August 2009 Archives
It took several days for the shock to subside. The opening of fall camp introduced newcomers wearing No. 16 (Taylor McHargue), No. 81 (Donte Moore) and No. 12 (Andre Brackens), and as the workouts passed it became painfully obvious that Chase Clement, Jarett Dillard and James Casey weren't coming down that tunnel. Begrudgingly, the time had come to move on.
On Monday morning, the notable tab of the UAB game notes brought something equally disheveling to mind. Granted the starters on offense have been set for a while now, but to read that left guard Davon Allen and center Keshawn Carrington will make their first career starts on Saturday against UAB makes one shift in his seat. To understand that Taylor Dupree and Derek Clark have combined for zero career receptions makes one stammer. To accept that John Thomas Shepherd and Nick Fanuzzi have one career start between them is sobering.
The good news? The Owls' inexperience at quarterback, receiver and in the trenches might not prove costly. In Ed Zaunbrecher
(offensive coordinator/quarterbacks), Larry Edmondson
(receivers) and Ronnie Vinklarek
(offensive line), the Owls have veteran coaches at the ready.
"It's one of the things when you lose three coaches on offense, I was an absolute nervous wreck wanting to make sure we hired the right people," Owls coach David Bailiff said of the departures of Tom Herman (Iowa State), Dan Hammerschmidt (Wyoming) and Blake Miller (Utah). "Not only have the right people been hired, we have these very experienced offensive coaches with an inexperienced offense. The timing really couldn't have been better. All three of them have been great fits for these players.
"I'm very comfortable and confident with this coaching staff."
In Vinklarek, Bailiff has an assistant with professional experience, an added bonus for an offensive line that lost three seniors on its interior. Edmondson has spent nearly 20 years in coaching, more than half of that tutoring receivers. While the Owls return three seniors at the position (Toren Dixon, Corbin Smiter and Taylor Wardlow), their depth is inexperienced, and Edmondson has been instrumental in getting those younger receivers up to speed.
And Zaunbrecher has overseen a quarterback competition with a steadying hand. Whatever questions Shepherd and Fanuzzi conjure on Saturday the odds are good that Zaunbrecher will have an answer. His career has spanned four decades, and the list of NFL players mentored is extensive and decorated. Saturday will bring moments of confusion for the younger Owls, but they can rest assured in the knowledge that their position coaches are well equipped.
"It's the first time in my life where I've been able to hire really experienced guys," Bailiff said. "A lot of the times you'd have to sit there for two or three weeks to try to get everybody on the same page. It was so close to spring when they were hired and you sit in there with them for three days and you just watch these wonderful things happen because their challenge was to learn how Rice does it.
"We wanted those guys to learn our vernacular so our players didn't have to learn anything. It was up to those coaches to learn it and they came in and could have practiced by the third day because they have experienced so much and been a part of so many different schemes and systems. And more importantly they're very good men for these young men to be around."
leaves you little choice but to believe that his eerily calm demeanor will pay dividends whenever he takes the field Saturday afternoon against UAB at Legion Field in Birmingham. More than two years will have passed since the last, and only, time Fanuzzi took snaps in a Football Bowl Subdivision game. Coincidentally, that game was also in Alabama.
Not only will Fanuzzi make his Rice debut against the Blazers, he will return to the state where his college career unfolded. Some 57 miles from where he saw mop-up duty against Western Carolina on Sept. 1, 2007, Fanuzzi will begin the process of reviving his career, one that took a circuitous route after Fanuzzi opted to transfer from Alabama to Rice prior to last season.
"When I actually heard the schedule a while back, I was like 'Wow, the first game we're going back to the state of Alabama,'" said Fanuzzi, a third-year sophomore. "It was pretty ironic and funny, but at the same time I was excited about it. I get to go back there, and there are a lot of friends that have contacted me and said that they will be at the game. It's fun to be able to go back there and play a good Conference USA team and try to see if we can pull out a win."
A victory would be a perfect place to start for Fanuzzi, who essentially milked the clock when he made his lone appearance for the Crimson Tide as a true freshman. Fellow Texan Greg McElroy
(Southlake Carroll High School) also participated that day, and when it became clear that neither would unseat John Parker Wilson heading into last season and that Fanuzzi was behind McElroy, a redshirt freshman in 2007, on the depth chart, Fanuzzi opted to leave. His return to his home state (Fanuzzi graduated from San Antonio Churchill High School) generated a shrug of apathy in Tuscaloosa, but on South Main Fanuzzi was welcomed as the potential heir to Chase Clement
, a San Antonio native who rewrote the school record book.
Fanuzzi has work remaining if he is to solely succeed Clement for fifth-year senior John Thomas Shepherd
, Clement's backup the past three seasons, played Fanuzzi to a draw in spring drills and fall camp. They will share reps against the Blazers after being named co-starters two weeks ago, a decision that added intrigue to the story that is Fanuzzi's homecoming. There might be a small contingent of Alabama fans who will cast a curious eye on Birmingham just to witness exactly how Fanuzzi is coming along, a likely scenario that Fanuzzi has undoubtedly contemplated. Given all that is on the line for Fanuzzi, primarily repetitions and redemption, one is left to wonder whether he will press to prove himself.
Fanuzzi doesn't anticipate losing hold of his emotions. He will greet the task coolly as always.
"I'm not too concerned about the emotional effects of going back there," Fanuzzi said. "All I'm thinking about during the game is the play at hand, each possession, my teammates, things of that nature. I'm not thinking about outside sources, just focusing on the task at hand."
That David Bailiff is a man of his word played a crucial, and humorous, role in the process of former Miami quarterback Taylor Cook
finding his way to South Main from Coral Gables.
On the morning after Cook announced his intentions to transfer
out of Miami, Bailiff sat in his office with a scholarship release from the Hurricanes in one hand and the phone in the other. On the line was Rice Consolidated High School coach Brad Dumont, with whom Bailiff had crafted a fruitful relationship after recruiting several of Dumont's players while coaching at Texas State. Dumont made it clear to Cook that Bailiff was trustworthy, which factored into Rice being on the short list of schools Cook considered once he opted to leave Miami.
Two days later, with Bailiff anxious to confirm that Cook's commitment to the Owls hadn't wavered over the time he attended practice Thursday afternoon and the moment he was scheduled to attend class Friday morning, Owls offensive graduate assistant Tom Keresztury
flanked Cook to make sure he attended his 9 a.m. class: Fundamental Theorem of Calculus. Bailiff promised on Thursday he would make sure that Cook was enrolled the following day, and once the relationship between Cook and Rice was consumated
, Keresztury made the call.The
(Quarterback From) Eagle
(Lake) Has Landed
"His dad (Robert) flew to get him, and on the way driving back (from Miami) they were going through the options, called and committed," Bailiff said. "They liked our offense, they liked the school, they liked the fact that we have so much youth on the team, and it's close to home."
That Eagle Lake is roughly 70 miles west of Houston certainly played a part in Cook transferring to Rice, but the relationships Bailiff has cultivated with this state's high school coaches positioned Rice to welcome its third top-tier transfer in 12 months. First came former Alabama quarterback Nick Fanuzzi
, who joined the program just prior to last season, and tailback Sam McGuffie
followed after leaving Michigan during the semester break last winter.
Now comes Cook who, like Fanuzzi and McGuffie, is a Texan who originally signed with an out-of-state program. Bailiff has maintained that his ties to Texas high school coaches is why he likely won't leave the state to take a coaching job, and while he wouldn't toot his own horn while discussing Cook's decision, it is clear Bailiff has earned the trust of his coaching peers.
