Rice football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Owls, best players and season prediction.
Rice is feeling antsy and dissatisfied after going 5-7 a year ago. And that’s a very important sign of progress for the program.
There was a time not long ago that the Owls operated with a sense of contentment and resignation. Rice is an academic powerhouse, not a football powerhouse. But David Bailiff has gradually changed the culture during his decade-long tenure in Houston. No, not a Group of Five heavyweight, but a squad that now expects to compete for postseason appearances and divisional contention.
Rice is looking to rebound from 2015, chasing the elevated expectations it created by going to three straight bowl games, including a first outright league title since 1957. Bailiff, along with his staff, deserve much of the credit for the altered mindset in the locker room. The Owls are signing the same caliber of kids that prevented them from competing for so many decades in the defunct Southwest Conference. And the same second-tier athletes that performed to mixed results from 1996-2004 in the WAC. In Conference USA, though, the school has found its sweet spot.
However, for the Owls to bounce back, plenty of work needs to be done on both sides of the ball.
The offense, which scored its fewest points in four years in 2015, must replace one of its most important weapons, QB Driphus Jackson. Fifth-year senior Tyler Stehling is waiting in the wings. And the offensive line will need to become more assertive to unlock the potential of a deep collection of backs.
The situation on defense is far more dire. The undersized and undermanned Owls gave up more yards per play than any other team in America a season ago. And looking up and down the roster doesn’t reveal enough surefire stoppers capable of sparking a much-needed turnaround. If Rice is going to hit its new bar, it’ll have to score liberally this fall.
Bailiff has done a very solid job at a tough place to win. Now, he and his assistants are looking to relocate the formula that helped make the Owls so scrappy just a few years ago. While the team was young in 2015, climbing back above .500 will hinge on two key factors, Stehling’s first season as a starter and the development of a porous defense.
What You Need To Know About the Rice Offense
The Owls, long associated with a vanilla ground game, are attempting to spice up the attack this season with a little more up-tempo. Makes sense in this day and age of offensive philosophies. But it’ll also make sense for Rice to play to its personnel strength, a very deep backfield comprised of three possible starters, Darik Dillard, Samuel Stewart and Jowan Davis.
Plus, the team is working in a new starting quarterback, with fifth-year senior Tyler Stehling supplanting Driphus Jackson, and the receivers are merely average. The impetus for a new approach from co-coordinators Billy Lynch and Larry Edmondson was a team that lacked the scoring punch and big-play potential to keep pace with Conference USA’s more potent programs a year ago.
The Owls rarely stretched the field in 2015, ranking 112th nationally with only eight plays of at least 40 yards.
Biggest Key To The Rice Offense
Stehling the spotlight. The graduation of versatile Driphus Jackson has left the Owls with a sizable hole under center. He was a solid playmaker, with 46 total touchdowns the last two seasons. Yeah, Tyler Stehling has played sparingly during his career, but he is a fifth-year senior who’s itching to finally get his shot. He’s also a heady 6-5, 215-pounder, with an ability to handle the up-tempo approach that Rice is hoping to employ a little more in 2016. Stehling played well in the spring, squelching the possibility of a quarterback controversy.
What You Need To Know About the Rice Defense
The Rice D is nothing if not predictable. The unit was supposed to be atrocious in 2015, and it did absolutely nothing to flip the script. Veteran coordinator Chris Thurmond survived, despite his kids yielding 36 points per game and more yards per play than any other team in the FBS.
The troops are essentially FCS-caliber, and no amount of scheming is going to alter reality. Still, Thurmond has spent this offseason going back to the basics in the hopes that the Owls will create a few more turnovers and allow fewer explosive plays that gash the defense. It’s a challenging pursuit for this program.
Rice will lean hard on seasoned linebackers Alex Lyons and Emmanuel Ellerbee and underrated ends Brian Womac, Derek Brown and Graysen Schantz. All three edge guys have the motors and quickness to impact the quarterback’s rhythm.
On the back end, the Owls are in disarray after allowing 36 touchdown passes and picking off only two. In an effort to add some attitude to the secondary, former LB Tabari McGaskey is stepping back a level to play strong safety.
Biggest Key To The Rice Defense
All’s well that ends well. The Owl defense is in rough shape, an ongoing theme in these parts. The ends, though, will need to be exempt from the criticism. Rice is in great shape on the flanks, with Grayson Schantz returning from injury to join holdovers Derek Brown and Brian Womac. Brown is on the verge of busting out, and Womac is fighting for a job even after leading the team with 12.5 tackles for loss. The Owls should soar past last season’s 16 sacks, which would also lend much-needed support to a shaky secondary.
Rice Will Be Far Better If …
the defense is able to generate more money plays. Rice doesn’t boast a salty D, even by the Conference USA measuring stick. And that reality isn’t going to suddenly change in 2016. But the unit should be able to do a better job of flipping the field and shifting tempo with pressures and takeaways. In fact, the situation can’t possibly get any worse after the Owls ranked last in the league in both sacks and turnovers.
Best Rice Offensive Player
Senior RB Darik Dillard. The Owls’ first order of business on offense is to run the ball effectively. Dillard is the leader of that brigade. His numbers have been modest the past two seasons, never surpassing 700 yards, a byproduct of a very deep backfield and a very so-so offensive line. Still, he averages almost five yards a carry for his career, and remains a step ahead of Rice’s other quality runners, senior Jowan Davis and sophomore Samuel Stewart.
Best Rice Defensive Player
Senior LB Alex Lyons. Lyons is the Owls’ rock at middle linebacker, the one guy the defense can count on, week-in and week-out. He’s led the team in tackles the past two seasons, and he’s the heavy favorite to run his streak to three years in a row. Plus, Lyons is durable and fundamentally sound in the open field, rarely missing the chance to pad his numbers when he zeroes in on a target.
Key Player To a Successful Season
Senior DE Derek Brown. Someone on defense needs to step up to become a true difference-maker. A contagious playmaker who makes those around him better. Brown is on the verge of a breakout year, using his motor and sudden first step to collapse the pocket. If he can incite an underrated crew of defensive ends, it’ll also help a perennially shaky pass defense that allowed 36 touchdown passes, picked off just two and ranked dead last nationally in pass efficiency D.
The Rice Season Will Be a Success If …
the Owls make a return engagement to the postseason. A bowl invitation is now a bare minimum bar for a program that earned a bonus game in three straight seasons before going 5-7 in 2015. That said, there’ll be little margin for error within a schedule that opens at reigning league champ Western Kentucky, ends at Stanford and includes a visit from Baylor. When Rice is favored in Conference USA games this fall, it’ll have to close the deal without any exceptions.
Sept. 10 at Army. Rice opens the season at Western Kentucky. Probably a loss. In Week 3, Baylor comes to Houston. Definitely a loss. If the Owls cannot defeat the Black Knights on the Hudson on the second Saturday of the season, they’re probably staring down the barrel of an 0-3 start. And after stumbling to last year’s finish line, getting out of the gate slowly is liable to torpedo the 2015 campaign before it ever has a chance to materialize.
2015 Rice Fun Stats:
– Yards per play: Rice 5.3 – Opponents 7.1
– Third-down conversions: Rice 50% – Opponents 44%
– Sacks: Rice 16 – Opponents 38