A Hero’s Odyssey: Jake Maier’s rise to Aggie football glory

A Hero’s Odyssey: Jake Maier’s rise to Aggie football glory

Photo Credits: Justin Han / Aggie. UC Davis senior quarterback Jake Maier (15) looks to make pass during the first game of the 2019 season against Cal at California Memorial Stadium.

How UC Davis’ all-time leading passer bet on himself to live out his college football dreams

Sometimes, we never know where a single choice may take us. 

Four years ago, after returning home to La Habra, California following a redshirt football season with Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, Jake Maier made a choice that would eventually lead him to become UC Davis football’s all-time leading passer. He just didn’t know it yet.

“There was a point in time where it […] might have been baseball, to be honest with you,” Maier said in a recent phone call. 

A two-sport varsity athlete at St. Paul High School in Santa Fe Springs, Maier made his mark on the diamond as well as the gridiron. The outfielder was selected as team MVP after hitting .360 his senior year. Despite his limited set of offers, Maier decided to take his chances with football and pursue his dream of playing the game at the collegiate level.

Having grown up a fan of USC football, he loved taking in the excitement of college football from a young age, and possessed a desire to compete on a similar stage. He just didn’t know how to get there.

It wasn’t until he was entering his junior year of high school that he decided to become a “serious” quarterback, Maier said. That’s when he came across Danny Hernandez, a Los Angeles-based quarterback guru whom Maier still works with today.

“[Hernandez] really elevated my game and made me fall in love with throwing footballs, working out and becoming a better quarterback,” Maier said. “Because prior to that, it was really just me, my dad and a family friend that I used to work out with when I was in middle school, and especially in high school. But Danny Hernandez had a huge impact on my development; [he] really made me start believing that I could be a college quarterback.”

The extra work with Hernandez helped Maier succeed throughout his junior and senior years of high school on the varsity squad. But once his high school football career ended, Maier said he didn’t initially receive any college offers. It wasn’t until later — in the middle of his baseball season that spring — that he eventually committed to Sacred Heart. 

After a season on the East Coast, Maier was back in California and once again faced the same dilemma: Where to go from there?   

“I remember coming home, and baseball kinda was in the back of my mind,” Maier said. “I always felt like I could kind of fall back on that just because it was my natural first sport that I grew up playing. I had a good senior year in high school, and some of those opportunities were still there — to go play college baseball.”

Perhaps taking the college baseball route would have been easier for Maier at that point in time — it was familiar, comfortable and less of a risk. But he wasn’t ready to put his football aspirations to bed just yet.

“After talking it over with family and other football coaches that had a big impact on me, they just kept trying to convince me to ride it out and try the junior college route,” Maier said. “And they believed that there was a future in college football for me. I wouldn’t be where I’m at without those people shining that light on me, just trying to inspire me to keep going.”

With the support and encouragement of his family and home network, Maier made a choice that became the seminal moment of his athletic legacy: He was going to play football.

Long Beach City College became the next stop on Maier’s journey. There were a lot of unknowns regarding the junior college process and his spot on the depth chart, according to Maier. But he was able to persevere through the summer workouts and fall camp with his new team, buoyed by the advice that his father, Jim, now a head softball coach at Cal State Dominguez Hills, and mother, Lori, a teacher at St. Paul High, gave him: Have fun and enjoy the opportunity to play the game.

At the outset of fall camp, Maier was LBCC’s third quarterback option. After an impressive performance in a scrimmage before the 2016 season was set to get underway, however, the coaches gave him the nod at the starting spot. 

“I just thought that was incredible,” Maier said. “I was like, ‘Man, I never thought I’d be able to start a college football game, even though it was junior college.’ I was super grateful for it.”

Although his role as QB1 was not guaranteed for the entire season, Maier showed up for his first collegiate start and never looked back. He threw five touchdown passes in the first half, and completed 23 passes for 322 yards en route to a 41-14 trouncing of Pasadena City College.

