Owls Looking For More Magic in ‘07
You'd think after the season the Rice Owls had in 2006 they'd get a little respect heading into this fall's campaign. After all, Rice did what they had not done in 45 years in 2006 – going to a bowl game, the first since 1961. They finished 7-6 and have their best "throw and catch" combination in years returning in the form of Chase Clement and Jarett Dillard. Dillard is a preseason All American and Heisman Candidate so you'd think the boys in blue and gray would have gained some credibility.
Instead the Owls find themselves in a very familiar position once again as August approaches – no respect. In fact most prognosticators don't predict a winning season for the Owls, much less a bowl game. So why so little love for the Owls? The consensus: the Owls played over their heads in 2006, have a few bright spots but way too many other holes to fill in '07, the odds are against having the same last second successes that carried the Owls into the New Orleans Bowl last year, and for the second time in as many years have a new coach. So is their any hope at all? Plenty. Let's start with the coaching change.
The Bailiff Era Begins on Main
As quickly as he came to town, Todd Graham was also gone. Most will reluctantly give him credit for doing some good things in his short stay in Houston . He sparked excitement and enthusiasm, he brought changes in attitudes, he got people to put their money behind the Owls, and probably most important – he won. So when he left Rice abruptly after signing a new contract the Owl faithful felt betrayed in the deepest sense. Had we traded character for winning and ultimately lost? Even more so, many quietly wondered if we'd ever be able to win again. That remains to be seen. One thing the Owls aren't worrying about anymore though is finding a man of character to lead the program. Enter Coach David Bailiff. A candidate that Rice legend and search committee member Bucky Allshouse remarked "just blew us away in his interview". This time the Owls think they have the right man for the job.
When AD Chris Del Conte made David Bailiff the 18th Head Football Coach of the Rice Owls he was looking for things he could count on.
- First, was the next coach a good X's and O's guy?
Bailiff's defenses were among the nation's best at TCU, and he took Texas State to the D-1A Semifinals in 2005. While being a defensive coach himself, his teams have lead there league in offense each of the past two years!
- Was the next coach a good recruiter?
Bailiff's reputation among Texas High School coaches is sparkling. He may not get every recruit he wants, but his relationship with the coaches in this state suggest he'll most likely get a chance. Plus, he's built a young staff of coaches that have burned up the roads already this year, gaining 6 verbal commits as of the end of July.
- Could the next coach rebuild a program?
In 2004 Bailiff took a team that was predicted to finish last in the Southland Conference into the final week of the season with a 5-6 record and a chance to play for the title. In 2005 the Bobcats went 9-2, with one of the losses coming to Texas A&M. His team set an attendance record that year that Bailiff and his team bettered in 2006!
- Will the next coach put down roots on South Main?
A lot can happen in the coaching profession especially if a coach starts winning – assuredly he was asked about his long term plans regarding Rice. He was hired, the answer was obviously what the leaders at Rice were looking for.
So, most followers of the program who sat white knuckled after "the former coach" left town so hastily are now breathing much more easily. In fact they're growing to like our coaching situation more each day as the season nears. Now what about the other concerns with the '07 Owls season?
Talented in Areas, but Questions Remain
The Owls are extremely talented at certain positions on offense this year but have questions at key positions. A quick run through the offense and defense:
Quarterback – Chase Clement is the returning starter and really has no one else pushing him. He bulked up to 208 over the offseason, but HAS to stay healthy if the Owls hope to win several games. John Thomas Shepherd played well against UCLA in a rough environment but still needs to develop. Pierre Beasley moved to receiver this spring, we'll see if the move was permanent. Others to watch are freshmen Brent Hotard and 25 year old James Casey – who's listed as a TE now but wears #12 and was minor league pitcher for 4 years. Hmmm…?
Rice can win if: Chase stays healthy.
Running Back – Quinton Smith has moved on the NFL. There's more question marks than answers here. This could be a "committee" position for sure. Marcus Knox edged C.J. Ugokwe coming out of the spring, but a strong two-a-days could change that. Freshmen Justin Hill and Taylor Dupree will have a chance for early playing time.
Rice can win if: Someone steps forward and proves he can move the chains.
Wide Receiver/Tight End – The most talented and possibly the deepest position on the team. All American and Biletnikoff Finalist Jarett Dillard is a game changer with his 42" vertical leap and ball skills. Toren Dixon, Corbin Smiter, and Andrew Novak are all a big (6-2+) and talented group of sophomores. A talented trio of former QB's include Pierre Beasley, Joel Armstrong, and Tommy Henderson. Add Ahmad Sweeney, Jeramy Goodson, and John Welch to the receiver corps and you can see why the position is the deepest, most talented position group on the field. The Owls recruited one player at the position last year: 2 sport star Michael Fuda (6-0 190) from Houston are powerhouse Katy HS.
Taylor Wardlow got thrown to the wolves last year and faired pretty well for an underweight freshman. Wardlow caught some big passes last year but most importantly gained 30 pounds and improved his blocking skills over the offseason and spring. James Casey 6-4 245 moved to TE after the spring. He's got the tools to be great at several positions. Two freshmen join the group: Keyshawn Carrington and Wil Norris from Plano Prestonwood. Norris ran a 4.58 before a knee injury ended his senior season early last year.
Rice can win if: Someone can take away double teams off Jarrett Dillard.
