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Football soars in opener

(09/09/15 3:28pm)

Led by senior quarterback Driphus Jackson and junior running back Darik Dillard, the Rice University football team defeated Wagner University 56-16 to give them their first opening game victory since 2008.Despite losing junior starting running back Jowan Davis to injury on the opening drive of the game, the Owls were able to gain 401 yards rushing and gave up only 86. Rice also outgained Wagner on the day, 543 yards to 285, while also picking up 28 first downs to Wagner’s 13. The Owls took a 35-3 lead into halftime, after which several starters were pulled. Senior safety Zach Espinosa, who had Rice’s only interception in the game, said he was pleased with his team’s effort.“It was a great all-around team game,” Espinosa said. “The offense played well and we won the special teams battle. We were able to rotate a lot of young guys in, get the starters some rest, which we’ll need.”According to Bailiff, it was a performance that had coaches and players very satisfied.“It was a great way to start the season,” Bailiff said. “I thought [Jackson] really led our way through the football game. I was pleased with how our tight ends blocked, I thought [redshirt junior] Zach Wright was very physical with his blocking. [Redshirt junior] Alex Lyons was all over the field, he was our leading tackler. I was really pleased with our freshman [kicker] Jack Fox.”One of the more interesting aspects of the game was Rice’s use of senior Luke Turner in a sub package at quarterback. Turner, who was a high school quarterback, is capable of playing quarterback, tight end, receiver, halfback and special teams. Against Wagner, he had six carries for 21 yards and two touchdowns, while also completing an eight-yard pass.Bailiff said Turner is a critical component of the team’s offense.“[Turner] is the best pure athlete on this team,” Bailiff said. “He very rarely makes mental mistakes and we count on him to do a lot of things.”Turner fully embraces all of the roles in which the coaching staff puts him, including his quarterback package.“It’s fun to catch a snap and be the QB when you’re not always the QB,” Turner said. “We said it was a pretty good formation to run out of.”As Rice’s lead grew, fans were able to get a glimpse of the depth that this team possesses, and some of the players that make for a very exciting future such as redshirt freshman Austin Walter. In his first collegiate game, Walter entered the game as a reserve, yet still eclipsed 100 yards rushing, picking up 107 yards on 12 carries. Among those carries was a 32-yard touchdown scamper, which Bailiff said was “electric.”“Those Walter twins are going to be exciting for Rice fans for the next four years,” Bailiff said. “Our future with [redshirt freshman Samuel] Stewart and the Walter twins, we’re going to have some dynamic people back there. We haven’t had a lot of guys like those.”Jackson previously described this year’s schedule as being “a better layout” for the team, given the caliber of the opening opponent. According to Bailiff, the Wagner game provided the Owls with much to learn heading into the week two matchup against the University of Texas, Austin.“We learned a lot from Wagner,” Bailiff said. “We learned about the running backs, who can play on third and long. We’ve got to figure out our protections, figure out the passing game. We just worry about trying to go 1-0 every week and get ready for Conference USA. That’s all these games are for.”Heading into what many consider to be the biggest game of the year against the University of Texas, Austin, two things are certain: The Owls will be ready, and they will be tested. Bailiff tends to recruit more students from the state of Texas than elsewhere and as such, many Owls have personal ties to the University of Texas. Texas will be very motivated by their 38-3 opening game loss to Notre Dame and are led by Head Coach Charlie Strong, a coach that Bailiff said he deeply respects.“Charlie [Strong] will have them ready, we all know what he did at Louisville,” Bailiff said. “We don’t really have to worry about them, we have to worry about being the best team we can be this week.”The Owls will look to push their record to 2-0 on Sept. 12 at 7 p.m. at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin.

Defense looks to rebuild in 2015 season

(09/01/15 2:35pm)

