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Rice 2017 Season Preview

Owls optimistic a bowl berth is within reach

Prairie View v Rice
Samuel Stewart runs for a touchdown against Prairie View A&M last season. A healthy and productive Stewart is one key to the Owls success in 2017.
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

10, 8, 5 and 3

No, those numbers aren’t from today’s lotto drawing. Instead, they are the number of victories Rice football has earned during the past four seasons. They represent a slow and steady decline toward the bottom of Conference USA.

If the numerical sequence continues, it could be another frustrating year for Rice students, alumni and fans. But perhaps 3-9 is the low point. With an influx of new coaches, the ascension of a promising quarterback and the preseason C-USA Defensive Player of the Year, it is quite possible the downtrend trend is over and Rice will return to relevance.

“The new coaches have really worked in well,” Rice coach David Bailiff said at media day. “More of the players are able to get in extra film and work. There’s just a sense of enthusiasm with this football team and this coaching staff. We want to get back to our winning ways. I think we’re going to do that this year.”

Offense

Army v Rice
Rice tackle Calvin Anderson blocks an Army defender. Anderson is part of an experience offensive line.
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Traditionally, you start with the quarterback and work your way to the other positions. But let’s go inside and out because the offense’s success or failure has a lot to do with the five guys in front of the quarterback.

Left tackle Calvin Anderson, left guard Peter Godber, center Trey Martin, right guard Cory Klinger and right tackle Sam Pierce all are returning starters. Anderson and Martin were honorable mention C-USA selections.

The problem was the quintet didn’t play much together the first two-thirds of the 2016 season because of injuries. When Godber and Martin returned, and Klinger settled into the right guard role, the line was much improved. The result was two wins to close out C-USA play last year and a sense of confidence going into this season.

Having a healthy and talented offensive line will make breaking in a new quarterback significantly easier. Redshirt freshman Sam Glaesmann was selected as the starting quarterback last week, beating out two quarterbacks with collegiate experience, Jackson Tyner and J.T. Granato. Tyner will be the backup while Granato transferred to Missouri State.

Sophomore Kylen Granson likely will be Glaesmann’s main target. Granson showed flashes of brilliance last season, catching 33 balls for 381 yards and a pair of scores. Alaska native Lance Wright appears to finally be healthy and could contribute as can redshirt freshman Aaron Cephus. Tight end Robby Wells may be asked upon to catch more balls. He had three receptions last year, including a two-point conversion against North Texas that sent the game to overtime.

In addition to Glaesmann’s running ability, Rice has experienced running backs in juniors Samuel Stewart and Austin Walter. They combined for more than 800 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in 2016. Rice ranked right in the middle – 72nd nationally – in rushing.

With an inexperienced quarterback, Rice may run more than a year ago. Rice went from rushing 68 percent of the time on standard downs in 2015 (20th in FBS) to 58 percent (80th). A healthy Stewart could raise that figure back to around 70 percent.

“Sam Stewart averaged 6.2 yards per carry last year but he really only played in four full games,” Bailiff said. “We’ve got to stay healthy like every football team in the country tries to do. We practice smart. The strength staff does everything right. People get banged up in football but we think we have some depth that will be able to step up where we don’t have a big drop off if something happens.”

Defense

Rice v Charlotte Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images

Rice was somewhere between bad and downright awful in almost all defensive categories last season. We don’t need to relive it here.

On the plus side, there’s a new sheriff in town and a heck of a linebacker.

Brian Stewart replaced the retired Chris Thurmond as defensive coordinator, and he brings 25 years of coaching experience. We don’t need to look far to see what a difference Stewart could potentially make. Across town at Houston in 2011, Stewart helped guide a defense that finished in the top 15 nationally in red zone scoring, interceptions, tackles for loss, takeaways and opponent completion percentage.

“Brian Stewart is just so detailed in everything that he does,” Bailiff said. “He leaves absolutely nothing to chance. I see him work with coaches so everybody is on the same page and uses the same vocabulary on every drill. He’s a player magnet. …With a new coordinator, there is new energy.”

Senior linebacker Emmanuel Ellerbee was selected as the 2017 Conference USA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year. Only one other Owl has earned that distinction, Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Philip Gaines.

Ellerbee finished second in C-USA in tackles with 118. His 70 solo tackles were tied for 14th in the nation. He also accounted for eight tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and an interception. Beyond the numbers, he has a knack for disrupted opposing offenses.

Rice returns experience up front, including ends Blain Padgett and Brian Womac. Zach Abercrumbia is back at nose tackle after missing eight games last season. The unit remains undersized compared to some other in the conference, so that could again be detrimental.

Secondary returnees include V.J. Banks and J.T. Ibe. Former Maryland and Kansas assistant coach Scott Vestal will coach Rice safeties.

Special Teams

2017 US College Football Sydney Cup: Launch
Rice punter Jack Fox poses with Tabbi the koala during the Sydney Cup Launch Tuesday in Australia. The Owls play Stanford on Saturday in the second annual Sydney Cup.
Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Junior Haden Tobola has made 15 of 24 field goals, and 59 of 62 extra points, an OK rate but a fry cry from the Chris Boswell era.

Junior punter Jack Fox was a bright spot last season, though the Owls wouldn’t mind using him less this season. He punted 75 times last season with 13 of those going 50 yards or more. He was good at pinning teams inside the 20. A total of 27 kicks landed inside the 20.

Rice got little out of its return game a year ago. Improvement would be helpful in the field position battles.

Schedule

It’s great to have Houston back on the schedule, but also playing Stanford (Saturday in Australia) and Pittsburgh is daunting. The conference schedule is more manageable. Rice’s C-USA East opponents are rated No. 5, 8 and 14 in Underdog Dynasty’s Preseason Power Rankings. West favorite, Louisiana Tech, comes to Rice Stadium this year.

Prediction

Rice goes 4-8 with a 3-5 record in Conference USA games. Both are improvements over last year, but probably not enough to retain Bailiff as head coach. 1-3 seems like the best case scenario in non-conference games. That means the Owls will need to win five Conference USA games to be bowl eligible. That’s possible, but not probable.

For it to happen, Glaesmann will need to mature quickly and limit the mistakes. The running game will need to contribute every week and the defense will have to make significant strides across the board. And the team will need to be much healthier than 2016. Maybe one of those happens, maybe even two, but the odds of all four happening aren’t high enough to project a winning season.