Offensive Line – The Owls lost the cornerstone of their line to graduation in Rolf Krueger last year. The Owls struggled a bit to gel as a unit in the spring. Chance Talbert, 6-5 305 was the heir apparent at Left Tackle before being dismissed from the team in December for rules violations. He has stayed in school and asked the "team" for reinstatement. His status could change the complexion of the unit drastically. Preston Thompson, 6-5 295 will be asked to fill the spot if Talbert's request is denied. LG Robby Heos, 6-3 305 has gotten several preseason honors. Austin Wilkinson, the smallest on the unit at 6-2 275 has been a very solid at center. The right side returns David Berken 6-4 300 and Lute Barber 6-7 305, who has gained 65 pounds since coming to Rice. If these two can get a little more consistent the starting 5 can be if not dominating, a pretty decent group. Oklahoma freshman Tyler Parish 6-4 300 has a chance to see playing time early because depth is the biggest problem with the unit. A couple of other freshmen to "watch grow" are Kody Emmert 6-6 255 and walk-on Brett Bockeloh 6-6 270, both of whom run 4.9 forties. Bockeloh passed up other scholarship offers to attend Rice like his dad.
Rice can win if: the left tackle position is settled and depth can be developed.
The defense lost 3 starters from the line last year and NFL bound Marcus Rucker. They shift to a 4-2-5 with Coach Bailiff's arrival.
Defensive Line – The consensus in the spring was that the players welcomed the return of 4 man front after playing in the 3-3-5 Stack of Todd Graham. Once again depth will be the concern here. Starters George Chukwu, who at 6-2 305 looks lean, and Jonathan Cary, 6-3 295 return at the tackle positions. Chris Ptaszek, 6-5 305 has the size to wreak havoc if he can make strides again this year after starting out at Rice as an OL. The ends will likely be manned by Dietrich Davis, 6-2 250, and Victor Brooks 6-5 265 – but both were injured in the spring. The Owls signed 5 defensive linemen last spring, 3 defensive ends and 2 tackles. Keep an eye on 2 very fast edge players – DE's Cheta Ozougwu, 6-2 245 4.58 and Scott Solomon, 6-3 250 4.68. the Owls need pass rush help and these freshmen could help out early.
Rice can win if: it's rush defense improves and they can get pass rush help from the freshmen.
Linebackers – Brian Raines, 6-1 225 is the star of this young but talented unit. He's getting preseason honors and played at a high level last year. Terrence Garmon, 6-2 225 had a terrific freshman year and returns with another talented sophomore Robert Calhoun, 6-1 225 who got lots of reps this spring with Raines recovering from surgery. Vernon James, 6-1 225 also returns. Jonathan Arceneaux, 6-0 220 is looking to bounce back was having a terrific freshman season last year before breaking his leg against Texas. The Owls signed 3 terrific LB prospects last spring, Tanner Shuck, 5-11 220 from Jenks , OK was the 6A Defensive Player of the Year in Oklahoma . Aaron Williams is a big kid (6-3 220) with great physical tools, 4.6 forty. The Owls also signed Brandon Tolbert, 6-0 200 4.6 from Texarkana, TX.
Rice can win if: the linebackers play to the level of their athleticism.
Secondary – In the 4-2-5, the secondary utilizes 5 defensive backs. The Owls have some experience returning at the safety position. Sophomore Andrew Sendejo, 6-1 213 was a terrific surprise last year. Carl Taylor, 6-1 195 is back and looks to build on a break-out freshman season after seeming to disappear last year. Bencil Smith, 5-11 200 has seen time at CB so his coverage skills will be utilized at FS. Brandon King, 5-9 182 and Ja'Corey Shepherd, 5-11 190 will be keys to the Rice pass defense last year. Both had moments of brilliance last year but aren't without question marks - Shepherd was injured late in the season, then got suspended for the New Orleans Bowl, King sat out this past spring to focus on academics. The Owls will have to find depth with another set of CBs to make it through the whole season. Christopher Douglas, 5-9 180 and Patrick Randolph, 5-11 170 are two to watch. Freshmen Joseph Leary, 5-11185 and Chris Jones 6-1 190 could both see time on the field early.
Rice can win if: the corners stay healthy and the whole unit improves it's coverage.
Special Teams – Clark Fangmeier developed into a steady kicker by the end of last year. In fact the freshman's foot came in handy down the stretch. He returns as a sophomore and will be relied upon to pick up where he left off.
Jared Scruggs graduated after starting 4 years as the Owls punter. They signed QB/P Clay Joseph, 6-3 200 from Bryan this spring as their punter of the future.
Rice can win if: Joseph is the punter they think he is and Fangmeier is again Mr.Clutch.
Nicholls State 9-1 * @ Baylor 9-8 Texas Tech 9-15 @ Texas 9-22 @ Southern Miss 10-3 @ Houston 10-13 * !! Memphis 10-20 * @ Marshall 10-27 UTEP 11-3 * @ SMU 11-10 * Tulane 11-17 * Tulsa 11-24 * !!
* Key Games
The Owls have a lot of question marks here but are not without talent. It's only July but recruiting is going well and Coach Bailiff is settling in with the community. Unlike, the last guy, Coach Bailiff seems to be a man and a coach willing to build things the right way – yet still expecting to win now. The players really like playing for this staff. A lot of freshmen will again have to play this year which always makes a coach cringe. The Owls can win 6 games this year and again go bowling, but they will have to win all the games they should win and a couple they shouldn't. Staying healthy is important to even the deepest of teams, to young teams it can make or break a season. If the defense can come together quickly and play to the level of some of coach Bailiff's former units the Owls will have a chance.
As the season approaches, some of that magic of 2006 might just still be hanging around…