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UC Davis 2019 Preseason Preview: Defensive Line

DAVIS, Calif. — For defensive line coach Brandon Huppert, now in his third season on the UC Davis football staff, an outsider can gauge the performance of his corps simply by what they see on screen. 

“I just want people to turn on the film and say our guys went full-speed the entire game,” he said. “They’ll say they are competitors, they are physical as all get out, they play a complete game and they out-hit everybody. That’s what I want our reputation to be. That’s what we put our stamp on when stopping the run and creating sacks.”

On the stat sheet, halting opposing ground games and terrorizing quarterbacks certainly were unlocked achievements during the Aggies’ historic 2018 season. UC Davis ranked fourth in the Big Sky Conference in rushing defense at 185.4 yards per game, while the team’s 37 sacks ranked second in the league and marked the highest total by the program since 2002 – when the Aggies were in their final Division II season.

Best yet, Huppert has his most experienced crew since his arrival at UC Davis in 2017. Seniors Jordan Franklin and Roland Ocansey are returning starters who each earned 4.5 tackles-for-losses and 2.5 sacks a season ago. Bryce Rodgers ranked among D-line leaders with 35 tackles in 2017 but sat out last year. He is a welcome return to the unit, as is De’Andre Morgan, who saw action as a true freshman in 2017 but also missed 2018 due to injury.

Program veterans Nick Fehrenbach, Brandon Jamison and Doug Drakeley also have one more year of collegiate football to apply their experience. Drakeley has perhaps the most unusual journey to this point: he arrived at UC Davis from nearby Vista del Lago High School in 2010, then attended Folsom Lake College before serving five years as an airborne infantryman in the U.S. Army. Thanks to NCAA rules, military service does not count against a student-athlete’s eligibility “clock,” giving Drakeley one more year of college football. 

Huppert cited two returning players who made contributions in 2018, but whose improved play will create added opportunities in the upcoming year, namely Andrew Wilson (13 tackles, 0.5 sacks) and Fabian Hunkin (6 tackles). Meanwhile, count on redshirt freshman Josiah Suani to push Franklin for some reps at nose tackle this season.

Ultimately, Huppert cites depth and experience as the D-line’s greatest strengths, and plans on using them accordingly. Like his fellow coaches of other Aggie position groups, he adapts to the team’s uptempo style by rotating more players onto the field. 

“You may not be listed as the game-day starter,” Huppert says, “but you’ll still probably get close to as many reps as that guy. And based on how we structure the defense through different sub personnels and packages, guys will carve out roles in situations were they can be successful. Not everyone can rush the passer, but not everyone can two-gap and stop the run. It’s nice being able to have those different pieces, and it’s up to us as coaches to put them in the right positions to be successful.”

UC Davis, which comes off a 10-3 season and defends a Big Sky Conference co-championship, will see its first action of 2019 on August 31 at California. 

Note: this Part 5 in a series previewing each UC Davis position group, leading up to the week of the August 31 opener at Cal.