Turn on the tube to ESPN at any point this summer, and even the most apathetic of Rice sports fans would have perked up at the baritone voiceover saying "Rice. Texas. September 3rd, only on the LonghornNetwork." While it's true that the Owl Network may be a farfetched wish, it is also true that the inaugural event on ESPN's Longhorn Network will be the clash between the Owls and No. 22 University of Texas on September 3. In preparation for the Longhorns, who are currently favored by just over three touchdowns, the Owls have been hard at work since they first strapped on the pads on August 10. The team certainly has the returning talent to give Texas a competitive game, as several preseason accolades have found their way to the gridiron gang at Rice Stadium. Senior punter Kyle Martens was named to the C-USA Preseason First Team after being a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award in 2010 for college football's top punter. Junior tight end Luke Willson and junior Corey Frazier were named to Dave Campbell's Texas Football All-Texas College Team.
However, two-a-days have not been an entirely positive affair for the Blue and Gray, with senior free safety Travis Bradshaw's football career being cut a year short due to an undisclosed injury. Bradshaw had been one of the Owls top defensive players the last two seasons, and will finish his playing days tied for ninth all-time on both the Rice career tackles and forced fumbles leaderboards. The 2009 season saw Bradshaw lead the NCAA in unassisted tackles per game and he was named to the C-USA All-Conference Second Team after the 2010 season. He had also played in 30 consecutive games until the Oct. 6 game Senior Xavier Webb will step in to fill Bradshaw's void, sporting 67 career tackles as well as considerable playing time as a punt returner.
Looking at the offensive side of the ball, it's clear the Owls have placed putting points on the board as a priority this August, as Conference USA is notorious as a pass- and point-happy league. With sophomore Taylor McHargue firmly entrenched as the starting quarterback, an offensive line returning all five starters and a stable of running backs and tight ends at the ready, the coaching staff has focused on unearthing the squad's next top talents at the receiver, such as senior Randy Kitchens and sophomores Donte Moore and Mario Hull along with junior Vance McDonald at the slot receiver position.
While Rice's depth at tight end will allow them to feature packages with three tight ends, it is cause for some concern that the receivers have dropped off in production each year since Jarett Dillard (Baker '09) left South Main. Seniors Jake Hicks, Keshawn Carrington, Davon Allen, Tyler Parish and junior Eric Ball are currently listed as first on the offensive line depth chart after having started last year, but redshirt freshmen Ian Gray and Drew Carroll have been pressing for playing time in recent practices.
The offense also tweaked old formations from last year during their most recent scrimmage last Saturday, with junior running back Turner Petersen taking some snaps from the Wild Owl formation, while sophomore running back Jeremy Eddington taking the majority of the snaps. Saturday's scrimmage also saw a solid overall performance from the defense, with both safety blitzes and pressure up the middle causing trouble for McHargue.
An experienced lot will be featured on defensive line, with senior defensive end Scott Solomon returning after being sidelined in 2010 with a foot injury, senior John Gioffre at nose tackle, senior Michael Smith at defensive tackle, and junior Jared Williams lining up at the other defensive end. The unit has been focusing on different rush techniques to maximize pressure on the quarterback and to take pressure off the much-maligned secondary, which was among the worst in college football last year. the linebackers will feature senior Justin Allen and sophomore Cameron Nwosu as junior Trey Briggs is sidelined at least through the game against Texas after suffering a staph infection following knee surgery. The secondary features senior Chris Jammer, junior Phillip Gaines and redshirt freshman Bryce Callahan vying for the starting cornerback jobs, while sophomore Paul Porras and Frazier will play at strong safety and KAT, respectively.
Freshmen that have impressed thus far are defensive tackle Christian Covington, cornerbacks Malcolm Hill and Jaylon Finner and quarterback Driphus Jackson, who have seen significant playing time and could find themselves on the gridiron in one position or another.