For the first time in a long time, David Bailiff won't be blowing his whistle to start spring drills at Rice. Mike Bloomgren is here from Nor Cal to revitalize the Owl program; he's got his work cut out for him.
Last year's Owls finished 1-11, their one win? The settled accounts vs. 0-12 UTEP. Bailiff was hoping that Rice fans would go by the old "you can lose every game except UTEP" mantra, but sadly they did not and canned him anyway. Enter Bloomgren and a new era in Rice football. Most era's in Rice football end poorly; some tragically. Don't be pessimistic Mike, no reason this can't be fun.
While we're here, let's talk about a few ideas for the spring.
The Stanford hashtag #intellectualbrutality comes to Rice, sort of. Mike Bloomgren hired Jerry Mack a spread guy to run his offense. Mack comes to Rice from North Carolina Central where he won 31 games in four years including three conference titles. Mack promises to take parts of Stanford's offense and blend it with some spread concepts. Rice couldn't score consistently in 2017, in the spring Rice needs to identify how they'll rectify that in 2018.
Regardless of the hashtags, Rice will win or lose on the ground, the way God intended it. Here's the hard part, Rice returns two offensive linemen and no tight ends. At least no true tight ends. Calvin Anderson was last seen shopping his wares to the likes of Texas, Michigan, and Auburn as a grad transfer.
What Rice does have is an abundance of running back options including a running brick wall in Emmanuel Esupka. Rice used Esupka as a hybrid running back/weapon of smash destruction in 2017. Think of him as Toby Gerhart, a useful comp for Bloomgren. Nahshon Ellerbee returns as well after his most productive season in a Rice uniform.
Rounding out the Rice backfield is Samuel Stewart who's been no so much bitten by the injury bug as eaten alive by it. We're also excited to see what Jordan Myers can do if he's given the ball at running back. He was used as an H-back last year, but the talent is evident.
Look for Mack to piece together what he can from what he's got, even if the line is a bit green and his quarterback is unproven. More on that later.
Reboot on Defense
Bloomgren turned to Michigan secondary coach Brian Smith to lead his defense. Smith learned under Don Brown, the sage Wolverine coordinator. As Smith surveys the practice fields at Rice, he won't see the vast vineyards of talent he grew accustomed to in Ann Arbor. Rice lost most of their best production from 2017, including Emmanuel Ellerbee, Brian Womac, J.T. Ibe, Preston Gordon, and D.J. Green.
Ellerbee and Womac's loss will sting, there isn't a player on the roster who can match either's production. Ellerbee ended his career as one of the elite defensive players in CUSA history. Womac came on as a true, account for him on every play, quarterback hunter.
Smith will benefit from Brian Stewart's brief stay at Rice. Stewart introduced the Owls to the 3-4, transitioning Rice out of the 4-2-5 and into the base defense preferred by Smith. They also played more aggressively in 2017 under Stewart, a style that will transition well for Smith. The Owls just won't have the playmakers.
Smith promises to run a 3-4 but also be multiple on defense. He also promises to bring some of Don Brown's tricks with him. This offseason Smith needs to find linebackers to play the needed roles and even figure out whether the Owls can play as blitz happy as he might like.
We wrote about UTSA and UTEP in recent weeks, and how wide open their quarterback competitions are, the same is true at Rice. The great John Madden once said that if you have two quarterbacks you don't have one, well the Owls have three or four quarterbacks. Good luck finding one.
Last year's cumulative quarterback line reads like the last 15 minutes of "The Departed." Rice quarterbacks completed less than 50% of their passes, if this were 1964, that would be ideal, in 2017 it's 20 percentage points worse than average. Rice threw six touchdowns. Six. That's a bad two game stretch for a most teams. Rice put that number together 48 quarters of football, on two continents. Rice quarterbacks threw 16 interceptions. That ratio should trigger a season ticket refund.
Let's start with Miklo Smalls, the sophomore from Plano who played well in fits and starts last season as a true freshman. Smalls' talent was such that Bailiff couldn't keep him off the field. Mack's been clear that he intends to use the quarterback run as a central part of the offense, Smalls is the best option for that skill set.
We're excited to see what Smalls can do with more playing time. Last year's offensive coordinator Billy Lynch adapted the offense to Smalls abilities and thinned out the playbook. Given a full offseason in a college program and an offense more designed to him, Smalls could be an impact player.
Sam Glaesman won the job last season but didn't play well enough to secure it throughout the season. A redshirt sophomore from Waco Midway, he struggled with efficiency, though he did lead Rice to that epic win over UTEP. Jackson Tyner played in relief of Glaesman; he's a bigger athlete who displayed glimpses of talent in 2016.
Finally, there's Shawn Stankavage, a grad transfer from Vanderbilt who was never healthy during his time in Nashville. He might sneak in by default if none of the other options take the job by the horns. Rice signed two freshman quarterback, Wiley Green and Parker Towns. If the Owls turn to one of them, it'll either mean they are a transcendent talent, or all hope is lost.
For a team that wasn't explosive in 2017, there are some dangerous, rangy athletes to build around. Bloomgren's Stanford offenses seem to have a bevy of tall, power forward looking tight ends and receivers. Aaron Cephus and Kylen Granson fit that bill. Both are over 6-3 and weigh in north of 210. Cephus had as close to a breakout season as you could have with just 25 catches. His 24.9-yard average showed he could be a downfield threat. Imagine what he could do with a quarterback who could deliver the football to him consistently.
We forecast great things for Granson last offseason. We were wrong. Readers of this site have come to expect that level of mis-analysis, and we're more than happy to provide it. Still, Granson finished second on the team with eighteen. He might benefit from a more intermediate focused passing attack.
Do you like your receivers on the shorter side? Oh my Gosh, Rice has the receivers for you. Austin Walter might be the most consistent splash play threat on campus. He checks in at 5-8. Walter towers over 5-5 Cameron Montgomery who is a blazer out of Stafford, just west of Rice. Austin Trammell also saw a fair amount of playing time as a true freshman out of Klein.