Entering its 100th year of football, and coming off a 4-8 record a year ago, Rice brings back the bulk of an offense that had some strong moments in averaging better than 28 points per game last year.
New offensive coordinator John Reagan comes from the same background — Kansas, under former coach Mark Mangino — that last year's offensive coordinator, David Beaty, did. That means that the Longhorns can expect plenty of spread, horizontal throws to open up vertical seams and a zone running game.
At the helm of that offense is sophomore Taylor McHargue (6-1 205), a Vista Ridge product who started the first game of his career against Texas a year ago. McHargue played in just five games, but put up an excellent passer rating of 158.70 by completing 57 percent of his passes for six touchdowns and one interception. He's also a running threat, serving as last season's No. 3 rusher in yards per game.
He'll be backed up by Nick Fanuzzi, who saw a majority of the snaps last year, completing 62.7 percent of his throws for 1.681 yards and 11 touchdowns to nine interceptions. Taylor Cook, the third party of the Rice quarterback triumvirate, moved to tight end in the offseason.
Sam McGuffie makes one of college football's most dynamic, and interesting, weapons. He led the Owls in both rushing (883 yards and six touchdowns) and receptions (39 for 384 yards and three touchdowns). But he didn't receive the number of touches you'd expect from a top-tier running back — slightly less than 20 per game — based in large part to his size and history of concussions.
He's hardly a one-man show. Tyler Smith, who ran for 279 yards as a junior, is listed as the co-starter, and is immediately backed up by Charles Ross, a 230-pounder. Also in the group is Jeremy Eddington, who rushed for 365 yards while averaging 6.2 yards per carry and scoring 10 touchdowns last year. As a group, four of the Owls' top-five running backs have a 100-plus yard game to their credit. McGuffie and Eddington both accomplished that feat a year ago.
Rice's top receiver by yardage is tight end Luke Willson (6-5 250), a big target who snagged 33 passes for 425 yards and three touchdowns last year. Vance McDonald found the end-zone eight times on his 28 catches a year ago. Each of the projected starting receivers is above 6-feet, and only one of the eight players listed on the two-deep at the position is shorter than that.
Rice returns more than 100 career starts on its projected starting offensive line, and it's a pretty good-sized group, averaging right at 300 pounds per man. Jake Hicks (6-4 295) is a versatile player with 29 starts across multiple positions on the line. He'll get the start at left tackle. The rest of the line, from left, goes like this: Davon Allen (6-2 315), Keshawn Carrington (6-3 290), Eric Ball (6-4 300) and Tyler Parish (6-4 300).
Defensively, the Owls employ a 4-2-5 scheme. Last year, Rice's defense often let the team down by allowing more than 38 points per game, while teams carved up the Rice secondary for a 159.03 passer rating, leaving Rice ranked 115th nationally in the category. That was enough to give Rice the 107th total defense, despite a middle-of-the-pack (54th) rushing defense.
Part of the problem was an inability to get to the quarterback, though the Owls expect to be better in that category in 2011. Back is defensive end and honors candidate Scott Solomon (6-3 270), who sat out all of 2010 with an injury. He has 30.5 career tackles for loss and 15.5 career sacks. The Owls will certainly welcome back his big-play ability. Jared Williams (6-2 250) might also help at the other end spot. The junior is consider a pass rush specialist, and he has some speed off the edge.
Rice returns both starting defensive tackels from last year in John Gioffre (6-0 280) and Michael Smith (6-1 290). Keep an eye on true freshman Nico Carlson (6-3 270) of Katy, who has already shot up into the spot behind Gioffre.
The Owls expected big things from Cameron Nwosu (5-10 235) a year ago, but an injury cut his freshman year short. Now he's listed as the starter at SAM. Justin Allen, a former Idaho transfer, is back at WILL, where he made 61tackles a year ago.
Phillip Gaines and Chris Jammer give the Owls a pair of 6-1 cornerbacks, though they need to prove they can cover as well as they can tackle. Gaines had 95 tackles a year ago. Redshirt freshman Bryce Callahan (5-10 180) is more of a cover guy and is an up-and-comer.
Corey Frazier (6-1 210) plays the KAT spot, a hybrid safety/linebacker position. He made 83 tackles last year. Veteran Xavier Webb is back at free safety, while Paul Porras, a former wide receiver, has a chance to stand out at strong safety.
The special teams are arguably the best part of the Rice squad. Chris Boswell was among the more honored freshman kickers a year ago after hitting 11-of-17 field goals and accounting for 74 points. Punter Kyle Martens did one better, earning All-America honors by averaging 46 ads per punt. Eddington and Ross, a pair of big, 230-pound bodies, will return kickoffs. Callahan, who averaged almost 26 yards per punt return as a high school senior, will get that job.
Rice returns a bevy of experience and enough key pieces to expect them to improve on last season's record. Still, if the Longhorns want to show that they're making positive momentum, this is still a team they should handle easily.