“From that [first] half on, the head coach said, ‘Okay, you can finish the game. I’m not just gonna pull you now,’” Maier said.

Maier started all 11 games that year, threw for 3,689 yards (an average of 335 a game), 38 touchdowns and just eight interceptions to lead the Vikings to a nine-win season that was capped by a bowl game victory over Bakersfield College.

“I always say — outside of obviously winning the championship at Davis — that was one of the funnest years I’ve ever had, just as an athlete,” Maier said.

Exactly nine days after the Jake Maier era ended at LBCC, a new era of UC Davis football began. On Nov. 28, 2016, Dan Hawkins was introduced as the Aggies’ newest head coach. That’s when the ball really started rolling, Maier said.

To effectively implement his new, up-tempo, pass-heavy offense, Hawkins knew he needed a quarterback who could take on that responsibility. He began hearing about a talented gunslinger from down south, whom his son and offensive assistant coach, Cody, then-defensive coordinator Robert Tucker and others had seen during their days at Los Angeles Valley College. Hawkins began recruiting Maier aggressively.

Although the new head coach was first drawn to Maier by the quarterback’s accuracy and quick release on film, Hawkins said that it was meeting Maier in-person and his intangibles that really sold him.

“I said, ‘Hey, let me kind of show you what we’re thinking about on offense,’” Hawkins said in a recent phone call. “And he [Maier] pulled up a chair and sat down there like a retriever, just waiting and was just locked in on everything. I mean, I could have talked for five hours and I don’t think he would have moved. He was just all about it, and locked in and very attentive — loved his vibe. You could tell it was kind of a quiet confidence, but a humble kid.”

After Hawkins made the initial push, the onus to seal the deal fell on former UC Davis quarterback and newly hired offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Tim Plough. It was up to a former Aggie signal-caller to convince Maier to be the future at that position.

“Coach Hawkins basically was like, ‘Hey, your first job is to fly down to Long Beach and convince this kid to be an Aggie,’” Plough said in a recent phone call. “So within 24 hours of getting a job, I was on a flight down to Long Beach to see Jake and met his family. And over the next few weeks, we got to know each other. And luckily for us, he chose to be an Aggie.”

This time, Maier had a number of Division-I offers, including other Big Sky teams like Northern Colorado and Weber State, and Mountain West program Nevada. But none of those schools came close to the love and admiration that UC Davis showed for him, Maier said. Being recruited by UC Davis was “a dream come true.”

“They were always checking in on me and they made it known that they cared a lot about me, and they saw a real future for me,” Maier said. “I think, looking back as a recruit, that’s really all you want. All the extra stuff is really kind of nonsense in my opinion. And I tell this to people now that are in high school and getting recruited: It’s all about how much a university and a program and a coaching staff and the players […] want to invest in you and how much they believe in you, and if they have a real plan for you. I just think that that’s really where it’s at.”

With the prospect of new beginnings under Hawkins and his staff, Maier decided to join a UC Davis program that had just stumbled to a 3-8 finish in its final season of head coach Ron Gould’s four-year tenure with the team. In the run up to the 2017 season, the new quarterback on the block worked hard to prove he was worth UC Davis’ investment. Motivated by what he described as a healthy quarterback competition with junior C.J. Spencer and senior Brock Dale, who also came to the Aggies by way of LBCC and had started one game for UC Davis in 2016, Maier eventually earned the starting spot for the opener at San Diego State.  

“We could see very early on that he [Maier] was just different,” Plough said. “He has a different quality that the great ones have — the J.T. O’Sullivan’s, the Mark Grieb’s and the Khari Jones’, all those guys. They all have something special, and Jake had that. It was apparent, even the first day he showed up at camp, you could tell he was gonna be special.”

Not only did Maier’s abilities impress his new coaches, it was also his humility and dedication to the team that caught the attention of Hawkins. Even though Maier was the starter, Dale was still a team captain. 

