What's a good defensive back need besides speed and fluid hips? Answer: a short memory and a healthy swagger. The Owls seemed to have all but forgotten about the last game they played – a 41-17 drubbing at the hands of Troy State. That game has served as motivation of course, but the 2007 Rice Owl secondary doesn't lack for swagger as they approach the season opener with Nicholls State. Why? Because they know that night in New Orleans was played under anything but ideal circumstances. The Owls were banged up on defense and hurting. Many thought the "former coach" had driven the team too hard in preparation for the Bowl, essentially giving the team no time to recover from several cardiac finishes down the final stretch of the season – in "coach speak" they were a team playing with no legs. Let's look at what the Owls have coming back in the secondary and why the last game isn't effecting preparation for this season.
Down the stretch last year cornerbacks Ja'Corey Shepherd and Brandon King probably played as well as any CB tandem in the league before injuries and Shepherd's suspension left the Owls somewhat vulnerable at the position heading into the New Orleans Bowl. The season was a Baptism by fire, but just what the pair needed to gain the swagger needed to become perhaps the best pair of Owl cornerbacks in recent memory. Both had almost identical stats for 2006 – Shepherd had 40 tackles, King had 33; each had 2 interceptions; each had 6 passes broken up, and each had a tackle for a loss. They bring experience and confidence to the field this year as juniors and some have even called them the best pair of corners in C-USA. That's saying something because the lack of receivers on the roster in recent years meant the Owl DBs never really got a chance to practice against stiff competition in practice. Now they have do have the benefit of playing against a talented group of Owl WRs every day, not to mention working against perhaps the best WR in the country in Jarett Dillard.
The coaches are quietly confident about their two starters at cornerback as the season opener nears. Maybe even more comforted by the fact that there's depth at the position when seemingly there was none 6 months ago. Twice a letterman, Jon Turner gives the Owls an experienced backup as he returns for his senior year. Two other talented players who've played multiple positions at Rice have progressed nicely after switching to cornerback in the spring – Christopher Douglas and Gary Anderson Jr. Douglas was a private school star running back and Anderson came to Texas from Arkansas to play receiver. Highly rated incoming freshman Joseph Leary has also worked at the position in fall practices.
With the corners seemingly in good hands, let's look at the safeties. In the 4-2-5 Defense there's an extra safety, making 3 all together. The safety position is a very critical position to recruit: each of the three has different characteristics, the Strong and Weak Safeties are a hybrid of talents. Each must be able to cover, blitz, and provide solid run support.
Let's look at the Strong Safety position. Andrew Sendejo is just about perfect for the position – at 6-1 213 he's the perfect size for the position, but also very quick, and hits like a linebacker. The SS plays near the line of scrimmage on the Strong or TE side, so ideally he's strong in run support and must have good timing for the frequent blitzes he's asked to execute. Sendejo was an Honorable Mention Freshman All-American, so he's already making a name for himself in just his second season at Rice. Backing him up is another second year player, Willie Garley, who redshirted last year. Garley was a linebacker in high school, having been named District Defensive MVP at the position. At 5-11 and just under 200 pounds he brings the same hitting ability and quickness that Sendejo does to the position. Garley has really come on in fall practices, giving the Owls fantastic depth at the position. The coaches have done a great job in fitting their young player's skill sets to the position that suits them.
Next is the Weak Safety, which has different names, often unique to the school. This player usually lines up opposite of the SS on the Weak side of the offensive alignment. But occasionally will have TE coverage responsibility if the run strength is opposite of the pass strength of the offensive formation He has more coverage responsibility than the SS, often picking up running backs coming out of the backfield. Carl Taylor is ready to pickup where he left off as a freshman. His skill set is that of a cornerback – only he's 6-1 and 200 pounds. He seemingly disappeared last year, so one has to conclude that a different coaching staff has solved whatever "problem" existed. Like the SS, the WS plays near the line of scrimmage so he must be solid in run support and blitzing. Backing up Taylor is another young D-FW Metroplex player, Max Anyiam, who almost looks thin at 6-2 210 pounds. He's got the perfect size and skill set to become an outstanding player.
The third safety on the field is the Free Safety and has more traditional responsibilities. The Free Safety plays the deepest on the field, lining up 12-14 yards off the ball. He has deep coverage responsibility "over the top". The Free Safety must have outstanding coverage skills, and shouldn't really make many tackles. If he is, the defense in front of him is not doing its job. Rice again has multiple quality options at the Free Safety position. Bencil Smith will likely get the starting nod. He brings good coverage skills to the position having seen time at cornerback in seasons past. Smith has also shown an ability to deliver a hit, utilizing his 5-11 200 frame to the utmost. Joseph Agnew also returns at Free Safety. He saw extensive playing time last year as a true freshman out of the perennial State Champion Southlake Carroll program. Justin Abt also returns at Free Safety. Abt is a veteran of both secondary and special teams play. He missed half of last year with injuries, but has 3 Rice letters to his credit. Freshman Chris Jones has a world of talent, including sprinter's speed to go along with his 6-1 190 frame. Jones will likely fill out to over 200 pounds before he leaves South Main. Every coach would like to redshirt freshmen – Jones may be too good to keep off the field.
