As long as David Bailiff is in Houston, the Owls will be in the mix for a league title and a postseason invitation.
By Rich Cirminiello | @RichCirminiello
Bailiff has quietly done a terrific job at academic powerhouse Rice, a poor man’s version of James Franklin’s stint at Vanderbilt. The Owls have been to three straight bowl games for the first time in school history, capped by December’s Hawaii Bowl rout of Fresno State. Still, the program was left feeling unfulfilled late last fall, the result of a dreadful 76-31 loss to Louisiana Tech that decided the West Division crown. Rice enters 2015 determined to raise the bar a little higher, with recapturing the division at the top of the to-do list.
Rice is once again aiming high this season, chasing heightened expectations it created within just the past few years. And Bailiff deserves a ton of the credit for the changed mindset. The Owls are attracting the same caliber of players that kept them from competing for so many decades in the old Southwest Conference. And the same second-tier athletes that performed to mixed results in the WAC from 1996-2004. In Conference USA, though, the program has found its sweet spot.
In 2008, Rice went 10-3. In 2013, the Owls won their first outright league championship since 1957. That’s what Bailiff is shooting for this season, as an answer for how last season concluded. However, reaching 10 wins and copping titles won’t come without plenty of heavy lifting this summer. Spring in Houston was spent rebuilding the interior of both lines, with three new starters needed on both sides of the ball. And the secondary is undergoing an extreme makeover as well. In the early going, Rice will lean on a Driphus Jackson-led backfield and a collection of holdovers well-taught in the art of overachieving and outworking opponents.
The Owls are facing a lot of hurdles in 2015, as the two-deep undergoes significant turnover. But the coach, Bailiff, and the quarterback, Jackson, are firmly in place, so there’s hope on the horizon. Rice has grown accustomed to winning, building an appetite—and a formula—for success that should help guide it through the rough stretches of retooling taking place on offense and defense.
What you need to know about the offense: Rice wants to run the ball to set up the pass … or does it? The Owls under David Bailiff have been sneaky-good at adapting to the personnel on hand, mixing and matching looks to keep opposing defenses on their heels. So, when it became clear in the offseason that Driphus Jackson was a more polished passer than outsiders knew, the Owls, well, ran with it. Now, Rice will hardly be abandoning the run, especially with the return of the one-two punch of backs Jowan Davis and Darik Dillard. But the team won’t hesitate to unleash Jackson, both as a scrambler and as a thrower. In 2014, he had a 3:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and was 14th nationally in yards per attempt. To keep the attack properly balanced in 2015, Rice has spent much of this offseason retooling a receiver corps that’ll miss Jordan Taylor and Mario Hull and auditioning three new starters along the line. That front wall is a justifiable worry, especially in the year after the Owls rushed for an uncharacteristically low 3.8 yards a carry and yielded 28 sacks.
What you need to know about the defense: It was already going to be a demanding offseason for coordinator Chris Thurmond and his assistants. The graduations of six starters and all. And then the challenge grew exponentially harder when DE Brian Nordstrom, the 2014 Conference USA leader in tackles for loss, announced he was giving up football to tackle a career in the energy industry. It was devastating news for a unit that was exposed by quality offenses last season and was particularly generous on passing downs. The Owls must return to their trusted playbook of coaching up smart, hard-working defenders who were passed over in high school. One slice of promising news is that DT Stuart Mouchantaf is expected back this summer after missing last year with a knee injury. He’ll anchor a line that also has high hopes for veteran DT Ross Winship and untapped ends Graysen Schantz and Grant Peterson. Still, barring an improbable jail break of sacks, that back seven of Rice is going to be very vulnerable through the air in 2015.
What to watch for on offense: Revamping the O-line. The backfield is set, with Driphus Jackson at quarterback and Jowan Davis and Darik Dillard sharing carries. But the trio will be stifled if the new linemen around holdovers Andrew Reue and Caleb Williams are slow to adjust. David Bailiff has had a penchant for redshirting freshmen linemen, but the rookies could jump into the mix if vets Spencer Stanley, Brandon Dawkins, John Poehlmann and Kenneth Thompson stumble in expanded roles.
