UC Davis Looks To Continue Tradition Of Football Success

Senior quarterback Kenny Kearns makes his first career start at Grand Valley on Saturday.<br> (Tilcock Photo)
 
Senior quarterback Kenny Kearns makes his first career start at Grand Valley on Saturday.
(Tilcock Photo)
 

Sept. 6, 2002

DAVIS, Calif. - High expectations are nothing new for the UC Davis football program. An NCAA-record 32 straight winning seasons and four trips to the national semifinals in the past six years - including the last two - certainly assure that.

So, it's not surprising the Aggies are looking forward to more of the same success in 2002, despite losing the program's all-time quarterback and receiving leaders in J.T. O'Sullivan and Charley Enos. However, rather than looking at what is gone, 10th-year head coach Bob Biggs glances at what he has returning and sees potential for another strong season.

"That's our goal - to return to the playoffs," said Biggs. "This is a different kind of schedule. This year, not only do we have tough games at the middle and the end of the season, we have strong games early and we'll need to get some momentum."

Nine Aggies who started at some point during the 2001 season - which UC Davis finished 10-3 - are back on the offensive side of the ball while eight return on defense. Mix in some more experienced returnees, talented newcomers and a veteran coaching staff and one can see optimism in preseason drills.

But the road ahead won't be an easy one for UC Davis, which faces one of its toughest schedules ever. Games versus preseason No.1 Grand Valley State, perennial power North Dakota State, regional rival Western Washington and Division I-AA foes Sacramento State, Cal Poly and Saint Mary's provide unique challenges to a program looking for its seventh straight berth in the NCAA Playoffs.

A year after breaking the record for most consecutive winning seasons - previously held by West Chester (Pa.) - the Aggies will attempt to tie the Division II record for most consecutive non-losing seasons (33), also held by West Chester.

OFFENSE
The Aggies' offense has been a model of firepower the past two seasons. A year after averaging 520 yards per game in total offense, UC Davis returned to average a whisker under 500 last year. The Aggies also continued to pile up the points, scoring at a 37.7 ppg clip in 2001. O'Sullivan and Enos - two of the main cogs in that offensive machine - have graduated; O'Sullivan being drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the sixth round of the 2002 NFL Draft and Enos eventually signing a professional contract with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League. O'Sullivan took a school-record 11,544 yards in total offense as a three-year starter when he moved on, while Enos' 194 receptions for 3,258 yards are also program bests.

Finding a quarterback to take over signal-calling duties has been at the top of the to-do list for Biggs, who is looking to for one to emerge during training camp, including senior Kenny Kearns and junior Ryan Flanigan who were O'Sullivan's primary backups last year. Kearns, who battled O'Sullivan for quarterback three years ago before missing 2000 after suffering a severe injury in a traffic accident, has 431 career passing yards, including 177 in five games last year. He highlighted his return to the football field by tossing a 65-yard TD pass to Enos on his first play from scrimmage in the Aggies' opening win at New Mexico Highlands.

Ryan Flanigan, a 6-foot-5 junior from Sacramento, also brings limited experience but is 1-0 as a starter after filling in for O'Sullivan against Highlands during the 2000 opener. In his one game at the helm, Flanigan threw for 293 yards and four touchdowns, earning honorable mention for D2Football.com National Offensive Player of the Week. He has 691 career passing yards, including 574 in 2000, to go with seven touchdowns.

Jon Barragan, a 5-foot-10 junior from San Jose enters his fourth year with the Aggies' program, also with limited playing experience but quickness and agility that helps him avoid danger in the backfield. Barragan rushed for a pair of scores as a redshirt freshman two years ago, highlighting his UC Davis career to date.

"They've all been in the system for a while and whoever winds up being the starter will be successful," said Biggs. "We'll be able to run the ball behind the line and that should relieve some of the pressure off the quarterback."

Undoubtedly, the quarterback will benefit from another talented receiving corps which - despite saying goodbye to Enos -welcomes back several key players, including wide receiver Michael Oliva. The senior from Tuolomne enjoyed a record-setting year last season, hauling in a school-record 75 catches for 1,365 yards and scoring 13 touchdowns - the former which set a record and the latter which tied one.

Oliva was named third-team Little All-American by the Associated Press after a season which also saw him break a school record for receiving yards in a game when he hauled in 233 against Texas A&M-Kingsville during the first round of the playoffs. The total also set an NCAA Division II playoff record. Oliva enters the season needing 69 receptions and 971 yards to pass Enos on the Aggies' all-time lists in both categories.

