The Rice Owls have yet to go bowling in the Mike Bloomgren era, but this team clearly has established an identity as one of the defensive stalwarts of the C-USA. The recurring success of this unit has allowed Rice to remain competitive against the upper echelon of the conference.
Rice ranked 12th in 2020 in points allowed per game permitting just 18.8 to opponents. In both seasons working under the guidance of defensive coordinator Brian Smith, the Owls produced a top 40 run defense. The prowess of the unit was especially observed by the Marshall Thundering Herd last December in Huntington, WV. Rice held no regard to the No. 15 ranking next to Marshall’s name and intercepted five passes while holding the team to 86 rushing yards in a 20-0 shutout victory. After a performance like that, lofty expectations must be applied in 2021.
“We know that coming in from last season how high the expectations are for the defense,” outside linebacker Treshawn Chamberlain said. “We know we are basically building a foundation that can keep getting carried on through generations of people being at Rice.”
With the NCAA allowing players an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Rice’s defensive depth is stronger than ever. With the majority of personnel returning for 2021, there is plenty of internal excitement concerning not only the starters, but rather, the ability of the roster as a whole.
“I think it speaks leaps and bounds to Coach Smith and his staff and the way that they’ve prepared these guys,” Bloomgren said. “We roll guys in and out and there should never be a big difference depending on who’s in the game and who’s not.”
The unit repeatedly excels out of the gate and allowed zero points in first quarters in the abbreviated 2020 schedule. While areas of improvement may be tough to pinpoint from the surface level, spearheading the pass rush and replacing the leader of the unit serve as points of emphasis for the Rice defense.
Filling the lone vacancy
The Rice Owls return 10 of 11 starters from the 2020 team. The lone departed contributor is WILL linebacker Blaze Alldredge, who starred as the defense’s star player in each of the past three seasons. He served as Rice’s team captain in 2020 and secured First Team All-C-USA honors for the second consecutive year. Alldredge posted 102 tackles and 21.5 tackles for loss in his last full season, but his talents will be utilized by Missouri this year after transferring in January.
The prime candidate to fill Alldredge’s vacancy is versatile linebacker Myron Morrison. He played sparingly on special teams last season, recording his first solo tackle of his career in the win over Southern Miss. Morrison developed rapidly this offseason and remains an interesting prospect given the diversity in his skillset.
“Myron’s doing a lot of things in that defense,” Bloomgren said. “There were times where he lined up at safety, so the flexibility that gives you when you’re a MIKE linebacker and can go and play safety, and really throw some different looks and understand the coverage that well — that gives Coach Smith a lot of creativity.”
Outside of Morrison, community college transfer Desmyn Baker and freshman Terreance Ellis are among the options the Owls have at WILL linebacker. The veterans have already embraced the 6’3” Morrison as a potential starter for the position and believe he perfectly accompanies the skillsets of the rest of the group.
“I see Myron as a big complement to the defense. The way he’s built, it just gives a lot more leverage to the point where we know he can cover his gap and get to the next gap,” outside linebacker Treshawn Chamberlain said. “Having him out there and all the other linebackers that play WILL out there with him, they’ve got that certain type of dog in them that no running back or tight end is gonna be able to make a route on me without me being there to stop it first.”
Morrison will be a surrounded by a troupe of veterans in the linebacking corps. Inside linebacker Antonio Montero is entering his fourth year as a starter after excelling as a run-stopper with 83 tackles in 2019. Treshawn Chamberlain, who plays the “VIPER” role as a linebacker/safety hybrid, is also entering year four as a starter.
“It’s something that’s valuable having three or four year starters,” Smith said. “These guys played a lot of reps. There’s no substitute for that. Returning all the starters that we had, the experience that we had, so when we get in a tough situation I know how they’re gonna respond with that level of trust that they’ve built.”
Chamberlain may be the single-most important piece of the unit given the effectiveness he displays in a variety of tasks. A force in coverage and a hard-hitter at the line of scrimmage, the junior compiled 91 tackles and three interceptions in his last 16 showings.
“I’m here to plug in wherever I’m needed to fit — some personnels where I’m needed in the box, some personnels where I’m needed in the post,” Chamberlain said regarding his versatility. “The transition from linebacker to safety is more about getting your hips right and getting more agile, so I’m focusing on that. It’s been four years in the game. I think I’ve finally made my strides and hit my point where I’m there.”