What to watch for on defense: Secondary a primary concern. Not only was Rice victimized in 2014 for 27 touchdown passes, while picking off just nine, but four veterans from that dilapidated group have graduated. CB Ryan Pollard is set to become the new leader of a secondary that could be easy pickings, especially since all-league pass rusher Brian Nordstrom has left football for a private sector job, and elite DT Christian Covington gave up his last year of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft. Heated competition for jobs in the spring will continue in August.
This team will be far better if … the defense locates answers this offseason. Lots of answers. Rice faced four teams in the regular season that went on to bowls, allowing an average of 50 to them. Okay, three of the opponents were Notre Dame, Texas A&M and Marshall, but 76 points to Louisiana Tech? And with just four starters back, the situation is liable to get worse before it gets better. With a bunch of spots up for grabs on the two-deep, coordinator Chris Thurmond needs the spirit of competition to bring out the best in his less experienced players.
The Schedule: Rice will leave the Lone Star State just once all year, travelling to Boca Raton to play Florida Atlantic on Oct. 10.
– The Owls should be able to close the regular season strong, since their final three games are with opponents that were under .500 a year ago, Southern Miss, UTSA and Charlotte.
– For the first time since 2010, the Owls will play six home game, beginning with an opening day visit from FCS Wagner.
– Following the opener, Rice won’t return home for a month, enduring a wicked three-game stretch that includes trips to Texas, North Texas and Baylor.
– The two toughest conference games on the schedule, West rival Louisiana Tech and Western Kentucky, will be staged in Houston at Rice Stadium.
– WATCH OUT FOR … UTEP. The Miners turned the corner in 2014, a trend that is expected to continue around the big-play ability of RB Aaron Jones.
Best Offensive Player: Senior QB Driphus Jackson. Jackson laid the foundation in 2014, his starting debut. In 2015, he builds on it. The senior possesses many of the qualities that the Owls seek in a starting quarterback. He’s mature, poised and able to beat defenses with his quick feet and his improving passing skills. Best of all, Jackson is still improving. And with enough support from a rebuilt line and receiving corps, he’s capable of rewriting the Rice record book for single-season production.
Best Defensive Player: Senior DT Stuart Mouchantaf. This spot was reserved for DE Brian Nordstrom until he decided in February to give up football for a career in corporate America. And while Mouchantaf has all-conference potential, evidenced by his 2013 campaign, he’s also a reflection of a team searching this offseason for defensive standouts. The Owls desperately need their best interior lineman at full strength after he sat out all of last year to recover from a serious knee injury.
Key players to a successful season: Defensive ends Graysen Schantz and Grant Peterson. The porous Owl pass defense won’t be solved by coaching up the DBs alone. The secondary needs help. Lots of help from a pass rush missing last year’s top three sackers, Zach Patt, Brian Nordstrom and Dylan Klare. However, Rice has consistently done a great job of transforming anonymous, lightly-recruited players into nuisances. Patt and Nordstrom, for instance. Schantz and Peterson don’t have long resumes, but both possess the tools to be big surprises in 2015.
The season will be a success if … the Owls bowl for a fourth consecutive year. With all of the defensive and O-line departures, this could be a challenging fall for Rice. And in such a season, finishing above .500 would be another important statement about the program’s place in the Conference USA hierarchy. Each month of the fall brings a landmine, Texas and Baylor in September, Western Kentucky and Louisiana Tech in October and a pivotal trip to UTEP in November. But the Owls now expect to participate in the postseason, a cultural shift with immense benefits to the one-time punching bag.
Key game: Nov. 7 at UTEP. Just because Rice has the look of a seven-win team this year does not mean it can’t capture the West Division. Doing so, though, could require a victory in El Paso on the first weekend of November. The Owls won last year’s meeting, which took place in Houston. The Sun Bowl will be a much tougher venue, particularly since Sean Kugler has the Miners on the upswing. And in all likelihood, the division will boil down to these two Texas programs and Louisiana Tech, which visits Rice Stadium a week earlier.
2014 Fun Stats:
– Yards per rush: Rice 3.8 – Opponents 4.4
– Fumbles lost: Rice 4 – Opponents 11
– Sacks: Rice 35 – Opponents 26
Players You Need To Know
1. QB Driphus Jackson, Sr.
After patiently waiting his turn, Jackson finally got his shot to lead the offense in 2014. And he did not disappoint. He does a lot of things well, a dual-threat with the poise and leadership skills to be the face of the offense. Everyone knew Jackson was nimble, which he backed up with 401 yards and a score on the ground. But his passing skills were vastly underrated. The 6-0, 210-pounder displayed outstanding zip and accuracy on his balls, completing 191-of-331 for 2,842 yards, 24 touchdowns and eight picks. Jackson is set to become one of Conference USA’s best all-around quarterbacks.