Cook took a battery of tests and was not made available on Friday. That didn't prevent Bailiff from gushing over his latest uncovered gem. With Fanuzzi, a third-year sophomore, redshirt freshman Ryan Lewis and true freshman Taylor McHargue in the fold, Bailiff will no longer pursue a quarterback for the Class of 2010. At 6-7, 235 pounds, Cook offers plus size, surprising athleticism and versatility - Cook was also an all-state punter. Additionally, his arrival signifies that another quarterback competition will be on tap when spring drills open.
"When players are available that are good people that make this football team better, we have to take them," Bailiff said of Cook, who was assigned residence at Hanszen. "We will take a quality transfer that's a good academic fit at Rice."
This is what happens when injuries muck up the proceedings.
In my mind the Owls closed camp with their third and final scrimmage on Wednesday because on Thursday the squad officially split into depth chart members and scout teammers. Now, under normal circumstances it'd be a safe bet to assume that the Owls wearing the oddball numbers are definitely not making the trip to Birmingham for the opener at UAB on Sept. 5, but given the injury concerns - minor and major - every travel roster spot isn't yet set in stone.
With that information on the table, along with David Bailiff's hesitancy to confirm which fringe players will or won't be on that bus to the airport next Friday, let's examine what I saw this afternoon and review the odds of who will don white uniforms at Legion Field next weekend:
QB (3): As I first reported, Shepherd and Fanuzzi will split time at quarterback. Lewis will make the trip, too, but I have no clue if McHargue will be signaling plays from the sideline.
RB (5): T. Smith, Turner, Knox, Goodson and Ross are good to go as confirmed by Bailiff.
WR (9): Gautreaux won the freshmen sweepstakes and is in position to ride. Smiter has been in and out of live reps this week, but I'd bet Chuck Pool's salary that he'll be on that bird. The other seven include Dixon, Dupree, Randolph, Beasley, Patterson, Clark and Maginot. That group would look more formidable with Wells and Hotard included, but those are the breaks.
TE (3): Will someone please keep Wardlow, McDonald and Willson away from the injury bug? Writing of Willson, who knew that the Big Canadian had such a sure set of mitts? Nice camp.
OL (10): Forgive me for being out of the loop on Nazar, whom I could not locate today. If something is amiss there, Vester takes his spot; if not, Nazar joins his second-team mates Emmert, Janish (yes, the talented, versatile frosh practiced his way into a roadie), Ball, and Mason. You already know the first-team line of Mitchell, Allen, Carrington, Hicks and Parish.
DL (10): I needed both hands to count (including the loquacious Talbert, who has yet to be fully cleared but remains adamant that he'll play), with freshmen Lowry and Bauer in the mix. Solomon, Ozougwu, Lucio, J. Williams, Gioffre, M. Smith and Stacey are definite participants.
LB (5): Nordstrom was in a boot, so I don't know what his deal is. However, barring injury, only (maybe?) four will play against the Blazers - Garmon, Hill, Calhoun and Shuck. A. Williams should go for insurance and special teams purposes if Nordstrom is unavailable.
SAF (8): Sendejo, Bradshaw, Jones, Webb, Kitchens, Garley, Anyiam and Falgout, who should see more time on special teams than on defense. Thank goodness for consistency.
CB (6): Don't hold me to this, but aside from starters Jammer and Ben and the senior Welch, Gaines (he's a lock), Frazier and Gaddis are in. Francis has a week to play his way back in.
That's 59, which leaves room for seven specialists. We know that Long, Fangmeier, Boswell and Martens are going. I think Brundage and/or Rhodes are also in, so that leaves Brackens, Briggs and/or Akinwumi as special teammers. Maybe. Perhaps. Not quite sure on the last two.
It would have been completely understandable had Kyle Martens
surrendered to the awe last season. Given the immediacy with which he was asked to step in and contribute as the Owls' starting punter and the adjustment he was forced to make transitioning from Spearfish, S.D. (Population: 8,606) to Houston (Population: 5,728,143), few could have justifiably blamed Martens had he folded his tent when everything in his foreign world started to spin about him.
But the erratic performances on the field and the fast-paced existence off it failed to rattle Martens then, and even now he has an appreciation for being thrown into the fire of living life in a unique environment while playing Division I football in a state where the sport is a religion.
"It was quite a change, to be honest," Martens said. "In South Dakota they take their football seriously, but nothing like down here. The college level was just another step above that.
"The environment was different, the way I thought had to be changed, and there were a lot of things I had to step up. But that first year really helped me. Playing, you've got to get those jitters out. Coming in here (now as a sophomore), I know what it's like. Mentally I know what to do and physically I know I'm prepared for it. Really, that first year I think it helped me out a lot.
"Thinking about redshirting, I don't think that would have been the best decision for me because I'd come in right now and this would still be my first year punting. I still wouldn't know what it's like to be out there on the field. So, I really think starting that first year helped."
Martens arrived with a sterling reputation as a punter with significant leg strength and the ability to drastically impact field position. However, it took two months before Martens settled in. Inconsistency marred Martens' initial efforts, and it wasn't until the final four games of the season that he began to showcase the powerful right foot that led to his signing and insertion into the starting lineup. And Martens didn't rest on the laurels of experience when the offseason began for he committed himself not only to getting stronger, but to honing his skills.
A clear beneficiary of the Owls' rigorous summer conditioning program, Martens opened fall camp weighing 200 pounds, 10 pounds heavier than the 190 he had stretched over his 6-6 frame in 2008. And when he checked in earlier this month, Martens was fresh off participating in two specialty kicking camps designed to advance his technical skills and punting prowess.
One week prior to the fall camp, Martens worked with Chris Sailer
in Dallas. Martens has been tutored by Sailer, whom he discovered through mutual relationships, since the summer prior to his junior year in high school. In late July, Martens attended a kicking clinic
co-hosted by Texans kicker Kris Brown
and former 49ers kicker Bill Lafleur, who also played at Nebraska. Martens attended several football camps at Nebraska and was recruited by the Cornhuskers.
"You can always learn. You can always get better," Martens said. "Chris Sailer is the No. 1 guy I go to. I'm always sending him film, always talking to him and asking for him advice. And I figured if I get that one-on-one work with him and go to a camp, that would make me better because every time I'm there you get in that attitude of being a kicker. You're in that environment - it's all kickers. You work together, and Chris is telling you how to do things."
And the lasting result of so much personal instruction?
"It boosted (my confidence) a lot - a lot
," Martens said. "The first practice of two-a-days I didn't have any jitters. I was ready to go."
Owls coach David Bailiff took notice when Martens boomed several punts to open the initial workout of camp, confidently implying Martens would improve upon his 38.3-yard average as a freshman. Days later Martens was lost to tonsillitis, but he returned this week ready to pick up where he left off - poised to prove how much he developed in his first college offseason.
"It makes me feel good to know that everything is coming together," Martens said. "With the first game (at UAB on Sept. 5) being on TV, everyone back home gets to watch me. I get to make my family proud. They're probably going to have a little party and show the game.
"All my friends are always telling me how awesome it is to see someone that they grew up with on TV playing (football). I'm really glad I can do this for my family and make them proud."
All it took was one chat with Ben Braun for thoughts of breathlessly optimistic evenings at Tudor Fieldhouse to simmer at the surface. A malfunctioning scorer's table, a video board with no scoring panel and the roar of a raucous (ahem) crowd is some three months away, but anticipation is running amok. When does preseason camp start? In six weeks? I Can't Wait
With that, here are five ridiculously early questions for the 2009-2010 season, contemplated and compiled while the Owls got in some open gym action early Tuesday evening ... and before the cheerleaders ran them off the Fox Gym court. That, folks, is a story for another day:
1. Will junior center Trey Stanton meet expectations and dominate? Perhaps we all were wrong in labeling Stanton a one-dimensional post player. He is quite capable of scoring in the paint, but his face-up game is such that he can cause a multitude of matchup problems for the opposition. Should Stanton score on the block more than occasionally? Absolutely. However, with a handful of 4's capable of helping him rebound, Stanton should be given the freedom to roam and shoot at will from the perimeter. He has the talent, and clearly possesses the desire.
