In the northeast, fall begins when the leaves change color. In Florida, it’s when the snowbirds return to their gated communities. In Texas, fall begins when football starts.
This year, fall is coming early. Rice football kicks off the 2017 college football season when it travels to Sydney, Australia to take on No. 14 Stanford University Saturday night. After about 20 hours of travel in compression pants--featuring occasional dynamic stretching--the Owls have arrived down under. The Aug. 26 opening game is the earliest in Rice football’s 106 seasons. Between that and the international trip, head coach David Bailiff said this season’s training camp has been odd.
“It’s the most unique camp I’ve ever had,” Bailiff said. “We started while the guys were still in summer school, so we were practicing really early so we could get them to class. Now we’re leaving in [training] camp to go to a foreign country.”
The structure of training camp has not been the only unusual thing about the Owls’ preseason. Rice overhauled both its offensive and defensive schemes in response to last year’s 3-9 finish. Offensive coordinator Billy Lynch said he is excited about the ways the team has altered its approach.
“One thing that you’re going to see about our football team is how [offense, defense and special teams] play in sync,” Lynch said. “We’ve talked a lot about how, offensively, we can help the defense and how they can help us and how special teams will win us yards.”
New defensive coordinator Brian Stewart worked to transition to a 3-4 defense this offseason after the Owls allowed 504.5 yards per game last year, which ranked 123rd out of 128 teams in Division I. Senior linebacker Emmanuel Ellerbee, who was named the Conference USA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, said the transition has not always been easy.
“When you do something for three years like I have as a senior, you get used to it and get set in your ways,” Ellerbee said. “There’s the saying that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but sometimes you have to learn new tricks. Coach Stewart has done an amazing job of breaking [the defense] down for the team so that we can understand it on a different level.”
On offense, Rice replaced starting quarterback Tyler Stehling, who graduated, with redshirt freshman Sam Glaesmann in hopes of sparking an offense that finished 93rd in the country in scoring. Glaesmann is the first redshirt freshman to open the season as the Owls’ starting quarterback since 2010.
Glaesmann won the starting job over sophomores Jackson Tyner and J.T. Granato after a lengthy competition. Tyner will serve as the backup, but Granato has transferred to Missouri State University. Glaesmann said he is proud to have earned the starting role.
“It’s a huge honor to be able to represent this team as the quarterback,” Glaesmann said. “Ever since spring ball I’ve pictured it, to get to have my first start on ESPN in Australia versus a top-25 team. It’s pretty nerve-wracking but it’ll be fun for sure.”
Glaesmann will have the benefit of working behind an experienced offensive line. All five starters are either juniors or seniors and have a combined 92 starts in their careers. Senior center Trey Martin and junior tackle Calvin Anderson were both named to preseason all-conference teams by Athlon Sports. Lynch said the team is planning to run its offense through its experienced front five.
“Everything we do is going to start with who we have [on the offensive line] and what we can do [on the offensive line],” Lynch said. “The beauty of that is that, not only do we have experience there, but we have depth.
While the team is looking forward to this year, last season’s failures are still on their minds. Athletic Director Joe Karlgaard has made it clear he has high expectations. After two straight seasons without a bowl appearance, it is no secret that Bailiff’s job status could come into question if the Owls stumble again. According to a statement from Bailiff released last November, he is working hard to make sure the team improves.
“No one is more disappointed in the 2016 season’s results than me and I am resolved to do whatever is necessary to have success once again,” Bailiff said. “I am working with Joe on implementing the changes we need to be successful while also preserving the terrific attitude of our players who fought through a difficult season this year.”
Players are optimistic they can improve this year. With a new quarterback, a new defensive coordinator and numerous players returning from injuries, Ellerbee said the Owls believe they will barely resemble last year’s squad.
“Expectations are great,” Ellerbee said. “This is a new season and we have to prove that last season was just last season. It’s a whole new season, a whole different look and a whole different team.”