PREVIEW: How Sac State’s football team is preparing for the 2021 season

The team talks to The State Hornet about the pressure to defend its 2019 Big Sky title


Brandon Bailey

Sacramento State senior wide receiver Dewey Cotton catches a pass as he attempts to score against the opposing defense in practice. The Hornets prepare for their season debut against Dixie State this Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.

Brandon Bailey

The champs are back. Sacramento State is finally going to get the chance to defend its 2019 Big Sky Championship this Saturday against Dixie State University. It has been a wild ride for the Hornets since the highs of that regular season, which resulted in winning a Big Sky title and earning their first football championship subdivision playoff berth, prior to their crushing playoff defeat at the hands of underdog Austin Peay. Now, they face a new challenge: returning to the field after a year long absence. 

The Hornets may be the Big Sky Champions, but the team has lost and added key players to the roster since the last time they took the field. Here’s what you need to know about the team for the upcoming season:


It’s going to be hard to match the same offensive output as the 2019 team that averaged over 35 points a game. However, this 2021 offense is set up to fire on all cylinders with a quartet of quarterback Jake Dunniway, running back Elijah Dotson and wide receivers Pierre Williams and Parker Clayton. 

Dotson and BJ Perkinson headline what will be an elusive and experienced backfield heading into week one. In 2019, the duo combined for 1,181 yards rushing and 13 rushing touchdowns, and that’s not including its contribution in the passing game where they both showed to be lethal threats for opposing teams. 

Last season, Dotson nearly matched his yards in rushing with a total of 742 yards in receiving and four receiving touchdowns showing why he was chosen to be a preseason Big Sky All-American in consecutive seasons. According to Dotson, after not playing for almost a year and a half, the biggest focus for the running back group is executing. 

“I’m just ready to play, as a team we’re expecting to come out with the dub, but it’s really about us executing,” Dotson said. “As a running back group the biggest thing we have to do is protect the ball, protect the quarterback and just execute the plays, making sure we’re assigned and sound.”

Along with the returners from the 2019 season, the Hornets added more firepower to their offense this year with two transfers coming in at the quarterback position:  Second team all-conference junior Asher O’Hara from Middle-Tennessee and dual threat Freshman quarterback Kaiden Bennett who transferred from the University of Nevada after redshirting in 2019. 

As week one approaches, there has not been a decision made on who will be the starting quarterback against Dixie State, but Head Coach Troy Taylor is pleased with the talent they have to offer at the position. 

“We’re just still competing right now, but we feel great about all the quarterbacks,” Taylor said. “I think we’ve got a number of guys that we can win with at quarterback.”

It’s hard to replace a quarterback like former Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year Kevin Thompson.

Both Dunniway and O’Hara have the most experience thus far and in Dunniway’s first and only start in 2019, he led the team to a  comeback down by a ten point deficit against Northern Arizona, throwing two passing touchdowns in the final two minutes of the game and ending with 384 yards. 

On the other hand, O’Hara has proved he can be successful at the quarterback position too. He ranks ninth all time in passing yards and touchdowns at Middle Tennessee and gives the Hornet offense versatility as a threat to run or pass at any point in the game. 

“We have a really talented group and a great coaching staff, our mantra and expectations is to build a culture that can win championships,” Dunniway said. 

Dunniway said that his biggest takeaway from training camp has been getting experience with two new classes of recruits on the team, those who came in during the covid season last fall and this upcoming season’s new class. 

For the veteran players, he feels it is best they  stay in the swing of things and feel comfortable in the scheme. 

“I think we have a lot of skill, a lot of returning guys that know what they’re doing and do a really great job of boosting all the younger guys up,” Dunniway said.


On the defensive side, the Hornets have lost a significant amount of talent due to transfers and graduation. 

First, it was All-Big Sky cornerback Daron Bland who decided to transfer and take his talents to Fresno State, then it became all-conference defensive linemen Dariyn Choates and George Obina after graduation. 

As a defensive unit in 2019 the Hornets were bandits looking to take away anything they could from the opposing team and its offense. 

They ranked fifth in the conference in interceptions, third in fumbles recovered and showed they could capitalize on these opportunities by ranking second in the conference and FCS in defensive touchdowns. 

Losing all-conference  players  is something that cannot be overlooked, but the Hornets are still loaded with experience on defense. 

In the secondary,, they bring back Marte Mapu, Prince Washington and Marcus Aponte,  all of whom played in  2019 and plan  to wreak havoc for opposing quarterbacks this season. 

Being that Prince Washington is the only returning cornerback with in-game experience from the stingy Hornet defense in 2019, he understands that this is a new team and they have a lot to prove. 

“Everything that happened in the past doesn’t matter right now,” Washington said. “Right now we’re just focused on the future, everything we did in 2019, none of that matters. It’s not going to win us a game this year and we know that.” On top of the veterans that the team has coming back from previous seasons, they have added talent at the corner position, and on the defensive line. The headliner of the Hornets 2020 recruiting class was the former three-star  standout coming out of Folsom High School, DeShawn  Lynch. 

Prior to committing to Sacramento State he had offers from Arizona State, Fresno State, University of Nebraska and Oregon University, but instead of going to one of these Power Five schools he chose to stay home. This was a steal for the Hornets as they intend to fill the holes on the defensive line. 

Another player to look out for as the team adds talent to the roster is Munchie Filer III. Filer is a senior cornerback transfer from Montana State who once was a preseason All-Big Sky selection in 2019 but only played three games that season due to injury.

Coaching staff

The Hornets will be a team to look out for as they prepare for their second season under former Big Sky Head Coach of the Year, Troy Taylor. In his first season as head coach, he showed that he knows what it takes to lead, how to win, and he does it all with an up-tempo spread offense that keeps opposing defenses on their heels throughout the game. 

This year we will see Taylor and the Hornets’ resilience  as they fill holes in key spots on both sides of the ball and how they will adjust after not playing for a whole year. If the Hornets win on Saturday, Taylor will become the fastest coach in Sac State history to earn 10 wins, surpassing Ray Clemons who earned his 10th victory as the Hornets’ head coach in his 22nd game. 

Taylor prepares for his second stint as the Hornets head coach with the coaching staff that he started with in 2019, along with the new addition of running back coach Malcom Agnew. Agnew was hired in February 2020 after spending three seasons prior at North Dakota as the running back coach for its program. 

There is no secret that Taylor has changed the culture for Hornet football, but it would be a disservice to not recognize the impact that the rest of the coaching staff has made on the team. 

Cornerback coach Cherokee Valeria and defensive coordinator Andy Thompson have both proved their value to this team and coaching staff as the 2019 Hornet defense doubled the amount of interceptions from its previous season, recorded 44 sacks, second-most in team history, and led the Big Sky in both defensive passing efficiency and red zone defense.

With key losses in the secondary and on the defensive line Valeria and Thompson will have the chance to prove that what they did in their first season in 2019 was no fluke as they plug in the pieces necessary to restore their dominance on the defensive side of the ball. 

It will be a battle to watch as the Hornets will go up against former Sacramento State Assistant Coach Paul Peterson who is heading into his third season as Dixie State’s head coach. Peterson was the quarterback coach and offensive coordinator for the Hornets from 2012-2017, along with Dixie State’s current Run Game Coordinator John Hughes, who was a former graduate assistant for the Hornets.