Rice is finishing up camp and heading full throttle into game week prep for the Owls' opening against Prairie View next Saturday at Rice Stadium. The Owls and head coach Mike Bloomgren are remaking their program and identity to match Bloomgren's intellectual brutality philosophy.
Whether the roster has answered all Bloomgren's questions, Rice is starting it's 2018 journey with the benefit of an FCS opponent. The last two seasons, Rice opened at Jeff Brohm's Western Kentucky and against Stanford in Australia. Neither outcome gave the Owls much to build on heading into game two. Prairie View gives the Owls the chance to get some footing before they run into teams that carry much bigger sticks.
How about a little forecasting for the 2018 Owls?
Jackson Tyner will start at quarterback. He'll be asked to manage the attack. That's not a slight or any commentary on his abilities. Save for Andrew Luck, Stanford existed with game managers who lined up behind maulers up front. Stanford's success was and is predicated on excellent line play. Whether Rice has the CUSA equivalent of line play, Bloomgren will allow them the luxury of doing something that Billy Lynch's 2017 offense didn't - the opportunity to fire off and push people around.
Shawn Stankavage, the grad transfer from Vanderbilt gives Rice another luxury; they can redshirt their freshman quarterbacks. At least that would seem the prudent plan. With the new, more liberal redshirt rules, the Owls can play that by ear, but also know that when they need a backup quarterback, Stankavage has some Power 5, SEC experience. It's doubtful the Owl staff would've moved Sam Glaesmann to receiver if they didn't think Stankavage had the stuff to come in and produce off the bench.
Back to Tyner, he'll be asked to make smart plays, find his tight ends and let players like Austin Trammell find holes in zones. He'll also hand the ball off to Emmanual Esupka a lot. At least that's the plan.
If college football is transitioning to pace and space backs, then Esupka is a rare thumper. A big, bruising back who'll live between the tackles. If Esupka stays healthy, he'll be the leading edge of the blunt object that is Rice's Intellectual Brutality.
In five of the last seven seasons, a Stanford back has finished in the top 20 in carries. In three of the previous five years, that back carried the ball 300 or more times. For comparison, Rice has only had two backs reach 200 carries in the last seven years.
Unlike a lot of coaches, Bloomgren isn't afraid to use a feature back, give him the ball twenty plus times a game and ride that horse. Esupka looks to be that back. Rice will line up, and attempt to pound the ball, stay ahead of the chains, shorten the game, and keep their opponent's offense off the field. In four of the last five years, Stanford finished in the top 30 in time of possession.
To accomplish that stranglehold of time, Stanford averaged over six yards per carry on first down in 2017, and over 5.5 yards per carry on first down in the last five years combined. Rice won't get to those numbers in year one, last season the Owls averaged almost three yards less per carry on first down. A philosophical change will help improve that number, but Rice needs time to recruit square pegs for square holes.
In the meantime, Bloomgren will start to transform Rice's culture and give this team an identity. Based on what we saw this spring and reports in fall camp, the Owls will ground and pound teams on offense and attack, attack, attack on defense.
Don't expect to see all that on display against Prairie View, but at least the Owls have a great shot to get out of the gate 1-0.