Football teams across the country are addressing question marks as they prepare their teams for the coming 2009 season. The Owls are no exception as they kick off Spring Practice today. Most of those questions for the Owls, will obviously start on Offense, so today we'll focus mostly on that side of the ball as we preview Rice Owl 2009 Spring Practice.
Here's an abbreviated list of Owl offensive "opportunities" needing answers...
Who will win the Owls' starting QB job now that Chase Clement graduates?
How will an Offensive Coaching staff full of new faces, including a new Offensive Coordinator, new Offensive Line Coach, and a new Wide Receivers Coach gel together?
Now, here's a look at how David Bailiff and his staff will address these challenges.
Replacing Chase Clement is no small feat, but the Owls are hardly devoid of options. New QB and OC Coach Ed Zaunbrecher will have 3 primary candidates in the race for the starting signal callers job.
Senior John Thomas Shepherd will likely begin the spring as the starter, but the race for the job is really wide-open. Shepherd came to Rice as an option QB in the Hatfield era, for him to win the job he will have to prove that he has the arm strength to make the throws needed to run the Spread Offense. Shepherd is a respected member of the team and has worked hard for an opportunity (he recently competed in the Iron Owl event in the Power Clean); but challengers Ryan Lewis and Nick Fanuzzi have more physical tools. While Shepherd is about 6-1 190, Lewis and Fanuzzi are both over 6-3 and weigh around 205. He will have a tough time holding them off.
Though Shepherd came to Rice by virtue of his running ability, both Lewis and Fanuzzi are capable runners in their own right. None of the Quarterbacks are quite as fast as Chase Clement however, who had several long runs from scrimmage in 2008. As a result, I don't expect to see nearly as much rushing yardage from the QB position. However, Lewis and Fanuzzi both have the advantage of stronger throwing arms. While running the Owl Scout Offense, Lewis regularly gave the Rice Defense headaches with his accuracy last fall. Fanuzzi also looked impressive in practices and showed the ability to throw the deep patterns well.
Regardless of who the starter at QB will be, one big advantage the Offense will have is the experience of Quarterbacks Coach/OC Ed Zaunbrecher - the former Purdue OC has coached 10 different collegiate Quarterbacks to school passing records.
And speaking of Zaunbrecher, he is one of many new faces joining the Owl staff this spring; which poses the question - how will the new Offensive staff gel quickly enough to make Spring Practice as effective as it needs to be?
First off, with the exception of Zaunbrecher, new coaches Larry Edmondson and Ronnie Vinklarek have worked together before at SMU. They also worked with Owl Running Backs Coach Darrell Patterson while he was there too. So there's already quite a bit of familiarity with those particular staff members. Which brings us back to Zaunbrecher. I think the other new coaches will mesh easily with him. I like this hire, and in talking to him he's an outgoing person who is easy to like and more importantly brings a ton of experience to Rice. Combined with the experience Edmondson and Vinklarek bring, that adds up to a much more seasoned Owl Offensive staff than was previously in place here before. As with all his staff members, David Bailiff also looks at character above all else before bringing coaches in to join the staff. No surprise then that he got the "salt of the earth" with this group. On top of all this, they are excellent teachers and well respected by the high school coaches in Texas.
I think this group is already on the same page, and Spring Practice will go off without a hitch. I'm betting the real payoff on hiring these guys may be more long term than immediate; but for now, I don't expect any issues related to the timing of their arrival.
I recently asked Coach Zaunbrecher how he would replace the production of James Casey and Jarett Dillard. He said, "we'll find out this spring." I think what he meant was "with an entire Offense, not just individuals."
I believe what we'll see from the Offense going forward is a more balanced approach, relying on the execution of several components of the Offense rather than mostly one aspect. I think a lot of the success of the Owl Offense last year came as a result of Clement, Dillard, and Casey being able to play a lot of "pitch and catch" - they made lots of spectacular plays every Saturday with their talent. Taking nothing away from the trio but Casey and Dillard had the knack to get open and perhaps even moreso, to come down with passes that could have fallen into other hands. Chase, to his credit, knew when and where to place the ball for these guys to make catches. That being said, the NFL will be getting two players in Casey and Dillard that Rice would love to keep.
So back to the question. I think Corbin Smiter, Toren Dixon, maybe even Taylor Wardlow will be getting the bulk of the catches in 2009. Add to the physicality of this group, a vertical dimension provided by speedsters like Patrick Randolph and Denzel Wells; and a running game sparked by a more athletic group of Offensive Linemen featuring hungry Running Backs like Jeramy Goodson, Justin Hill, Shane Turner, and Charles Ross - and the 2009 Owl Offense could be quite effective in a variety of new ways.
So as practice kicks off today, there are obviously lots of questions for the Owl Offense, I think the answers are all there in front of them though.
We'll have periodic reports from practice as drills start.