Defense has served as the identity of the Rice football program in recent seasons, most notably in 2020. Two years ago while dealing with a 5-game slate, the Owls fielded one of the more relentless units in the country, limiting foes to 18.8 points per game to rank 12th in the nation, and excelling equally in stifling the run and opposing air attacks.
The defense unraveled to an alarming extent in a larger sample size of 12 games in 2021. Only 10 teams permitted more points per game than Rice’s 36.2, and neither the pass or rush defense stood out as an elite aspect of the unit. There were a number of contributing factors, but one overwhelming one that cannot be understated is the litany of injuries. Veteran starters on all three levels of the defense missed the majority of the season, but with those faces back in the lineup, Rice is not only healthier than ever — they are deeper than ever due to the depth created in those starters’ absence.
“Staying healthy is going to be the really key part of this season, but if we can stay healthy, this defense is going to be scary good,” free safety George Nyakwol said. “We’re in a reloading phase and not a rebuilding phase, so with that, the younger guys are learning from the older guys and that’s a testament to our leadership as older guys in teaching the younger guys the ways.”
With a familiar cast of returning faces and a lack of injuries hampering the depth chart, Rice aims to revert to its identity as one of the C-USA’s premier defenses.
“I think the group we have coming back just overall is the most talented that we’ve been on defense,” fourth-year defensive coordinator Brian Smith said. “From top to bottom, the depth that we have is improved from a week ago. We’re faster. We’re playing fast... We’re playing for each other and I’m more excited about this group than any other group that we’ve had.”
- Scoring defense: 36.2 points per game (120th)
- Total defense: 436.9 yards per game (107th)
- Passing defense: 273.8 yards per game (123rd)
- Rushing defense: 163.2 yards per game (83rd)
- Turnovers gained: 19 takeaways (t-45th)
- Opponent completion rate: 63.6% (95th)
- Sacks: 2.25 per game (t-61st)
- First downs allowed: 261 (t-68th)
- Opponent 3rd down rate: 39.0% (75th)
- Opponent red zone rate: 86.2% (90th)
Rice’s defensive line severely missed its commanding interior presence in 2021. In August, prior to the launch of the season, nose tackle De’Braylon Carroll suffered an injury which prematurely ended his sophomore stint. When Rice shut out a ranked Marshall team in 2020, it was evident how vital Carroll’s presence was in fielding a successful defense. He finished that game with five tackles and 1.5 sacks, but the amount of attention he occupies from opposing offensive lines fortifies Rice’s pass rush to a dangerous degree. The Owls’ offensive linemen are very familiar with Carroll’s impact from countless battles in practice.
“Iron sharpens iron but especially with him because he gets low, he’s stout, and at times hard to move,” offensive guard Shea Baker said of Carroll. “He has great swim moves. He’s not afraid to use finesse moves, but he’s also not afraid to go and bullrush you, so you get a little bit of everything from him.”
The Owls lost their 2021 nose tackle Elijah Garcia to the NFL ranks, where he is currently suiting up for the Los Angeles Rams. Without Garcia in the mix, the 6’0”, 283 Carroll is certainly a welcome re-addition to the lineup by his peers, especially those who benefit the most from his presence. Grad student Trey Schuman returns to one of the defensive end spots alongside Carroll, in hopes of surpassing his totals of five tackles for loss and three sacks from last fall.
“It’s never easy to play defensive end in college football but he does make it a lot easier,” Schuman said of Carroll. “The best thing about being on a defensive line with someone disruptive like that is it gives the offense more than one person to think about. When you think about a defensive line that caters toward one player, that makes it a lot harder for that player. But having De’Braylon, and personally me and De’Braylon having the chemistry we do, and having him there in the middle — that kid wreaks havoc.”
Completing the starting defensive line in Rice’s 3-4 setup is one of 89 members on the watchlist for the Outland Trophy, which is granted to the best interior lineman — offensive or defensive — in college football. Ikenna Enechukwu qualified for this designation after registering a team-high 4.5 sacks in addition to 9.0 tackles for loss in a breakout season. With Schuman and Enechukwu providing the exterior presence alongside Carroll, Rice’s veteran defensive line is expected to be one of the strengths of this team, especially after showing marked improvement in the pass rushing department last season.
“Ikenna’s continued to develop,” Smith said. “Coach Hans (Straub) has done a great job with him in the weight room. Every year he gets bigger, stronger, and faster. He’s already been blessed with great size and he’s just gotten better every year from a physical standpoint. I think you’ll see the difference on the field.”
Van Heitmann (defensive end) and Izeya Floyd (nose tackle who converted from guard) are expected to be the significant players providing depth behind the front three. Overall, Rice exhibits talented and experienced starters on the defensive line, but Schuman also sees promising development from the supporting reserves.
“As an old head on the defense, what you always want to see it the effort because all the other stuff is teachable,” Schuman said. “Obviously with technique, you can always fine tune that. But you want to see guys that are getting the culture, they’re running to the ball, they’re finishing the tackles, they’re gang tackling. We saw a lot of that (in fall camp) and I think the stuff that we saw that was ‘bad’ is all very fixable.”
