UCD senior in leading role

Isaiah Thomas has been worth his weight in yards as a punt returner for UC Davis. That might come as a surprise to anyone who checks statistics for Big Sky Conference teams. Thomas ranks sixth with an average of 6.6 yards per return and that is only after a 31-yard return last Saturday in a 60-27 victory over Dixie State.

Head coach Dan Hawkins can live with Thomas’ paltry average when it comes to measuring the senior’s effectiveness as a punt returner after three games this season. Hawkins would much rather think of how many yards Thomas can save the Aggies by catching a punt instead of letting the ball bounce and roll away.

“We don’t call (Thomas) the punt returner. We call him the punt catcher,” Hawkins said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. He was joined by Thomas and associate head coach Cha’pelle Brown. “Pretty much every time the ball hits the ground, you’re going to lose an average of 19 yards. Every time he catches one, that’s (an advantage of) 19 yards before (the offense) even starts.”

Isaiah Thomas

Every yard will count for UC Davis on Saturday when the Aggies battle Weber State in Ogden, Utah. UC Davis is ranked 12th and Weber State 15th in the FCS Coaches Poll. The Wildcats are the four-time defending Big Sky champions and claimed the title outright for the first time in the spring by going 5-0. Weber State shared the title with UC Davis and Eastern Washington in 2018. And there were plenty of folks at the time that thought the Aggies were not deserving because they did not play the Wildcats three years ago.

A shocking loss to Northern Arizona cost Weber State the outright title in 2018 because the Wildcats beat Eastern Washington, which crushed UC Davis 59-20. All those folks who questioned whether the Aggies were worthy of sharing the championship might have gotten their answer in 2019 when Weber State paid a visit to UC Davis and came away with a 36-20 victory. The Aggies had just 44 yards rushing in the loss, their lowest total on the ground since staggering to 13 yards four years ago in a 41-3 loss to … Weber State.

Hawkins looks forward to the day when Weber State returns to Davis. The rivals clashed in Ogden last March with Weber State pulling out an 18-15 victory and will do so again just 195 days later. “I should have bought a condo there,” Hawkins quipped. “We’re very used to the hotel there, the field there and the trip there.”

Weber State fans will have to be at their best to match the electricity in Davis last Saturday night. Fans returned to UC Davis Health Stadium for the first time since 2019 and 9,865 enjoyed an impressive performance by the Aggies. Ulonzo Gilliam rushed for 186 yards and three touchdowns. The junior also caught one of Hunter Rodrigues’ two touchdown passes. The defense contributed to the victory by intercepting five passes for the first time since 1985.

“It was magical here at the stadium on Saturday night. The stands were packed,” Hawkins said. “Our guys didn’t disappoint.”

Thomas energized the Aggies during pregame warmups by stomping and hollering in front of his teammates. He has stepped out front this season as one of four team captains. That Thomas has become a leader does not surprise Brown, who played for Hawkins at Colorado and was hired by UC Davis in 2017.

“I didn’t wait until he became a captain to tell him that he’s a leader. I told him that years ago,” said Brown, who works with Thomas and the other defensive backs. “But you have to do it the right way to be the captain. That’s why he’s the captain now because he does exactly what we ask him to do. And he’s doing it at a high level.”

Brown made it clear what he expects from the defensive backs. “To have been here for five years and seen the guys develop,” he said, “there are no more excuses.”

Thomas makes no excuses for his punt return average because saving yards for the Aggies is more than important than trying to break a return for a touchdown. “I’m definitely aggressive when it comes to catching a punt,” he said. “It’s harder for the offense to get going when we’re backed up. My goal is if I can get there, I’m going to catch it.”

As a starting safety and return specialist, Thomas has been quite a catch for the Aggies.

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.”

Aggies in rush to rebound

UC Davis offensive coordinator Tim Plough has one goal each week in devising his game plan. He wants sophomore running back Ulonzo Gilliam to carry or catch the ball 25 to 30 times. Plough would also like 15 to 20 touches for junior Tehran Thomas. If the two combine for 40 or more, it usually bodes well for the Aggies.

Gilliam and Thomas came close to 40 against top-ranked North Dakota State on Sept. 21. Gilliam had 19 rushing attempts and caught seven passes. Thomas had 11 carries and one reception. Their combined 38 touches and 173 total yards are a big reason why the Aggies gave the Bison a run for the money in a 27-16 loss.

North Dakota State had won its previous eight games by an average of 36 points, with the closest score being a 38-24 victory over Eastern Washington last January in the FCS national championship game. UC Davis earned enough respect to remain fourth in the FCS rankings instead of dropping with the loss.

The drop came this week. UC Davis fell to No. 12 after being humbled at home in a 45-20 loss to Montana, which replaced UC Davis in the top 10 after vaulting from No. 18 to No. 9. UC Davis had been in the top 10 since cracking it for the first time after rallying for a 44-37 victory over Idaho State last October.

This week also brings a long flight to Grand Forks for Saturday’s game at North Dakota, which lost 38-7 at North Dakota State on Sept. 7. By the time the Aggies come home, they will have flown 7,000 miles in three weeks to face two teams separated by 80 miles. At least they should be accustomed to jet lag by now.

A 25-point loss is not customary for UC Davis. Fingers can be pointed in several directions after the Aggies’ worst home defeat since a 34-6 loss to Southern Utah in 2015. Rankings meant nothing in those days with UC Davis finishing 2-9. They went 3-8 in 2016 and then 5-6 in 2017 in Dan Hawkins’ first season as head coach.

