No place like Davis for Castles

Sleeping on an air mattress in the basement of his uncle’s house was not all that bad. Having to leave his football gear in the garage after getting home from practice at South Tahoe High School was no big deal. His mother believed the smell would keep bears away from the garbage cans outside the family’s home.

Sharing a house with four of his UC Davis teammates has its benefits. There are three full size refrigerators and the garage was turned into a weight room when the five sophomores were stuck at home during the COVID-19 quarantine. Each of the five has a car, so they often squabble for dibs on the driveway.

His comfort level with the Aggies and garage workouts have contributed to McCallan Castles becoming one of the top tight ends in the country. HeroSports.com ranked Castles as the No. 1 returning tight end among FCS teams. The 6-foot-5, 233-pound Castles and Idaho’s Hayden Hatten are the only FCS tight ends to have three touchdown receptions after the first two weeks of the season.

Hunter Rodrigues threw two of his career-high four touchdown passes to Castles last Saturday as UC Davis cruised to a 53-7 win at the University of San Diego. The Aggies avoided a letdown after coming away with a 19-17 victory at Tulsa on Sept. 2. Tulsa is one of eight FBS teams to lose to an FCS opponent so far this season.

McCallan Castles

UC Davis is one of three Big Sky Conference squads to upset an FBS team in 2021. The others are Eastern Washington (35-33 in double overtime against UNLV) and Montana (13-7 against then-No. 20 Washington). The Grizzlies’ victory over the Huskies was the first by an FCS team against a ranked FBS program since 2016.

Castles played in an FBS vs. FCS game in 2019. He happened to be attending Cal at the time and earned the starting job at tight end as a redshirt freshman. Castles committed to the Golden Bears as a junior at South Tahoe after catching 65 passes for 1,193 yards and 15 touchdowns in the 2016 season. Cal was by no means the only school pursuing the three-star recruit. He also received scholarship offers from Arizona State, Colorado, Duke, Oregon State, Utah and Washington State.

Wanting to play as close as possible to home led Castles to making his verbal commitment to Cal without giving his other suitors the time of day. Adjusting to Berkeley after being raised in South Lake Tahoe, moving to Bethroud, Colo., and then returning to South Lake Tahoe was 100,000 volts of culture shock. Castles had never lived in a city with more than 22,000 residents. More than 42,000 students attend Cal and account for one third of Berkeley’s population.

To say Castles was overwhelmed would be putting it mildly. He would have been better off in the basement of his uncle’s house in South Lake Tahoe. Castles lived with his uncle so he could start the school year at South Tahoe High in 2016 as his parents were clearing out the family’s home in Bethroud.

His decision to leave Cal came after Castles started in the 2019 season opener … against UC Davis. He played the next week against Washington before going to Golden Bears head coach Justin Wilcox to turn in his playbook. Castles would need more than fingers and toes to count how many people he feared he would disappoint by quitting. That paled in comparison, however, to how he would have felt by staying at Cal where he did not belong.

“When you take that (recruiting) visit, you’re usually only around the campus. I didn’t really experience all of Berkeley,” Castles recalled. “I’ve never been a city person. I was calling my mom and dad every week and I’d tell them, ‘I don’t know if I can make it here.’ It was like I was letting the environment affect how much I liked football. I was questioning if I even wanted to play anymore.”

A warm welcome from the Aggies rekindled Castles’ passion, which had been called into question when UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins spoke to Wilcox about Castles’ resolution. “Wilcox said he didn’t know if I loved it anymore,'” Castles said. “When I got to Davis, I knew I had to prove to myself and everybody else that I wanted to be here. For (Hawkins) to let me come in and give me an opportunity to play, it’s been great. This is more my speed.”

Aggies open by closing out win

Four minutes stood between UC Davis and an improbable victory at Tulsa last Thursday. The Golden Hurricanes had three timeouts , but stopping the Aggies and forcing a punt would have been far better than resorting to calling timeouts to stop the clock. All Tulsa needed was enough time to kick a field goal to avoid losing at home to an FCS team after being a 22-point favorite.

UC Davis had just dodged a bullet when Chris Venable slammed into Tulsa wide receiver Kenyon Stokes at the Aggies’ 8-yard line and forced a fumble. The ball bounced through the end zone because Erron Duncan arrived in time to prevent any Tulsa player from recovering it for the go-ahead touchdown.

“The fumble caused by Venable was amazing. The next thing that was amazing was to watch Erron Duncan go 100 mph to get to the ball,” UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. “As soon as it was a fumble, the first thing that came into my mind was we’ve got to get on that. If they get the ball, we go home with a nice try instead of a nice win.”

Sealing a 19-17 victory would require the Aggies to make two first downs and force the Golden Hurricanes to spend their timeouts. Wide receiver Kris Vaughn added to the degree of difficulty by being called for a fast start on first down to put the Aggies at the 15-yard line with 15 yards to go to maintain possession.

A 6-yard run by Ulonzo Gilliam was made possible by 6-foot-5, 233-pound tight end McCallan Castles aligning right and pulling left to pave the way for the running back through the hole. Castles followed by catching a pass from quarterback Hunter Rodrigues for a 12-yard gain and a first down at the 33.

Tulsa stopped Gilliam for no gain on the next play. It was his sixth carry in which the junior did not gain an inch. Thirteen of his 25 carries went for 3 or fewer yards. Hawkins credited his son Cody, the Aggies offensive coordinator, for sticking with the running game even though Gilliam was not having much luck.

