SPOKANE, Wash. — About the least surprising outcome from the the Big Sky Kickoff on Monday was seeing Jake Maier’s name listed alongside the phrase “preseason offensive MVP” with the release of the league’s all-conference recognition.
A year after claiming its offensive player of the year award, Maier (6-0, 200) is collectively the most highly thought-of passer in the Big Sky. And his performances the past two seasons has created great anticipation for what’s next.
In 2017, after joining the Aggies out of Long Beach City College in California, Maier burst onto the Big Sky scene with 3,669 passing yards and 26 touchdowns. Last year he was even better, with 3,931 yards and 34 touchdowns. In those two seasons, Maier has a combined completion percentage of .668.
A good quarterback — let alone a great one — can make a huge difference, and Maier has been nothing but great since his arrival. He’s a huge reason the Big Sky coaches and media tabbed the Aggies to finish second in the preseason polls, and he will again have a major say in whether they can make another playoff run in 2019.
But Maier and his teammates are not looking back. Only forward.
“I think our team has done a great job of understanding that last year is far behind us and that everything is so unproven,” Maier said. “The hunger that we have is greater than it was in 2018, which I think is really important.
“Everybody is aware of who we are now, and we may have a target on our back, especially with all the preseason recognition. We understand that it’s all about us and about playing our brand of football and playing at a higher level than we did before.”
Third-year coach Dan Hawkins is building something special at his alma mater, where he played fullback under legendary coach Jim Sochor from 1981-82. The Aggies’ football history is storied; the program claimed 24 conference championships under Sochor, Bob Foster and Bob Biggs before jumping to Division I in 2004.
Hawkins — with Maier and offensive coordinator Tim Plough leading an explosive office — coached UC Davis to 10 victories and a conference crown last year when it shared the Big Sky mantle with Weber State and Eastern Washington.
The Aggies won an FBS game at San Jose State. They erased a 21-3 halftime deficit to blow out Montana in Missoula. They won an overtime thriller at home against Idaho State.
But their season ended in heartbreak fashion in a quarterfinal playoff game at EWU when the Eagles scored the winning touchdown with 26 seconds left.
It was a loss Hawkins described as “gut-wrenching,” but he echoed Maier’s sentiment about the upcoming season.
“It starts all over again. I told our guys we should not measure ourselves (on) last year one way or another,” Hawkins said. “It’s not about repeating as champions or going further in the playoffs or any of that. We might go further, we might not go at all. We’ve got today. We’ve got to maximize today.”
Years removed from a great run at Boise State, Hawkins is now in the midst of a career reboot after an unremarkable five-year stint at Colorado and a half-season stop in the Canadian Football League. Last year Hawkins was named the Eddie Robinson Award winner as the national FCS coach of the year.
Last summer, nobody was talking about the Aggies. Since joining the Big Sky in 2012, UC Davis (enrollment 35,000) has always been a bit of a mystery to Big Sky Conference observers.
As an institution, it’s always ranked among the top public universities in the country. But never had it contended football-wise in the Big Sky before last year, and hadn’t won 10 games in a season since 2001.
Hawkins holds deep pride for the Aggies’ program, and it’s about more than simply wins and losses.
“What I’m really fulfilled about is that those of us that played for Jim Sochor and grew up in that style of coaching — and it’s not a snobby thing at all — we always talk about ‘Davis guys’ and what that means,” Hawkins said. “I take a lot of fulfillment from the fact that I’m able to regenerate the seeds and the philosophy that we all learned.
“I think there’s a certain way we do things and how we handle things in the broad spectrum of respecting a kid and his overall holistic excellence. There’s a way we’ve done things at Davis, and to continue that and see it prosper, it dang near makes me cry. It does. Because it’s a really special way to do things, and it leads to special things in those kids’ lives.”
At the Big Sky Kickoff this year the Aggies were a major topic of discussion. And a big chunk of it was, in fact, about wins and losses, though Hawkins deflected as much as he could.
Fact is, UC Davis had the third-best passing offense in the country last year. The Aggies did lose record setting receiver Keelan Doss to the NFL, but Maier’s supporting cast is still more than adequate.
You’d think Maier is a lock to again throw for at least 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns, but he knows the results come from preparation and execution. On that point, Maier has tunnel vision.
Maier knows the path toward winning football games.
“My standard doesn’t have anything to do with numbers or recognition or anything like that. My standard is about how well we can operate as an offense on a given play,” Maier said.
“Can we do it the way it’s being coached to be done? How efficient can we be? How many times can we convert on third down? How many times can we convert in the red zone? How great can we be with under two minutes left in the game?
“That doesn’t have anything to do with numbers. I don’t go into a game trying to throw for 300 yards. I go into a game trying to make sure we put points on the board. That’s always been the standard. It has nothing to do with the stats.”
UC Davis is a process-driven program. And it expects to achieve great things once more, on their terms.