(UC Davis completed its spring football practice season during the spring quarter. In the next periodic installment of a series that looks at the team's offseason progress, Aggie head coach Ron Gould provides thoughts on the running backs and offensive line. Moving forward, we'll look at the receivers and tight ends, the defensive side of the ball and special teams.)
DAVIS, Calif. - Spring practices are behind the UC Davis football team and offseason conditioning, film review and other preparations for the upcoming season are in full swing. As UC Davis head coach Ron Gould looks back on the team’s growth during winter conditioning and spring drills, he sees a team that is determined to take bigger steps in the Big Sky Conference.
After recapping the play of his quarterbacks during the spring, Gould turned his attention to the running backs and offensive line. There’s still a lot of work to be accomplished, but Gould likes the direction of the offense.
A stable of running backs whose abilities mostly complement each other will afford Gould a variety of options. The Aggies averaged just 121.8 rushing yards a game last year – a total that Gould would like to see get back near the 148.8 ypg. they averaged his first two years – but return all of the positive yards gained in 2015, including 613 from senior-to-be Manusamoa Luuga and 530 yards from sophomore Joshua Kelley.
Sophomore Mitchell Layton (186 yds) and junior Justin Williams also return and gained more experience through the spring.
“We’ve got four guys that have demonstrated they can come out and compete at very high level,” said Gould. “That in itself, has increased the competition out there. Guys know that reps are limited. Coach (Jim) Chapin did a really good job of allowing all those guys to run with the ones (first string) and run with the twos, and those guys all stepped up.”
Kelley, who showed big-play abilities with three kickoff returns of at least 40 yards last season, including a team-best 56-yarder, has gotten bigger, stronger and faster, said Gould. He’s still learning the position – ”He runs around like a chicken with his head cut off”, said Gould – but’s taken big strides this offseason.
“He’s put on about 10- to 12 pounds of muscle,” said Gould. “He’s so much stronger than he was a year ago. He doesn’t know how good he can be. He’s a really special talent. When you watch his film, when he has the ball in his hands and he puts his foot in the ground, it looks like the film speeds up. There’s such an acceleration when he puts his foot in the ground and runs north and south that’s pretty exceptional.”
Luuga has been a workhorse for the Aggies during his career. He carried the ball 166 times in 2015, just shy of the combined 168 by Kelley, Layton and Williams. He had a career-high 117 yards on 24 carries in the 35-21 Causeway Classic win against Sacramento State. He also had a team-high 51 catches for 371 yards, including at least five receptions in seven of the team’s 11 games.
“He’s been the guy that’s been really, really stable for us,” said Gould. “He has the ability to catch the ball, run between the tackles and he can run inside-outside. He’s very versatile. He’s ‘Mr. Reliable’ and ‘Mr. Consistent.’ He played during spring at a higher level.”
Injuries limited Williams to just five games last year with all of his 16 carries and 54 yards coming over the first three games. But Gould said the spring schedule allowed him to heal properly and participate fully.
“He’s been one of the more physical guys running between the tackles that we’ve had here,” he said. “He got faster this spring. He has to continue to work on running in space. When you’re a running back and you’ve got one-on-one with the safety, you’ve got to do a great job of winning in space.”
Latyon, said Gould, has “exceptional, exceptional speed” and can score from any place on the field.
“He has to learn to play with his pads down,” Gould added. “He’s very explosive. Once he learns to get his pad level down, he’s going to be a real force to deal with because then he can beat you with his speed and he can beat you by running through tackles.”
Leading the way for the tailbacks is a talented fullback in junior Derek Baljeu (6-0, 240, Sr.) who doesn’t carry the ball a lot but did haul in 24 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns. But his ability to create holes for the other backs has made him a key component. Ethan Hicks gained valuable experience as a true freshman.
Balance between the run and the pass has always been a goal for Gould. Get a good ground game in place and you’ve opened up the passing lanes. Put together a solid aerial attack and the holes along the line of scrimmage seem to open up more and more.
One of the biggest keys to getting both of those goals accomplished is a good offensive line and Gould thinks the Aggies have the pieces to help fit that puzzle.
Guards Alex Hanes (6-3, 275, Sr.) and Julian Bertero (6-7, 305, Jr.), center Kevin Gavigan (6-3, 275, Sr.) and tackle Christian Schneider (6-6, 315, Sr.) all return with significant starting experience while left tackle Parker Smith graduated. While there is experience along the line, Gould said he’s still working on putting the unit together.
“We don’t really have a set place for any of those guys up front,” Gould said. “We’re trying to get our best five guys on the field. We have some holes to fill. Losing a guy like Parker was a huge loss. Having said that, we have some young guys that have game experience that have done really well, like Kyle Sulka. We’ve moved him all around the line and he’s given us the versatality we need there.
Schneider, who’s battled injury was another Aggie, said Gould, who benefitted from the split spring schedule. He was able to get back for the second half of spring drills and has continued to bulk up. Gould also pointed to redshirt Charles Hays (6-3, 305, RFr.) as one of the younger players who made big strides over the past year.
“If you’re not running the ball well, people tend to look at the offensive line,” said Gould. “But it’s not always the line’s fault. The tight ends play a huge factor in that, as do the tailbacks if they don’t run the right way or have the right reads. We’ve changed some of our aiming points and making sure we’re locked into the schemes. It helped us in the spring and we’ll continue to take that next step forward.
“It’s a combination of (a lot of positions),” said Gould of the key to a strong running game. "We've tweaked a couple of our schemes. I think Coach (Tim) Keane has done a great job in simplifying the calls. The aiming points on how we pull guys have changed drastically and it's made a significant difference on how we were able to run the ball during the spring."