2. RB Jowan Davis, Jr.
Davis enjoyed a breakthrough year in 2014. It would have been even more prolific had he not shared so many touches with backfield mates Darik Dillard and Driphus Jackson. Davis paced the no-nonsense Rice ground attack with 956 yards and six scores on 245 carries. He added 13 receptions for 108 yards. Davis is a 5-7, 200-pound fire hydrant who uses his leverage and powerful lower body to bull through would-be tacklers.
3. RB Darik Dillard, Jr.
Dillard is the other half of one of Conference USA’s best backfield tandems. He took a backseat to Jowan Davis in 2014, yet still churned out 652 yards and 11 touchdowns on 134 carries. And he was an effective pass-catcher, too, making 17 grabs for 163 yards and another score. Dillard is a tough inside runner, whose penchant for never getting stopped behind the line makes him a natural choice in the red zone.
4. DT Stuart Mouchantaf, Sr.
Losing Christian Covington to the NFL Draft hurts, softened only by the much-needed return from injury of Mouchantaf. Mouchantaf regressed in his recovery from knee surgery and never played a down in 2014. However, when healthy he’s a disruptive presence in the middle of the line. The 6-4, 290-pound Mouchantaf is strong, with a burst through the gaps, and he was performing at an all-league level when he went down in 2013.
5. LB Alex Lyons, Jr.
Lyons is the latest blue-collar, underappreciated Owl linebacker to make a ton of plays from the second level. He’s only 6-0 and 225 pounds, trading size for athleticism, range and instincts. Lyons posted a team-high 71 tackles, five stops for loss, three sacks and two fumble recoveries en route to being named honorable mention All-Conference USA. He also excels in the classroom, a microcosm of what it means to be a Rice student-athlete.
6. OG Andrew Reue, Sr.
Reue has developed into one of the pillars up front for the Owls, starting all 26 games over the past two seasons at right guard. And since he and senior Caleb Williams are the unit’s only returning regulars, both must take on more of a leadership role in 2015. Reue, who was named honorable mention All-Conference USA as a junior, is the rare Owl blocker with NFL size, a 6-5, 295-pounder who’ll move a pile on running plays.
7. DE Graysen Schantz, Soph.
As a rookie in 2014, Schantz came off the bench when Zach Patt was injured. This year, he succeeds the graduated Patt on a permanent basis. Schantz exceeded expectations in limited action, producing 21 tackles, seven stops behind the line and three sacks as a five-game starter. With a full season to prepare and add muscle to his 6-3, 240-pound frame, he’s capable of breaking out opponents as try to slow down Brian Nordstrom on the opposite end of the line.
8. OT Caleb Williams, Sr.
Williams brings a wealth of experience into his final season, as well as the confidence and know-how of a three-year starter. He’s become a fixture at right tackle for the Owls, starting every game there a year ago. And while he’s built more like a guard at 6-3 and 290 pounds, his footwork and hand use allow him to hold up well in pass protection. Williams may not be pro-caliber, but he’s a stable presence on a unit that’ll be working in three new starters this fall.
9. WR Dennis Parks, Sr.
With the graduations of Jordan Taylor and Mario Hull, the Owls are desperate for proven targets in the passing game. Parks, along with junior Zach Wright, is one of the veterans being counted on to step up in 2014. Parks, who has caught 65 career passes for 1,009 yards and five touchdowns, is poised for his best statistical season with the program. And his 6-2, 200-pound frame will make him an attractive target for Rice QB Driphus Jackson.
10. P/PK James Farrimond, Sr.
Farrimond will anchor the Owl special teams unit for one more year, with a chance to once again pull double-duty. The former walk-on specializes as a punter, averaging a healthy 42.2 yards a season ago. But he also embraced the placekicking role mid-year after James Hairston was struggling with his accuracy. While Farrimond won’t be confused with former Owl Chris Boswell, he did hit 8-of-11 three-pointers, including 7-of-7 from inside 40 yards.