The top 10 football players you need to know for the 2016 season.
LB Alex Lyons, Sr.
Lyons will once again serve as the emotional and physical leader of the D from the middle. He’s smart and experienced, pacing the team in tackles in each of the last two years. In 2015, he made a career-high 77 stops, including 5.5 behind the line of scrimmage, to earn honorable mention All-Conference USA. The 6-1, 230-pound Lyons isn’t otherworldly in any particular category, but he won’t be outworked on Saturdays.
DE Brian Womac, Jr.
For years now, the Owls have developed defensive overachievers who produce well beyond their high school grade. Womac is the latest example. The 6-3, 235-pound end in a linebacker’s body was tough to block in 2015, resulting in 35 stops, four sacks and a Rice-best 12.5 tackles for loss. Womac’s toughness and tenacity require more than one blocker, meaning he’s helping the D even when he’s not the Owl compiling the stats.
RB Darik Dillard, Sr.
Dillard is Rice’s leading returning rusher, going for 698 yards and five touchdowns on 135 carries. But maintaining the top spot this offseason is no given in a backfield that also includes 2014 leading ground-gainer Jowan Davis, Austin Walter and Samuel Stewart. Dillard is a steady inside runner, with the 5-10 and 215-pound frame to require multiple tacklers, a plus near the goal line and in short-yardage situations.
WR Zach Wright, Sr.
The Owls were looking for a go-to receiver in 2015. Wright filled the opening by catching a team-high 39 balls for 554 yards and five touchdowns. He’s the type of do-anything, try-hard athlete that coaches love in the locker room, especially since his approach rubs off on his teammates. The 6-1, 200-pound Wright is no burner, but he rarely makes mistakes in the form of drops, penalties or bad routes.
DE Derek Brown, Sr.
The ceiling is high this year for Brown, one of the program’s best all-around athletes on either side of the ball. He was a high school quarterback, who began his Owl career as a wide receiver, yet has become comfortable as a defensive playmaker. A high-motor 6-3, 230-pounder, Brown is poised to obliterate last season’s career-high output of 40 tackles, six stops for loss and four sacks.
DE Graysen Schantz, Jr.
The Owls are excited by the return of Schantz, who was lost for the year in the 2015 opener. As a rookie in 2014, he came off the bench to produce 21 tackles, seven stops behind the line and three sacks as a five-game starter. With another full season to prepare and add muscle to his 6-3, 240-pound frame, Schantz has the quick first step to become the program’s next rags-to-riches star off the edge.
SS Tabari McGaskey, Sr.
In an important offseason move for the D, McGaskey was moved from linebacker to strong safety to get the unit’s 11 best players on the field. Now playing back a level, the 6-0, 230-pounder will have a chance to be the enforcer of the defensive backfield. McGaskey exhibited nice range a season ago, finishing second on the team with 51 tackles, 4.5 of which were for minus yards.
CB J.T. Blasingame, Sr.
The staff really likes the potential of Blasingame to become the leader of the secondary. But durability has been a concern throughout his career, limiting him to about half the team’s snaps and just 29 tackles a year ago. When the 5-9, 180-pounder is at full strength, he’s a terrific open-field tackler, and he has the coverage skills to neutralize the other team’s top receiver.
OG Peter Godber, Jr.
The Owls used just one senior up front last season, so there’s hope for improvement in the trenches in 2016. Godber will be one of those key cogs after starting for the first time a year ago. The 6-3, 305-pounder from Toronto was Rice’s most reliable pass protector in the second half of the year, and will now be counted on as a line leader.
C Trey Martin, Jr.
Martin enters his junior year as Rice’s anchor at the pivot. After arriving as a defensive lineman, he made a smooth transition to the other side of the ball, playing more snaps than any other Owl in 2015. Plus, his worst games were earlier in the year, an indication that his best football is still ahead of him. Martin is 6-2 and 290 pounds, with good leverage and a strong base.