Football training camp: What we know
Just three weeks from kickoff to the 2018 season, Rice football is deep into training camp. The Owls reported to camp a week earlier than usual due to their Aug. 25 “week zero” opener against Prairie View A&M University. Head coach Mike Bloomgren has repeatedly emphasized that no starting job is guaranteed with the new coaching staff. If media day is any indication, the first week of camp has given little clarity to the Rice depth chart.
With that in mind, here’s a guide to help sort through the mystery that is Rice’s starting lineup. There are three categories: what we know, what we think we know and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
What we know
The starting punter: Senior Jack Fox is the Preseason First-Team All-Conference USA punter. He’s on the Ray Guy Award Watch List. He’s on Dave Campbell’s Texas Football All-Texas Collegiate Team. Fox will be Rice’s starting punter.
The starting running back: From Bloomgren: “If you saw our spring game, No. 33 Emmanuel Esukpa is the guy that stood out to you. I think he’s got a chance to be a bell cow-type runner for this offense.” Esukpa will be the feature back in Rice’s offense, barring injury.
A featured skill position player: Senior running back Austin Walter will be used as a dynamic offensive weapon this season, according to Bloomgren. “Austin Walter is one that has a lot of position flexibility,” Bloomgren said. “We can go from lining up in I-backs with 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end, two receivers), and without changing anyone on the field, go to a three-wide (three-receiver) set the very next play because he can go out there and play receiver.”
What we think we know
Three starters on the defensive line: “Starters” is the only word in question here. Defensive coordinator Brian Smith said senior defensive end Graysen Schantz and junior defensive tackles Roe Wilkins and Zach Abercrumbia have performed well early in camp and said the coaching staff has high expectations for them. However, because we do not yet know the defensive alignment Rice will use, there may not be room to start all three players. In a 3-4 defense, there is only one defensive tackle, which would leave out either Wilkins or Abercrumbia from the top of the depth chart. In any case, expect Schantz to start alongside at least one of, if not both, Wilkins and Abercrumbia.
One starting cornerback: Smith praised the performance of senior Brandon Douglas-Dotson, saying he “has done a nice job” early in camp. He was the only defensive back Smith mentioned by name, so it should be safe to assume he is in line to start Rice’s opener. No guarantees, but most likely.
The starting middle linebacker: Senior Martin Nwakamma has been a vocal leader on defense, according to Smith. Nwakamma started 10 games last year and recorded 40 tackles; he is the Owls’ most experienced returning linebacker. Based on Smith’s praise and Nwakamma’s track record, it’s safe to assume he will be in charge of manning the middle of the field for Rice’s defense this season.
A starting receiver: Sophomore wide receiver Aaron Cephus became a major factor in Rice’s offense last season. He caught 25 passes for 622 yards and five touchdowns, an average of nearly 25 yards per reception. But his starting spot may not be guaranteed. Here is a quote from Bloomgren on Cephus at media day: “We’re just always looking for consistency with [Cephus]. He had two big-time plays last night in 7-on-7, and that’s what we need. We need the explosiveness that [Cephus] can bring mixed in with the consistency so he can be an every-down player.” Sounds like a guy who will be in the lineup, but he still has work to do to gain the coaching staff’s trust.
The defensive alignment: “The biggest question I probably get is what we’re going to be, a 3-4, 4-3, 4-2-5,” Smith said at media day, referring to the three most common alignments used in college and professional defenses. “One thing I can tell you is we’re gonna be aggressive.” Smith intentionally avoided answering the question, likely to keep future opponents guessing. Only time will tell what the Owls elect to use.
The starting quarterback: The million-dollar question. The three contenders listed at the top of the precamp depth chart are senior transfer Shawn Stankavage, junior Jackson Tyner and sophomore Sam Glaesmann. Who will line up under center? Bloomgren said even opening day may not provide a long-term answer; he is willing to play multiple quarterbacks this season if nobody makes it clear who the starter should be. This question could linger for a few more weeks, if not even longer.
The offensive line: Outside of senior Sam Pierce, who accompanied Bloomgren and Abercrumbia to Conference USA Media Days and figures to be Rice’s starting right tackle, the offensive line is a question mark. On Rice’s precamp depth chart, the five starters were Pierce at right tackle, junior Joseph Dill at right guard, freshman Shea Baker at center, sophomore Jack Greene at left guard and sophomore Uzoma Osuji at left tackle. The four starters listed on the precamp depth chart besides Pierce have combined for just five total starts in their careers, all of them coming from Dill. It’s anyone’s guess who will be protecting Rice’s quarterback against Prairie View A&M.
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