Rice Football 2011
Earlier this month, ESPN.com put Head Coach David Bailiff on a list of head coaches in risk of losing their jobs, claiming that his job performance over the last two years, despite the first Rice bowl victory in decades three years ago, puts his future in jeopardy. Surely, Bailiff is feeling this pressure and knows that this is the year in which he and his team must perform, or the last few years of rebuilding will be for naught.
Anything less than a bowl game will be upsetting for a team that returns so much of its talent from the previous campaign. All the big name skill position players are back, leaving the Owls with the possibility of being a really fun team to watch this year. They have the raw explosive talent to turn any play from scrimmage into a big one, but they have to work hard on eliminating the mental lapses and little mistakes that so often set this team back last year. Bailiff knows that his future is tied directly to the stake of the success of his returning players this year.
"It's an exciting year," Bailiff said. "We built some momentum with wins in our last two games last year. We have 10 starters back on offense and eight on defense as well as our two specialists. That gives you a sense of optimism. We have a large group of seniors who have been in this program their entire careers. We have set our goals high. We have set our standards high. Our seniors are doing a good job to make sure everyone achieves everyday."
Rice by far has the most difficult non-conference schedule of any team inside C-USA, playing four teams from the automatic Bowl Championship Series berth conferences, making them the only school in the nation to do so. A punishing three-game stretch starts off this season, starting with a game in Austin tomorrow night against perennial national powerhouse the University of Texas. Next is a home game against a tough Big Ten team Purdue University, and then a tough road game against in-state rival Baylor. If Rice does not jump out of the starting gate, the team can immediately find themselves 0-3, a difficult hole to dig themselves out of if they are interested in a postseason bowl game. A trip to chilly Evanston, Ill. in November to face Northwestern University will cap the Owls non-conference efforts.
Their Conference USA schedule will offer some relief and provide an opportunity for the Owls to build some momentum after the difficult first three weeks. They do open up conference play against one of the top squads in the league, with a game at the University of Southern Mississippi. Last season, Southern Miss was picked to finish second in the East Division and qualified for a postseason bowl game last season. Other notable conference games include the first home conference contest for the Owls against the University of Memphis in early October, the contest for the Bayou Bucket at the University of Houston at the end of October, and a season concluding televised game at Southern Methodist University, who has recently shown interest in leaving C-USA, given Texas A&M University's departure from the Big 12 this past Wednesday.
After a fight that consumed the preseason last year, an injury to the named starter, and a position switch, the coaching staff has finally settled upon a starter at the quarterback position, naming sophomore Taylor McHargue as the everyday quarterback, moving past the experience of senior Nick Fanuzzi and the raw athletic talent of junior Taylor Cook.
McHargue, who started out the season last year against Texas, suffered an injury midseason and sat out half the season before coming back and finishing off the last few games of the year strong – including a big end of the year win against East Carolina University. He had the highest passing efficiency on the team and showed he was able to avoid trouble by moving outside the pocket. Coach Bailiff is e\xcited about McHargue's upside.
"[With] him being back there, you have a sense of optimism about what he is able to do with the football in his hands," Bailiff said. "And he has a pretty good supporting cast in which he has to just do a good job of managing the game, keep the chains moving and that leads us to points. He has been able to do that in this camp. He makes great decisions. He takes care of the ball. That is why he is there right now."
Fanuzzi, among the leaders on the Owls for number of starts, will be his capable backup, ready to return to the field in case of any after effects of McHargue's lingering injuries. It would be surprising to see McHargue being removed from the field for any other reason except for injury, as Bailiff has indicated that McHargue is his man. Cook has been moved from the quarterback position and is now competing for time at tight end.
Stable of Running Backs
The Owls are probably deepest on their roster for the running back position, with a wide variety of options to hand the ball off to. Of course, there is junior standout Sam McGuffie, the most nationally well-known of the Owls and one of the most exciting players inside college football today.
Every time McGuffie touches the ball, there is a chance of a game changing play. He had difficulties last season with trying to do too much on every possession, a habit the coaching staff hopes they have cured him of. Rice's success this season will depend in largely on McGuffie's ability to score touchdowns. They will look for him to be their playmaker all season long. McHargue is excited by the possibilities of McGuffie.
"Sam is a guy who can change a game in a heartbeat. I think in watching film from last year he had a lot of weight on his shoulders and tried to do a little too much," McHargue said. "With a year under his belt, he understands what we are trying to do and understands how he fits in the system. We are looking for him to have a big year."
Other threats at running back include sophomore Jeremy Eddington, back after a surprise breakout freshman season. He was a large part of Rice's two victories at the end of the year and will be looked upon to continue to create breakout plays for the offense.
