Rice Football 2010: Flying beyond November
Let's face the facts: Last football season was a rebuilding year.After a disappointing 2-10 season in 2009, in which Rice returned only three starters from their 2008 Texas Bowl win, the Owls football team hopes that they have enough talent added to the program that this year will be a different story.
"We're excited about it. The whole football team, the whole campus: We're all ready to go; we're ready to play," Head Coach David Bailiff said. "I'm really excited about the growth of this football team."
With a team that is returning 18 starters, nine on both offense and defense, the Owls are confident that the extra year of experience will be just what Rice needs to return to bowl contention. After going a respectable 2-1 in their last three games last year, the Owls hope that they can springboard off this success to at least a .500 record and possibly enter the postseason.
Sizing up the competition
The Owls did themselves no favors this season, creating what is by far one of the most challenging non-conference schedules of any Conference USA team, including games against some of the premier teams in the country. The Owls will not have to travel far at the beginning of the season, as their first seven games are inside the state of Texas.
Of course, the schedule headliner is their battle against the University of Texas Longhorns, currently ranked fifth in the nation by the Associated Press preseason poll. The game was moved from Rice Stadium down the METRORail to Reliant Stadium to maximize the capacity of the event. The Longhorns are coming off of their loss to the University of Alabama in the Bowl Championship Series National Championship game at the conclusion of last season and will certainly be hoping to quickly crush any hopes of a Rice victory.
Bailiff says the team is preparing to face a professional-caliber opponent tomorrow.
"I called up (Head Coach of the Houston Texans) Gary Kubiak to see if they could scrimmage, but they were busy," Bailiff said. "But that is the kind of talent we will be going up against on Saturday: future legends."
Following the UT game will be a road trip up to Denton, Texas, to take on the University of North Texas Mean Green. The Owls will then have a non-conference home stand, with games against Big 10 opponent Northwestern University and Big 12 rival Baylor University.
With as difficult a schedule as the Owls have before C-USA play, they will be chomping at the bit to return to opponents they know they can beat. The C-USA schedule will provide a relief for the Owls after their punishing non-conference match-ups and will hopefully provide them the wins necessary to get into postseason play.
Sailing the ship
Bailiff enters his fourth season at Rice following his most trying season yet. Previous to his time at Rice, Bailiff coached at Texas State University, posting a combined 21-15 record over his three years there. While at Rice, he has posted a 15-22 record; however, he does have a Texas Bowl victory under his belt.
In his time at Rice, he has garnered a reputation for stronger and faster recruiting classes, made possible by his commitment to recruiting players from Texas. This past spring, Rice's entire 16-member recruiting class came from within the Lone Star State.
This season, Bailiff has brought in Offensive Coordinator David Beaty, former wide receivers coach at the University of Kansas, to call plays for the Owls' offense. Only five years ago, Beaty was a high school football coach at MacArthur High School in Irving,Texas. His quick rise through the college ranks shows the skills he has at both creating talent and using the talent he has to create offense.
Back for his fourth year at Rice, Assistant Head Coach and Defensive Coordinator Chuck Driesbach will hope to turn around a defense that was nothing short of miserable last season, allowing an average of 43 points per game last season, 120th in the nation. He will move from focusing on the linebackers this year to working on the backfield.
Men in the pocket
This is perhaps the biggest question this season, as Rice has a full-blown quarterback competition on its hands, with three legitimate players who could become starters.
Last year's starter, junior Nick Fanuzzi, had a difficult 2009, but rebounded well toward the end of the season. Fanuzzi would provide the Owls with experience under center last year. The Alabama transfer has the frame to play quarterback, at 6'4" and 205 pounds, but had a difficult time returning to the game last season after having to sit out 2008.
Taylor Cook, a sophomore transfer from the University of Miami (Fla.), is eligible for the first time for the Owls and also aims to snatch the starting job. He is a sizable quarterback at 6'7" and 240 pounds and can be an absolute menace if he can get running out into the open field. He was a highly recruited prospect, with offers from schools like Louisiana State University and the University of Alabama, and could emerge as an offensive threat if he can adjust to Rice's offense quickly enough.
The final prospect, redshirt freshman Taylor McHargue, is the X-factor in this contest. McHargue (pronounced "mick-harg") is a 6'1" recruit from Vista Ridge High School in Cedar Park, Texas where he was both a football and track star. He has drawn comparisons to former Rice quarterback Chase Clement, with his ability to run the ball and understand every minuscule detail of the offense.
