As the Rice University football team looks forward to the fast-approaching 2016 season, it does so with the usual goals for the season: Compete for a Conference USA title, play in a quality postseason bowl game and finish the year as a top-25 team. Coming off a 2015 season in which it failed to qualify for a bowl game for the first time since 2011, the team will enter the 2016 slate more motivated than it has been in years to return to those heights. According to Lyons, the team is ready to begin the new campaign.
“We’re hungry and we’re ready to kick things off Thursday and have a good season,” Lyons said.
The Owls will return the vast majority of what was a very young 2015 team. Among last year’s consistent contributors, the team sustained only three losses: top cornerback Ryan Pollard, wide receiver Dennis Parks and most recognizably, quarterback Driphus Jackson.
A quick look around Conference USA shows that Rice is not unique in this regard: Former Western Kentucky University quarterback Brandon Doughty was drafted by the Miami Dolphins, while Louisiana Tech’s Jeff Driskel was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers, among others. Quarterback play remains a crucial ingredient to the success of any football team. Head coach David Bailiff is confident in senior Tyler Stehling, who will step into the starting role this year.
“[Stehling] has been in here for five years, he’s grinded, he’s worked,” Bailiff said. “We’re counting on him, and he’s got enough pieces on the offense. He’s got to make good decisions with the football. He got some snaps last year, and we think he’s a guy that can lead us back to where we need to be.”
Senior running back Jowan Davis elaborated on the team’s new quarterback.
“Last year, [Stehling] played in a few games and he was ready to play last year,” Davis said. “At the quarterback position, we’re pretty solid.”
Given the team’s youth a year ago, there are a considerable number of experienced offensive players that can help take the load off of Stehling as he transitions into the starting role. For instance, Davis and senior running back Darik Dillard will return to anchor the Owls’ rushing attack for the third consecutive year, and other backs such as sophomore Samuel Stewart have played well when called upon in the past.
Senior wide receiver Zach Wright, the team’s leading receiver from a year ago, will return to anchor a new-look receiving corps. Senior tight end Connor Cella, who Bailiff has referred to as the best tight end in Conference USA, could help attack the middle of the field. And the team’s offensive line, which was mainly made up of underclassmen last year, should benefit from another year of maturation and experience. Davis said he is excited about the offense’s versatility and is hopeful it can surpass last year’s mark of 26.1 points a game, which ranked just 86th among Division I schools.
“We have many different personnel groups,” Davis said. “If we want to slow it down, we can pound it, pound it, pound it. If we want to speed it up, we have so many playmakers now that can make plays on the perimeter, make plays on the inside. We can do so many things with the playmakers we have on the offensive side.”
From a defensive perspective, the team is hoping to turn around what at times was a dismal 2015. In several different games, the team gave up huge numbers of points: Most notably, it gave up 70 points to Baylor University, 49 to Western Kentucky University, 42 to Louisiana Tech University and 65 to the University of Southern Mississippi on the day of homecoming. In all, the defense gave up 35.8 points per game last year to rank 110th out of 128 Division I schools. Senior linebacker Alex Lyons said he recognizes the improvements the defense must make.
“We’re holding people a lot more accountable,” Lyons said. “Everybody’s trying to do their job, taking care of their one-eleventh, and not doing more than what you’re responsible for.”
Outside of many young starters on the defense being a year older, the team is hoping that the return of junior defensive end Graysen Schantz, an all-Conference USA freshman in 2014, can catalyze improved play from the defensive line, and thus, the defense. Bailiff said he expects the unit to rebound from last year’s struggles.
“All of those freshmen that started on the defensive line last year are sophomores,” Bailiff said. “You get Graysen Schantz back, who was a freshman All-Conference player. We’ll put more pressure on the quarterback this year. A lot of those guys will be back, and we’re healthy this year.”
Lyons said he believes the Owls’ defense will improve thanks to an extra year of experience.
“We’re definitely better from a personnel perspective,” Lyons said. “We had a lot of young guys up front and on the back end. Those guys are older and healthy, so we should be able to get more pressure on the quarterback and hold the coverage for longer to get the pressure to develop.”
The Owls will begin their 2016 slate against the reigning Conference USA champion, Western Kentucky University, in Bowling Green, Kentucky on Thursday, Sept. 1. It will be the first of two road games to open the season before the Owls’ home opener against Baylor University on Friday, Sept. 16.