A healthy secondary... finally
The band is finally back together. Despite solid roster continuity over the years, Rice’s starting secondary has been unable to take the field together in quite some time. Starting free safety George Nyakwol missed the entirety of the 2020 season after sustaining an injury in camp. His counterpart, strong safety Naeem Smith, missed the first three games of 2020 before making a triumphant return at Marshall in December.
“It’s really a blessing to be back and I know George would say the same thing,” Naeem Smith said. “It’s good to be around the team. We’ve got a lot of good chemistry and everyone’s really excited for this year. We’ve got really high expectations and we’re looking forward to it.”
Injuries rocked the cornerback room simultaneously. Jason White was sidelined in the first three games and Andrew Bird sat the first two games of 2020. Entering 2021, Nyakwol, Smith, White, and Bird all enter camp in healthy condition.
“Now, we got those guys healthy,” Brian Smith said. “Football’s a game where you’re always gonna have injuries so guys are gonna have nicks and bruises here and there. But when you have those guys every day working and competing, those young guys stepping up, it makes my job a lot easier when one guy goes down.”
Rice allowed 333 passing yards on 72 percent accuracy in the opener vs. Middle Tennessee, while all four aforementioned names were hobbled on the sideline. The aerial defense improved as each piece of the secondary returned, culminating in a 5-interception rampage in the 20-0 shutout against Marshall. Rice doubled their turnover output from 2019 from 0.9 takeaways per game to 1.8, and sustaining that trend is a common talking point among the defensive backs.
“The biggest thing is getting forced fumbles by a second man in, peanut punches — normally, you’d go in for a tackle but we want to be greedy and create turnovers,” Naeem Smith said. “As DBs, we gotta have good eyes but at the same time, we’ve got to know when the ball is coming — high point and make plays that can change the game.”
Other key contributors in the secondary include free safety Prudy Calderon and cornerback Miles McCord. Calderon is a former C-USA All-Freshman who has logged 16 starts as an Owl and McCord started all five games at cornerback last year, earning valuable experience and securing an interception while the depth chart was hampered with injury. This creates a ‘good problem’ for Rice to have with a crowded room of experienced faces in the secondary.
Ramping up the pass rush
Rice’s defensive line took a major hit this week. According to The Roost, defensive tackle De’Braylon Carroll is expected to miss the entire 2021 season with a leg injury. Carroll was inserted into the starting lineup for the first time in the October opener and racked up 21 tackles and a team-best 1.5 sacks in 2020.
Carroll’s injury slides Ikenna Enechukwu into the lineup. Enechukwu has been a key contributor off the bench for two years, albeit receiving five starts over that timespan. He has consistently produced strong showings in practices and will look to build on his 2019 campaign which featured 27 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss.
The 3-man front is completed by returning starters Elijah Garcia and Trey Schuman. Garcia, the 6’5” nose tackle entering year six with the program, holds more career tackles to his name than any other interior lineman in the C-USA. Schuman is a 3-year starter at defensive end and will be a key cog in amplifying Rice’s pass rush.
While the Owls’ front seven presents a great counter to the run game, the pass rush ranked 16th-to-last in the country in sacks per game in 2020. Just one year prior, Rice tied for 10th-to-last in the FBS in the category. No player on the Owls 2021 roster has ever generated more than 1.5 sacks in a season. Thus, Rice needs the chaos caused in the backfields during practice to finally transfer to fall Saturdays.
“The d-line is doing a good job of staying in their rush lanes, creating havoc in the backfield,” Naeem Smith said about the line’s progress in fall camp. “When I’m back in coverage, I see them creating havoc in the backfield and that’s what we need more of.”
The hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker role, designated as the “RUSH” on Rice’s depth chart, belongs to Kenneth Orji. He picked up his first sack as an Owl last December and also recovered a fumble to start the year. After getting accustomed to the lineup with 11 starts in 2019 and 2020, he will have his largest role in pressuring the quarterback yet. With Alldredge out of the lineup after producing the most sacks in 2019, Rice will demand Orji to be the primary instigator of the pass rush.
“We need more sacks and turnovers and game-altering plays,” Naeem Smith said. “As a defense, if we can do that this year and set our offense up in better positions to score, or score ourselves, I think we’re gonna be happy with the season we can have.”