The 4-2-5 Defense – The Secondary
BCB – "Boundary" Cornerback, plays on the "short" side of the field FCB – "Field" Cornerback, plays to the open side of the field SS – Strong Safety, plays to the strong side of the offensive formation, primary run support WS – Weak Safety, must cover well but still provide run support, similar to a Weak side LB FS – Free Safety, the center fielder for the defense, must possess excellent pass coverage skills
Benefits of having 5 DBs on the field on every play:
1.) The defense can adjust quickly to multiple formations with substituting
2.) Can give the illusion to the other team's QB of having 8-9 men in the box
3.) Puts more speed on the field – both for coverage and for blitzing
The Cornerbacks :
Ja'Corey Shepherd – has really come into his own in the past year. Has good size at 5-11 192 and has developed the confidence needed to have an All C-USA type year.
Brandon King – back on the field after missing spring drills to concentrate on studies. He's ready to pick up where he left off last year - he had 2 interceptions despite missing several games with an injury. Excellent return man – he was a running back in high school back in Moss Point, MS.
Chris Douglas – made the switch to CB in the spring and has picked up the position quickly. Douglas is also a solid return man (he scored 61 rushing touchdowns in high school) He returned 15 kickoffs for 290 yards last year. At 5-9 175 pounds he a little undersized for running back at the D-1 level, but his quickness and athleticism seem a natural fit at cornerback.
Gary Anderson Jr. – came to Rice as receiver out of Little Rock, Arkansas. His father was an outstanding player at the University of Arkansas, and later in the NFL. Anderson has all the speed and talent to be an outstanding player. However, injuries have prevented him from ever really getting on track at Rice. Anderson is finally beginning to show his talent at cornerback, after moving there last year. He's looked solid in August practices.
Jon Turner – has been a role player with the Owls, but has plenty of game experience under his belt. Turner's build (5-9 195) makes him an excellent nickel player – he's got the size to defend the run and the speed of a cornerback.
Joseph Leary – He brings good size to the position at 6-0 180 and totaled 12 interception in his prep career. Leary was one of the Owls higher rated recruits to sign in February.
The Strong Safeties
Andrew Sendejo - played plenty of big games in high school at Smithson Valley. He's started since the first play of his freshman season last year. Has the physical tools to wreak havoc at the line of scrimmage. Everything you want in a Strong Safety.
Willie Garley - just a terrific football player, Garley was listed as a 5-11 175 pound linebacker coming out of Victoria. The coaches saw something in his hitting ability and instincts and Garley has settled right in at the SS position.
Aubrey White - a steady player who's contributed depth in the secondary and on special teams. He was his District's MVP his senior year at Thorndale HS.
The Weak Safeties
Carl Taylor - possibly the highest rated recruit in his class coming out of the storied Dallas Carter program. Recruited as a cornerback, Taylor brings excellent coverage skills to the position. Had a sensational freshman season, returning an interception 39 yards for a score against Tulane. At 6-1 200 pounds he's got the size/ speed combination the coaches want at the hybrid weak safety position.
Max Anyiam - Rice recruited several players last year for their new defense, which at the time was the 3-3-5. One thing that hasn't changed is that they still use 5 defensive backs. Max Anyiam was one of those recruits and has great size at 6-2 210 pounds. He really possesses the hybrid skills necessary to play near the line of scrimmage. Has a younger brother that signed with Oklahoma State as a receiver last spring. Anyiam brings a physical presence to the Weak Safety postion.
Justin Abt - Played 4 sports in high school. Abt was in the regular rotation last year until injuries sidelined him for 5 gamHe will leave Rice as a 4 year letter winner. Ideal size at 6-0 210.
Randy Kitchens - recruited to Rice as an athlete, Kitchens has the raw potential to excel at Weak Safety after a couple years learning the position and filling out some. Already 6-3 195, he possesses 4.5 forty speed to go along with a 4.25 second shuttle. He played QB in high school.
The Free Safeties
Bencil Smith - will start at Free Safety after backing up Chad Price last year at the "Bandit" position. Smith also started two games at the "Spur" position. He's taken his game to another level during spring and fall practices.
Joseph Agnew - played extensively as a freshman last year, notching time in all 13 games. Will only improve as he plays in the program. Was an All-State player on the team USA Today named its National Champion at Southlake Carroll.
Chris Jones - very athletic young freshman who's pushing hard for playing time in his first few weeks on the Rice campus. Jones has sprinter's speed to go along with his somewhat thin 6-1 190 pound frame. Jones is already pushing the coaches to consider burning his redshirt with his play this fall.
There you have it – the basics of the 4-2-5 defense. We've covered the linemen, the linebackers, and the defensive backs in our 3 part series. Hopefully, you now have a basic understanding of the scheme the Owls will employ to improve its defense from 2006. Looking at the players, I'm optimistic that we'll be greatly improved. In my opinion, the attacking style of this defense will generate even better numbers than the unit from last year. Remember, David Bailiff used this very scheme to produce the number 1 defense in the country while at TCU. In summary we have two good if not great CBs, several good DE's that can pressure the passer, and safeties that can cover but love to hit, especially the opposing QB. Will Rice finally field a solid defense under first year head man David Bailiff? My bet is yes but who knows? One thing is a definite, it won't be long before we find out just how good we are – the opening kickoff is less than a week away.