Last year heading into the start of August drills Cornerback didn't seem to be as big a concern as other areas of the team. Brandon King and JaCorey Shepherd were coming off of solid seasons in 2006. Most expected things to only get better at the Cornerback positions. They didn't, like so many other positions on the 2007 Owl team' injuries and inconsistent play left Rice coaches scrambling to find players they could win with. Junior incumbent Shepherd ran into injury and confidence problems and gave way to Owl Senior Gary Anderson. The Little Rock native answered the call, giving the Owls the best season of his life. On the opposite side Brandon King was steady, leading the league in Pass Break-ups and grabbing 3 interceptions. Sophomore Chris Douglas saw limited action and also had injury problems. Often guys had to play hurt though – there simply weren't other options available. Heck, even Owl Cornerbacks Coach Jason Washington was hobbled while recovering from knee surgery. Add to their struggles injuries on the Defensive Line and a constantly changing rotation at the Safety positions and the year was one best left behind.
This past spring however, driven by Coach Washington's insistent call for better performance from his charges, play at the position seemed to take on a much more confident, and consistent pattern. Christopher Douglas seemed to take a big step forward in his development. Ja'Corey Shepherd learned to address issues that derailed his path in 2007. Walk-on Martin Uwah joined the fray and made some flashy plays. The only negative was that highly ranked freshman Joseph Leary's much anticipated move to Corner was dampened by neck and hamstring injuries.
With this competitive group already making strides as Spring Practice wound to a close, things got even better for the Rice secondary just weeks later when the Owls' two talented 2008 Cornerback signees – Jarrett Ben and Chris Jammer – enrolled in early June. The pair has worked diligently all summer in voluntary workouts and drills and word on campus is they look ready to compete.
Let's look at what each brings to August drills as we anticipate a stiff competition.
The Rock: Brandon King
King has been a picture of consistency the past 3 seasons. Though not the biggest or fastest guy at the position he's rarely out of position. Known to teammates as "BK" he's got career 29 starts as an Owl to his credit. King has gotten Honorable Mention preseason All Conference mention.
Strengths: King is a disciplined player who doesn't give a lot of ground. Consistency has been his calling card for the past two seasons. He's a very good athlete that has also made big contributions on Special Teams.
How he can win a job: A starter's spot is King's to lose really - he's not likely to be beaten out. He's worked harder than ever this spring and summer to get bigger, faster, and stronger. He's looked great in voluntary workouts against teammates this summer. Currently weighs about 186 – he's the heaviest, but also the fastest, he's ever been while at Rice. Poised to have a great year.
Spring Practice Report: Worked with the "Ones" exclusively. Had another solid performance in Spring Drills and has worked on improving his ball skills.
Comeback Kid: Ja'Corey Shepherd
Shepherd would probably quote LL Cool J on this…"don't call it a come back…I've been here for years". "Shep" showed flashes of great play in 2006 and looked poised to build on that last year. Injuries and mistakes led to him splitting a lot of time towards the end of the season. He's no doubt got the confidence to play the position –but the Owls need him to return to the form he showed in his sophomore season.
Strengths: Has great size for the position and probably looks as good or better as any of the other Owls at the position. Has all the confidence in the world for the position. Also returns punts and kicks. Has worked very hard in the offseason to compete and win back his starting spot.
How he can win a job: While Shepherd has the tools he needs to be an effective corner, he's not light's out fast. He needs to play technically sound football to keep from running into inconsistencies in his assignments. Sometimes his confidence takes him out of position. Disciplined play is key for Shepherd to return to the starting line-up.
Spring Practice Report: Split time with the First Team. Pushed hard by coaches to play within his skill set and focus on polishing his technique.
The Blue Chip: Joseph Leary
Leary came to Rice as one of the highest ranked recruits in the 2006 Rice Recruiting class, an Honorable Mention All-State player from Copperas Cove, he was rated one of the Top DB's in the country. He played in 10 games last year as a true freshman, all at Safety. His size, athleticism, and a need for more options at the position prompted a move to Cornerback last spring. However injuries sidetracked his progress there, so all eyes will be on him this August when practice starts.
Strengths: Leary is an explosive hitter, so run support is something he enjoys. Having played Safety in high school and also as a freshman at Rice Leary understands the "big picture" of combination coverages well. He's a natural athlete that runs in the 4.4 range.
How he can win a job: Leary must work hard on his flexibility. The team's recent implementation of yoga into their strength and conditioning regimen should help him in particular. If he can stay injury free and become a little more fluid, he can be an all C-USA caliber defender.
Spring Practice Report: Missed several days with neck and hamstring injuries. He played in the Spring Game however and showed the promise coaches expect to see on display this fall.
The Understudy: Chris Douglas
Douglas was a private school phenom at FW All Saints Episcopal. Won team MVP awards twice as a Running Back and Defensive Back. Won the SPC State 200M track title as a sophomore. Has lettered twice at Rice but injuries and position changes have prevented him from having a breakout season.
How he can win a job: Douglas will need a very strong performance this August to win the starter's job. The stability of playing and practicing at the same position for a couple of seasons now should help him in his quest.
Spring Practice Report: Probably had the best Spring he's ever had as a player at Rice. Played and practiced with the "Ones" quite a bit. The experienced gained should boost his confidence for August pre-season drills.
The Walk-On: Martin Uwah
Uwah red shirted last year after walking on the Rice football team in 2007. Uwah was an Academic All-State player at Mesquite Horn HS.
Strengths: Though undersized, Uwah is quick and fast.
How he can win a job: Not likely to become a starter this fall but with more size and experience Uwah could contend for playing time in the future.
Spring Practice Report: Was a pleasant surprise for Cornerbacks Coach Jason Washington. Made a lot of good plays and is aggressive despite giving away a size advantage in most match-ups.
The Burner: Jarrett Ben
Jarrett Ben posted a sub 10.5 100 meters in track last spring and is one of the fastest incoming Owls. He's run 21.60 in the 200 meters and was on the Garland Track Team that finished second at the State Meet. Ben is a lock down corner with speed to burn.
Strengths: Obviously Ben has a "leg" up on the competition with his speed. He's worked very hard since arriving on campus in June though. He's gained about 10 pounds and has also gotten much stronger.
How he can win a job: Ben must prove he can play at the line of scrimmage – can he knock receivers off their routes and can he defend the run? Whether thsoe questions are answered this year or not he will likely put on another 15 - 25 pounds at Rice. He's definitely more fast than strong right now.
Spring Practice Report: N/A
Blood Runner: Chris Jammer
Jammer comes from athletic bloodlines: two cousins are playing in the NFL, Johnnie Higgins and Quentin Jammer. Another, Kenny Baugh, is a former star pitcher for Wayne Graham's nationally ranked Owl baseball team and is currently pitching for Albuquerque, the Triple A affiliate of the Florida Marlins. Like fellow freshman Jarrett Ben, Jammer is very fast. He's also rangy, standing 6-1, and will be the prototypical "big" cornerback after a couple years in the Rice S&C program. With a name like "Jammer" seems he was born to be a Cornerback.
Strengths: Also like Ben, the talented freshman from Sweeny also participated in track, Long Jumping over 21'. Height is obviously an advantage for Jammer. He projects to be a 6-2 190 pound upperclassman for the Owls. How fast he picks up the speed of the game will likely determine whether he red shirts or pushes for playing time this year.
How he can win a job: Both freshmen have the athletic ability to cover receivers, the real question is can they handle the mental and physical demands of college football as true freshmen in 2008...
Spring Practice Report: N/A
Next week we'll look at the battle for the Right Tackle position…