Bob Biggs wears the reminder around his wrist.
The UC Davis football coach and his team have been sporting blue wristbands reading “start fast and finish strong” during their six-week spring practice session.
After the final play in Saturday’s annual Blue and Gold scrimmage at Aggie Stadium brought spring action to a close, Biggs circled his players up to let them know they’d lived up to that mantra.
“I told them I was proud of them,” he said. “We had real goals going into the spring. We’re disappointed with how the season went last year.“
The Aggies went 5-7 last year, losing a handful of close contests in the process. This spring, the focus has been on doing the little things necessary to turn those narrow defeats into wins.
“Play every down, don’t have foolish penalties, make plays when we need to make plays – all the little things,” Biggs said. “We monitored every single practice. We had a board to show how many penalties we had. It’s something we were very conscious of throughout the spring.
“I think we made progress.… I do. I really do. I feel very good about where we are going into the summer.“
The Aggies are also feeling good about heading into the summer and the 2009 season with something they haven’t had since moving up to Division I: experience.
“That’s the difference between this coming season and the past two seasons,” Biggs said. “We have a lot of starters coming back. We have 19 seniors. A lot of those kids have a lot of experience under their belts. That’s kind of what we’ve missed.“
UC Davis has posted back-to-back losing seasons after netting 37 consecutive winning campaigns to end its stay in the Division II ranks.
Eight of the Aggies‘ 13 defeats in the past two years have come by 10 points or less. Three of those losses last year came by a combined 11 points.
“When you have close games like we did last year and you don’t finish them,” Biggs said, “maybe it’s because you don’t have that leadership, those guys that have been there before and know how to finish games. I think we have that now.”
The Aggies have a lot now.
They have a quarterback in junior Greg Denham (65.6 completion percentage, 27 touchdowns) with dreams – and the ability needed – to play in the NFL.
They have a four-headed monster at running back in the form of juniors Joe Trombetta (team-best 547 yards rushing) and Brandon Tucker (team-best six rushing touchdowns) and sophomores Josh Reese (5.2 yards per carry) and Corbin Cutshaw (5.1 yards per carry).
They return a pair of game-changing wide receivers in seniors Bakari Grant (720 yards, eight touchdowns) and Chris Carter, who led the team with 69 catches last year.
They have a new zone-blitzing scheme under the direction of new defensive coordinator Mark Johnson (which, by the way, was really fun to watch on Saturday).
“That will all help develop the younger players,” Biggs said. “We’re going to have contributions from them, too.“
UC Davis isn’t missing much from last year’s team, but a pair of graduates left noticeable holes behind.
Former defensive tackle John Faletoese and offensive guard Jon Compas have signed NFL free-agent contracts with the Buffalo Bills and Oakland Raiders, respectively.
Each earned All-Great West Conference honors with the Aggies three times apiece, garnering All-American recognition in the process.
“You don’t replace people like that,” Biggs said.
You can, though, try to reload from within.
“I’ve found over the years that there’s been many a player where we’ve said, ‘Oh, how do we replace him?'” Biggs said. “Somebody steps up.
“[Freshman guard] Ray Wilburn could be a four-year starter for us. He may be the next Jon Compas. Four years from now maybe we’ll be saying, ‘How the hell are we going to replace Ray Wilburn?’… If we do our job and develop people, there’s always going to be someone to step in.“
Congrats, Wilburn. Looks like you’ve got some big shoes to fill.
The Aggies open the 2009 season on Sept. 5 at Fresno State – the first of two Football Bowl Subdivision teams they’ll face (UC Davis plays Boise State in Idaho on Oct. 3).
They’ll also host a perennial power in Montana (Sept. 12) that finished No. 2 overall in the Football Championship Subdivision last season.
No. 10 Cal Poly – yeah, they’re on the schedule, too.
Will things be easy for the UC Davis football team this fall? Definitely not.
If this veteran team can start fast and finish strong, though, things won’t be easy for its opponents, either.
ADAM LOBERSTEIN is ready for some UC Davis football. Too bad it’s May. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.