Because of the high level of competition, Bailiff says that he will wait until the last minute to reveal the starter.
"We have three great quarterbacks, and each of them has a different skill set," Bailiff said. "We're going to go down to game time before we announce a starter. We're going to keep this as close to the vest as we can."
The Owls are banking on the success of their running back core, especially YouTube sensation Sam McGuffie, a transfer sophomore from the University of Michigan. McGuffie is by far the most athletic player on the Owls' roster and should be an instant spark to the offense, as he can be used in so many different ways. After being utilized sparingly as a freshman at Michigan, scoring three touchdowns and running for 486 yards, McGuffie transferred to Rice to be closer to home and play once again in Texas.
Bailiff also has faith in the rest of the backs, as Rice will be constantly going to the bench for different skill sets. Redshirt junior Tyler Smith, who closed his sophomore year out with two 100-yard rushing games, will also see a lot of snaps.
With the numerous talented backs, Bailiff plans to utilize them all.
"We have five very talented running backs," Bailiff said. "And my entire time here, we've needed them. We're comfortable with giving each and every one of them the football."
Wide receivers were a question for Rice last year, and will continue to be, as the Owls hope that some of their experience from last year will carry over and lead to success this year. The depth chart has three seniors starting with two underclassmen and a junior, meaning that there is potential for younger players to step up.
Redshirt senior Patrick Randolph, second on the team last year with 39 catches behind Toren Dixon (Brown '10), is expected to be the go-to wide receiver. Seniors Corbin Smiter and Pierre Beasley are also expected to start and make an impact.
Perhaps the most talented member of the receiving core, however, may be tight end Vance McDonald, a sophomore who saw significant minutes last year. He caught 12 passes for 118 yards and is expected to be a play-maker this year.
Toeing the line
The lines on both sides of the ball had a rough season last year but are hoping that with experience can come success.
The offensive line was young last year, especially for a position in college football that is typically almost always reserved for juniors and seniors. This year, there is only one sophomore on the line, which is anchored by players with experience.
The defensive line was one of the strengths of the roster, with two returning monster players, senior defensive end Cheta Ozougwu and senior tackle Scott Solomon. Solomon, however, just recently went down due to a foot injury and will be out for 6-8 weeks, a tough loss for a Rice defense in need of leaders. Ozougwu is not too worried about the loss of Solomon, however.
"I think this year we have not just depth, but quality depth," Ozougwu said. "Our twos can all play like ones, and our threes can all play like twos."
Final lines of defense
If the Owls want to win this year, perhaps the most improvement must come in the defensive backfield. Even if McGuffie is able to score four touchdowns a game, that will not matter if the defense gives up 43 points per game this year.
Ozougwu believes last year's trials will help the team to not repeat the same mistakes in 2010.
"A season when you go 2-10: There is a lot you can learn from that year," Ozougwu said. "One thing you saw last year was defensive players not hustling to the ball. What you'll see this year is aggression to the ball."
The Owls go with a two-linebacker set most of the time, so there will only be two true starters, senior Justin Hill and sophomore Trey Briggs, both of whom recorded more than 25 tackles last season.
The secondary is a young group, two of whom are starting over older players. There is only one senior in the five positions, strong safety Chris Jones, who has more than 130 tackles in his 18 starts.
Perhaps the best part of last year's campaign was the emergence of Rice's special teams as one of the best in C-USA. The Owls always had the potential to create a big play on special teams to swing the outcome of the game. Where the coverage teams lacked occasionally, those kicking the ball were often able to pin opponents deep into their own zone.
Junior Kyle Martens, a candidate for the Ray Guy Award in 2009, once again returns to handle the punting duty for the Owls. He averaged 43.6 yards per punt last year as a sophomore, one of the best in the nation.
Chris Boswell, a redshirt freshman, takes over the kicking duties this year for the Owls. Boswell was an AP All-State selection his senior year of high school in Keller, Texas and participated in the U.S. Army All- American game.
Redshirt Sphomore Shane Turner will once again handle return duties for the Owls this year, after an impressive freshman year. He returned the ball for 881 yards last year, second all-time in school history. Returning alongside him will be sophomore Denzel Wells, who averaged 26 yards a return last season.
Boasting 18 returning, in addition to two from special teams, it is clear that the Owls will not tolerate another 2-10 season, no matter who is under center for the majority of the year. With returning leaders on the gridiron and a new offensive coordinator in the press box, 2010 brings hope that Rice can take a giant step forward in returning to the glory days of 2008.
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