Rebuilding no longer: Owls hope for strong year
This year's senior class of undergraduates - the class that matriculated in 2009 - has never watched a winning Rice football team.
This means that memories of Clement and Dillard, of Texas Bowl berths and ten-win seasons, have left campus. In the last year of his contract, signed after Rice's last bowl appearance, Head Coach David Bailiff surely knows that if there is ever a year that his team has to succeed, it is this one.
There is hope this year that was not around the last few years. The word "rebuilding" is no longer attached to this team.
Every single media preview of the team highlights the explosive offense, with plenty of scoring potential. The defensive secondary, which struggled all of last season, has made steps toward repairing itself. The team has a new swagger, which is definitely needed after a disappointing 2011 campaign.
"We're excited about this season," Bailiff said. "On a piece of paper it doesn't look like we have a lot of returning starters but the reality is we have a lot of young men that got injured early that are coming back this season."
The biggest story this season could be the continued quarterback controversy here at Rice, which has plagued the team the last few seasons.
Junior Taylor McHargue, who has seen plenty of playing time the last two seasons, will look to finally make the starting lineup, hoping to avoid the litany of mistakes that forced him onto the bench at times. He had a strong spring and should be more mature in his decision making to go along with his strong arm.
The x-factor in McHargue's playing time will be redshirt freshman Driphus Jackson, who can be a real running threat in Rice's spread offense.
Jackson has a strong arm and the makeup of a future quarterback, but could have trouble topping the experience McHargue has gained over the past two seasons.
The Owls are deepest at wide out and running back, as they have a plethora of options to hurt opposing teams.
Look for senior Sam McGuffie, now healthy, to provide opponents serious trouble at slot receiver. He was moved from running back to the slot mostly to make room for Charles Ross, the sophomore who shined last season.
Also coming back to help the offense are Vance McDonald, Donte Moore and tight end Luke Wilson.
The big question on offense will be the line, with only one starter returning. With such a young group, they will have to develop quickly to provide the pocket protection necessary. With such a front-loaded schedule, look for them to be tested quickly.
On the defensive front, the entire system is new after giving up 462 yards of offense and 33.3 points per game on average last season.
Chris Thurmond, last season's cornerback coach, will look to fix what happened last year with his promotion to the position of defensive coordinator.
"He brought in a deal that says 'fast and fun,' and he's one of the best coaches I've ever had," senior defensive end Jared Williams told Ricefootball.net. "He's a great communicator; he keeps it light. He reminds you that it's just a game; there's not that much pressure, just go out there and play, and if you remember what you're supposed to be doing, you'll be fine."
Thurmond plans on keeping the basic scheme, but mixing in some wrinkles. The team badly needs a new look after having one of the worst defenses in the nation last season.
Perhaps the strongest part of the defense will be the corner play, led by junior Phillip Gaines and sophomore Bryce Callahan.
Callahan had a conference leading six interceptions last season. These two have the potential to curb opposing passing attacks against the Owls now that they have matured.
Middle linebacker Cameron Nwosu is one of the most talented players on Rice's roster, seemingly ending up everywhere on the field. He is young, but definitely the leader of the defense, and will look to have another big season.
On the line, there are a lot of questions, as the team aims to replace its graduated seniors.
The returning ends, Cody Bauer and Jared Williams, will hopefully add pressure to opposing quarterbacks to help the secondary. On the inside, look for a number of players hoping to earn playing time.
On special teams, Kicker Chris Boswell has the potential to be one of the best in the game with his long legs. After losing All-American Kyle Martens to the NFL, either Boswell or freshman Cameron Decell will take over the punting duties. Returning kicks and punts will probably be handled by committee, as Head Coach Bailiff has plenty
of options from which to choose.
Look for the Owls to get better as the season progresses, with the hardest parts of their schedule at the start.
The season starts against the University of California, Los Angeles, a Pac-12 team that was under .500 last year. Other non-conference games include Kansas, Louisiana Tech and the University of Texas at San Antonio.
The conference schedule opens up against Marshall at Rice Stadium, before the following week's game at Reliant against a Houston team without Case Keenum Games at Memphis, Tulsa, Tulane and UTEP will be mixed in with home games against Southern Miss and SMU.
Fans are growing restless without winning and Rice hopes to put an end to that this year. All spring and summer fans heard stories of maturity and leadership, and that is hopefully what they will see this season.
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