In a year of relative parity in the Big Sky Conference, UC Davis has surprised its accompanying media experts by fashioning a 3-2 league mark and sporting one of the Football Championship Subdivision’s more interesting defenses.
Before the fall campaign started, the Aggies were picked to finish 11th in the conference and struggle on both sides of the ball.
For the past five weeks, UCD has made those pundits forget their predictions.
In allowing 387 yards a game, it doesn’t seem that one would call the local defense stout. But in comparison to the rest of The Wild Bunch, UCD sees only five Big Sky squads doing a better job stopping opponents.
A key to the Aggies’ relative emergence on defense has been its linebacking corps.
The starting trio of Steven Pitts, Ryan Dimino and Jonathan Bias has been brilliant during UCD’s turnaround from an 0-4 start.
“Overall, (the linebackers) have done really well,” says first-year head coach Ron Gould. “They’ve had a good season.”
Gould, linebackers coach Jeff Copp and leader of the pack Pitts agree that the group’s play has improved throughout the year and is geared for a solid run in these final three games of 2013.
“We have a lot of new faces and, right now, I feel they’re coming up big,” Pitts says. “You’ve got Jonathan doing a great job throwing in at Mike (middle LB), Ryan starting at (weakside). They’re doing a great job. We may be small in size, but we can sure get the job done.”
Pitts has 46 tackles and three sacks. His seven tackles for a loss lead the team and he has the Aggies’ lone fumble recovery. He’s also defended four passes.
Meanwhile, Dimino has 45 tackles and twice has nailed ball carriers behind the line.
Bias, banged up along the way, has emerged to earn a starting spot while making 39 stops.
“Pitts is our most experienced guy,” Copp says of his junior from El Cajon. “He’s a tough kid. A great nose for the football and understands the game.
“He’s doing an unbelievable job for us right now. He’s kind of the physical presence of our linebacking corps … being the guy that makes play for us.”
On the field for what seemed like forever in the 36-7 loss at Nevada (Sept.7) Pitts and Bias each had a season-high 11 tackles.
Against Montana (a 42-7 loss on Oct. 12), Pitts had five tackles (two for losses) and a sack. In a 21-3 win at Southern Utah, he broke up a pass, sacked the quarterback and recorded seven tackles.
Dimino was a brilliant QB at Del Campo High. He passed for 2,089 yards and ran for more than 2,700 more — accounting for 47 scores. But the Aggies noticed something else about the 6-foot, 220-pounder: He could play lights-out linebacker.
For his prep efforts, Dimino’s teams won two Sac-Joaquin Section titles and he earned regional Player of the Year honors while being named All-State first team by CalHi Sports.
Despite various nicks and bruises throughout the past two seasons, the junior continues to contribute.
“I’ll take an 80 percent Ryan Dimino over most other healthy guys,” Copp told The Enterprise. “He’s an unbelievable gym rat and student of the game.
“That guy is a step ahead of every player on that football field. Every so often, he does things that make you go, ‘Wow!’ ”
Word is out about Dimino and his ability to stick with his assignments and fill the gaps. UCD foes seem to want no part of him, mostly heading in different directions.
In addition to Aggie linebackers having more experience, what is the difference between that 0-4 start and UCD’s recent resurrection?
“The defense as a whole gets to the ball faster,” Dimino explains. “When the ball is hiked on Game Day, everybody is flying to the ball. We just like to fly around and play football.”
Sophomore Bias, another local product (from Pleasant Grove High), caught a case of Aggie Pride when he was a little kid.
“My dad got me into football,” says the 6-3, 230-pound Bias. “I remember coming to a few games. I really liked the atmosphere. Been an Aggie ever since.”
Bias says he and his brethren are playing with “immediacy … coach Copp has done a great job getting us to the level we’re at.”
Bias had a big game at No. 4/5 Montana State. His nine tackles were a game high, and he served notice with six stops in the first period alone.
“My strengths?” Bias repeated a question. “I hope reading, reacting. I’m improving in technique, getting the tackle and making sure the ball’s down.”
Copp and Company are pleased with the depth evolving among the linebackers and the position coach praised the contributions of Artice Nelson (Del Campo), Russell Reeder (Cathedral Catholic of Encinitas) and Brady Stibi (Windsor High):
“The expectation for those guys is, if they get in the game, they perform. They’re earning playing time and doing a great job when they’re in there,” Copp said. “The expectations here are pretty high … and we see improvements every day.”
That bodes well for the remainder of the schedule.
Wins over Cal Poly this weekend, North Dakota (at Aggie Stadium on Nov. 16) and at Sacramento State (Nov. 23) would put UCD at .500. The last time the Aggies were .500 or better was 2010 (6-5).
Notes: Nelson and Dimino were teammates for the Cougars and went 2-3 in tackles made during Dimino’s senior season. … Dimino played for his dad Mike and went 13-1 in 2009. … Copp on Bias: “The kid has come such a long way. Learning and taking coaching, he gets incrementally better every day. His up side is tremendous. He’ll keep getting better for the next two seasons.” … Nelson tied for the game high in tackles with seven in the Montana loss. He has 17 stops on the year with Reeder contributing 15.
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at [email protected]