Who will be QB for UC Davis?

Miles Hastings (7) is one of six quarterbacks auditioning to start for UC Davis.

Dan Hawkins has no patience for quarterbacks who are careless with the football. His son can attest to that. Cody was the starting quarterback at Colorado in 2009 when he was benched by his father are throwing two interceptions in a 38-14 loss to Texas. Those turnovers contributed to the Longhorns outscoring the Buffaloes 35-0 in the second half.

Quarterback Miles Hastings has tested Hawkins’ patience at UC Davis. Hawkins had it easy in his first three seasons after returning to coach at his alma mater. His return coincided with quarterback Jake Maier’s transfer from Long Beach City College. Maier passed for a school-record 11,163 yards and 88 touchdowns in three seasons with the Aggies. He was the Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Year in 2018 after leading UC Davis to a share of the conference championship and its first FCS playoff berth.

Maier’s departure after the 2019 season left the Aggies in search of a new leader behind center. The search has continued into 2022 and through two weeks of spring practice. Hawkins and his son, who is the Aggies offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, will get their last look at the six quarterback candidates in Saturday’s scrimmage until the Aggies reconvene in August to begin preparations for the Sept. 3 opener at Cal.

Hunter Rodrigues would have been the seventh candidate had he not opted to graduate early with a year of eligibility remaining. He would have had the edge in experience over the other hopefuls after starting all five games last spring and six of 12 in the fall. There was nothing to suggest Rodrigues was in jeopardy of losing the job until he sustained a concussion on a 5-yard run in the fourth quarter at Weber State on Sept. 25.

Trent Tompkins

Hastings came off the bench and to the offense’s rescue by playing with the poise of a senior despite being just a freshman. He completed seven of nine passes for 50 yards as the Aggies went 56 yards in 13 plays to take a 17-14 lead with 27 seconds to play. Trent Tompkins replaced Hastings and scored on a 1-yard plunge to cap the drive that lasted more than six minutes. UC Davis safety Erron Duncan sealed the victory with an interception on the first play of Weber State’s ensuing possession.

With Rodrigues sitting out the following week, Hastings started against Idaho and the offense sputtered with 13 points in three quarters. Tompkins took a few snaps in the first three quarters before taking over in the fourth. He accounted for every yard in a 62-yard drive that he capped by lofting a 10-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jared Harrell. Tompkins completed all three of his passes for 34 yards and added two runs for 28.

UC Davis took the lead at 27-20 with 8:05 to play when wide receiver Carson Crawford took a pitch from Tompkins and tossed a 30-yard touchdown pass to tight end McCallan Castles.

As they did against Idaho, the Aggies scored 14 points in the fourth quarter at Idaho State the following week. Those points did nothing more than make the game appear closer than it was. Rodrigues started and struggled, completing as many passes to the Bengals (two) as he did to his teammates. Idaho State turned those two interceptions into 10 points in building a 24-3 halftime lead on its way to a 27-17 victory.

The game was intriguing if for no other reason than Hawkins’ decision to go with Tompkins’ legs instead of Hastings’ arm when Rodrigues was sent to the bench after throwing his second interception on the first play of the second quarter with UC Davis trailing 14-0.

Hastings got his chance on the Aggies’ first possession in the third quarter, threw an interception on second-and-9 at Idaho State’s 16-yard line after UC Davis marched 59 yards in 12 plays and was never seen again that day. At least Rodrigues got the opportunity to throw a second interception before he got the hook from Hawkins.

Such an exit was nothing new for Hastings. The difference was his departure against Idaho State was not scripted. Hastings was told last March that he would get the third possession against Cal Poly. “Whether we went down and scored or not, (Rodrigues) was going to go back in,” recalled Hastings, who did not keep Rodrigues out for long by throwing an interception that the Mustangs returned for a touchdown and a 10-7 lead.

“Obviously, that was not how I wanted it to go,” Hastings said. “It’s football. Bad plays happen. It’s a matter of how you come back from that and shake it off.”

Hastings did get a second chance, although getting his number called with UC Davis leading 59-17 was not the best situation to show what he can do. Hastings did complete all four of his passes for 50 yards and a touchdown, but you have to wonder if Cal Poly expected UC Davis would be throwing with such a lopsided lead.

There is nothing wrong with running the ball when a game is well out of hand. Four minutes after Hastings threw his first touchdown pass with the Aggies, Tompkins scored on an 86-yard dash to make it 73-17. Tompkins was the Aggies second-leading rusher last fall with 477 yards and tied Ulonzo Gilliam for the team lead in rushing touchdowns with six.

One can throw (hopefully only to his teammates). The other can run. And there are four other candidates, with the latest being transfer Jack Newman from San Francisco City College. All Newman did last fall was pass for 3,583 yards and 38 touchdowns as the Rams finished 13-0. He did throw six interceptions, so the other UC Davis candidates should never count themselves out.

In the words of Lloyd Christmas, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.”

Hornets, Aggies earn honors

UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins had much more on his mind Tuesday than trying to find out how many of his Aggies were selected to the All-Big Sky Conference team. The Aggies are taking a crash course on South Dakota State in preparation for facing the Jackrabbits in the first round of the FCS playoffs on Saturday in Brookings, S.D. Even after Hawkins learned 12 players were honored, he did not jump out of his seat at his weekly press conference and celebrate.

“For every head coach who goes through the all-conference selection committee, it’s unbelievable,” Hawkins said. “There’s a lot of bartering that goes on and a lot of arguing. Life’s not fair, football’s not fair and in many cases all-conference teams are not fair. I’ve been doing this a long time and all-conference teams are always a head-scratcher. And they’ll probably continue to be.”

Josiah Erickson (44)

Three UC Davis players were named to the first team – guard Jake Parks, cornerback Brandon Perryman and running back Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. Big Sky champion Sacramento State had six first-team selections – wide receiver Pierre Williams, tight end Marshel Martin, center Thomas Parker, defensive end Josiah Erickson, kicker Kyle Sentkowski and all-purpose player Asher O’Hara.

Five Sacramento State players were second-team selections – offensive tackle Kooper Richardson, guard Brandon Weldon, outside linebacker Marte Mapu, inside linebacker Marcus Hawkins and cornerback Munchie Filer III. Richardson played three seasons at UC Davis and came to Sacramento State as a graduate transfer to play for his father Kris and with his brother Kaden.

UC Davis swept the second-team selections picks for special teams with punter Dan Whelan, kicker Isaiah Gomez, kick returner Lan Larison, punt returner Isaiah Thomas and all-purpose player Trent Tompkins,. Other second-team picks for the Aggies were tight end McCallan Castles, center Connor Pettek, defensive tackle Bryce Rodgers and safety Jaylin White. Sacramento State had five third-team selections – quarterback Jake Dunniway, running back Cameron Skattebo, cornerback Malik Jeter and punter Sam Clark. Defensive tackle Jett Stanley was honorable mention.

The Hornets are the No. 4 seed in the FCS playoffs and await the winner of the UC Davis-South Dakota State game in the second round on Dec. 4 at Hornet Stadium. UC Davis would welcome another shot at Sacramento State after the Hornets rolled to a 27-7 rout in the 67th annual Causeway Classic. Sacramento State has won the past two Causeway clashes and would likely be riding a three-game winning streak against UC Davis had the Hornets played last spring.

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.”