DAVIS, Calif. - UC Davis head football coach Ron Gould finds comfort in knowing what he has with his quarterbacks and running backs. With two quarterbacks well-versed with the offense – each with a pair of 300-yard games to their credit – and with four primary running backs and two fullbacks returning as well, experience is the common denominator behind center.
That stability back there will be relied upon as the Aggies’ embark on another tough schedule that begins on Saturday at No. 24/22 Oregon. As of Thursday, Gould had yet to name a starter – the choice is between senior Ben Scott and sophomore C.J. Spencer – but he does not waver in his confidence in either. Similarly, he’s been impressed with the progress of backup Brock Dale, giving him even more resolve in what the offense can do.
The running backs, led by senior Manusamoa Luuga, return all of the nearly 1,400 yards they gained in 2015. Luuga also led the team last year with his 51 receptions. They’ll follow the blocks of veteran fullback Derek Baljeu and sophomore Ethan Hicks who saw plenty of playing time last season as a true freshman.
Optimism is high with in the backfield with the season on the doorstep.
Scott (6-3, 200) played just one game during his sophomore year in 2014 before being handed the controls in the fifth game against Montana State. He responded with a 379-yard, 4-TD performance, leading to a year that featured a 301-yard aerial show against Northern Colorado.
Scott finished the year with 1,734 yards and 19 TDs, even mixing in a 31-yard run along the way; the program’s longest by a quarterback since the days of All-American J.T. O’Sullivan nearly 15 years earlier. He threw for 1,598 yards and 11 TDs last season before going down with a season-ending injury against Southern Utah in the eighth game.
Spencer (6-2, 205) who saw brief action in four earlier games last year, took over against Weber State last Nov. 7 and after throwing for 146 yards, turned it on over the final two games. He completed 25 of 37 passes for 311 yards and two touchdowns against Cal Poly and then upped his totals with a 312 yards and three touchdowns during the Aggies’ 35-21 win over rival Sacramento State in the Causeway Classic. Spencer was intercepted just one time in 131 attempts.
“Those guys are seasoned vets,” said Gould. “They’ve both started games, they’ve both won games and they’ve both lost games, so they’ve been battle-tested.”
With the multiple formations and motions that characterize the Aggies’ offense, Gould said it’s critical to have a quarterback that can control the whole field. Scott, he said, has been doing that well during preseason camp.
“Ben is has been unbelievable in leading our team in terms of getting us in the right checks,” he said. “He’s really been a vocal leader out there, making sure that the offense is clicking really well. He understands. He’s like another coach. He can anticipate what Coach (Kevin) Daft is going to call sometimes and that’s something that we like to see.”
Spencer, who is in his third year with the program, has continued to master the intricacies of the UC Davis offense and has shown tremendous growth, said Gould.
“C.J. is a young man who has done a great job of actually conceptualizing the playbook,” he said. “He knows where everybody’s going to be, he’s done a really good job of getting guys in the right play.”
Dale transferred to UC Davis from Long Beach City College and redshirted last year.
“I think we have three quarterbacks (ready to go),” said Gould. “Brock has come on like light years.”
Whomever gets the starting call will be ready.
“I’m just fortunate because we have guys that we feel can lead us in the right direction and guys that can make right decisions,” he said. “But they’re guys that can go out and compete every single rep and get us in position where ultimately we can be successful.”
Luuga, who will get the start in Saturday’s opener at Oregon, had a notable debut during in 2013 when he was a true freshman. His first collegiate rush went for 46 yards against Nevada, giving an early glimpse of his capability.
That freshman is now a seasoned senior and he enters the year needing just 28 yards to reach 1,000 for his career. Luuga gained 613 yards on the ground last year while finding the end zone six times. But he wasn’t alone. True freshman Joshua Kelley averaged 5.0 yards a carry while covering 530 yards and scoring three times.
Mix in sophomore Mitchell Layton, who averaged 4.0 yards per rush, and versatile junior Justin Williams, who was slowed last year by injury, and running backs coach Jim Chapin likes what he sees as the Aggies try to improve on their 121.8 ypg team average from a year ago.
“We’re really lucky. We went into last year with a bunch of inexperienced kids,” he said. “Manu and Justin had a little bit of game experience under their belts and now, all of a sudden, we have four tailbacks who have carried the football in pressure situations, which is a relief to me.
“They don’t have to think about going out to play, they can just go play.”
Luuga was the workhorse in 2015, carrying the ball 166 times, which were 60 more than than Kelley’s 106. He rushed for 96 yards and two touchdowns during the Aggies’ win over Northern Arizona, added 83 yards versus Cal Poly and then posted his first 100-yard game with 117 yards in the Causeway Classic.
He added at least two receptions in every game and had at least a half-dozen four times. His leadership has continued to grow as well.
“Manu fully embraces what Aggie Pride means,” Kelley said. “He’s the guy in our (position) room we look up to and ask questions. We refer to him as the old man because he’s a guru. He’s going to be a guy that I really miss because he’s really taught me about Aggie Pride.
Kelley, who had a pair of kick returns last season of at least 55 yards, showed big play capability during his first year. He had a season-long 34-yard TD run against Cal Poly and went for 94 yards against NAU. Layton, a sophomore from Roseville, added 186 yards, including a season-best 62 yards on 12 carries against perennial power Montana. Williams played just five games but is averaging more 4.2 yards a carry in his career.
Kelley said the running backs bring different skills and styles to the attack.
“We’ve got a really good group. It kind of wears down the defense,” he said. “You have a back who can bruise you, a third and fourth down back and then you have a shifty dude who can spread the defense out.”
Opening the holes for the running backs will be Baljeu and Hicks. Baljeu (6-0, 240) is entering his junior season as an unsung contributor doing the dirty work. But when he gets the ball in his hands during a pass play, he can steamroll down the field. He caught 24 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns a year ago.
Hicks (5-11, 230) gained a valuable year of experience, had a couple of catches including a 20-yarder, and will be relied upon more this year.
“It’s about establishing our identity as an offense and as a football team,” Chapin said of the ground game. “We want to be physical and downhill and it starts with our running backs. The kids that we have are all big backs and we want to create that mindset that we want to break our opponent’s will and that’s what we try to accomplish each and every snap.”
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