2. How will Braun juggle his overabundance of small guards? The influx of talent to the Owls' roster didn't solve one problem: Rice still lacks a traditional shooting guard. If Braun could splice the shooting ability of Cory Pflieger with the height and toughness of Cliff Ghoram, his problem would be solved. And with two upperclassmen (Bryan Beasley and Connor Frizzelle) plus two freshmen (Tamir Jackson and A.J. Holland) that play as lead guards, roles at the 1 will need to be clearly defined. Jackson is a savvy floor general, while Holland is quick as a hiccup and sees the court well. Frizzelle is a fearless jump shooter and Beasley ultra-athletic. Who does what and for how long each game will be an interesting issue for Braun to resolve.
3. What position will Arsalan Kazemi play? The Iranian import is a skilled basketball player - that much is obvious. He is a creative scorer, often looks to pass when a teammate is in an advantageous position, and is crafty around the basket. What Kazemi isn't at this stage is physical in the post. After spending the summer playing with his national team, Kazemi arrived on campus behind his classmates in weight training but advanced in that he did work with a strength coach while abroad. Strength coach Scott McLafferty has plenty of time to put some mass on Kazemi, but after he does and when the season starts, will Kazemi play the 3 or 4?
4. Who will emerge and offer surprise contributions? Lucas Kuipers, a sophomore forward who missed the second half of his freshman season with a broken wrist, seems like the obvious candidate here. The light appeared to be flickering in his head before he was lost to injury, but now that there is competition in the loaded front court, will Kuipers continue to develop? And the same goes for Beasley, who could morph into a lock-down perimeter defender if he so chooses. And if sophomore forward Emerson Herndon can elevate his athleticism to match his subtle passing skills, he could provide more than sporadic minutes.
5. When roles are finally defined, will the role players accept them? Who on this roster will be content with rebounding and defending, with setting screens and passing to the cutters, with coming off the bench and providing energy in five-minute bursts? With one glance at this roster it is obvious which four Owls should pace this team in scoring. When the other 11 players figure that out, will they submit to being selfless or will they try to get their share glory?
There are staff meetings, and then there are excruciatingly lengthy pow-wows where decisions are made, reconsidered, reversed, and then agreed upon once more. Contentions are presented, debated, debunked and dismissed just so that the process can begin anew.
Suffice it to say David Bailiff and his assistants spend their Sunday afternoon partaking in the latter as they composed an outline for their 66-man travel roster for the Owls' season opener at UAB on Sept. 5. Most of the names were obvious, but when the time came for those last few men to be discussed, the Conference USA-mandated shrunken travel squad made the task decidedly more difficult. Nine offensive linemen or a dozen? Five defensive ends or four?
"There are a couple of positions where Wednesday we're going to put the ball down a little bit and let some guys compete," Bailiff said, referencing the Owls' third and final scrimmage of fall camp. "We're really going to try to make up our mind because when you reduce your travel squad by four (it was 70 last year), it's really going to make some of those decisions critical."
For instance, Bailiff typically travels 22 linemen (offensive and defensive), but he might shave that number down to 18. After receiving news that junior receiver Brent Hotard must undergo surgery on his broken left thumb and will miss four weeks, the staff needs to find a travel replacement. With so many receivers dinged up, Bailiff is leaning toward taking more than usual as a precautionary measure, but which position will by compromised by that move?
Bailiff would like to take freshman quarterback Taylor McHargue so he can learn to signal plays to the offense and get a feel for life on the road, but that luxury could be nixed. And how many roster slots can be allotted to special teams mavens like Andre Brackens and Matt Nordstrom? Bailiff will take all five tailbacks, so he might need to scale back elsewhere.
"We're going to have to make those hard decisions next week," Bailiff said. "We've made a preliminary travel list, but there's still 70 names up there (on the meeting room white board)."
To help bolster the dwindling depth at receiver, freshman safety Turner Petersen has switched sides. How worrisome is the injury situation at receiver? The Owls have practiced without the following at some point during camp: Pierre Beasley (hamstring), Toren Dixon (hamstring), Hotard (thumb), Roddy Maginot (shoulder), Donte Moore (undisclosed), Michael Patterson (hamstring), Corbin Smiter (hernia) and Denzel Wells (shoulder). Wells is lost for the season.
To watch Owls basketball coach Ben Braun work the bench last season was an exercise in awe. Braun mixed and matched pieces of a roster compiled dually by Willis Wilson and his own hasty handiwork, and the moments when Braun organized those parts in concert were riveting. Lineups alternated and rotations fluctuated, yet Braun exposed windows in time when his experimentation yielded success, primarily via stretches of scorching perimeter shooting.
Everyone realized that the obstacles Braun encountered were temporary. Behind the scenes he was cultivating a recruiting class worthy of raves
, and the subsequent belief was that once his
recruits arrived, Braun would herald the dawn of a new age. The quintet of freshmen he pursued and signed would serve as the cornerstone for a bright future in Rice basketball. They would be lionized as a Mid-Major Fab 5 of sorts, and few could argue if Braun took that route.
The thing is, Braun refuses to walk that path. Division, it seems, was never an option.
"I don't have my
players, I only have Rice
players," Braun said. "The guys that are here are every bit as valuable as the guys that we brought in. I don't disclaim the guys that I didn't recruit; I would coach and our staff will coach the players on our team equally. Once you're a member of our family, you're a family.
"These new guys coming in, I think people recognize them as good players. But I don't want them to be viewed as our
recruits, or these are our guys
. They're Rice players and they fit our team, and actually the players we have returning played a big part in their recruiting so I don't see much separation there. I don't think that's the issue."
Of primary concern for Braun is blending the old and the new. Of the Owls' 13 scholarship players, six were signed by Braun including sophomore guard Connor Frizzelle and the touted freshmen class of forwards Arsalan Kazemi, Egheosa Edomwonyl and Chris Eversley, and guards Tamir Jackson and A.J. Holland. With just two seniors (guards Cory Pflieger and Cliff Ghoram) on the roster, Braun will field an especially young team with largely unidentified roles.
What will Braun do with Ghoram, who frequently guarded power forwards last season, and Pflieger, who endured a miserable midseason shooting slump? How will sophomores Lucas Kuipers, who missed the second half of last season with a broken wrist, and Emerson Herndon, who came off the bench exclusively, embrace roles of greater significance? Can juniors Suleiman Braimoh and Bryan Beasley find niches, and will Trey Stanton adjust to being asked to nail face-up jumpers and score inside? And what to do with those freshmen?
"This is a great opportunity for our coaching staff to take last year's team, maybe some of the strengths, some of the weaknesses and some of the shortcomings, and plug in those things and work on them earlier now," Braun said. "Now that we've got a year under our belt, what are the areas we want to attack? Where are the areas we want to improve to go up a notch?
"Can our new players, the players we're bringing in, help us in those areas? I think they can. It will create more competitiveness in practice and our depth is going to be better. We have to work on some of these things, and we've got a chance to get organized in that area.
"We kind of know what we have, and that helps. That really helps."
What Braun desires to exploit is his roster's versatility. With six forwards listed between 6-7 and 6-8, Braun can put a big lineup on the floor with Stanton in the middle, or he can utilize some combination of Pflieger, Frizzelle, Beasley and the two freshmen guards in the backcourt. It will be paramount for Braun to identify his primary ball handlers and adept shooters, for far too often last season guards were asked to do both to diminishing returns. Braun longs for players capable of completing multiple tasks, but with improved depth comes the greater likelihood of specialization. If Braun can get reliable shooting from one segment of his backcourt, defensive intensity from another, and floor leadership from another, it will free up the posts to concentrate on rebounding and interior defense, glaring weaknesses last year.
