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2019 Preseason Preview: Running Backs

DAVIS, Calif. — To most Aggie football fans looking ahead to the upcoming season, the 2019 roster contains many familiar faces and names, with the ground game certainly standing tall as just such an example. From last year’s Big Sky Conference-champion team return the two leading rushers: sophomore Ulonzo Gilliam, Jr. and junior Tehran Thomas.

“I’m very optimistic about the run game,” said assistant coach Mark Speckman, now in his third year guiding the Aggie running backs. “I think we proved last year that we are not just a passing team, that our running game can certainly complement it. We’re blessed to have great receivers and a great quarterback, but it’s easier for them if we run the ball well. We have a deep group of guys who are hungry for the ball.”

Indeed, UC Davis football history is rich in its passing game, even in recent years – consider that the last two Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year winners have come from the Aggie aerial attack. However, the 2018 team ran the ball 431 times compared to 394 passing plays. Gilliam and Thomas accounted for 288 of those carries for a total of 1,662 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns between them. 

On top of that, both players were targets for quarterback Jake Maier, with Gilliam ranking third on the team with 57 receptions a year ago. Not surprisingly, the biochemistry & molecular biology major from Merced garnered Freshman All-America status from both HERO Sports and Phil Steele in 2018, and became the first Aggie ever to be nominated for the Jerry Rice Award for the outstanding FCS freshman of the year. Gilliam enters the upcoming year with HERO Sports Preseason All-America recognition to his name.

For his part, Thomas captured All-Big Sky Conference honorable mention in 2018. He hauled in 14 catches for 147 yards, with a pair of TD air strikes in the November 3 home victory against Northern Arizona. So versatile is Thomas that he actually starred as a quarterback for Desert Edge High School in Arizona.

Further emblematic of Speckman’s versatile crew is sophomore Troy Spencer, who came into the program as a wide receiver but has since converted to the backfield. “We’re really excited about T.J.,” said Speckman. “He’s a smaller, quicker guy, but watching him in the weight room, he is pound-for-pound one of the strongest players we have. He has a knack for running the ball and yet he catches like a receiver. He had a good spring and he’s really coming on.”

The Aggie ground corps also features junior Christoph Hirota, a two-time Southern California Football Association All-Pacific League honoree from Santa Monica College, who joined the program last spring. Two local products, Trever Facey (Sutter) and Daniel McFadden (Vacaville), return to the program as redshirt freshmen. 

Felipe Figueroa (Stockton) and Jeremiah Chukwudobe (Diamond Bar) join the running backs as true freshmen in 2019. Figueroa starred in football, soccer and track at Franklin High, amassing almost 4,500 all-purpose yards in his final two grid seasons. Similarly, Chukwudobe was a sprinter for his track team, and translated that speed to the tune of 1,650 rushing yards in football.

“It’s a good group of guys with one thing in common: they have good speed and great hands,” said Speckman.

UC Davis, which began its fall camp on August 2, kicks off the 2019 season at California on August. 31.

Note: this is the first of a multi-part series previewing each UC Davis position group, leading up to the week of the August 31 opener at Cal.