“Jake was always super respectful of Brock,” Hawkins said. “And that showed me a lot, too.”

Although the Aggies were defeated in their first game of the Dan Hawkins era, Maier showed his worth as a tremendously efficient passer, completing 19 of his 24 throws (a near-80% clip) and tossing two touchdowns in a tough battle against a gritty FBS opponent. Maier’s first game under center was just a flash of what was to come.

The following week, Maier played in his first home game at UC Davis and collected his first win as an Aggie, shredding San Diego for 369 yards and three scores. On the same field three weeks later, he put together one of the finest performances of his collegiate career in a dismantling of North Dakota. Maier completed 33 of 38 passes for 415 yards and four TDs. This was his first 400-yard outing as an Aggie, and that 86.8% completion percentage stands as a career-best.

Number 15 would break his career-high for passing yards with a 459-yard, four-touchdown effort a few weeks after. The new-look offense was humming, but the Aggies weren’t yet quite up to par. UC Davis lost its final two games of 2017, including what was almost an incredible comeback at Sacramento State, to put a damper on what was otherwise a very promising 5-6 season.

Maier’s 3,669 passing yards (a program record for a single regular season), 26 touchdowns and nine games with over 300 yards passing (also a program single-season best) in 2017 put him on the national radar. Before the 2018 campaign began, he was named to the Walter Payton Award watch list alongside teammate and eventual finalist Keelan Doss. 

The Aggies had the proper pieces in place: a revitalized culture and a budding confidence as a program. But the pre-season media and coaches polls projected UC Davis to finish near the bottom of the conference. Maier, however, knew better.

“The second I got there and just saw what we had — talent-wise, belief-wise, strength coach, assistants — I mean, everything was lining up,” Maier said. “It was not a surprise to anybody within the program [of] how good we can be and how well we ended up doing.”

While 2018 was arguably the finest season of UC Davis football since the program made the jump up to Division-I — 10 wins, a share of the Big Sky title and the team’s first-ever FCS playoff appearance and victory, eventually culminating in a heartbreaking loss at Eastern Washington in the FCS quarterfinal — it was also Maier’s greatest season as an Aggie. 

On his way to being named Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year, Maier set single-game career-highs in passing yards (478 in the regular-season finale win over Sac State), completions (40 in a “Maieracle” comeback win over Idaho State) and touchdown passes (five in that same game and in the ensuing week’s contest at Cal Poly). He set new program single-season marks for pass attempts (557), pass completions (364) and passing yards (3,931). He also set a program regular-season record for passing touchdowns with 31.

“He just continued to grow, and he continued to develop and he continued to get better and continued to keep trying to reinvent himself,” Hawkins said. “I just think it’s rare in people when you find somebody [who is] that accomplished and that gifted and talented, that’s still willing to be able to be humble and keep learning.”

The 2019 season presented a new challenge for Maier. His favorite target and record-breaking wideout, Doss, had graduated and moved on to the NFL. The Aggies competed against formidable opponents week in and week out, and were decimated by injuries. They opened the season on the road against Pac-12 foe Cal, and then proceeded to play a schedule that featured seven eventual FCS playoff teams — including national champions North Dakota State and national semifinalists Montana State and Weber State. Of those teams, UC Davis was only able to top San Diego in week two. 

With a new target on their backs as defending co-champions of the Big Sky, the Aggies were repeatedly tested and, in several games, rose to the challenge. UC Davis was painfully close to upsetting the Bison at the Fargodome, lost on a late field goal on the road at North Dakota and had a late lead against both Montana State and Sac State. The opportunities were there, but the chips just didn’t fall the Aggies’ way.

“2019 was tough — emotionally, physically, anything that you can say about it, it was definitely difficult,” Maier said. “But you know, the thing that made it easier, for sure, was the people didn’t change, the culture didn’t change, the things that make you feel good about UC Davis were constant. So regardless if we were winning or losing, I went to practice every day and I got to play for Coach Hawkins and Coach Plough, and that never changed. And that was something that I always looked forward to every day.”