Unlike his first season on the bench, Braun has the bodies to make his best-laid plans come to fruition. But that sudden increase in depth could usher in an unexpected set of headaches.
"The challenge is how do we utilize our depth and numbers, and can we use that to increase our productivity," Braun said. "To do that you've got to give up something. Maybe some guys might play less than they did a year ago, but they may be more valuable to us. We're going to have to get through that as a team. Those are the challenges we have to get the team concept."
Had it not been a typically humid - albeit manageable - Houston morning, Terrance Garmon and Scott Solomon would not have broken their customary practice sweat. With their spots in the rotation secure and with so many of their less experienced teammates jostling for position on the depth chart, Garmon, Solomon and several veterans were limited in their participation on Saturday as the Owls conducted their second and most critical scrimmage of fall camp.
"The guys that we've got to figure out who's getting on the bus and who isn't got a lot more reps than the guys that we know that are on the bus," Owls coach David Bailiff said. "There were different combinations of young men out there playing with the 1's and playing with the 2's. We're going to sit down (Sunday) as a staff and determine who's traveling and who's going to scout (team) because we've got to start working on UAB the midpoint of next week."
As a test of knowledge and observation skills, here is a stab at the 66-man travel roster Bailiff and staff will compile on Sunday afternoon. I'd like to think that these are the 66 Owls who will travel to Birmingham to face the Blazers on Sept. 5, but the real test is how few I will miss. Receiver Brent Hotard broke his left thumb during the scrimmage, and since the severity of the injury was unknown when this post was composed, I can't take responsibility if Hotard is forced to miss the opening weeks of the season. I'll wish him a speedy recovery and include his name on the travel roster as reward for a job well done during the first two weeks of camp.
Of course, all bets on these selections are for entertainment purposes only.
QBs (3): Shepherd, Fanuzzi, Lewis.
RBs (5): T. Smith, Turner, Knox, Ross, Goodson.
WRs (8): Dixon, Smiter, Randolph, Clark, Hotard, Dupree, Beasley, Maginot.
TEs (3): Wardlow, McDonald, Willson.
OL (11): Mitchell, Allen, Carrington, Hicks, Parish, Emmert, Hebert, Ball, Mason, Nazar, Janish.
DL (10): Solomon, Gioffre, M. Smith, Ozougwu, Lucio, Talbert, Stacey, J. Williams, Lowry, Bauer.
LBs (6): Garmon, Calhoun, Shuck, Hill, A. Williams, Nordstrom.
CBs (6): Ben, Jammer, Welch, Gaines, Gaddis, Francis.
SAFs (8): Sendejo, Bradshaw, Jones, Webb, Kitchens, Garley, Anyiam, Falgout.
Specialists (6): Long, Fangmeier, Boswell, Brackens, Martens, Brundage.
Notes: It seems outlandish to take five tailbacks, but Smith is the starter, Turner is a first-team kick returner, Goodson is on the second team on kick returns, and Knox is the lead blocker in the Wildcat package. Ross, a freshman, could be left at home, but he is such an explosive talent that he should be kept in the staff's back pocket. ... If Hotard is unavailable, I suspect that only seven receivers will travel. ... Janish, a freshman, has trained at guard and tackle, making him the most valuable of the freshmen linemen. ... Bauer should be redshirted, but with so many injury concerns on the D-line, he has to travel as a safety valve. ... Nordstrom over Lillard? It's a coin flip, with Nordstrom getting the edge because he could be serviceable on special teams. ... Gaines has been the best of the freshmen corners, and with both Gaddis and Francis working special teams, they get the slight edge over Frazier. Akinwumi will eventually move to safety. ... Falgout, like Nordstrom, has value on special teams. ... Brackens has earned his way on the travel squad with his ferocity on special teams, especially on kickoff coverage. Brundage can punt and kick, so he goes as an emergency reserve.
John Thomas Shepherd and Nick Fanuzzi were facing opposite end zones yet sharing the same general area after Thursday's practice, with Shepherd firing shallow ins to Patrick Randolph and Fanuzzi skinny posts to Corbin Smiter. Owls OC Ed Zaunbrecher was stationed in between, intently studying the footwork and throwing motions of the two quarterbacks who survived the 30-practice gauntlet that was once a three-man race to replace Chase Clement.
Twelve practices and two walk-throughs remain before the Owls take the field at UAB, and if David Bailiff and Zaunbrecher haven't decided on a starter by then, perhaps this standoff should be settled by penalty kicks. At this exhausting stage, that option seems appealing.
With confidence and conviction, Bailiff announced that Shepherd and Fanuzzi will share first-team reps through the final eight workouts of camp and even extending into UAB prep. The odds appear favorable that whoever is not named the starter against the Blazers will see game action anyway, a temporary solution to a quarterback competition that's too close to call.
"Those two after spring training and after 14 opportunities (in fall camp) statistically lead the race right now," Bailiff said. "And there's not enough separation between them to say, 'Right now, this is the guy.' The good news is they're both really talented, too.
"We've got 14 days, and if one of them were to separate in those 14 days he could be the guy. We really think going into the first game you're going to see them both. It's what Houston did two years ago (with Blake Joseph and Case Keenum), and it's something we'll have to do."
Bailiff and Zaunbrecher seem to have developed an outline for utilizing Shepherd and Fanuzzi, with Bailiff noting that the quarterbacks will not alternate series against UAB. The plan is amendable if one quarterback catches fire, but the idea going forward is to play both in the early stages of the season with the aim of blending what makes each quarterback special.
For Shepherd, that is his knowledge and moxie. Given his experience and three seasons in the system, Shepherd is the least likely to flinch under duress. His elusiveness has been on display throughout camp, and his leadership skills make him a sound choice to be behind center when the Owls open the season against their most difficult stretch of their schedule.
For Fanuzzi, his arm strength is the key. Where Shepherd is more apt to lead the Owls on a methodical march, Fanuzzi supplies the big-play capability the Owls long to exploit. He has been more hesitant to scramble out of the pocket and erratic at completing certain routes, but his innate ability to stretch the field certainly enhances the Owls' designs on running the ball.
"He (Shepherd) makes tremendous plays with his feet, and he's very familiar and comfortable in the offense," Bailiff said. "Nick makes a lot of plays with his arm, and he's still learning this offense but he gets better every day. Really what they do is they complement each other, and that makes it even harder."
Though they took the extension of their competition in stride, Shepherd and Fanuzzi made it obvious that they still have designs on claiming the job outright. Presenting both quarterbacks with the opportunity to play out of the gate is justifiable, but in the same vein the decision stifles the chemistry that must be established between one signal caller and the skill players.
Shepherd has already showcased the ability to lead; Fanuzzi longs to do so. At some point, in the near or distant future, one must be given room to lead without peering over his shoulder.
"I've been through a lot here, and obviously being a competitive person, I was hoping that they'd name me the guy. That didn't happen," said Shepherd, who seemed to bristle at the 'experienced guy' tag. "I'm not going to let that get me down. Things have happened before that haven't really been the ideal situation. I'm just going to keep playing. That's all I can do."
Said Fanuzzi: "That's what's good about narrowing things down is you get more reps and it gives you a chance to be the leader, not just alternating. You know that you're the guy taking your troops out to battle. And that's what I want to happen so that way, when Week 1 comes, (I can say), 'Hey, I'm your guy that's going to lead you to this victory. I'm going to take you down, we're going to score.' I'm excited about that, and reps will definitely help that happen."
Charles Ross did it again.