The linebacking corps, specifically the inside linebacker room, holds the title as the most inexperienced position group on Rice’s entire roster. The Owls lost four-year starter Antonio Montero at inside backer to the transfer portal, and they must replace his knack for limiting the run as he ranked as one of the premier tacklers on Rice’s stout rushing defenses in 2019 and 2020. Another inside linebacker that departed via the portal was inside linebacker Desmyn Baker, who completed an intra-conference transfer to WKU after racking up 43 tackles last year.
Myron Morrison should lend a hand in filling those vacancies. The redshirt sophomore stepped into a starting role for the first five games last year, compiling 34 tackles in his first season earning defensive snaps. The other starting slot in Rice’s 3-4 scheme is likely reserved for Aidan Siano. Voted the Owls’ top freshman last season, Siano stepped into a starting linebacker spot in November and collected 11 of his 14 tackles in his final three contests of 2021. The Celina, TX native, who was selected as a C-USA All-Freshman selection by the coaches, should have a much greater role carved out for him following the exodus of the transfers.
Rice labels its outside linebacker positions as RUSH (a defensive end/linebacker hybrid) and VIPER (a linebacker/safety hybrid), and both roles are occupied by some of the longest tenured members of the roster. Kenneth Orji, who has manned the starting RUSH position for quite some time, first stepped on campus in 2017, while the VIPER Treshawn Chamberlain arrived a year later as a 2018 C-USA All-Freshman honoree.
Orji’s elongated stay has paid dividends, and 2021 was his most productive season yet. Despite only playing nine games, he registered a career-best five tackles for loss and forced his first fumble as an Owl.
Meanwhile, Chamberlain was en route to a special campaign, but the injury bug repeatedly struck the VIPER. He recorded 11 tackles and thrived in a pass coverage role in the opener against Arkansas, but he was unable to capitalize extensively on that performance as injuries limited him to just four contests in 2021. Chamberlain is one of several starters whose return from absence should improve all aspects of the 2022 defense.
“You bring back a defense with a lot of chemistry and that’s really where you see the best defenses come from,” Schuman said. “We have a lot of guys who are better football players because George (Nyakwol) coached them up, because Treshawn coached them up. It’s going to be a rude awakening for a lot of people in conference when we’re all together and firing on all cylinders.”
One linebacker who has been heralded as a standout from the coaching staff all summer is Josh Pearcy, who emerged into a starting role for much of last season due to the onslaught of injuries. The outside linebacker ranked fourth on the unit with 57 tackles, complemented by 7.5 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks — both good for third on the roster. Pearcy should see plenty of in-game reps even as Rice’s outside linebacker group returns to full health.
Other names to look at for depth at the linebacker spots include Kenny Seymour Jr., Andrew Awe, and Rutgers transfer Chris Conti. The starters haven’t been finalized yet, but the defensive coordinator emphasizes speed and athleticism as principal qualities that Rice seeks from its 2022 linebacking corps.
“That’s one group the competition has been heavy all summer,” Smith said. “It’s probably our least experienced group, but our guys have been faster than they’ve been in the past and more athletic. We moved some guys around a little bit to try to get more athletic with all the spread offenses we’re seeing.”
Preventing opponents from excelling through the air was not one of Rice’s fortes in 2021. The Owls ranked 123rd in pass defense — a major drop-off from the 26th overall ranking the secondary generated in 2020. An extra 73 yards per game were yielded through the air, but Rice was forced to play a rather young secondary last year partly due to the recurring theme of injuries.
One centerpiece of the secondary plagued by unavailability over the past two seasons is free safety George Nyakwol. Nyakwol’s time at Rice dates back to 2017, but the graduate student has been limited to just five games since the conclusion of the 2019 campaign. When on the field, Nyakwol has been a force as one of the team’s hardest hitters. He led the team in total tackles in 2018 while recording two interceptions. And during his brief on-field presence in 2021, he added two interceptions to his career total, assisting Rice in early-season wins over Texas Southern and Southern Miss.
“Being able to come back is just a blessing and it’s really exciting,” Nyakwol said. “I had to channel that anger and energy into my leadership and my vocal leadership specifically, getting guys ready to play and getting guys focused and motivated, especially in the fourth quarter of a close game. I think it was important to use my voice to get us more prepared for the fourth to rally the troops in those close games.”
Despite missing the majority of the past two seasons, Bloomgren believes Nyakwol looks as sprightly as ever — not just as a player, but as a leader.
“He’s the big bad wolf in the middle of the field,” Bloomgren said. “He is wreaking havoc back there. And the other thing he’s done is become an awesome leader. He’s been more vocal than he’s ever been and it’s still not in his comfort zone to be ‘ra ra.’ He is coaching and leading that group back there and it’s been awesome for me to see.”
