UC Davis head coach Bob Biggs was convinced Randy Wright would be a great college quarterback after watching one of his last Cardinal Newman high school practices on a cold, foggy December night in Santa Rosa.
Wright’s Aggie teammates were optimistic after a poised performance in his first start — a baptism-by-fire loss to Cal last September — and jumped on the bandwagon with both feet, when he engineered a dramatic comeback win over rival Cal Poly in Week 10.
But compared to Wright himself, they were all catching on late.
The journey began on the Pop Warner fields of Santa Rosa in the late ’90s when an 8-year-old Randy Wright finally got a chance to play the game he already loved. And his is a classic American football story.
With a star QB for an older brother — Kyle went on to play at UTEP — a dad (Lance) who coached Randy’s youth teams and eventually was his JV offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and a mom (Robin) who couldn’t help but embrace the sport, Wright’s path was set early. And he never stopped putting in the work to make it happen.
“At (my brother’s) high school practices, I would be out there trying to learn and asking all kinds of questions,” Wright remembers. “I was 14 when he went to UTEP and I made multiple trips out there to see him. I love the college atmosphere and I pretty much made up my mind (then) that I wanted to play college ball too.”
His natural size — Randy was 6-foot-3 as a junior and even played center on his prep basketball team — and talent, made it smooth sailing all the way through youth, freshman and JV football. When he moved up to varsity his junior year and had to sit behind Oregon-bound senior Max Pond, it was the first time Wright hadn’t been his team’s starting QB since, well, ever.
No matter, Wright still found a way to help his squad as a second-team all-league cornerback. The impressive defensive play, however, wasn’t going to help Wright get noticed by Division I colleges as a quarterback.
“I always had the frame to be a college QB and that is one of the first things they look for,” Wright says. “But since I (didn’t play varsity QB) for two years, I had to have a really outstanding senior year to get looks. Even then, it came later (than most prospects).”
Outstanding may even be an understatement as he captured all-state honors and was named All-North Bay League Co-MVP after leading Cardinal Newman to the Division III State Championship game. Wright threw for 2,702 yards and 30 touchdowns, completed 69.7 percent of his passes and even scored another eight TDs on the ground.
But the huge senior season didn’t open up the options he wanted and despite being in contact with Biggs — who had also recruited his brother out of high school — UCD didn’t have any scholarships available. Wright was all set to go to Santa Rosa Junior College (“I wasn’t too bummed because a couple of guys had moved on to D-I schools from there,” Wright says) when an Aggie transfer opened up a spot for him in Davis.
“The decision was a no-brainer,” Wright says. “I really liked how the coaches were honest with me the whole time. A lot of D-I coaches like to keep you lured in but won’t tell you what’s really going on.”
At the time, the admiration between player and school went both ways.
“I went to watch him at a practice when they were getting ready for the state championship game and its was a cold night, kind of foggy,” Biggs remembers. “One of the first things I look at (for quarterbacks) is hand size and he had that. I liked the way he could control the ball, especially in bad weather.
“I already knew I liked him, but what I saw at that practice, his demeanor, confirmed it. He continues to be cool under pressure (so far in his college career).”
After a solid redshirt season at UCD in 2009, Wright was ready to compete with Austin Heyworth for second string behind QB Greg Denham last season. Denham had played well as a starter in 2009 and was expected to be a team leader as a senior in 2010, but then everything changed …
“The coaches brought us all in for a meeting (early last summer) and Greg was sitting there and they told us he was leaving (to join the ministry),” Wright says. “All of us QBs kind of looked at each other like ‘wow.’ ”
Suddenly there was an open competition for the starting job, though Heyworth tentatively had the advantage because he had come in for an injured Denham and helped lead the Aggies to a comeback win over Portland State in 2009.
Wright, however, had other ideas and eventually the coaches concurred, naming him the first redshirt freshman starter since Ryan Flanigan in 2002.
“I would have been happy for Austin if he won the job, because that would have been best for the team,” Wright remembers. “But I looked at it like he would be starting for three years and I wouldn’t get in there until my senior year, so I really wanted to go for (the starting job). That feeling of having to sit in high school, it wasn’t enjoyable, I’ll say that.”
So just a couple of months after thinking he could be a third-stringer, and just a few weeks after being named the starter, Wright was under center last Sept. 4 in front of 58,000 fans against a Cal team he had rooted for growing up.
After holding his own in that game — as well as any of the Aggies in a 52-3 loss to the Football Bowl Subdivision Golden Bears — Wright just kept getting better.
A month later, he led UCD to an upset win over another FBS team, San Jose State. Then there was the performance against Cal Poly, when Wright was 23-for-40 for 302 yards and threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes in a 22-21 win.
“I think the San Jose State game was kind of a turning point for him, he not only played well but he showed a lot of leadership,” UCD senior QB Sean Maraz said last week. “You can just tell he wants to win and lead his guys. Against Cal Poly, he was running around and making plays and all of us could just see how bad he wanted it.”
The seasonlong improvement — which amounted to 2,432 yards passing, 17 TD passes and a 129.13 rating — was capped by a Great West Football Conference Rookie of the Year award.
And both Wright and his coaches expect even better production this season, which opens Thursday at Arizona State.
“I thought I knew the playbook last year, but I can tell you now I know it so much better,” Wright says. “Me and (quarterbacks coach Tim) Plough are on the same page and now I feel like when he calls a play, I know why.
“This year, you are going to see big things from the offense.”
Biggs is planning on it …
“He is our team leader on offense and I fully expect him to have a great year this year. He embodies what you want in a quarterback, he’s smart, passionate, athletic and cool under pressure.”
— Reach Chris Saur at [email protected] or (530) 747-8049