The quarterback’s positive attitude and unwavering commitment to getting better each day propelled him to greatness, even amid a season full of struggle. In his final home game as an Aggie, Maier broke O’Sullivan’s career passing yards record. Maier’s overall total of 11,163 passing yards and regular-season total of 10,619 are both program records. How’s that for a guy whose natural first sport is baseball?

It was a fitting end to what Maier deemed a “special” three years. A testament to his humility and understanding of the bigger picture, Maier is the first one to tell you that he was just part of the equation — one of the many contributors who worked to accomplish that goal. 

“For us to reach that milestone is something that everybody should be really proud of — the play caller, the receivers, the running back, the offensive line, the offense, the strength coach,” Maier said. “Everybody that’s involved within the program has something to do with it, whether it’s major or minor. If the program’s not running the way it’s run, then that’s not possible. So that’s something that everybody should be really proud of. If people want to put my name next to it and constantly put that number in the same sentence as my name, then so be it. But ultimately, it has less to do with me than you think.”

There’s no denying that, perhaps to a greater extent than most other team sports, success in the game of football requires a holistic effort from everyone involved. In football, an individual player’s greatness is limited by the very nature of the game: Each position requires a different, highly-specific skill set and depends on everyone else to do their job. The game’s biggest impact players are only able to play on one side of the ball — save for the rare exception of two-way players.

But if there’s one position in which a single player can have the greatest influence on the game of football, it’s the quarterback. And Maier is an exceptional one. In his 36 games as an Aggie, he recorded at least 300 yards, passing in 21 of them and posted a career completion percentage of 66.3 — not far from Chris Petersen’s program record of 69.7. He also set a new program career record for regular season touchdown passes with 85 — 13 more than the previous record of 72 set by O’Sullivan.

“We obviously have a storied history here in football,” Hawkins said. “And if you were to look at a few bylines that define Aggie football, certainly one of them would be the quarterback legacy. To live up to that and exceed, that says a lot about him [Maier] and about Tim Plough and about all the other quarterbacks that we’ve had come through here. People see that system, believe in that system. They look at those names and what they’ve done and there’s something to it. It’s not luck.”

If you talk to anyone who has ever been a part of Aggie football, you’ll quickly recognize that a deep appreciation for the program’s history is ingrained within them. That is especially true for Aggie quarterbacks, and Maier is no different. His reverence for the Aggies’ rich football tradition came naturally to him, according to Hawkins. And in Maier’s mind, UC Davis’ high standard of excellence at the quarterback position is “really second to none compared to a lot of other places that may be in the spotlight more than Davis is.”

The fraternity of UC Davis quarterbacks is a strong one: After he broke the all-time passing record, Maier said that “just about every single one of the great Aggie quarterbacks” sent him a congratulations video. He has a particularly strong relationship with former Aggie gunslinger and current radio analyst Scott Barry, and appreciates O’Sullivan’s support and perspective on the game. 

Now that his collegiate playing days are over, Maier has his sights set on a professional career in football. Needless to say, he has the support of many great Aggies behind him.

Maier got his first chance at an audition back in January, when he was invited to participate in the Hula Bowl, an all-star game for graduating seniors from all over the country and all levels of college football. 

Led by former NFL head coach Rex Ryan, Maier’s playing time was somewhat limited with three other quarterbacks on his team’s roster. He was only able to throw a few passes in the game, but said that the whole experience was bigger than football.

  “It was cool to have so many family members travel out there and enjoy Hawaii,” Maier said. “And [to] just take a step away from the reality of work and life and just enjoy a week where we can focus on football, but ultimately just focus on being with each other and just enjoying the things that are put in our lives because of football.”

