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Inside Aggie Nation

By: Bruce Gallaudet

UC Davis got defensive in 2018, which led to one of the fastest ascensions in Big Sky football history.

It’s no longer a secret that the Aggies are good on both sides of the ball.

As QB Jake Maier returns with a handful of top-notch wide receivers, two terrific sophomore running backs and a young-but-veteran offensive line, it’s Katy-bar-the-door as to the scoring potential of coach Dan Hawkins’ 2019 Aggies.

But that defense? A closer look at how far coordinator Robert Tucker took UC Davis in a single season is evident with the rankings that unit earned in 2018: third in the conference for points against (27.4), third in interceptions (17), second in sacks (37), and third in third-down conversations allowed (36.9 percent).

The sacks were 13 more than the previous season and, when you mix in seven fumble recoveries with the interceptions, those 24 turnovers forced were a far cry from just 12 a few seasons ago.

And don’t forget the resurgent Aggies made 96 tackles for losses. The “A” in Aggie clearly stands for “aggressive.”

Thanks, in part, to Tucker’s take-no-prisoners scheme, UC Davis went 10-3, earned a share of the Big West crown and will come out of the gates this season ranked in everyone’s top five.

So, is it reasonable to expect another surge forward?

“Improvement is always our goal, just to get better and be even more disruptive than what we’ve been in the past,” Tucker recently told me, taking some time to chat after another solid summer practice.

“Our whole deal is about creating disruption and making things really difficult for the opposing quarterback. It’s been our goal since we got here. As we build upon that, and it becomes our emphasis, guys understand that.”

Even with the departure of mainstays such as linebacker Mason Moe, corner Isiah Olave and safety Vincent White, Tucker is excited about the 2019 hand he’s holding.

“It’s been really interesting in camp … seeing how others come in to (fill those holes),” Tucker says. “We have to get to the quarterback and create that disruption with the guys we have now, and I think we can do that, without a doubt.”

Thanks to a scheme of implementing a “starting 25” feeling on defense, Tucker sees who can do what. He knows the players he can fall back on — and he believes he has plenty of able-bodied Aggies to get any job done.

“The great thing about (replacing the graduated veterans) is we started 29 different guys on defense last year,” points out the former West Hills College and Los Angeles Valley CC head coach.”That was part of our philosophy — to play a lot of guys. The players know that we’re always going to look at them as if we have 25 starters on defense.

“The guys here now are ready to roll … to fill those spots. It’s not like they’re new to Davis — they’ve already earned playing time. And now they’ve had a great offseason.”

Back at inside linebackers are senior co-captain Nas Anesi and juniors Connor Airey and Eric Flowers.

Among the outside ‘backers is sophomore Montell Bland, the team’s second-leading tackler; Tucker describes him as “a special player.”

In the secondary, veterans Devon King, Jaylin White and Jordan Perryman will join “old man” safety Erron Duncan. King, White and Perryman are sophomores while Duncan is a junior.

“And obviously we do have some pretty good new guys to throw in the mix, creating pretty good competition in camp,” Tucker says.

Duncan, by way of Weston Ranch High of Stockton, drew Tucker’s praise:

“Erron is a really special athlete and has done a great job for us. He’s very much the leader of the back half.”

And then there’s the front line…

“I really feel the defensive line is very much the strength of our defense and our team,” Tucker believes.

“Bryce Rodgers had a really good off-season. He’s a guy that … when he was in there for us last year, he was definitely a difference-maker. Strong against the run, over 300 pounds, but he can really pass rush. He emerged as a quiet leader for us.”

On Jordan Franklin, Tucker offers: “He moves well, has a good first step and does a lot of good things for us.”

Aggie fans will notice these two defensive tackles almost immediately: Menlo-Atherton High grad Rodgers goes 6-3, 295 and Franklin (Cathedral High of Altadena) is 6-1, 285.

Tucker is also excited to see Roland Ocansey (6-4, 245) returning. The Hayward native logged more defensive-line minutes in 2018 than any other Aggie.

“We all appreciate his experience,” Tucker offers.

De’Andre Morgan (6-2, 285), Luka Nixon (6-5, 230) and Brandon Jamison (6-3, 238) add to a depth chart that, if remaining healthy, will help the defense ratchet up that “disruption” that Tucker’s banking on.

“I like the players we have on the D-line — the depth and the athleticism,” the coach continues, adding: “And also there’s Josiah Suani …”

Watch the redshirt freshman from Hayward High in practice. For a young man standing 6 feet tall and weighing 330 pounds, he’s got some serious hops.

Tucker says the bottom line remains pretty basic:

“We have to get to the QB. Force the quarterback to throw off his spot, off form, make mistakes and then be able to tackle in space. We have to be great tacklers.

“But all our playmakers work so hard,” Tucker points out. “We still have a lot to prove and I know the guys have a chip on their shoulders.

“We’re still a work in progress, and trying to get better every day.”