As the Owls conducted a surprisingly brisk practice on Wednesday morning, an effort that belied the suffocating heat that oppressed both participants and observers like a totalitarian regime, Ross elected to add a jolt of electricity to the humidity. On an option play to the left side, Ross snared the pitch, turned his pads perpendicular to the sideline, and exploded up the field. Pursuing defenders attempted to contain Ross by taking an angle to an upcoming point on the field only to discover Ross was scooting so fast that those estimates were faulty.
When David Bailiff revisited that moment after practice he smirked, then recounted a similar episode of athletic prowess Ross displayed on Monday night. But this showcase was different for, unlike the post-workout scrimmage that included only freshmen and third-stringers two nights earlier, Ross made mincemeat of those pursuing loftier perches on the depth chart this time around. It may seem unabashedly optimistic to note this, but Ross is started to get it.
"That guy continues to get better every day," Bailiff said of Ross, a freshman tailback from Schertz Clemens. "He's got legitimate speed, he's a big-play guy, and when you get it in his hands ... . The last time in the stadium he broke that run on the outside zone, and he did it again today on the option. He's a big man that can really move. He carries his pads well, and as he gets more comfortable in the offense he also has different gears that he can hit. I'm really, really pleased with his progress."
That progress has been sudden. As recently as last Saturday's scrimmage Ross appeared unsure of himself and uncertain of his responsibilities. His trepidation - not his speed - had become his trademark, but the second week of camp has inspired timely growth. And, wisely, the coaches have sensed Ross' swelling confidence and subsequently loaded his plate with additional reps. During live action on Wednesday, Ross had multiple opportunities to prove his acclimation, and there were other runs that caught the eye in addition to his scoring gallop.
If Ross can continue down this road of development, a spot on the depth chart for the Owls' opener at UAB on Sept. 5 might not be out of the question. Ross controls what happens next.
"It's one of those things where if you look around the country with a lot of the running backs and skill (players), as soon as they figure out what's going on they're ready to go," Bailiff said. "Charles Ross is already physically ready to go. We've just got to get him where he's on the same page because you see that when he knows what to do, he's a big -play guy for us.
"Early on you could see where he was picking and choosing (which holes to run through). He's turning into that NASCAR driver; when he sees smoke, he's starting to accelerate."
One positive of constructing a veteran staff is that experienced coaches have encountered virtually every situation imaginable. When this season is complete, after the wins have been tabulated and the state of the program reviewed, hiring three assistants that had been around the block might be viewed as the shrewdest move David Bailiff made in the offseason.
In Ed Zaunbrecher and Larry Edmondson, Bailiff hired men wily enough to guide quarterbacks unaccustomed to starting for Football Bowl Subdivision programs and receivers attempting to replace NFL-caliber talent. Offensive line coach Ronnie Vinklarek is cast from a similar mold, for after he was charged with the task of replacing three seniors who anchored the Owls' offensive line last season during the spring, he approached the chore with a calming ease.
When he arrived at Middle Tennessee State in 2003, Vinklarek inherited one senior starter up front. One season later, his first at SMU, he mentored walk-ons. He learned how to handle young linemen and has applied that knowledge with the Owls, who will start four sophomores (guards Davon Allen and Jake Hicks, center Keshawn Carrington and right tackle Tyler Parish) and one 19-year-old junior (left tackle Scott Mitchell) when they open at UAB on Sept. 5.
"What I've tried to do is not be as loud with them, not be as vocal in front of the team when there is a mistake made," Vinklarek said. "The young ones I've gotten a little more vocal on them because they've got to find a sense of urgency, but the older guys, for the most part, I don't accentuate a mistake. I try not to so that they can feel like they can talk to me and can feel they can ask me (questions) so they don't feel like everything is a life-and-death situation."
Allen and Carrington face daunting transitions because both will make their initial career starts. Allen closed the spring at right guard and as the successor to David Berken, who capped his career with 48 starts - 34 consecutively. Vinklarek opted to flip-flop Allen and Hicks so that Allen could work beside Mitchell, the Owls' most experienced lineman despite his age. Allen (6-2, 325) has the bulk and athleticism to thrive at left guard, and the voluntary hours he invested this summer to improve his technique both impressed and encouraged Vinklarek.
Carrington, the heir to Austin Wilkinson and his 44 career starts, has developed at an equally expeditious pace. He sprayed a troubling number of shotgun snaps during spring drills but has since sharpened his skills considerably while adding the 20 pounds he needed to play center.
"An older center can make some more definitive, loud calls and be a lot more in charge. He's doing a great job, but he still hasn't done it (in a game situation)," Vinklarek said of Carrington. "I'm excited because he's way ahead of where I thought he'd be. But ... it'll take time."
Time is running short. If the quarterback aims to lead like Chase Clement while exploiting the receiver depth the Owls hope offsets the departures of Jarett Dillard and James Casey, the offensive line must provide the protection to accomplish those goals. Vinklarek is working feverishly to develop the requisite cohesion, and in 18 days he'll examine how far he's come.
"If you ask me after UAB," Vinklarek said, "I'll know where we're at."
With O-Week underway and the freshmen having missed their first installation meeting of camp earlier Monday evening, Owls coach David Bailiff had the newcomers strap on the pads and practice extra reps after the vets had been dismissed. That move provided an opportunity.
Freshman tailback Charles Ross had been an enigma prior that moment. Whispers of his athletic blend of size (6-1, 205) and speed (Ross anecdotally ran a sub-4.4 40 at Junior Day during a previous visit) preceded his arrival on campus, but his camp performance failed to meet the hype. He showed all the signs of a freshman unfamiliar with the offense: he was tentative in the backfield, appearing to guess which hole to exploit rather than burst through it with confidence. Then, with one handoff and explosive dart, Ross showcased his capabilities.
Owls quarterback Nick Fanuzzi had lingered behind and positioned himself on the sideline so that he could catch a glimpse of the action. After Ross accelerated around right tackle and down the sideline, Fanuzzi gave a knowing nod. It was as if he were waiting for that moment to unfold, and when it did, Fanuzzi had his expectations met. The bloated depth chart might prevent Ross from getting another such opportunity, but a lasting impression was delivered.
Five tailbacks of varying experience levels are sharing reps for the Owls, and with the opening of the second week of camp comes a clearer picture of what each tailback brings to the table.
"It can create some diversity for us," Owls running backs coach Darrell Patterson said. "We have some young men that have good hands, we have others that have good overall skills.
"We can do some things."
How the staff will best exploit four tailbacks is a process worth observation. Sophomore Tyler Smith (5-7, 195) is decisive and elusive, a bundle of compacted muscle capable of hiding behind towering linemen before sprinting through an available crease. Smith was designated the starter coming out of spring drills, and while he has excelled throughout camp, Smith has logged plenty of idle minutes on the sideline watching the rest of the tailbacks go to work.
Redshirt freshman Shane Turner (5-9, 175) is lean and swift, and his startling ability to change direction snared the attention of the Owls' fandom during Saturday morning's scrimmage. Turner is the least physical of the tailbacks, but his speed in the open field is an exciting asset.
Fifth-year seniors Marcus Knox (5-10, 215) and Jeramy Goodson (5-8, 180) bring toughness and versatility individually, and leadership collectively. Knox is a willing blocker, and after shedding weight in the offseason, picked up a step that makes him a deceptive runner. Goodson, who missed a week of camp with a bum ankle, has exceptional hands and, as a high school quarterback, supplies the necessary element of surprise via the halfback pass.
Despite the individual skills of the quintet, five tailbacks and one football make for fuzzy math. Two-back rotations are once again the rage in the NFL, but a five-back rotation presents quite a challenge. The Owls haven't carved their final plan in stone, so the tinkering will continue.
