Nowhere To Go But Up

For every highlight reel play the Rice offense made this year - the defense seemed to give one up. Injuries and youth ruled the fortunes of the Owls in 2007 - but Rice has plenty to be optmistic about in 2008...

The most encouraging words I've read in recent days come from Owl Head Coach David Bailiff's Press conference yesterday: "You can't just play great offense. You've got to play defense. You've got to play special teams. That's something that we're going to have to improve on immediately." No surprise that Bailiff would offer comment on the team's glaring shortcomings this year, but it's very encouraging to hear him say what we've all been wanting to hear. I feel good about 2008 -let's look backward if only for a few moments at 2007. The offense was at times explosive - the defense has it's share of growing pains.

"Football people" simplify the game into 3 parts –offense, defense, and special teams. If you can do 2 of 3 you can usually win over half of the games on your schedule; but fail consistently at 2 of 3 and winning any game is difficult. This describes the Owl season pretty well – if not for the benefit of a slew of turnovers against USM, a miraculous comeback against UTEP, and a last second field goal against SMU the Owls may not have won a game this year. The Owls made winning look pretty hard this year. Like Coach Bailiff said Monday the defense would make 4 or 5 great defensive plays – then give up one big play. This pattern was repeated over and over again,seemingly in every game. The defense was on the field 939 plays this season, a number that would logically suggest that the unit didn't make enough stops when they needed to. A number also that would suggest that would pay the price for those failures in the 4th quarter when they were exhausted. They did. In summary, inconsistency, no depth, injuries and youth wreaked havoc on the unit from the first game on and statistically they were one of the worst units in the country. Obviously the defense has work to do in the weight room and on the practice field this spring. However, in any situation there's something for the optimist. The Rice defense may not have been very good – but as was evident with the entire team's play all year - they never quit. Players like Andrew Sendejo and Brian Raines played hurt a lot of the year. Seniors like Gary Anderson Jr., Aubrey White, Justin Abt and Jonathan Cary all made big plays. George Chukwu, the Iron Man, was steady and durable all year, himself coming up with 2 blocked PATs. This unit showed a willingness to never give up the fight. To be fair, the Owls were not without stellar play from time to time – the unit just couldn't make enough of the plays they needed, when they needed to. The Owls will need to improve significantly in 2008 to get back to its winning ways. Teams play to make plays, not to achieve statistics, but obviously Rice will struggle to win games again if it is rated among the worst defensive teams in the country in 2008.

Special Teams play was also ineffective for the Owls in 2007. The Owls lacked much of any return game, which certainly made field position an issue in almost every game. Punting was at times inconsistent, and Rice had a punt blocked. They finished the season without recovering a single onside kick attempt in 5 tries. Faked conversions were also an adventure as the Owls seemed to have favorable odds for several successful conversions but shot themselves in the foot with failed execution repeatedly. They also gave up long returns. Clark Fangmeier was solid – but even he missed some easy field goals. Special teams encompasses a lot of different situations over the course of a game. Overall, Rice has just as much work to do on these units as anywhere else. To add to the list, the Owls must find a new punter for 2008 – Luke Juist who led the team in special teams tackles (14 on the year) for a good portion of the season, unfortunately, has used up his eligibility. Juist did a solid job on kickoffs. Again, consistency in executing special teams plays is what the Owls must strive for in 2008.

Judging the Players - Not the Statistics

It's a little surprising that our defense ranked where it did statistically in 2007, because when you look at the individual efforts of the players involved you saw them make some pretty outstanding plays. Starting with the leader of the Owl defensive unit in 2007 - undoubtedly Andrew Sendejo. The sophomore from Smithson Valley started the season at his natural Strong Safety position but dutifully played Free Safety much of the season – a position he's not necessarily well suited for. Sendejo led the team in tackles, interceptions, and bone jarring hits. He played hurt, but he still hit hard. You couldn't ask for anything more from a player than what Sendejo gave. Yet in spite of Sendejo's efforts, the rest of the secondary was constantly victimized. Bencil Smith went down to an injury on the first play of the season and the Owls used several different players at Free Safety over the course of the year trying to find a replacement. None played the position as well as Smith might have though. Trials now behind, the benefit of playing younger guys in 2007 will be measured in the years to come when Willie Garley, Chris Jones, Joseph Leary and Randy Kitchens will all have extensive playing time under their belts. The Owls weren't entirely fresh faced in the secondary. A couple of senior players, Aubrey White and Justin Abt each logged extensive time in the secondary after never really being given much of a chance at Rice prior to Bailiff's arrival. An unlikely "sack" producer, White produced two of the biggest sacks of the year - a pure effort job against Southern Miss that knocked the ball loose and preserved the win; and another one with similar meaning at the end of the UTEP game. Much like the rest of the secondary, the cornerbacks also struggled to find their comfort zones, and along the way they too gave up way too many big plays. Returning starter Brandon King looked lost early on before finally returning to his old form late in the season. On the other side JaCorey Shepherd started the season with a world of confidence. He got hurt, lost his starting job, and struggle the rest of the year. One of the better player stories of the year comes from the position. After coming to Rice with lofty expectations, namely that of being former Arkansas Razorbacks star Gary Anderson's son, Gary Anderson Jr. was down to his last season of eligibility without having made much of a contribution at all at Rice. In fact he was ready to put football behind and move on with his life. David Bailiff realized that he didn't have many 6-1 players on the roster with Anderson's speed and convinced him to stay. The result was a big positive for both Anderson and the Owls. He took over after JaCorey Shepherd got injured early in the season and never looked back, responding to an opportunity to start at cornerback with 15 passes broken up, 35 tackles and an interception. He played possibly his best game against UTEP's Fred Rouse, a player some services had ranked the #1 WR in the country coming out of high school. Anderson now leaves Rice having made a meaningful contribution.