“(The Golden Hurricanes are) pretty stout up front,” Hawkins said. “The tendency is when you play a team with a dominant defensive front that you give up on the running game and then everything else collapses. We kept chipping away.”

UC Davis finished with 88 yards rushing, its lowest total since managing just 63 against Sacramento State in the 2019 Causeway Classic.

Gilliam has been a workhorse for the Aggies since arriving from Merced High in 2017. He paid his dues for a year as a redshirt and then became a starter in 2018. In the opener at San Jose State, Gilliam ran for 143 yards and scored three touchdowns in a 44-38 victory. The Aggies also beat the Spartans in 2010 for their first win against an FBS team since climbing to Division I in 2007.

His hands have also been put to good use. Gilliam’s 124 receptions are the most by a running back in school history. His 124th came at the perfect time last Thursday with UC Davis facing a third-and-4 at its 49-yard line after Tulsa called its third timeout with 1:56 to play. Rodrigues faked a handoff to Vaughn on what appeared to be a jet sweep to the left as Gilliam slipped out of the backfield to the right for an 8-yard reception to seal the deal.

“He’s a real special player. He’s unbelievably tough,” Hawkins said of Gilliam. “He’s someone our offense leans on.”

The University of San Diego knows that all too well. In 2019, Gilliam ran for 139 yards and two touchdowns as the Aggies pulled out a 38-35 victory over the Toreros. His 1-yard scoring run with 3:35 to play was the difference. San Diego was one yard away from winning when Devon King forced a fumble that Isaiah Thomas recovered to bail out UC Davis.

Hawkins can only hope his players will not take San Diego lightly or suffer a letdown after knocking off Tulsa. “We’re not going to overestimate Tulsa or underestimate anybody else. That’s just not how we roll,” Hawkins said. “You may outscore (San Diego), but they will not beat themselves. They’re a tough out. It helps you as a coach because you’d better be on it because you know they’re going to be on it.”

First play often goes astray

Hunter Rodrigues has figured out how to conquer his nerves as the starting quarterback for UC Davis. All the junior has to do to calm down is botch the first offensive play. He did that twice in three March victories for the Aggies, so getting his worst play out of the way right away was not catastrophic. 

Confusion on the first play March 6 at Idaho led to Rodrigues mishandling the snap and having to scramble to recover the loose ball. “We got (to the line of scrimmage) a little late and the play clock was going down,” Rodrigues said. “It was down to about 5 seconds and we were all trying to rush. Not a good start.”

Hunter Rodrigues was nearly sacked for a safety and then fumbled on the first play against Cal Poly on March 26. UC Davis went on to win 73-24.

Rodrigues bounced back to complete 23 of 29 passes for 236 yards and three touchdowns in a 27-17 victory. UC Davis knocked off the No. 19 team in the FCS rankings and then joined the Top 25 at No. 23.

The first play against Cal Poly on March 26 was worse. A holding penalty on the opening kickoff left UC Davis starting its first possession at the 9-yard line. Rodrigues dropped back to pass and was immediately under pressure. He retreated into the end zone and then scrambled to his left with Cal Poly’s Lance Vecchio in pursuit. Vecchio caught Rodrigues, who lost the ball on his way to the turf.

Rodrigues lost the ball because he was trying to flip it forward in hopes of the play being ruled an incomplete pass. “No (receiver) was open, so I was rolling out trying to find someone,” Rodrigues said. “I noticed I was in the end zone and I didn’t want to take a safety. I should have thrown it away sooner.

“Yeah, another not a good start.”

The Mustangs recovered the fumble, but the Aggies defense bailed out Rodrigues by limiting Cal Poly to a field goal. The turnover by Rodriguez was long forgotten by halftime, when UC Davis led 49-10 on its way to a 73-24 victory. UC Davis was to play Cal Poly again on April 10, but Cal Poly  has bowed out.

That leaves UC Davis (3-1) with one more game this spring. The Aggies, who are No. 11 in the FCS rankings, will host No. 9 Eastern Washington (3-1) on Saturday with the winner likely receiving an at-large berth to the 16-team FCS playoffs. Eleven conference champions will receive automatic berths, leaving just five at-large bids.

Weber State (3-0), which is ranked No 3, will likely receive the Big Sky’s automatic bid when the FCS playoff field is announced April 18. The Wildcats’ remaining games are against two 1-3 teams in Southern Utah and Idaho State. Weber State beat UC Davis 18-13 on March 13 and will not play Eastern Washington.

Rodrigues welcomes the challenge of facing Eastern Washington with the opportunity to lead the Aggies to their first win against the Eagles in nine meetings. The Whitney High School (Rocklin) graduate arrived at UC Davis from American River College in 2018, when the Aggies lost 59-20 to the Eagles in the regular season and 34-29 in the FCS quarterfinals. 

UC Davis quarterback Jake Maier was the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year in 2018, but he was not at his best against Eastern Washington. He threw two interceptions in each loss. To put that in perspective, he was picked off just six times in the other 11 games. When asked about Maier’s performances against the Eagles, Rodrigues looked beyond the errant passes to see what made Maier so successful.

“It was the true grit that you have to have to play this position,” Rodrigues said. “You have to put your heart and should into this position in order to be successful. It meant everything to (Maier). It means everything to me to play at my best when the best is needed.”

Rodrigues will have to be at his best against Eastern Washington – except for the first play. That is the one he can afford to botch because “it takes away any nerves or butterflies you might have.” 

He would know.Edit