“Get the ball out! Get the ball out!” one can hear Defensive Coordinator Chris Thurmond yelling at his defense during practices. Since Thurmond took over as defensive coordinator in 2012, turnovers and energy have been the hallmark of a defensive mentality that has steadily been implemented in his four years at Rice, a strategy the team hopes will lead to success in 2015.The team will run a multiple defense, meaning the defense will change its formation based on its opponent. According to Thurmond, the defensive strategy will allow the defense to read and adapt to different offenses.“We have the ability to change up depending on whoever we play and what their tendencies are,” Thurmond said.The 2015 defense is returning four of 11 starters from the 2014 team. The lack of experience on the defense may concern some, but according to redshirt junior linebacker Alex Lyons, the defense is determined to make a name for itself in 2015.“We’re young, but we’re talented and we’re very hungry, and I think we’re going to put on a show,” Lyons said.The Owls will have a young defense in 2015, particularly in the secondary. While the team lost considerable leadership and talent in the form of defensive tackle Christian Covington, defensive end Brian Nordstrom and cornerback Bryce Callahan this past season, several pillars remain. Lyons, the team’s leading tackler in 2014 with 71, will be returning to lead the linebacking core. On the defensive line, redshirt sophomore Graysen Schantz is joined by fellow redshirt sophomore Brian Womac and redshirt senior Stuart Mouchantaf, both of whom are returning from injuries. In the secondary, senior Ryan Pollard, the team’s top cornerback heading into 2015, is also coming back for his final season. With the returning talent, Lyons said coaches and returning players are not concerned. “We have a lot of great athletes on the back end who can play the ball, and up front we’re experienced and can beat people up,” Lyons said. “So [we can] get the ball out, get a couple ducks and get a lot of turnovers this year.”Head Coach David Bailiff is also confident in his 2015 team, despite the losses sustained. In particular, the coaching staff knew during the 2014 season they would lose seniors in the secondary. According to Bailiff, they were prepared for these losses and are confident in their ability to hold up against the pass.“We spent a lot of time getting young guys some playing time last year, since we knew we’d be hit hard by graduation,” Bailiff said. “We’ve got guys like Ryan Pollard and [redshirt junior] J.T. Blasingame that have played well in practice, and [sophomore] V.J. Banks got some playing time last year. It’s a young secondary, and a young team, but we have a lot of depth.”While they were happy with their performance in a 30-7 victory in the Hawai’i Bowl over Fresno State University that concluded the 2014 season, the team has been motivated this offseason by their performance in the game prior. Heading into the season finale with a 7-4 overall record and a 5-2 record within Conference USA, Rice faced off against Louisiana Tech University with a berth in the C-USA title game on the line. The Owls, however, were unable to pull it out. They were outgained in total yardage 677-371 while also committing four turnovers, resulting in a 76-31 loss.Bailiff said the loss pushed the players to redeem themselves in the bowl game, and has even provided continuing motivation going into this season.“I think you saw in the bowl game how motivated our guys were, how prepared we were for that game and how well we played,” Bailiff said. “That loss has definitely kept us energized heading into this season. Every year we want to win conference, we want to be a top 25 team. And we think we can do that this season.”Lyons and the defense was similarly motivated by the loss.“It’s extremely motivating during workouts when we’re out here in 100-degree weather,” Lyons said. “We had a power outage in our weight room and we were still working out. There’s nothing more motivating when you see that clip and the highlights of that clip. You never want that to happen.”Given the Owls’ 2015 opponents, one thing is certain: The defense will be tested. They will face off against the University of Texas, Austin and Baylor University this season, two schools that have consistently sent top-tier talent to the National Football League in recent years. Within C-USA, two opponents in particular stand out: Louisiana Tech, who will be quarterbacked by former Florida Gator Jeff Driskel, and Western Kentucky, a team led by 2014 C-USA MVP quarterback Brandon Doughty. Though these prolific offenses are on the schedule, Lyons said the defense is up to the task.“A lot of people are questioning the defense because we’re going to be pretty young,” Lyons said. “Anybody who has questions can come see for themselves, sit back and enjoy the show.”The season commences Sept. 5 at 2:30 p.m. in a home matchup against the Wagner Seahawks.

Rice football looks to make championship run

(08/27/15 12:38pm)

Rice football will look to build upon its recent success under Head Coach David Bailiff, confident that they can compete for their second Conference USA title in three years and qualify for their fourth consecutive bowl game. Bailiff has engineered one of the more remarkable turnarounds of an athletic program in recent memory. When he was hired as coach in 2007, Rice had qualified for only one bowl game in the previous 45 years; in his eight years as coach, Rice has qualified for four, including a 30-7 victory over Fresno State University in the Hawai’i Bowl last season. The talent coming through the school is also being recognized by the National Football League: Seven Owls have been drafted under Bailiff, including at least one draft pick in each of the last four seasons. Members of last year’s team currently playing in the NFL are Houston Texans defensive tackle Christian Covington, a sixth-round pick, as well as Chicago Bears cornerback Bryce Callahan, Denver Broncos wide receiver Jordan Taylor, and San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Mario Hull. One of the hallmarks of Bailiff’s tenure at Rice has been continuity. Over the past two seasons, there have been no changes to the coaching staff, a rarity in Division I college football. An additional advantage Rice has is continuity at the game’s most important position: quarterback. Rice’s redshirt senior quarterback Driphus Jackson is entering his second season as the starter. Much of the excitement surrounding Rice football in 2015 is based on anticipated improvement from Jackson, who threw 24 touchdowns and 8 interceptions in his first season as the sole starter.In addition to being a redshirt senior and the quarterback of the team, Jackson is also entering his second year as a team captain. Bailiff said the leadership role is one that Jackson has accepted and one in which he has excelled.“He’s out there, he’s leading,” Bailiff said. “He’s not too worried about being liked, he wants to win. He’s there to hug people when they need it, reminding his teammates of their responsibilities, and we’re very excited about it.”Several key players from 2014 are returning this season with Jackson: junior running back Jowan Davis and redshirt junior linebacker Alex Lyons. However, graduation has taken several starters from both sides of the ball, which cannot be overlooked.Jordan Taylor and Mario Hull were the leading receivers on last year’s team, so at first glance, losing both may seem harmful to the 2015 team’s chances. Despite their leaving, Bailiff said he is confident in their younger replacements.“At receiver, we have [redshirt junior] Zach Wright and [senior] Dennis Parks stepping into bigger roles,” Bailiff said. “Both have looked good in practice. Also, [redshirt freshman] Lance Wright is a younger guy who didn’t play a lot last year, but is very talented.”Additionally, Bailiff specifically mentioned a few players who could make an impact this season. According to Bailiff, senior Luke Turner is a versatile player who could make significant plays at a variety of positions this season.“[Senior] Luke Turner is a guy that plays tight end and some [halfback] — he does a lot of things for us,” Bailiff said. “He’s a player to look out for this season.”According to Jackson, the loss of the top two receivers has not slowed the efficiency of the offense.“We haven’t had any falloff,” Jackson said. “A lot of guys have stepped up and been watching Mario [Hull] and those guys play. I’m just excited for those guys to step up and show their talent.”A common idiom in football is a team is only as strong as its offensive line. Three offensive linemen were lost to graduation, which may be a cause for concern. Jackson, however, is not concerned, and said he has faith in the new offensive line.“[Bailiff] has done a good job in mixing lineups and getting everybody comfortable with one another, so I don’t see too much falloff there at all,” Jackson said. “Maybe it’ll take a couple of games for them to gel, but once we get to the grit of the season, we should be fine.”Rice opens its season on Sept. 5 against Wagner University. Kickoff for the game is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. at Rice Stadium.