"He's a rare combination of toughness, a great work ethic, a competitive attitude and outstanding athleticism," Biggs said. "What's been exciting with Mike over the years is his not relying on the success he's had. He pushes himself to get even better." He'll be joined on the outside by senior Glenn Adriatico and junior Michael Eaglin. Adriatico enjoyed a strong junior season, finishing third on the team with 27 catches for 360 yards. He has 602 career receiving yards, providing a formidable threat to complement Oliva. Eaglin, a 28-year-old junior who played Double-A baseball for the Atlanta Braves before joining the Aggies, will see time in the slot position. Eaglin had eight receptions for 139 yards last season, catching four passes for 70 yards in the Aggies' semifinal loss at North Dakota. Senior Nicholas Yang, Christian Nordhausen and Kevin Freeman will also add depth to wide receivers.

Senior Joe Bandel (20-241, 2 TD's) and Grant Saysette (10-141) lead the tight ends. Bandel was co-winner of the team's most improved player award last season after emerging from fourth on the preseason depth chart to a starting position. He started 10 games - all three in the playoffs - and was fifth on the team in catches. Saysette, saw his playing time during the second half of the season, highlighting his year with four catches for 79 yards in the Aggies' regular-season finale against Western Washington. Redshirt freshman David Fells and senior Aaron Struck will also see time at the position.

Running back Trae Milton went down with a season-ending knee injury late in the regular season and will not be back in 2002, opening opportunities for a group that includes returnees Matt Massari and Jared Ferrari, juniors Dorian Daniels and Elihu Vann and redshirt freshman O.J. Swanigan.

Massari took over duties after Milton was injured against Sacramento State, picking up a career-high 119 yards and scoring a pair of touchdowns against the Hornets, but missed two games himself after a hamstring injury sidelined him the next week. Still, the 5-8, 183-pound junior finished the year as the Aggies' third-leading rusher (548 yds, 4 TD's). Ferrari saw action in six games, compiling 88 yards on 17 carries.

Vann and Swanigan have not seen action for the Aggies yet. However, Vann has been in the program for three seasons and is ready for his opportunity in the backfield, while Swanigan has been impressive in preseason drills by showing quickness and unbridled toughness for his 5-7, 165-pound frame.

"We're like the 'mighty-mites,' " Biggs said of his running backs. "We're smaller but with good quickness and toughness. Although they're small in stature, they play big. It'll be 'running back by committee' this year."

The offensive line provides a solid combination of veteran leadership with five returnee starters in center Chris Maben (Sr., 6-1, 275), guards Marc Manfredda (So., 6-3, 290) and Eric Troglia (Jr., 6-4, 310), preseason All-American tackle Forest Vance (Jr., 6-4, 295) and senior tackle Mike Gross (6-5, 307). Vance has started all 26 games during his two previous seasons, while Maben earned the Aggies' offensive lineman award last year. Both earned several postseason honors as well.

The line, literally, got a big boost with the addition of touted brothers Brad (Jr., 6-7, 310) and Cory Lekkerkerker (Jr., 6-6, 300). Brad, who did not play high school football, was an All-American last year at Chaffey College, while his younger brother was a second-team all-conference selection at Chaffey. The pair will help add support to the line along with returnees Ryan Pegnim (6-3, 280), Jason Tuerk (6-1, 290) and Jeff Anderson (6-1, 290).

DEFENSE
In the shadows of the Aggies' high-powered offense the past couple of years has been a consistent and experienced defense and 2002 looks to hold more of the same.

Seven players who held starting positions at some point of the 2001 campaign return to the Aggies, including three on the defensive front and three at linebacker.

Replacing free safety Nate Nelson and strong safety Tom Watts - both who graduated - will be key, but Biggs is confident in his defensive backfield.

Cornerback Carnell Green missed part of last season with a knee injury, but when fully healthy is a top cover man. He finished last season with 35 tackles - 26 of them solo - along with an interception and a sack.

Senior Kwamin Taylor, who was fourth on the squad with 58 tackles in 2001, will likely open the season at the other corner slot. Taylor led all returnees with three interceptions in 2001 and needs just seven tackles to move into the Aggies' all-time top 10 list.

Junior Rockie Young, who recorded 26 tackles (20 solo) last season, will also see plenty of action at corner.

Nelson (81 tackles) and Watts (61 tackles) were the top two stoppers for UC Davis last season and Biggs will be looking to veterans to fill the void. Ejiro Evero - who missed last season with an injury - is slated to start at free safety in place of Nelson. Evero started 20 games during his first two seasons and has 70 career tackles. The 6-0, 195-pound junior also brings leadership to the position after being voted one of four team captains. Senior Bryce Campbell saw action in 12 games last year and will provide backup to Evero along with Anthony LaVelle.

