Season Preview: Rice

Opening Statement

Before we start with the Mike Bloomgren era, let's pay tribute to David Bailiff. For almost fifty years the thought of Rice winning a conference title or ten games or even making a bowl game was a far-flung dream. Bailiff did all three. He won a division title in CUSA twice and a league title once. He won ten games twice and took the Owls to four bowl games including an unprecedented three in a row. Given the academic constraints at Rice, that's one of the best coaching jobs in the past 20 years. Well done coach Bailiff.

 Mike Bloomgren

Mike Bloomgren

Now onto the current Owls and new coach Bloomgren. The Owls thought somewhat outside the box with Bloomgren, the former Stanford offensive coordinator who's road to a head coaching gig wasn't exactly orthodox. He started as a GA at Alabama before using that position to propel his career to a couple of Division II jobs in the south. From there he jumped to the NFL and the Jets before moving to Stanford. 

At Stanford, Bloomgren helped mold the Cardinals to their now familiar intellectual brutality scheme. He consistently helped recruit and develop elite level offensive linemen that bullied more fashionable PAC 12 North foes like Oregon and the Washington schools. His challenge at Rice is to build a similar efficient attack at Rice, albeit on a smaller scale.

Year one for Bloomgren is looking more and more like a year zero. Let's look at why. 

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In April, I witnessed something I've never seen before; a quarterback took so many snaps in a spring game he cramped up. The Owls were so depleted at the position that Jackson Tyner took basically every snap. He was the equivalent of the old all-time QB from your playground days. Quarterback wasn't the only position with dire, depth issues. 

Grad transfers, graduation, and other attrition sapped the Owl program of key contributors. Key quarterback prospect Miklo Smalls missed the spring to attend to personal issues and is no longer listed on the Rice roster. 2017 starter Sam Glaesmann didn't play due to injury. Even if healthy, the Owl's quarterbacks require an overhaul. Glaesmann, Smalls, and Tyner combined to complete just 49.6% of their passes in 2017 and throw six touchdowns compared to sixteen interceptions. 

Whether Smalls returns is a critical question entering the fall. So is the integration of Vanderbilt grad transfer Shawn Stankavage. The Owls also signed Wiley Green from Prestonwood Christian and Parker Towns out of Dallas Jesuit in February. Offensive coordinator Jerry Mack will reset the QB competition this summer and hope to have an answer by the time fall camp lets out. 

 Emmanuel Esupka -  Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images North America

Emmanuel Esupka - Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images North America

Rice's running back stable is deep and will get plenty of opportunities this fall. Emmanuel Esupka is the most physical of the backs and was the most impressive in the spring game. Nahshon Ellerbe is the most explosive and led the Owls in rushing last season. Seniors Austin and Aston Walter return as well, Aston after an injury-plagued junior year. 

Will Phillips, listed at 260 will play fullback, or perhaps better said, full-guard. 

At receiver, the Owls lost Kylen Granson to a transfer but 2017 leading receiver Aaron Cephus is back after a near breakout season. In the spring game, Austin Trammell had a huge afternoon working from the slot, and Cameron Johnson played an active role as well. Rhett Caldwell is another possession type receiver who had a nice spring. 

Rice will use tight ends. Lord knows Stanford did. Jaeger Bull looks very fluid, and Jordan Myers is a mack truck waiting for a position. He'll work at tight end/H-back.

As always, better, more efficient quarterback play will make these receivers better or perhaps better said, allow them to showcase their talents. 

Up front as if the losses of one of the best centers in the FCS in Trey Martin and Peter Godber, a first-round selection in the CFL draft weren't severe enough, Calvin Anderson used the grad transfer rules to make his way to Austin. That's a combined 123 career starts gone. Sam Pierce returns at tackle, and Joseph Dill returns at guard. Pierce has started 26 games in his Rice career. 

Uzoma Osuji will slide in at left tackle, and Jack Greene looks to start at left guard. At center, Shea Baker and Crocket Mockrey will battle to get reps in fall camp. Baker is undersized but seems like a sound technician. Osuji is an asset at tackle, and in spite of losing Anderson, his presence will help buffer the unit in 2018. 

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If attrition nailed Rice's offense, it decimated the defense. 

Blain Padgett tragically passed away early in the offseason, reminding us that what happens on the field is secondary to the relationships that these experiences forge. Blaine is loved by his teammates and the Rice community. 

There's no right way to transition from that, so forgive me but we'll move on. 

The Owls graduated draft pick Emmanuel Ellerbee, free agent signee Brian Womac, Destri White, and D.J. Green. J.T. Ibe transferred to South Carolina and just like that the Owls top five tacklers are no longer with the program.

 Zach Abercrumbia

Zach Abercrumbia

The Owls do have a lot of big, long defensive linemen to help the transition from Brian Stewart's 3-4 to Brian Smith's multiple front attack. Roe Wilkins and Zach Abercrumbia are back inside. Carl Thompson will be back as well after missing part of the spring. Seniors Graysen Schantz and Brady Wright worked with the first team as defensive ends in the spring. Schantz is a versatile athlete who can play with his hand on the ground or move outside. 

At linebacker Dylan Silcox and Martin Nwakamma are undersized but active, a hallmark of Smith's defensive scheme. If they can hold up against the run, they should be flexible enough to be three-down backers. Anthony Ekpe is the most physically imposing and should play well inside the box. 

In the secondary the Owls are starting over at safety after losing Ibe, White, and Cole Thomas. Houston Robert saw action after Thomas' and Ibe's injuries. George Nyakwol will get a look at safety as well after playing as a true freshman out of Aldine Ike. 

Rice has depth at cornerback with Brandon Douglas-Dotson, Justin Bickham, D'Angelo Ellis and Jorian Clark are all back. Tyrae Thornton flashed at corner during the spring game, bringing a physicality to the position. The Owls will run a ton of nickel sets and they'll have options to contribute at the position. 

Specialists

Jack Fox is a weapon for Rice at punter; he led CUSA in average at 44.2 yards per attempt. Fox also handled kickoffs, forcing touchbacks 70% of the time. 

Placekicking is a question mark. Will Harrison made just two of his four kicks as a true freshman with a long of 36. Hayden Tabola made his only attempt last season, but was reasonably efficient in 2015 and 2016, making 60% of his attempts.  

Rice's offense didn't threaten enough to warrant many attempts, hopefully, that changes in 2018.  

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Aaron Cephus - Reciever

The Spring Dekaney grad has all the physical tools at 6-4, 200 pounds. Averaged 24.9 yards per catch and set an Owl freshman mark for receiving yards.

Austin Trammell - Receiver

Should thrive in the Owls new offense from the slot and as a punt returner. Adept at finding holes in defenses and catches everything thrown at him. 

Roe Wilkins - Defensive Tackle

Wilkins, a junior from Sour Lake, made Honorable Mention All-CUSA last season after amassing 6.5 sacks from the inside of the Owls defensive front. 

Schedule

Best Case: A quarterback emerges from the library or mathematics department and leads the Owls to wins over Prairie View, UTEP, Old Dominion and another CUSA foe, perhaps UTSA. Heck maybe Hawaii. 4-9.

Worst Case: The quarterback position remains unsettled and the new offensive philosophy is hampered by square pegs in round holes. 2-11.

Closing Remarks

Rice is a hard place to win. Bailiff was able to do it more frequently than anyone since Jess Neely. Bloomgren has a chance to put his stamp on the program, but it may take time to start seeing results in the win column. 

For 2018 there are mammoth questions at too many critical positions, starting with quarterback, to feel comfortable predicting any significant improvement. 

More of the Owls...