"I had the opportunity to play against the Pony Express," Patterson said of the early-1980's SMU tandem of Eric Dickerson and Craig James. "James was the inside banger and Dickerson was the speed outside guy. We don't have that particular mentality, but we do have young men that can come out of the backfield and catch the ball and line up at wideout. (Defenses) have to account for so many formations and the ability these running backs have."
With the Owls in the process of doing little more than conducting a glorified walk-through, coach David Bailiff strolled over and offered to divulge his post-film evaluations of Saturday morning's scrimmage before Saturday night's workout was complete. Since the odds of developing news breaking this evening were slim, I took Bailiff up on his offer, grabbed my notepad and recorder, and began peppering him with questions. Below are some key notes:
1. Bailiff said there is some "clarity" regarding the quarterback battle, but he opted not to reveal which direction he and Owls OC Ed Zaunbrecher are leaning. He wants the leading candidate to practice with consistency on Monday and Tuesday, and if he does so, Bailiff will meet with the three candidates and alert them of his decision. Bailiff and staff saw "a lot of things that we liked from the quarterback position," but he wants to see it again when the Owls resume workouts early next week (they have Sunday off). Read: Nick Fanuzzi will be named the starter baring unforeseen developments; John Thomas Shepherd will be his backup.
2. Besides celebrating the effort of the youngsters, Bailiff touted the jelling of the offensive line, an absolute must considering the inexperience in the backfield. The line recognized the motions of the defense and reacted accordingly, and that is a positive development.
3. Linebackers Tanner Shuck and Justin Hill caught the eyes of the staff, which only solidifies their standing as the top reserves behind seniors Terrance Garmon and Robert Calhoun.
4. Bailiff wants to see a more physical approach to blocking on the perimeter. Receivers coach Larry Edmondson has been stressing that requirement to his troops, but the staff didn't see enough quality blocking during the scrimmage. "They've got to be as excited about blocking as they are about catching," Bailiff said. There were too many drops, too.
5. The interior of the defensive line needs to improve its technical skills - quickly. Even though the Owls are young and inexperienced at tackle and nose guard, the staff wants to accelerate the learning process regarding the finer points of playing those positions. Bailiff did gush a bit over Alex Lowry, however, saying, "Nothing about him says true freshman."
6. Sophomore KAT Randy Kitchens (ankle) needs to get healthy. Out of the 10 Owls who watched practice on Saturday night, Bailiff singled out Kitchens as a player who needs the reps in order to return to game action. Kitchens missed the 2008 season following hip surgery, and at 6-3, 215 lbs, he could thrive in the backup role to Travis Bradshaw.
7. While on the injured, receiver Corbin Smiter (hernia), tailback Jeramy Goodson (ankle), corner Phillip Gaines (ankle) should either be back fully or without walking boots Monday night.
8. The freshmen corners (Alex Francis, Corey Frazier and Kevin Gaddis) did little to settle their pursuit of playing time. Francis picked off a pass in the end zone; Frazier knocked a ball away from Andre Gautreaux near the goal line; Gaddis stuck his helmet in a couple of piles to provide run support. "We've got four really good, young corners," Bailiff said.
Those susceptible to razzle-dazzle likely labeled the first Nick Fanuzzi-to-Derek Clark scoring play as the more memorable of the two touchdowns the duo produced on Saturday. It was a prime example of the potent combination of exceptional arm strength and outstanding concentration, with Fanuzzi delivering a perfect pass that Clark corralled over pressing cornerback Jarrett Ben while streaking down the far sideline en route to a 65-yard touchdown.
Those longing for something serendipitous from the Owls' offense probably jerked in their seats when Fanuzzi found Clark the second time, for that connection evoked memories of the most prolific quarterback-receiver tandem in NCAA history: Chase Clement to Jarett Dillard.
Flushed out of the pocket and to his right, Fanuzzi closed in on the sideline while defenders closed in on his torso. But instead of being resigned to a short gain, Fanuzzi kept his head up and his eyes sharp, scanning the middle of the field, which is where Clark appeared seemingly from rubber pellets. Fanuzzi delivered a dart across his body before reaching the boundary, and Clark plucked the ball out of the air before turning his body up field and dashing into the end zone. It was as if Fanuzzi had one receiver in mind during his moment of desperation, and interestingly that receiver - Clark - appeared to be mentally in tune with his prone teammate.
"Me and D.C. at the start of the summer came out here and we worked backside shoulder throws in the end zone, and it's one of those things where if you take the time to work with every single receiver you know that there's a trust there because you've been working on it so long," said Fanuzzi, a sophomore transfer from Alabama. "There is no doubt that, hey, I'm going to put it here at this time and he's going to see it and adjust to it. A few times in the past few days in camp that's happened. Today it happened as well."
Added Clark, a redshirt freshman: "We talk a lot. We're kind of figuring each other out. When I run down the field I can meet his eyes and see where I need to go based on that."
Fanuzzi and Clark provided the highlights of an interesting, and scorching, morning as the Owls scrimmaged for the first time. Tailback Shane Turner and quarterback-turned-safety-turned receiver Brent Hotard shone for an offense that continues to seek an identity now that Clement, Dillard, James Casey and three senior linemen have moved on beyond the hedges.
Fanuzzi and fifth-year senior John Thomas Shepherd, who ran for a touchdown and threw a scoring pass to Roddy Maginot, distanced themselves from the third contestant, Ryan Lewis, in the chase to replace Chase as the Owls' starting quarterback. Turner and fifth-year senior Marcus Knox made a case for a three-man tailback rotation with presumed starter Tyler Smith, and the defense, far more advanced than the offense at this stage, did not disappoint. It forced turnovers, tackled confidently, and showcased the swagger that it will need early this season.
"We believe that, we really do," junior end Scott Solomon said of being capable of shouldering a disproportionate load. "We still have a lot of improving to do, but hopefully we can accomplish our goal by the end of two-a-days."
Two freshmen - cornerback Alex Francis and defensive tackle Alex Lowry - made pushes to secure spots on the depth chart. The 5-8 Francis picked off a jump pass from Justin Hill intended for 6-6 Taylor Wardlow when the Owls surprisingly unveiled their Thor Package. Hill and Hotard filled the void left by the versatile Casey, but on this day, without much success.
The offensive line turned in an uneven performance, both in run blocking and pass protection. The linemen struggled with the Solomon-led front, and for every hole created for Turner and Knox, there was a corresponding traffic jam of bodies that clogged the backfield. The quarterbacks spread the wealth on offense, with Clark reinforcing his assault on the depth chart and senior receivers Toren Dixon and Taylor Wardlow proving they are ready for Sept. 5.
Whether the Owls have a starting quarterback by the time they arrive in Birmingham remains to be seen. While Owls coach David Bailiff opted not to tip his hand before studying film of the scrimmage - "I think I know what I saw." - Shepherd oozed the confidence of a signal caller so entrenched in the play book that taking the good with the bad casually comes with the territory.
"I feel good out there," Shepherd said. "I learned a long time ago that you've got to play one play at a time. If you mess up you mess up. Move on, and at the end of the day it's just a game. You've got to play it with all you've got and hopefully it will work out for you in the end.
"Today we had a good day and put some points on the board."
There is no need to prattle. The Owls have completed eight practices during fall camp, and the results of their ninth workout will go a long ways in determining player placement on the depth chart. When asked how much emphasis should be placed on which players participate with the first-team offense and defense on Saturday morning, Owls coach David Bailiff was both cryptic and cautionary in saying, "That's where they're going to be. It's their job to keep it."
