Jake Spavital admits now, after the 59 catches, 770 receiving yards and eight touchdowns, that he didn't see this coming. Sure, he thought former walk-on Chad Hansen, a transfer from Idaho State, would be a good receiver, a solid pass catcher. "Reliable" is the role Spavital thought the 6' 3" Hansen could fill.
One of the best receivers in the country? An All-American candidate one season after just 19 receptions for 249 yards? Spavital didn't see that coming. But in his defense, he's got quite a bit of company.
There's a story Hansen likes to tell about where he finds his motivation, though he leaves out a few details, like names. He'll say the school though. It goes something like this: In spring 2014, after Hansen had played in 11 of 12 games as a true freshman at Idaho State, the Fillmore, Calif., native was contemplating a transfer to a Power Five school when he got a phone call from an Arizona State assistant. "You're not cut out to play at the Pac-12 level," Hansen recalls the ASU assistant saying. "You should just stay at Idaho State and continue your career there. That's probably the best and easiest way to go about things."
A month ago, Hansen caught 10 balls for 110 yards and one touchdown against the Sun Devils, as Cal racked up 478 passing yards. Hansen says that assistant coach's words weren't on his mind that day. The motivation comes in the off-season, he says, when you're trying to find the energy for one more rep, one more route. When you're wondering if you can get out of bed for a 6 a.m. workout. It's almost believable.
But who saw this coming anyway? A few years ago Hansen was an unknown, a high school receiver in southern California who grew up watching USC and UCLA (he rooted hard for the Trojans, but attended at least one game a year in the Rose Bowl) but couldn't generate any interest from them. He loved Reggie Bush, and still has a picture of him tucked away in his room, a nod to one of the best players in the history of modern college football. But USC wasn't interested. Heck, Mountain West schools didn't even give him the time of day.
Hansen blames it on development. He estimates he was all of 5' 4" when he started at Moorpark High, eventually sprouting to 6' 1" his senior year (he's grown two inches in college). Despite catching 49 passes for 882 yards and 12 touchdowns as a senior, Hansen had a grand total of one scholarship offer, from Idaho State, a middling Big Sky program.
"I was definitely a late bloomer," Hansen says now. "My junior year, I didn't have a big year because I was splitting time with one of the seniors. By the time I was looking for a scholarship and sending out tape, there were none left. But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise."
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That's because instead of relying on natural athletic ability—which didn't kick in until later—Hansen had to perfect techniques. Running crisp routes, catching everything thrown in his direction, studying defensive backs to pick up on weaknesses became his go-tos. He found success at Idaho State, where he recorded 45 receptions for 501 yards and three touchdowns, by outwitting his opponent. Couple that with now being what Spavital calls "a guy who looks the part," and Hansen as the nation's seventh-leading receiver makes more sense.
"You can tell he's been working at it for a long time," Spavital says. "It's little things: He knows how to control his body when the ball is in the air, he can slow down or speed up to adjust to the pass, and the entire game, he's playing a mental game with the DBs."
Spavital points to a critical catch at Utah: Quarterback Davis Webb found Hansen for a touchdown—the receiver finished with five catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns in the Bears' 28–23 win that day—after Hansen came to the sideline and told coaches the defense would bite on a double move. He'd been working up to that, and it worked to perfection.
"If there's a ball in the air, I know he's going to go attack it and grab it," says Webb, another transfer who's excelled for Cal in the Air Raid offense. "If you leave him one-on-one and he gets the ball, he's going by everybody. Being a walk-on, you can see that he carries a chip on his shoulder. Come gameday, he turns into a beast."
Davis and Hansen bonded in late May, when Davis arrived on campus from Texas Tech, where he played three seasons with the Red Raiders. Davis remembers calling Hansen up on his first day in town, May 23, to ask if he wanted to run routes and get used to each other. The next month, they ran next to each other during sand pit drills, the type of off-season workouts that separate competitors from wimps.
Davis noticed that Hansen didn't just finish every drill, but he celebrated teammates while doing so. That's carried over into the fall. "If I run it in (to the end zone) he's the first one there jumping on me," Davis says. He loves Hansen, but can't get on board with one thing: The talk that Hansen, with his megawatt smile and wavy, California-cool hair, resembles the character Sunshine from Remember the Titans. Hansen hears this comparison often. Davis thinks it's ridiculous. Maybe it is. Ronnie "Sunshine" Bass had a nice arm, but didn't put up the kind of numbers Hansen has.
Hansen knew he had to take a shot at the highest level of college football on Nov. 16, 2013. That's when Idaho State played BYU, long known as a tough defensive program. Hansen held his own against the Cougars defensive backs that day, finishing with four catches for 28 yards. "I realized, hey, the guys covering me aren't as good as I thought they'd be," he recalls.
After that game, he called his dad and told him he was confident that with good coaching, and in the right system, he could be a contributor in the Power Five. He found his way to Cal soon afterward, sitting out the 2014 season because of NCAA transfer rules. After the Bears lost their top six receivers and No. 1 overall pick quarterback Jared Goff to the NFL, Spavital, in his first year as offensive coordinator, wasn't sure what to expect in 2016. He was, understandably, worried.
Now, given Hansen's productivity, he realizes he never should have been.