Cal football ready to burst out of gates against UC Davis

Morning spring practices, grueling summer workouts and a competitive fall camp filled with newcomers and established veterans alike have finally led to this. There’s an innate beauty in seeing your hard work and dedication come to fruition, and the Bears will have the chance to put it all together and kick off the 2019 season with some fireworks against the UC Davis Aggies.

Head coach Justin Wilcox has cultivated a program that oozes potential in his first two seasons at Cal, highlighted by marquee wins over No. 15 Washington last season and No. 8 Washington State in 2017. Heading into his third season, Wilcox has a defense that has been stamped with plenty of preseason awards and media recognition, while his offense is in search of a revival via its array of fresh faces.

Although Cal embraced the ever-present college football trend of scheduling a Football Championship Subdivision, or FCS, opponent for an early win in the season, UC Davis is ranked No. 5 in its league and should not be taken lightly. Davis was the first FCS team to topple a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent in 2018, so even with a massive conference matchup against No. 13 Washington in week 2, Cal cannot overlook its neighbors to the north.

“We’re talking about what we need to do to win the game this week — that’s it,” Wilcox said.

UC Davis quarterback Jake Maier is on the watchlist for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award for best player in the FCS, as he threw for 3,931 yards and 34 touchdowns last season while leading the Aggies to the playoffs for the first time in school history.

“Anytime you have a guy like that on the other side of the ball, you have to be cognizant of that,” said starting Cal safety Ashtyn Davis. “He can make all the throws on the field.”

The Aggies’ offense was potent in 2018, averaging 39.7 points and nearly 500 yards per game. Despite losing star receiver Keelan Doss to the professional ranks, the unit returns Maier and four of its starting linemen as well as a running back tandem of Ulonzo Gilliam, Jr. and Tehran Thomas, who combined for 25 total touchdowns and over 2,000 total yards last season.

“Offensively, they run a lot of plays, they move the ball up and down the field,” Wilcox said. “(They run) a lot of fly motions and shifts to mess with your eyes. There’s a reason they average about 40 (points) a game.”

While the Aggies are known for moving the ball downfield in a hurry, Cal may have the perfect antidote for UC Davis’ offensive assault. Led by the “Takers,” the nickname for Cal’s dominant secondary, the Bears’ defense held opponents to just 175.1 passing yards per game last season — a mark that ranked 9th in the nation and led the Pac-12.

Heading into 2019, Cal safety Ashtyn Davis and cornerback Camryn Bynum were named preseason first-team All-Pac-12 members by Pro Football Focus, but Cal defensive backs coach Gerald Alexander has developed a group that goes much, much deeper than its four starters.

Perhaps Cal’s most dominant player, though, is inside linebacker Evan Weaver, who is the nation’s leading returning tackler from the 2018 season. The senior was named a second-team preseason All-American by Sports Illustrated and will play a key role in containing the Aggies’ dangerous running game, especially if Maier struggles to throw against Cal’s sticky cornerbacks.

Offensively, Cal will have the chance to get quarterback Chase Garbers clicking with a slate of new receivers, while running back Christopher Brown Jr. will set out to prove he has three-down capability against an Aggie defense that allowed nearly 30 points per game last season.

The Bears are 9-0 all-time against the Aggies, but the in-state foes have their best crop of talent and would want nothing more than to be celebrating a surprise victory on the bus back to Davis.

“We don’t care if we’re playing the Oakland Raiders or Berkeley High School — it’s a nameless, faceless opponent,” said defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter. “We’ll measure them to our standard.”

With so many new faces, Saturday afternoon will serve as an important litmus test to see how the team has evolved since last season. While there will likely be plenty of rust to shake off, expect Cal to assert its dominance early on in front of the blue and gold faithful.

Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at [email protected].