Here is how I see the depth chart, eight practices in:
QUARTERBACK. Solicit the opinions of those who have observed most of the quarterback reps from the previous eight workouts and chances are good that each contributor will tab a different favorite. Nick Fanuzzi has looked splendid on occasion steering the deep ball, but he is often high on crossing patterns and has been erratic on deep outs. His arm strength and aggression make him the prime candidate to claim the starting gig, but he needs additional reps to enhance his touch, which in turn would limit the number of deflected balls he throws.
John Thomas Shepherd seems hesitant to stretch the field, but his efficiency on intermediate routes and confidence on the run has resulted in several sustained drives. Perhaps he's made the fewest mistakes of the candidates, but I would bet he has taken the fewest chances.
I don't know how accurate it is to saddle Ryan Lewis with the tag as the most inconsistent, but he might give that impression because the chasm between his perfectly-delivered passes and his errant tosses is sizable. Like Fanuzzi and Shepherd, Lewis has had his moments of exceptional play, and it's difficult to gauge if he has struggled any more than the other two.
TAILBACK. Tyler Smith, tenuously named the starter coming out of spring drills, has done nothing but put distance between himself and the rest of the pack. He has been decisive when attacking the hole and elusive once confronted by defenders. I was holding out hope that he would return to special teams, where he was a budding start before a devastating knee injury shelved him midway through the 2007 season. But his work at tailback has convinced me that he should stay right where he has been. Smith has been that good.
It's amazing what a healthy shoulder and a full offseason in the weight room has done for Shane Turner. He has shown exceptional burst and a brilliant ability to change direction. Combined with the bruising Marcus Knox, Turner offers a nice change of pace to Smith.
Freshman Charles Ross needs more reps, and he might get them during the scrimmage. He is by far the biggest tailback in camp, but he is also the most apt to dance in the hole, an absolute no-no. Senior Jeramy Goodson has missed most of this week with a sprained ankle.
RECEIVER. The picture will get a lot clearer once senior Corbin Smiter (hernia surgery) returns next week and joins fellow 2006 signees Toren Dixon and Taylor Wardlow, both of whom have been solid throughout. Once those three start working together, it should be easier to determine the top reserves. Derek Clark, Patrick Randolph and tight end Vance McDonald should be the guys, but Brent Hotard has been on fire the past few days. Hotard doesn't appear to have any issue going across the middle, and if he keeps catching the ball, he will force the staff to work him into the mix. The same rule applies for tight end Luke Willson.
OFFENSIVE LINE. There has been no deviation from the starters set in the spring (tackles Scott Mitchell and Tyler Parish, guards Davon Allen and Jake Hicks, and center Keshawn Carrington). The reserves seem set in stone, too: tackles Stefan Nazar and Kody Emmert, guards Travis Mason and Clay Hebert, and center Eric Ball. Freshmen Cade Shaw, Jon Hodde and Bobby Janish certainly have potential, but it seems likely that they will redshirt.
DEFENSIVE LINE: It will be interesting to see exactly how many snaps end Scott Solomon gets at tackle against UAB and Blazers quarterback Joe Webb. Junior end Kramer Lucio has played better than ever, and it seems like sound logic to get your fastest unit on the field against the multipurpose Webb. John Gioffre has improved at nose guard; if Michael Smith (knee) and Chance Talbert (ankle) can return from injury, this unit will be serviceable. Without Arnaud Gascon-Nadon, Cheta Ozougwu will have an increased workload. Is he up to the task?
Freshman tackle Alex Lowry is the best of the newcomers, but end Cody Bauer might get a sniff. He is too lean at this stage of his career, but he works hard and has some length. Freshmen Hosam Shahin and Nic Hammett, recently moved from linebacker, are in need of more reps.
LINEBACKER. I'd be surprised if anyone other than Terrance Garmon, Robert Calhoun, Tanner Shuck and Justin Hill crack the four-man rotation. Shuck was the starter beside Garmon coming into camp, but Calhoun, who dropped weight and is running better than ever, might have passed him. Shuck still gets to the quarterback and is a superior tackler in space, so expect the two to split reps. Hill is being force fed reps behind Garmon, and he's actually done a solid job considering how new he is to the position. Keep a close eye on him.
SECONDARY. Boundary corner Chris Jammer (ankle) is a little banged up, but he and Jarrett Ben are bookends at that position. The battle for playing time behind them has been entertaining with Alex Francis and Corey Frazier hot out of the gate only to have Kevin Gaddis and Phillip Gaines make up ground in the middle of the week. Gaines, who has made a handful of eye-catching plays, turned an ankle on Thursday so he won't participate in the scrimmage. The sooner he gets healthy the better, because he was most certainly in the mix.
I have run out of plaudits for the safeties. The starters - Andrew Sendejo, Travis Bradshaw and Chris Jones - have looked really good, and Xavier Webb has come on strong to lead the reserves. It seems that Willie Garley and Max Anyiam are sharing time at strong safety while Randy Kitchens was the backup KAT before turning an ankle earlier this week. David Falgout is a feisty third-stringer, but Kitchens' size (6-3, 215) could be a serious asset. He is needed.
SPECIAL TEAMS. With Kyle Martens (tonsils) out this week, it's been impossible to get a gauge of how much he has improved over the summer. Clark Fangmeier and Chris Boswell are a capable place-kicking tandem. A number of players have rotated returning punts - Gaddis, Sendejo, Randolph, Shepherd and Roddy Maginot. I have yet to see a serious lineup of candidates to return kickoffs.
Denzel Wells was two - three at the max - superb workouts from officially turning the corner.
The physical transformation he'd undergone between the time he first arrived on South Main until the start of his second fall camp was as obvious as Houston humidity. Slabs of lean muscle encased his limbs, lending credence to discussions of Wells' offseason dedication in the weight room.
After walking an academic tightrope that led to his missing the majority of last spring's practices, Wells was reborn as a quintessential student-athlete during the summer months, approaching every task that entailed his representing Rice University with a renewed vigor.
Unable to catch a cold in a sick ward last August, Wells displayed a remarkably reliable set of hands during the Owls' opening two practices over last weekend. Those who had watched Wells struggle as a freshman receiver could not help but to be smitten with every step he took in the right direction. Maybe it was down the line, but stardom seemed to be beckoning Wells.
And then on Monday night, during the Owls' first workout in shoulder pads, Wells felt his right shoulder dislocate while executing a routine drill. He shed his pads, was fitted with an ice pack, and returned to practice the following night with a shoulder harness and a confident gait. He was convinced that the injury was minor, but when asked to perform strength tests on Wednesday the shoulder failed to cooperate. It dislodged from its socket time and again, and additional tests revealed what no one wanted to hear: Wells needed season-ending surgery.
"I was having a good first two days - no dropped passes - and then this happens on a drill, a freak-of-nature accident," Wells said. "I can't help but to be (upset).
"The educated part of me wants to look at the glass as half-full and that maybe this happened for a reason. I can protest and get my medical redshirt and stay another four years, be 24 (years old) and graduate and do the James Casey thing and get more experience. But there is a side of me that thinks this is bull, for a lack of a better word."
The latter side had Wells sitting on the bench during Period 11 with his head drooped between his shoulders, the picture of dejection. The previous side enabled him to talk about the surgery he will undergo next Wednesday (a procedure that will sideline him for 4 to 6 months) all while sharing dreams of his name being etched in the All-American Ring of Honor at Rice Stadium.
On one hand it's tempting to assume that Wells' engaging personality will carry him through what will likely be a torturous rehabilitation. In the same vein it is abundantly clear that Wells will need the support of his coaching staff and teammates to manage the discouragement that will surely engulf him once he reflects on just how far he'd come and just how close he was.
"When you get a young man that gets hurt, all of a sudden they don't feel like they are a part of it," Owls coach David Bailiff said. "Even as much as we try to tell them they are, because they're not out here getting the reps they'll get a little depression if you don't include them and bring them into your office. This is where it's a combined effort of the staff to let him know how important he is here, and try to educate him on the bigger pictures on down the road."