A.J. Avila recorded 30 tackles for UC Davis last season, playing in all 13 games and will likely get the nod to start the season at strong safety. The junior from Seaside tied a season-high with five tackles against Texas A&M-Kingsville during the first round of the playoffs. Scott Leiser did not play last season after suffering a season-ending knee injury during preseason drills, but the 6-2, 215-pound senior from San Jose is ready this year and will get plenty of time backing up Avila along with the hard-hitting Dan Reece (5-11, 200).

Up front, UC Davis returns three starters from 2001 including both tackles. Senior Josh Vavao (6-2, 265) is back at his one tackle spot, while junior Ryan Cacanando (5-11, 250) returns to the other.

Vavao had 39 tackles last season, including 13 solo, and was tied for third on the squad with seven tackles-for-losses. He also had 2.5 sacks and twice had seven tackles in a game, including the first round of the playoffs at Kingsville.

Cacanando also packs plenty of firepower after picking up 26 tackles, five TFL's and 1.5 sacks for 17 yards in losses as a junior. The senior from Hercules has played in 37 of 38 games the last three seasons.

Sophomore Chris Jones (6-1, 255), redshirt junior Daniel Kim (6-3, 275) and junior Andy McClure (6-2, 245) will provide depth at the position. Jones played in seven games last year, finishing with six tackles.

Team captain B.J. Brust (6-4, 255) returns to his left end position after being voted the defense's lineman of the year. Brust started all 13 games at the position last year and was eighth on the team with 46 tackles. His eight TFL's were second-most on the team and three times he had seven tackles in a game.

Junior Aaron Latzke (6-3, 240) will likely open the year at the other end spot. Latzke last played in 2000, recording 30 tackles and 4 TFL's totalling 30 yards, also picking up a pair of sacks. Senior Brett Lobel (6-2, 235) is another strong end for the Aggies, finishing with 24 tackles and 1.5 sacks as a junior. Jake Mossawir (6-3, 242) and John Downs (6-5, 270) will also see time.

"There's some good quickness on the defensive line and they know how to play the game," said Biggs. "They've got good athleticism and are smart."

UC Davis' linebacking group can best be described as quick and relentless. None of the starters stand taller than 6-0, but all display an ability to find the ballcarrier quickly and surround the play.

Junior Kelly Valaau (5-10, 220) fought through injuries last year to finish with 60 tackles, third on the team and tops among all returnees this year, earning him the team's outstanding sophomore award. Valaau, who will play the middle, had seven TFL's in 2001 for 26 yards to lead the linebackers and highlighted his year with 11 tackles against Abilene Christian in the second game of the season.

Senior Nathaniel Hackett (6-0, 220) posted a career-high 13 tackles against Saint Mary's last season, had 38 for the season and will also see plenty of action in the middle spot. Hackett, son of New York Jets offensive coordinator Paul Hackett, will also serve as the team's long snapper, a skill he first learned as a youngster when his father coached with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Senior Dominic Ghio (6-0, 230) will start the season on the strong side after finishing fifth on the squad last year with 49 tackles. Ghio, who has missed just one game the last three seasons, also had five TFL's as a junior.

On the other side will be Justin Patterson (5-11, 205), a junior from Santa Ana who missed the last four games with a leg injury but is returning to form this year. Patterson had 30 tackles last year - including 19 solo - and personifies the type of quickness characteristic of the linebackers.

Sophomores Lewie Burkhart (6-1, 235) and Tom Parisi (6-1, 210) are among those providing depth to the position as well as sophomore Ben Reece (5-9, 193) and freshman Dan Elbanna (5-11, 200).

"The starting group - especially Dominic and Justin - are tremendous athletes," said Biggs. "Kelly is very smart in the middle and makes good decisions."

SPECIAL TEAMS
Chris Shibel (6-3, 205) came to UC Davis as a linebacker, was asked to be the team's punter and has become one of the best in Division II. Shibel became just the fourth Aggie to ever average more than 40 yards a punt last season, finishing with a 40.3 average. His 42.3 average during the regular season placed him sixth nationally. Matthew Locklin will back him up. Dusty Apocotos handled kickoff duties part-time last season but is slated to take over all place-kicking duties this year. The sophomore was a four-year soccer letterwinner at George Whittell HS in South Lake Tahoe.

Adriatico had an 11.9 average on 18 punt returns last year, also returning five kickoffs for a 24.0 average. He also had a 66-yard kickoff return for a TD in the NCAA Playoffs against Tarleton State. Sophomores Jesse Oliva and Billy Zeier will also like return punts this season, while Green (21.8 avg.) is slated to join Adriatico returning kickoffs.

Hackett will be the long-snapper, while Michael Oliva returns as the holder on field goals and PAT's.