The Rice linebacker crew was considered to be one of the most athletic units on the entire team. With Brian Raines and Terrence Garmon returning from big years in 2006, and Robert Calhoun and Vernon James coming off outstanding spring practices the Owls looked set for big things from the fabulous foursome. Then the injuries struck. After earning the distinction of the Strongest Owl on the team in the off season, Brian Raines was poised to build on a breakout season from 2006. Raines played up to expectations early on, but was injured in the Southern Miss game and never really regained the explosiveness he possessed last year and before the injury. Like Sendejo though, he played hurt all year and showed the grit and determination that the Rice Owls are becoming known for. In spite of the injury that plagued him the latter half of the season Raines still finished second on the team in tackles with 81, with 10 tackles for a loss, and 3 sacks. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the year came from linebacker Vernon James. He averaged double digit stops over the last 3 games and truly stepped up when he needed to. Terrance Garmon and Robert Calhoun both struggled with injury down the stretch – the Owls need them back in 2008, and healthy. Speaking of injury, freshman Tanner Shuck missed the entire year with an ankle injury that required surgery. He has excellent pass rush skills and will really give the defense a boost when he takes the field for his red shirt freshman season. Freshman linebacker Brandon Tolbert played mostly special teams. Aaron Williams is the biggest of the linebackers in terms of stature. He stands 6-3 but only weighs about 215 right now. Williams saw time at linebacker and defensive end this season but will stay at linebacker for now – unless he gains about 30 pounds. Ultimately injury would rob this unit's athletic potential.

The Rice defensive line was a unit of extremes – as in extremely experienced in the middle with Jonathan Cary and George Chukwu; and extremely young at the ends. Again injury dictated a revolving lineup. Freshman Scott Solomon won a position opposite Dietrich Davis in two-a-days with his stellar play. Solomon has been rewarded for his efforts by being named to the Freshman All-American Team. On the other end Davis had worked very hard to prepare for the 2007 season and a return to his high school position of defensive end. The return wouldn't last long as Davis suffered yet another concussion early in the season. Davis would tragically have to end his playing career as a result. His exit left the Owls playing another freshman opposite Solomon – Cheta Ozougwu. Solomon ended the season leading the Owls in sacks and tackles for a loss. Like solomon thouh his future is about as bright as it gets - Ozougwu is actually a little faster than Solomon but is still learning the finer points of the position after playing safety in high school. I 2008 the Owls will have an outstanding pair of bookends at the spots for the first time in recent memory. Another freshman, one of 15 to play in 2007,Kramer Lucio also saw extensive playing time before an injury ended his season too. In 2008 Will Shoppa moved back to defense after an experiment at tight end, showing some flashes of stellar play in doing so. The highlight of Shoppa's season was an interception and nifty return against Southern Miss. The Owls also have "swing" player Victor Brooks at the spot – he can play outside or inside at defensive tackle. Rice is in good shape at DE headed into next year. Inside they will probably be incredibly young. Chris Ptaszek improved as the season went on. Defensive Line Coach DJ Eliot told me Ptaszek played better than was expected for the former offensive lineman. He added that Chris has only been playing d-line for 2 years. If Ptaszek can continue to progress, and utilize his exceptional size, the Owls could have one of their better 4 man fronts next year. Todd Mohr saw time in the rotation early on but he too struggled with injury. Will Moss was one of the Owl's most promising signees of the 2004 class – unfortunately he was constantly injured while at Rice and saw his playing days also come to and end this year. The Owls are really excited about Cameron Thompson. The freshman from powerhouse D-FW program Cedar Hill is barely 6-0, but plays much bigger. He is really quick for a big guy and has only played football for 3 years. He will have the opportunity to be a regular starter next season. Brian Stacey red shirted this season. Two current players will likely be tried on the defensive line this spring – both bring more size to the position than the Owls have currently. Chance Talbert will return to the defensive line along with red shirt freshman Davon Primus from Humble. Primus will be tried at nose guard and at 6-3 325 won't likely be outweighed by his opponent very often. Rice has a couple of excellent defensive linemen committed for the 2008 class – John Gioffre of Cinco Ranch and Bay City's Michael Smith.

The Owl offense did about as much as you could hope for in 2007. If the defense can only make marginal improvement in its defensive play in 2008, you have to feel good about the possibilities of a much better season.

Here's what the Rice 2008 Defense might look like:

DE 6-3 260 Scott Solomon

NG 6-5 305 Chris Ptaszek

DT 6-5 290 Chance Talbert

Or DT 6-1 290 Cameron Thompson

DE 6-2 250 Cheta Ozougwu

LB 6-1 230 Brian Raines

LB 6-1 230 Vernon James

SS 6-1 215 Andrew Sendejo

Kat 5-11 195 Willie Garley

CB 5-9 185 Brandon King

CB 5-11 190 Joseph Leary

Or CB 5-11 195 JaCorey Shepherd Year End Defensive Awards

Defensive MVP – Andrew Sendejo

Defensive Freshman-of-the-Year – Scott Solomon

So many senior players showed the Heart of a Champion - Jonathan Cary, George Chukwu, Gary Anderson, Aubrey White, Justin Abt

Player Who Needs to Bounce Back – JaCorey Shepherd looked awesome in August; the Owls need him to come back next year with the same swagger he showed in those practices.

Young Guns – Chris Jones, Willie Garley, Joseph Leary, and Randy Kitchens all made "freshman" mistakes this year – they'll be better players for it in 2008.

Comeback Player of 2008 (?) – Bencil Smith

2007 was a tough season, time to turn the page…

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