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Pre-scrimmage Observations

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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.

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2 Comments

MK, I may have missed this, but now Justin Hill is a LB? Is that because of Tyler Smith's return? I thought at the beginning of camp that he had moved back to the offense. I feel sorry for the kid. I thought he came to Rice because they'd let him play RB, but now they've yanked him around so much the last year+. Could you explain this move to me?

Thanks.

d1owls4life: Hill was re-approached at the close of spring drills about the move, and he accepted this time. Given the Owls' depth at tailback (Smith, Turner, Knox, Goodson, Ross) and lack of experienced depth at linebacker, the move makes sense. Hill says he is cool with it, and he seems to be doing a fine job adjusting. He'll also be used in short-yardage situations on offense. - MK

It sounds like the defense is set as far as the starters and I'm getting the impression that they could dominate the offense at this stage. Does that mean opposing teams will be getting rocked or that our offense is going to struggle? Maybe both?

Owl-88: A little of both. The offense has potential, but it might take a while to get all the pieces moving together in sync. The reality of the situation is that two O-linemen (Mitchell, Parish) and three receivers (Dixon, Smiter, Wardlow) are experienced at their positions. Everyone else is a newbie. Defensively, if the Owls are decent up the middle and remain healthy on the edges, they might actually be pretty good. - MK

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