies – and four as a student – Doss went from being a skinny, injured, unpolished receiver at Alameda High School to earning a spot on the Walter Payton Award watch list, which recognizes the top offensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision.

Entering the season finale Saturday against Sacramento State in the Causeway Classic, he leads the FCS in receiving yards (1,326) and catches per game (10.2). He also ranks 11th in all-purpose yards, despite having zero from rushing or special teams. And who knows where he ranks among the professional prospects?

The Aggies lost count of the NFL scouts who have attended games and practices for a closer look, estimating “dozens,” and for all the usual reasons: size, skills, speed, hands, route-running, work ethic.

“Keelan is the best receiver I have ever coached,” said Aggies coach Dan Hawkins. “No doubt, no doubt. Great hands, unbelievable hands, big old mitts. A guy (with NFL experience) that comes closest to him was a guy we had at Colorado named Pat Williams. Pat was kind of the same size. But I have never had a guy that has this size, this speed and this physical ability, and with all the intangibles.”

Doss, who is 6-foot-3 and 206 pounds, a fluid, graceful athlete with terrific hops, hears the accolades and is somewhat bemused by how this all came about. His isn’t just the road less traveled; it’s a journey that is uniquely his own. An only child born in Alameda. Moved with his mother to her parents’ home in the foothills. Spent summers with his grandfather in Lodi. Finally returned to more familiar surroundings only a few miles from the Raiders’ practice facility.

UC Davis wide receiver Keelan Doss (3) warms up on the sideline before playing the Southern Utah Thunderbirds at Aggies Stadium in Davis on Saturday. Doss had 11 catches for 93 yards. Randall Benton

A Raiders diehard, Doss grew up admiring Jerry Rice and dreaming of playing in the NFL or the NBA. That was his first tough decision. A two-sport prep standout, Doss began devoting more of his attention to football after concluding that his skills and lanky, long-limbed frame were most conducive to wide receiver.

Despite missing his junior season with a foot injury, he grew stronger and improved, excelling at the deep routes.

“He was so much taller and faster, we would just whip the ball downfield and he would go up and get it,” said Brandon Younger, the receivers coach at Alameda High at the time. “But he was raw and polished. What has happened at UC Davis, now he can run a variety of routes, the out, the slant, the sideline, the post corner. I think that’s what makes him so appealing to people at the next level.”

A CFL scout attending last Saturday’s game against Southern Utah summarizes Doss’ potential accordingly: Great hands. Very productive. Unstoppable. Makes contested catches. Can’t teach his size. Definitely on the radar.

Yet there is another reason that at least a small part of Doss is tempted to stick around Davis for another year. Call it loyalty, altruism, appreciation or perhaps just a sharp memory. But he vividly remembers being snubbed by college recruiters despite being a two-time all-conference selection and an exceptional student.

Younger, in fact, was so frustrated by the lack of interest that he mounted his own campaign. He compiled game tapes, newspaper clips, a transcript of his pupil’s grades, and emailed the packets to offensive coordinators at 50 major college programs. Nobody responded except former Aggies coach Ron Gould, who had approached Doss during his injury-hampered junior year and continued pressing hard.

“Coach G was really genuine,” Doss said. “He said you can still have aspirations of the NFL if you come to Davis. I felt a real connection, and I knew of his track record, getting running backs and receivers into the league.”

The bond was strengthened by more than football, as it turns out. Just before Thanksgiving of Doss’ senior season, a tenant living on an upper floor started a fire that gutted the apartment where he and his mother lived. They lost everything. Clothes, photos, books. The next two months were spent in an extended-stay hotel, fretting about finances, shaken by the devastation, resisting doubts about Keelan’s college future.

When Gould learned of the fire, he quickly contacted Doss and arranged a visit in the hotel lobby.

“Coach (Gould) said to me, ‘Trust us. We will take care of your son. We promise,’ ” said Tammie Chambles, a single mother who works at an auction house. “They were definitely supportive at a time Keelan really needed it. The whole community (Alameda) was supportive, made us realize that we were loved. The football team threw a fundraiser. We got gift cards from so many people. Keelan didn’t like the attention because he is a quiet person, likes to keep to himself. He said, ‘Mom, we don’t need this. We’re not poor.’ I told him it was about people helping us and we should appreciate that. It wasn’t easy, but we got through it.”

Aggies wide receiver Keelan Doss (3) runs a route against Southern Utah’s Devin Guidry on Saturday. Doss has seven touchdown catches, but hasn’t reached the end zone in three games. Randall Benton

Seated on a bench on the football field earlier this week, Doss, who is thoughtful and earnest, with a quiet confidence and an occasional hint of his playful sense of humor, says earning a college scholarship to UC Davis was the most important event in his young life; he redshirted his sophomore season with an ankle injury (hence, the remaining year of eligibility) and will graduate in May with a degree in organizational studies.

But he has more than repaid the debt. Thriving in Hawkins’ hurry-up offense and pass-oriented attack, he eclipsed Tony Kays’ single-season school record for receptions (93) last Saturday and has partnered with sophomore quarterback Jake Maier – also on the Walter Payton watch list – on a plethora of highlights.

He suggests there is more to come. Consistent with his approach of setting high standards and even unreachable goals, Doss is determined to lead the Aggies (5-5) to their first winning season since 2010, subdue a streaking Hornets squad (6-4) and give yet another boost to a revived UCD program.

As for next year?

Doss smiles, nods, but won’t go there.

“I could be back,” he insists. “It will depend on the draft.”

In other words, Aggies fans should probably be preparing to say goodbye Saturday at Hornet Stadium. You don’t have to attend UC Davis to read the writing on the wall. Alameda. San Andreas. Lodi. Alameda. Davis. The NFL – and the next destination is just around the bend.

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin

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