The arm: Blake Fox

(02/11/15 7:12am)

Rice University baseball’s 2014 NCAA Regional matchup against the University of Texas had just concluded the bottom of the seventh inning. The Owls, holding a 2-1 lead over their rivals at Reckling Park, received a standing ovation from their supporters. Thanks to timely hitting and a dominant start from sophomore left-handed pitcher Blake Fox, Rice was six outs from a crucial victory over their in-state rivals. Fox said the moment was surreal; he described it as the single coolest moment of his career thus far. “It gave me the chills,” Fox said.Though the Owls were unable to win the game, the strong performance they received from Fox was nothing out of the ordinary. As a freshman, Fox finished with a 6-0 record while coming primarily out of the bullpen. As a sophomore, he compiled a 12-0 record with a 1.46 earned run average. His success on the field has earned him a number of accolades. Following his sophomore season, Fox was named a first team All-American by the National College Baseball Writers Association, first team All-Conference USA and Rice Male Athlete of the Year, among several others.Fox made the transition from reliever to starter between his freshman and sophomore years. Typically, such a transition requires considerable strength training to build stamina, as well as an expansion of the pitcher’s repertoire. According to Fox, strength training was a big part of the offseason and the addition of a slider to his repertoire over the summer of his freshman year as necessary for the progression to start.“It’s about having your goals in mind during the season [and] offseason and having the discipline and focus to achieve them,” Fox said.Head Coach Wayne Graham said Fox is a well-rounded pitcher and the ideal Rice player.“We’re always looking for good, reliable players, and that’s exactly what Blake is,” Graham said. “He’s very disciplined on the mound.”According to Fox, the coaches have had a significant impact on his success on the mound.“[The coaches] coach the mental side of the game very well,” Fox said. “They’re really aware of different situations, and that helps us perform better as players.” Through his development, Fox has developed a unique pitching style that has allowed him to enjoy so much success in a short amount of time. His greatest strength, perhaps, is his confidence in each of his four pitches: fastball, curveball, slider and changeup. While most pitchers have one “out pitch” that they will call upon in pressure situations, this is not the case with Fox. According to Fox, he has the confidence in his pitches. Further accentuating this point is the fact Fox pitches to his strengths. While he is aware of the strengths and weaknesses of hitters on the mound, Fox still prefers pitching to his strength rather than a hitter’s weakness in a given situation. Additionally, Fox describes himself as a strike thrower who prefers to go for a direct strikeout, rather than trying to get the hitter to chase.“I throw strikes,” Fox said. “If someone in our infield makes a play or if I strike a guy out, I don’t really care as long as the guy’s out. But if I walk someone, then nobody gets to make a play, and that hurts us.” The ability to throw strikes, as Fox said, is particularly important given an NCAA rule change regarding the baseballs that will be used during games. While balls that were used last year are described as “high-seam” balls, the ones that will be used this year “low-seam.”This upcoming season, Fox will serve the role of “weekend starter” for the Owls. Doing so gives him six days of rest between starts, all of which are necessary to recover from the soreness that results from consistently pitching deep into games. According to Fox, the rest is a critical aspect of being able to pitch at a consistently high level throughout the season.“There definitely is some soreness the day after you pitch, so you spend a lot of the week recovering from that,” Fox said.As for what constitutes this recovery, Fox mentioned long toss, bullpen sessions and running, all of which he uses in addition to typical resting protocols to stay sharp between starts. While six days is longer than most professional pitchers have to recover from starts (typically four days at the Major League level), the pitcher’s responsibility of staying sharp places additional emphasis on the fitness and conditioning training that is typically done during the offseason.As for Fox and the Owls, the goal this year is the same as it always is: win the Conference USA title en route to winning the College World Series in Omaha. The 19-time reigning Conference USA champions begin their season Feb. 13 against Texas in Reckling Park.