Don't doubt Davis: Aggies on the fringe of joining upper-echelon teams
DAVIS, Calif. – I made a mistake at the Big Sky Conference Football Kickoff Weekend.
In talking with UC Davis head coach Dan Hawkins, I made a comment about how last year, it seemed as though they could beat anybody or lose to anybody. I wanted to know what it would take to be more consistent. When you see a 6-5 record, that’s where your mind goes.
He quickly retorted.
“What was a game that we dropped that we shouldn’t have?” Hawkins challenged.
“You realize what our losses were last year, right? What would you gather from that?” he continued.
After reflecting on our discussion and the 2022 season, he’s right. Despite a near-.500 record and no playoff berth, Davis was a team nobody wanted to see on their schedule. Four of its losses were like this: an FBS program in the California Golden Bears, the eventual FCS national champion South Dakota State and then both Big Sky co-champs in Sacramento State and Montana State.
The only questionable loss was to Weber State, which is no slouch either. Of the five total losses, three were by a touchdown or less. How quickly the offseason makes you forget!
So, my question should have been more geared towards taking the next step. How do the Aggies turn the corner and beat those types of teams? They themselves are right on the cusp of being at that level; they’re so close.
Hawkins did eventually offer a real response, if you can call it that - it was mundane. He just simply doesn’t seem too concerned with the topic. He knows they are on the brink; some small changes could go a long way.
“We know we need to coach a little better and play a little better. We played a good schedule; that is what it is.”
Two major changes did take place this offseason within the UC Davis football program that from an outsider’s perspective, may set them a little bit back from that goal.
First, the program’s all-time leading rusher and one of the best backs in the country, Ulonzo Gilliam, finally exhausted his collegiate eligibility. Two, offensive coordinator Cody Hawkins, Dan’s son, left for his own head coaching gig at conference foe Idaho State.
But the way Hawkins has established his program helps prevent either of these from being a fatal blow.
“We try to have a program where you’re developing consistent depth and bringing those guys along and recruiting well. We feel like we’re like that,” Hawkins said. “We have talent, experience and depth.”
“Like having Jake Meier and then getting Miles (Hastings).”
Hawkins is referring to the way his two most recent quarterbacks have panned out.
From 2017-2019, Meier was the Aggies starting QB, earning Big Sky Newcomer of the Year, Offensive Player of the Year and First Team honors during that time. When he graduated, it seemed like there’d be a massive void to fill.
Then along came Miles Hastings, who was a redshirt freshman during Meier’s senior season. With a missed COVID season in 2020 and then his first live action in 2021, things started shaky. But in 2022 he finally broke out with a First Team conference selection and over 3,000 passing yards.
They recruited, retained him and saw him fulfill their vision.
Or take tight ends McCallan Castles and Josh Gale as another example. Castles, with NFL prospects, chose to leave for Tennessee this offseason. Gale, who came on with four receiving touchdowns last year, will just step further into the limelight.
So, as far as the loss of Gilliam goes, Hawkins sees them filling his shoes in a similar fashion with running back Lan Larrison – who’s already earned First and Second Team all-conference honors for special teams and running back, respectively.
“He’s (Gilliam) a great player. Obviously, the best back in the history of our program, but we also have Lan Larrison,” Hawkins said. “He’s a kid who’s been recognized on the all-conference teams here in a couple different manners. He’s a great player too.”
“I love Lonzy (Ulonzo), trust me, we’ll miss the guy, but Lan is very talented.”
And between Hastings and Larrison, both have two more years of eligibility to go before the cycle repeats itself.
As for the changes at OC, Hawkins has also implemented a plug-and-coach system. Much like his players’ ability to step suitably into any important position, Hawkins makes calculated decisions with his staff to sustain the team’s continuity.
Mike Cody was named the new offensive coordinator for 2023, but nothing much will change under his supervision. He knows the Aggies program and what they like to do.
Cody was a two-year letterwinner as an Aggie during his college days, then joined them as a graduate assistant. In 2020 he came back to head up the offensive line before being promoted.
“He has been in the program for a bit now, so we’ve always had a good relationship,” Hastings said of his new OC. “I wouldn’t say that it’d be anything different like I had to meet a new coach or something. He’s done a fantastic job and had a good spring and summer.”
Hawkins has made similar hires around the staff to keep things as consistent as possible. In 2020, he brought in Matt Coombs as defensive coordinator, in part because he would be familiar with their schemes.
“Just like in recruiting, it's all about fit," Hawkins said in a press release at the time. "He has worked in a similar defensive structure that we run, so he can take that and add and polish and put his spin on it."
Furthermore, four of Davis’ coaches were on the 2015 U.S. National Team staff under Hawkins, who served as the head coach when they won the International Federation of American Football World Championship.
Take this program structure and pair it with the high dose of returning players, and that may be the answer as to how Davis turns the corner. It's probably why Big Sky coaches ranked them No. 2 in the conference's preseason poll.
All three starting defensive linemen return for the Aggies, along with nine of 13 players who caught a pass in their aerial attack. Jerry Rice award finalist Rex Connors returns in the secondary with high expectations, while three starting offensive linemen come back from a unit that allowed the second-least sacks in the Big Sky.
Whether players or coaches, the Aggies have built a program in which they never waver from what works. They run what they run and find the personnel to do it the right way, which could find them turning some of those losses against top teams into wins sooner rather than later.