A 10-3 finish in 2018 raised the bar for the Aggies, who earned a share of the Big Sky Conference championship and advanced to the FCS playoffs for the first time. That makes last week’s loss much more difficult to swallow. Start with three turnovers, nine penalties, poor tackling and no sacks. UC Davis sacked Montana’s Dalton Sneed five times last October in overcoming an 18-point deficit for a 49-21 victory.

Gilliam and Thomas combined for 147 rushing yards and each scored a touchdown that day. Thomas scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 56-yard run with 10:59 to play. UC Davis got the ball back 69 seconds later when Sneed was sacked and lost a fumble at the Montana 14. Gilliam scored two plays later on a 4-yard run.

The Grizzlies were not as generous last Saturday. The Aggies did not have a rushing touchdown, extending their losing streak when they do not have one to six games. Gilliam and Thomas did not come close to Plough’s goal of combining for at least 40 touches. Gilliam had 18. Thomas finished with just eight. They combined to run for 75 yards, and Gilliam was held to a season-low 2.7 yards per carry. 

Learning more on Thomas would have made sense, but suggest that to Plough and he will explain that Thomas’ productivity is dependent on Gilliam. Thomas is 2 inches taller and 30 pounds heavier than Gilliam at 5-foot-11 and 215, but Plough said Thomas is more likely than Gilliam to score on any given play.

“We love when Ulonzo starts the drives because he has earned it. He’s going to get the ball more,” Plough said. “We look at Tehran in the middle of a drive when the defense is tired and maybe Ulonzo is a little tired. (Thomas is) as fresh as a daisy and they’re breathing really hard. We look at Tehran as more of a home-run type of back. If he gets in the open and gets to full speed, he’s going to go the distance.”

The longest run for Thomas in four games this season was 18 yards against Montana. He missed the Sept. 14 game against Lehigh with an injury. Plough figures it is a matter of time before Thomas busts loose. Saturday’s game at North Dakota would be as good a time as any. 

Better blockers than barbers

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Kooper Richardson, left, and Jake Parks wet their whistles in a recent practice.

Colton Lamson cannot wait to have his hair styled into a mullet, but the UC Davis offensive tackle claims a visit to a salon or barber shop is beyond his budget. Who knew the crafting of a short-in-the-front, long-in-the-back mullet would require professional services instead of clippers and a bathroom mirror?

The 6-foot-6, 285-pound Lamson can open holes for running backs and protect quarterback Jake Maier, but cutting his own hair might be a bit much to ask of a sociology major with an emphasis in law and society. The junior needs a mullet if for no other reason than to honor his deal with Kooper Richardson.

Lamson and Richardson must have had too much free time on their hands in May 2018 when they made a pledge to “just be fun with our hair,” the 6-6, 298-pound Richardson recalled. “I was a little skeptical at first, but then we committed to it. My girlfriend hates it, but I love it. That’s all that matters.”

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Will Martin

Their objective was not shock value or to just make their teammates laugh. There was actually a method to the mullet madness. “We thought what would be better to exemplify offensive line play and tackles,” Lamson explained. “It’s a mullet. What’s more dirty and nastier than that? That’s how we want to play.”

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Colton Lamson

No one can argue with the results. The two tackles combined with senior Ramsey Hufford, redshirt freshman Connor Pettek and true freshman Jake Parks in 2018 to pave the way for the Aggies to capture a share of the Big Sky Conference championship and advance to the FCS playoffs for the first time.

UC Davis shared the title with Eastern Washington and Weber State. Eastern Washington had all five of its offensive linemen honored in the all-conference voting with three on the second team and two on the third. Weber State had two on the first team and one earn honorable mention. UC Davis had none.

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Connor Pettek

The only recognition that Richardson, Lamson, Pettek, Smith and Parks usually receive is when a student runs into one of them on campus and asks if he plays football – not that the person doing the recognizing knows his name or his position. “No one comes to a game,” Pettek offered, “to see the offensive line play.”

Parks started all 13 games last season. Pettek became a starter in Week 2 after senior Will Martin was injured in the season-opening victory at San Jose State. Martin has returned this season after receiving a medical hardship waiver. “It’s kind of like coming back home,” Martin said. “It’s family. It’s comfortable.”

Martin and Parks have resisted the temptation to join the mullet movement. Pettek tried to join, but he has been left looking like Brian Setzer of rockabilly fame if Setzer joined the cast of “Duck Dynasty.” UC Davis does not have a hair policy for athletes, Pettek said, so “it’s kind of like go for it. If you think it’s either funny or looks good, go for it. I was trying to get a little mullet going, but they messed it up.”

The linemen might have been pulling their hair out this week had the Aggies not rallied for a 38-35 victory at San Diego last Saturday. UC Davis bolted to a 14-0 lead, but San Diego fought back and took its first lead at 35-31 with 8:47 to play. The Aggies responded with an 81-yard drive in 14 plays to win it. Gilliam rushed for 139 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 6.4 yards per carry to the delight of the offensive line. Senior quarterback Jake Maier was sacked just once in passing for 359 yards and two scores.

 “When we get clicking in a game and moving as a unit, it’s a force,” Lamson said. “We want to let Jake do his thing and we know he’s going to shred people if we give him time, but we want to run the rock.”

The Aggies hope to rock in their home opener against Lehigh at 7 p.m. Saturday.