The exposure at the Hula Bowl and his tape against strong opponents has earned Maier some well-deserved NFL draft buzz. For now, though, he’s back in Southern California, working out five or six days a week — often with old mentors like Hernandez. Although he’s no longer in Davis, he’s still very much connected to the Aggie football family.

“My advice to Jake was always just to trust himself,” Plough said. “And if he has a chance to get in front of NFL teams and throw for them — and they can watch him practice, they could watch how he learns, watch him interact in any capacity — I think that’s a positive thing.”

The climb to the pro’s isn’t easy for anyone, especially for quarterbacks like Maier, who don’t necessarily have the prototypical size or physical attributes that scouts are commonly looking for at the position — a fact that both Plough and Hawkins addressed when discussing Maier’s prospects moving forward. 

Plough, however, said Maier is “the smartest football player I’ve ever coached,” emphasizing his belief that he is well prepared for the next level because of his mastery of the Aggies’ pro-style offense. Hawkins shared similar sentiments, and summed it up by saying, “the guy’s an absolute winner.”

“I just keep telling teams, if you give him a chance, you’re not gonna regret it and you’re probably gonna want to figure out a way to keep him on your team, because Jake Maier will always make your team better,” Plough said. “I think he’s going to have a lot of opportunities, whether it’s NFL, CFL, XFL, Jake Maier’s the type of guy that will play until he exhausts all his playing ability. He’s going to play until they bar him out of the building. He loves it that much.”

Four years ago, Maier had to make a decision. With the help of those who believed in him, he chose to bet on himself and forge his own path to become an elite college quarterback. Now, he’s going all in again — this time on a chance to play as a pro.

“The only thing I can do is be the most complete player that I could possibly be,” Maier said. “Whatever my potential is, it’ll be that, and that’s something that I’ve always taken a lot of pride in. I’m going to be as accurate, as strong, as fast, as smart as I can possibly be. And anybody in my family, or anybody that knows me, knows that I’m not messing around when I say that. I really believe in myself, and I can do a lot for an organization. If my job description is a pro football player, then that’ll be my number one priority in life for that moment. And as other things add on to that, then I will do so accordingly. I want to be a father one day, a husband — I want to do a lot of other things that will get added onto the plate. But as for right now, my job is to put myself in the best situation to reach my goal and my dream.”

** Bonus: A note about the future of Aggie football… 

Plough: “We’re not gonna replace Jake Maier. There will never be another Jake Maier. But what I’m hoping for is that one of these guys ends up being the first Miles Hastings, or the first Hunter Rodrigues or the first Brock Johnson — or whoever. I really hope that they make their own mark. Jake left his mark. Like Jake said: 10 years from now, it’ll probably mean a little bit more to him than it does now when he comes back, but I’m excited about the guys we have. We looked ahead and knew that Jake was going to be leaving after the season, and so we over-recruited at quarterback just to be able to get a lot of guys in the room that could compete — [a] bunch of talent. So I expect whoever to climb out of that room will be well prepared. We’ve coached a lot of good quarterbacks over these several years. Coach Hawkins has had a bunch of great ones, too. So we feel confident in our ability to develop a quarterback, and so I’m excited to see who that’s gonna be. All those guys played really well in the winter. So we’ll be excited to see what happens in the fall.”

Hawkins: “I really, really, really thought we had a spectacular winter ball. Chemistry was good, execution was good. I thought it was great. The energy was great. I thought it was our best winter by far. The quarterback position, we do have a lot of competition there. The good news is, we got a lot of guys who can really play. We have not really made a determination where we are on that yet, we’re still letting that play out. So we’ll see. The good news is, we got a lot of options.”

Written by: Dominic Faria — sports@theaggie.org

1 Comment on this Post

  1. Greg Harrison

    Dominic, fantastic read throughout. I now will be watching Jake in his efforts to become a pro QB, although after reading this article, he should be an asset to any team. GO AGGIES !!!

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