Before the injury Wells, who redshirted last year, was vying for reps in the absence of senior Corbin Smiter, who is rehabbing from early-July sports hernia surgery. Wells was locked in a battle with junior Taylor Dupree, and after showcasing improvement with route running and catching, he seemed primed to carve out a spot in the rotation. With a total of 18 receivers and tight ends in camp, distinguishing oneself is an arduous task. Wells was doing precisely that.
Now, with his dream deferred, Wells will need to rely on something other than his impressive strength and exceptional speed. The maturity he developed off the field must be his guide.
"You come in and it's a maturation process," Wells said. "You come in young and the coaches form you into what you are now, and you sit back able to look at it from a different perspective and say, 'It is what it is, and I've got to react as a man.' The trials and tribulations that you go through in life make you a man, not necessarily your age. Just being here on a campus like Rice, you mature fast. Being here and wanting to step up increases your maturation process.
"I've definitely matured since I've been here, that's why I'm able to look at this injury as a growing process more than something bad. Basically this is quicksand, and I've got to kick my way out of it. It's all psychological; if I let myself get down mentally, then physically I'm not going to heal. I have to be optimistic and know that I'm going to heal quickly."
Wells' optimism doesn't make the first dose of terrible news from camp any less disappointing.
"He will have a big-time career here," Bailiff said. "This is really a tragedy for us."
While addressing an alert gathering of freshmen student-athletes and faculty members late Tuesday morning at Wiess Commons, women's soccer coach Chris Huston announced that she will open her 10th season at Rice when the Owls host Baylor on Aug 21 at the Track/Soccer Stadium.
That passing revelation immediately brought two items to mind: the sheer amazement that a decade has passed since Huston built the Owls' soccer program from scratch, and that three full seasons have elapsed since the halcyon days when the Owls enjoyed consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament.
One year after earning their first NCAA berth in their fourth season, the Owls won the 2005 Conference USA tournament and clinched their second consecutive NCAA bid. The charismatic Huston had not only cemented her status as a rising member of her profession, but Rice appeared to have ascended to the cusp of revealing its untapped potential as a program. But in an instant, courtesy of a ravaging spate of injuries the following season, that momentum was stifled.
"They weren't the kind of injures that could only set us back that one year," Huston said of the dozen surgeries that plagued the Owls in 2006. "It definitely had a carryover effect into the next year. Having one bad rash of injuries like we did set us back two years rather than just the one year."
What drastic measures were Huston led to undertake in 2006? The Owls were so bereft of healthy bodies that senior Laura Barber was given clearance to participate in the season finale against the Houston Cougars despite the fact that she was without an ACL in her left knee. Had Barber not been made available for her swan song, the Owls would not have had enough players to field a team.
The rash of maladies sent the program into a downward spiral. Forced to redshirt several players at a time threw Huston's ability to manage scholarship money into flux. Classification balance within the roster was compromised, and while Huston managed to steer the Owls to winning seasons in each of the past three campaigns (33-22-3 overall), Rice was just 14-14-1 in league play over that span. Senior midfielder Shelley Wong was the only Rice player named to C-USA's '09 preseason team by the league's coaches, a byproduct of the inconsistency that undermined the program Huston seemingly had on the brink of extraordinary success in '05.
"Doctor (Tom) Clanton would call me at one in the morning after another kid had torn her ACL and ask, 'Have you ever been through something like this in your years of coaching?'" Huston said. "We were 9-0-1 and off to the best start in school history and had just beat No. 8 Texas, and then that very next week we lost three girls to ACL (injuries). It just went downhill from there."
Huston finally sees a light at the end of the tunnel. The Owls lost just three players from last season (only one - sophomore forward/defender Amy Beger - due to injury) and will feature seven seniors. Huston signed six players ranging from 5-6 to 5-11, a move that, combined with a 2010 collection of commitments even more physically imposing, should silence whispers that the Owls' rosters feature players too small to compete with Texas' top programs.
And Huston has taken steps to solve the mystery that was the Owls' inconsistency last season. For the first time she had the team open fall camp at a remote location, spending four days and three nights training at The John Cooper School and lodging at The Woodlands Conference Center. Robert Andrews, a sports psychologist, has taken the Owls through team-building exercises and has another scheduled visit just prior to the start of the season. This weekend the team will travel to College Station to participate in a ropes course that is aimed to develop a bond as strong as the one that led less talented squads to the NCAAs.
Having spent three seasons in the wilderness, Huston acknowledges that the time has come to resume the course set when she laid the foundation for her program a decade ago. In her mind those NCAA berths were the standard the Owls should set for every season, and after being forced on a divergent path, the Owls are hoping they are pointed in the right direction.
"If you look at this year's seniors, this group has been through a lot," Huston said. "This group came in the year we had the rash of injuries, and then they had the aftermath the following year. Of course the locker rooms were taken away and the field is (undergoing construction) - this group has been through so much that everyone is hungry for the success that was the reason they were coming here. This is that group's chance to actually attain these things they were so eager to come in and do right away their freshman year."
With their infinite wisdom and irrefutable knowledge, football coaches concoct myriad means to balance the scales between their offenses and defenses. Varying play-calling, formations and cadence are sufficiently complex options to slow an attacking and veteran defense when film study reveals that defense to have a decisive advantage over a discombobulated offense. However simple methodology is as effective, with personnel changes one obvious adjustment.
Keep Scott Solomon anchored to the sideline.
With egos bruised from the beating absorbed the previous evening, the Owls' offense showed signs of recovery on Tuesday night when the team worked out in shells for a second time. The unit succumbed to pressure less frequently, which in turn yielded an improved percentage of completed passes. Deflated one night earlier, the offense strode off the turf invigorated, leaving all to ponder the effort put forth by the staff to turn the tables on an advanced defense.
"At this age when someone has a bad performance, you always know that the very next practice they're going to be more focused and thinking about what they're going to do because they have pride," Owls coach David Bailiff said. "Tonight we really were able to take a lot more from that video, from the meeting room and really see us make that step in the right direction."
And then with a wink-wink and a nudge-nudge, Bailiff made a passing reference to Solomon, who was so utterly disruptive Monday that he was held out of team drills Tuesday. Keeping Solomon sidelined is akin to tying a ferocious pit bull to a weathered pipe with a pair of shoestrings. Solomon spent most of the 11-on-11 drills standing at the ready, helmet on, waiting agitatedly for the green light to smack someone. He never received clearance, and make no mistake, that decision made resuscitation significantly easier for the shaken offense.
As an added bonus to Solomon being forcefed down time, freshman tackle Alex Lowry saw extended reps during live action. Fighting gamely with his brute strength as his lone ally, Lowry (6-1, 295) nudged a step closer to marrying his physical gifts with the mental stamina and technical skills he'll need to make an impact as an expected rotation player this season.
"I've got to improve on being mentally fresh when I'm in on a long drive, but overall since Day 1 my get-off has gotten a lot better," Lowry said. "I'm learning a lot from coach (Darin) Eliot and coach (Michael) Slater about pass rushing, keeping hands free and (having) loud hands and active feet. I hope I'm progressing. I feel I'm progressing over time, and that has a lot to do with the coaches.
"It's a lot in the tank to know that you need to be ready to go. It's kind of inspiring. You've got to know everything you've got to do, and it pushes you to go a little bit harder every day to understand exactly what's going on."
What wasn't an optical illusion was the shiftiness and aggression tailback Tyler Smith displayed. The catastrophic knee injury Smith suffered in 2007 is a distant memory, and his performance was another validating moment in the call to name Smith the starter last spring.
"Some of those jump cuts he made make you go, 'Wow!'" Bailiff said.