Senior Tyler Smith, who was third on the team in total yards, will also be challenged to contribute to the Rice running game. Junior Turner Petersen is expected to receive time in the Wild Owl formation, as well as in goal-line situations.
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Size and Speed out Wide
Last year wide receivers were a complete unknown heading out of camp into the first game. For the 2011 season however, clear leaders at the position have emerged, with junior tight end turned slot receiver Vance McDonald leading the way for the Owls, with his 6'5", 260 pound stature presenting a problem for the smaller opposing cornerbacks. Senior Randy Kitchens is poised to have his best season as an Owl after returning last season from an injury in 2009.
Also look for McGuffie to see a fair share of passes lined up in both the backfield and out wide. Coach Bailiff likes using McGuffie's flexibility in this regard. McGuffie became the first player to lead the Owls in catches and rushing yards since 1987 last year. Also look for sophomores Klein Kubiak and Donte Moore to have breakout seasons and become prime receiving targets.
Perhaps the second most dangerous player on the Rice Owls, behind McGuffie, is Canadian-born junior tight end Luke Willson, who led the team in receiving yards last year with 425. A favorite of every Rice quarterback while converting third downs, Wilson's 6'5" frame makes him a dangerous option. He hopes to capitalize on the occasional mismatch and open the field up for Rice's passing game across the middle.
The Men in the Trenches
On the offensive line, Rice finally has the experience they have been dreaming about, starting four seniors and one injury-hardened junior, all of whom were regular starters in 2010 and have 108 combined starts between them. Last season, the line often looked overmatched and Coach Bailiff is hoping that this year's group will turn the situation around.
Look for senior Keshawn Carrington, a two-year starter at center, to have a monster year for the Owls. Senior left tackle Jake Hicks, who has over 29 starts over a wide variety of positions will protect McHargue's blind side and give the offense time to develop.
On the defensive side of the ball, it is impossible to look past the pair of seniors at the nose tackle positions, John Gioffre and Michael Smith, and not be excited about the sack possibilities. After coming in 105th in the country last year in total sacks, Rice has to apply more pressure to the quarterback if they want to be a bowl contender.
At the defensive end is veteran leader Scott Solomon, who's back after missing 2010 because of a foot injury. Also starting is junior Jared Williams, who, at 6'2" and 250 pounds, is much quicker than his frame would indicate.
Last Lines of Defense
The linebackers are the major unknown on the defensive so far for the Owls. This is perhaps the youngest portion of the team, with a true sophomore starting in the linebacker position. Cameron Nwosu, who made an impact last year on special teams despite an injury shortened season, is looking to make an impact at strong side linebacker. Senior Justin Allen, in his second year at Rice after transferring from Idaho, is looking to follow up his strong 2010 season and provide some needed leadership. Junior Trey Briggs will potentially resume his starting position against Purdue, but will not play tomorrow against Texas due to complication suffered from an offseason surgery.
Senior Travis Bradshaw, the cornerstone of the Owl's defense at free safety, recently announced that he would be unable to compete in the 2011 season due to a neck injury, leaving a large hole in the Rice backfield. Senior Xavier Webb will fill in for Bradshaw and converted receiver sophomore Paul Porras was named starter at the strong safety position. Junior Corey Frazier returns to the KAT position after recording 83 tackles last season. Senior Chris Jammer, junior Phillip Gaines and redshirt freshman Bryce Callahan are the three cornerbacks that will see the most time this year.
The Coaching Staff
A lot of the Owls' coaching staff is new this year after Bailiff instituted a wide range of off-season changes. Defensive coordinator Chuck Driesbach is in his fifth year with the Owls, but new offensive coordinator John Reagan moves into the position for the first year, working as tight ends coach last year.
Also new to the staff this year is defensive line coach Derrick Jackson and wide receivers coach Billy Lynch, as well as Chris Thurmond, the new cornerbacks coach.
Despite the change in offensive coordinator, look for much of the Owls' playbook to be the same, as ultimately Bailiff makes many of those decisions. McHargue thinks this will make the team better out of the gate this year.
"We don't have a new offense this year, it is just something we are building on, and that gives you the opportunity to take advantage of studying defenses instead of worrying about where your guys are going to be," McHargue said.
Bailiff is most likely looking to use every trick in his book in attempting to compete with the Longhorns in the sold-out game in Austin.
"That is one of the premier programs in the country year in and year out. It is a good measuring stick of the progress we are making," Bailiff said. "I'm sure they are highly motivated because of last season. Those young men on that team are out to prove that was a fluke and we are going to see the real Longhorns."
This is the year for the Owls to succeed if it is going to happen under Bailiff. He has a dedicated group of seniors and a group of playmakers with enough talent – he just has to pull it all together.
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