As the Rice University football team prepares for the 2016 season, it is doing so in the $31.5 million Brian Patterson Sports Performance Complex, a new facility that opened this summer. Coming off a disappointing 2015 season in which they failed to qualify for a bowl game for the first time since 2011, the team is looking to open its new facility with a winning season and a return to postseason play.
The new facility is meant to house all football operations in the same building, a luxury the team did not have prior to this season. The facility features a locker room, team room, meeting room and weight room among various others.
Coaches and players alike are very excited about the Patterson Complex. Head coach David Bailiff said the new building is a welcome improvement.
“It’s a special year already at Rice,” Bailiff said. “You’re seeing this beautiful facility that we’ve moved into. Fantastic facility, from the locker room to the training room to the meeting room to this team room.”
According to senior cornerback J.T. Blasingame, Rice’s facilities have changed drastically during his tenure.
“First walking in here during my freshman year, we didn’t even have pads on the lockers,” Blasingame said. “Just seeing the transformation and now we’re getting a whole new facility, it’s all really big time.”
The team is returning 17 of its 22 starters from a year ago, keeping a remarkable amount of continuity despite a changing of the guard at the game’s most important position: quarterback. Given that last year’s team was young and finished just 5-7, the thought process is that a year of growth and development should yield better results on the field. Above all, however, is the motivation that comes from having failed to reach postseason play a year ago. According to Bailiff, there is plenty of reason for optimism for what is to come on the field.
“There’s power in failure,” Bailiff said. “It forced us to focus and forced us to analyze everything we’re doing in this program. It forced this football team to look in the mirror and rededicate themselves to the expectations of this program. Bowl season is not fun when you’re not in one.”
During his time at Rice, Bailiff has repeatedly asserted that winning in Conference USA requires a strong senior class. He frequently looks to redshirt incoming freshman, as the extra year of development that comes with the redshirt year helps to develop a stronger senior class down the road. Bailiff said his faith in this year’s senior class is on par with those of the past.
“The senior class we have is absolutely amazing,” Bailiff said. “[Linebacker] Alex Lyons, with [linebacker] Tabari McGaskey, [defensive end] Derek Brown and [cornerback] J.T. Blasingame — they’ll be cornerstones defensively. You look at [running back] Jowan Davis, who had an incredible spring; [Running back] Darik Dillard, one of the most solid and consistent performers we’ve had; and of course, there’s [tight end] Connor Cella, who I think is probably the top tight end in this conference.”
Unlike last season, during which the Owls opened up their schedule against a Division III opponent in Wagner, they will face a difficult test to open up this season in the Western Kentucky University Hilltoppers. The Hilltoppers are the reigning Conference USA champions, and defeated Rice 49-10 at Rice Stadium when the teams met a year ago. Thus, Bailiff said the Owls will get a chance not only to come away with a big Conference USA victory to open the season, but also to assess where changes need to be made for their football team.
“I’ll tell you why I like opening against Western Kentucky,” Bailiff said. “You become a better team, because they may show you what you need to change from a personnel standpoint. I’m excited about opening with a Conference opponent, but I’m more excited about opening with such a good football program.”
The Owls will begin a season that they hope ends in a Conference USA championship and bowl game appearance on Thursday, Sept. 1 at Houchens-Smith Stadium against Western Kentucky.