If Rice's defense is going to improve this season, chances are you can chalk it up to a new aggressive scheme and two former defensive backs at linebacker.
Michigan's Don Brown might be the best defensive coordinator in college football. If he's not the best, he's on a very short list. Brown predicates his multiple schemes on versatility, chaos, and above all else attacking. “Attack, attack, attack, is what defense’s all about," Brown told the media a few years ago, and that's what Michigan has done since his arrival.
New Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren didn't have a shot to hire Brown, so he went for one of his disciples instead. For two seasons Brian Smith coached defensive backs for Brown at Michigan. He promises to bring that same attacking style to Rice Village.
At the center of his defense, literally, are two converted defensive backs, Dylan Silcox and Martin Nwakamma. Silcox did everything for Winnie-East Chambers High School. He returned punts, played running back, cornerback, and safety. A senior, Nwakamma played safety at Leander and on special teams at Rice until last season when he and Silcox moved into the SAM position, outside linebacker, in Rice's 3-4.
Smith moved both inside and though neither weighs above 220, both possess a trait that Don Brown and his protege Smith value, they can move. A Don Brown defense centers itself on everyone running to the football. That's not a novel concept, but Brown's units take it a step further, they pursue with a purpose, not just getting to their run fits, but of getting to their proper leverage and funnel the ball into traffic.
To play as aggressively as the defense requires, defenders have to trust that redundancy defenders or "overhangs" as Smith and Brown call them are in place. Overhang defenders come from outside the box or front seven to reinforce at the point of attack. This allows box players like Silcox and Nwakamma to attack to the football aggressively.
Look for Rice to package players for specific situations to help diversify and get more players involved. The benefit isn't just at game time but also keeps players cued in during practice. Giving players ownership helps build a culture where player want to play with the effort the system demands.
The culture and buy in leads to a mentality where "loafing is treason." All eleven players give maximum effort until the ball carrier is down. You don't want to be the one guy caught jogging during film study on Monday.
Even though Silcox and Nwakamma are undersized, beating the offense to the point of attack and creating penetration is the big ticket item. The question will be can they hold up to the pounding that teams will invariably want to throw at them given their size. Their athleticism should allow Smith to have some fun attacking.
If you want to have some fun, watch Michigan destroy Florida's offense last season in Arlington. It's a clinic, erasing Wilton Speights' tendency to throw pick sixes.