Nyakwol combines with Gabe Taylor to form one of the strongest safety tandems in the C-USA. Taylor was Rice’s brightest breakout star in 2021, collecting 56 tackles and five pass breakups while playing a significant hand in the turnover game. Taylor, the brother of the late, great Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor, exudes a similar affinity for recording takeaways — striking in each of Rice’s final three outings with one fumble recovery and two interceptions. The emerging star comes with all-conference potential as a sophomore, especially after his 10-tackle performance against UAB which featured a key forced fumble.
“It’s an honor playing with royalty like Gabe Taylor,” Nyakwol said. “He’s a really good playmaker. He’s got a knack for finding the football whether it’s forcing fumbles or catching interceptions, he does a really good job of that. It’s really great being back and playing with guys of Gabe Taylor’s stature.”
Due to Nyakwol’s recent string of injuries, he hasn’t shared much time on the field with Taylor. But the pairing already formed a rapport from a communication standpoint which will soon be noticed by opposing offenses on gamedays.
“We didn’t get to see a lot of them on the field at the same time but I think they do a great job communicating back there,” Smith said. “The communication on the back end has been outstanding and that’s one of the things that’s got me most excited. Those guys are comfortable, they know what to do, they trust that each other’s gonna do their jobs, and I’m excited to see them on the field.”
Nyakwol’s missed time forced the Owls to develop talent at safety, which allows Rice to feature more depth in the secondary. Kirk Lockhart proceeded to become one of the most impactful defenders last year, tallying 46 tackles, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles in a secondary which created plenty of havoc in the turnover battle. Plae Wyatt also earned substantial reps at safety with 21 tackles on the season. Lockhart, Wyatt, and true freshman Daveon Hook are fixing to operate as the main options behind Nyakwol and Taylor at safety.
The cornerbacks were very young in 2021, but that year of experience should go a long way in the development process. Sean Fresch was one of the freshman starters, breaking up six passes and managing an interception in the season opener. Jordan Dunbar also had a stranglehold on a starting corner spot as a freshman, entering the season without a career tackle. Still, Dunbar became quickly acclimated to the speed of the game and led all C-USA freshmen in deflections.
Miles McCord is one of the older faces in the cornerback room, wielding senior status headed into 2022. The former junior college transfer started every game at corner in 2020 and contributed in ample fashion once again in 2021. McCord posted 28 tackles, an interception, and five deflections as a common insert in nickel and dime packages, and Rice will continue to utilize the senior to counter opposing passing attacks. Tre’shon Devones, who made two starts in 2020 but missed the entirety of 2021, and Lamont Narcisse are suited to play supporting roles in assisting Fresch, Dunbar, and McCord at the corner slots.
With experience building up in the secondary, the entire defense has reaped the benefits. Rice’s pass rush expects an uptick in production after observing a considerable rise in defensive back chemistry during fall camp.
“Our safeties and corners have all been communicating at levels we haven’t seen before so in the back end, they’re covering even better,” Schuman said. “Everyone says rush and coverage work together so if there’s nowhere for the quarterback to throw the ball, we just get to open up and go.”
The kicking game proved to be nightmarish for Rice last season. The Owls were second-to-last in the FBS in field goal percentage last year, sinking just 45.5 percent of attempts. The lack of success from field goal range forced Rice to frequently gamble on fourth downs, and only 22 teams sent out the offense more frequently on fourth downs last year.
If you eliminate all kicks below 30 yards, Rice converted 2-of-7 attempts last year. To ameliorate this concerning trend, the Owls brought in Washington kicker Tim Horn to compete for the starting job. Horn’s in-field experience is limited to three successful extra points, and he will compete with one of Rice’s returning kickers from 2021, Christian VanSickle (4-of-7 on field goals, 30-of-32 on extra points), for placekicking duties.
Charlie Mendes handled all 59 of Rice’s punts a season ago. The sophomore constructed a 43.3 average while impressively booting two balls 64+ yards in an Alamodome defeat to UTSA last season. But the Owls also brought in Georgetown transfer Conor Hunt to provide competition at punter. Hunt attained All-Patriot League status in the FCS with two punts exceeding 60 yards.
“They’ve made Charlie and Christian better,” special teams coordinator Chris Monfiletto said on the transfers Horn and Hunt. “They support each other and they know they’re competing for a starting spot. Right now it’s neck-and-neck at both of those spots.”
The two primary return specialists from 2021 remain on the roster. Cornerback Sean Fresch handled both kickoff and punt return duties, generating averages of 24.4 and 9.9 yards per runback, respectively. Running back Juma Otoviano assisted Fresch as the kick returner on the opposite site of the field, posting nearly identical return numbers to his counterpart.
Transfer wide receivers Isaiah Esdale and Tyson Thompson are also earning kick and punt return reps in practice along with the aforementioned incumbents.
“It’s nice to have competition and it’s really nice these guys support each other in that competition,” Monfiletto said.
Rice opens its 2022 season on the road in Los Angeles as the first team to battle Lincoln Riley and his new-look USC program. The game kicks off at 6 pm ET on Saturday, Sept. 3.