September 2009 Archives
I don't believe in writer's block, per se, but sometimes it is difficult to get features started, especially those about the new 50-meter competition pool
at the Gibbs Rec Center. So, while I struggle organizing my thoughts, I figure the time is right to clear room in the old think tank:
Can't quite make out what David Bailiff is pulling from his sleeve with regards to Nick Fanuzzi. He stated authoritatively on Monday night that Fanuzzi would throw on Tuesday and the results of that throwing session would determine his availability for Saturday's C-USA showdown with Tulsa. Well, Fanuzzi threw an actual football, and considering how pained he looked last week while tossing a weighted, grapefruit-sized ball, hurling the pigskin must be considered progress. However, Fanuzzi had zero zip on his passes and still can't throw the deep ball, so considering what Bailiff proclaimed a day earlier it seemed safe to assume that Slick Nick
would be sidelined a second consecutive weekend. Not so fast, my friend
Fanuzzi will be reevaluated this afternoon, putting everyone back on that 'day-to-day' alert. Is Bailiff doing this as a ploy to not tip his hand to the Golden Hurricane? Is he going out of his way to avoid lying about Fanuzzi because he is such a stand-up coach, or did he really change his mind in the span of 24 hours? It appears that we're going to drag the Fanuzzi Watch out for several more days, which I guess serves the Owls' game plan well. ...
Speaking of quarterbacks, I am a big fan of Pat Forde's weekly column, Forde-Yard Dash. This week he outlined Lessons Learned From September
, and I couldn't help but to chuckle at the Rice relevance of Lesson Three. Well, that chuckle followed my laughing out loud at the quote delivered by UH sports information director Chris Burkhalter to close Lesson One.
Did John Thomas Shepherd (passer rating: 72.66) and Ryan Lewis (40.98 - Yikes!!!) struggle a tad
against Vanderbilt last Saturday? One could say that. Should the knee-jerk reaction be to yank the redshirt off freshman Taylor McHargue
? Absolutely not. Hey, I like McHargue's spunk as much as anyone who has watched him practice, but let's not overreact. He won't be any more proficient at the controls than Lewis or Shepherd, and burning a season where he should be watching and learning won't do him any good. Keep the redshirt on the kid. ...
We should learn more about Jake Hicks
' availability today, but I like the move Bailiff has made in the interim. On Tuesday he had left tackle Scott Mitchell move to right tackle, replaced Mitchell with Kody Emmert, and bumped Tyler Parish to right guard. This keeps his five best available linemen on the field and preserves the redshirt of skilled-but-green Bobby Janisch
while we await word on Hicks, who went from a cast to a walking boot on Tuesday. Eric Ball (high ankle sprain) is out for this weekend, and likely several weekends beyond this one. ...UPDATE
: Fanuzzi (shoulder), Hicks (foot) and defensive tackle Chance Talbert (back) have been declared out for Saturday. Lewis and Shepherd will be your quarterbacks against Tulsa
I'm keeping a close eye on sophomore safety-turned-receiver Randy Kitchens
, who could be a boon to the scuffling offense once he figures out his responsibilities. He wasn't prepared to play last week, but he looked much better on Tuesday. The offensive staff is feeding Kitchens the playbook and terminology in small doses with the aim of hastening his development while not overwhelming him. Could the Owls use an athletic 6-3, 215-pound X-receiver? You bet, but in this time of crisis the last thing they need is another receiver running incorrect routes. ...
And finally, some additional notes from my conversation with The OG: He called freshman catcher Geoff Perrott 'a steal' without prompting, a wonderful compliment from someone notoriously hard on backstops. The Owls are set at catcher with Diego Seastrunk and Craig Manuel, but a third, serviceable backstop helps The OG rest comfortably. Perrott fits the bill. ...
The Owls were timed in the 60 recently, and not only did Michael Fuda impress despite coming off ankle surgery and running in tennis shoes, Daniel Gonzales-Luna, Jeremy Rathjen and Rick 'Hulk' Hague turned in times that caught The OG's eye. Rathjen looks noticeably bigger compared to his string-bean freshman frame, and not just the upper body. The OG called that 'maturing' and is optimistic that Rathjen will be an impact player in 2010. ...
I'll put some chips on Jared Rogers
claiming a spot in the weekend rotation. He pitched marvelously in the 2009 NCAA Tournament (13 IP, 9 H, 5 ER, 2 BB, 8 Ks) and has left behind nagging injury concerns. He walks around The Reck with a swagger he didn't possess last season, a significant positive. The OG is blessed with a ridiculously versatile senior class: Rogers, Jimmy 'SAK
' Comerota, Mark Haynes, Mike Ojala, GDG and Steven Sultzbaugh.
Fall Ball commences on Monday, and I don't see any need to pretend I'm not excited. The OG will field an Omaha-caliber team in 2010, but it is one with plenty of questions that need to be answered before the Owls board that flight bound for Northern California next February.
With those queries in mind, I sat down with The OG and let him fill my recorder on who has the potential to do what, where and how extraordinarily over the ensuing five weeks. He answered adroitly, but if you have pressing concerns, post them and I'll funnel them to The OG with the intent of conducting a live chat when the Owls get going at The Reck on Oct. 5.
Q: While you return eight of the nine players that had 100+ at-bats last year, you lost leadoff hitter Brock Holt. What is the process behind finding someone who can thrive atop the order?
A: Some statistics are overrated, but in general the idea of a walk-to-strikeout ratio in a hitter is a good thing. Obviously you're looking for a guy that establishes that he's going to have a really good strike zone, and we're going to be looking at guys that are candidates. Obviously (Jimmy) Cometora is a candidate, and he needs to probably show that he can lay off the high fastball more and lay off a low breaking ball. Obviously you like a guy with some speed, and Jimmy fulfills that. If (Chad) Mozingo has dramatic strike-zone improvement - which Mozingo is capable of - he could lead off. (Michael) Fuda would be ideal if his strike zone improved. Who knows? A guy like (Michael) Ratterree might walk out here and prove that he's got a wonderful strike zone, but it's not likely in a freshman. It's not likely, but it could happen.
I don't think a team necessarily has to have a great leadoff man to win. It always gives you a good feeling if you do, but I'm not sure that it matters that much because he's really leading off once in a game with a DH. It's a little different if you've got a pitcher hitting for himself, but in a DH lineup I'm not sure that it's absolutely critical that a leadoff man be a leadoff-type man.
Q: How do you manage talent evaluations around the varying limitations of Chad Mozingo, Michael Fuda and Anthony Rendon, all of whom underwent offseason ankle surgery?
A: Unless he has dramatic improvement and he can convince his doctor (that he's OK), Mozingo is not going to play because the doctor has indicated thus far that he not play at all. There is no doubt of his ability; he doesn't need to prove himself. All he would be doing in the fall is attempting to improve himself, and basically the same thing goes for Fuda. Fuda is going to DH because he ran a 6.6 60 with tennis shoes the other day. He's OK to run.
They're said Rendon can go a hundred percent, but they don't want him wearing metal cleats. We've ordered some plastic cleats from Mizuno, and they'll have them here by Friday. The doctor said he's clear to go a hundred percent, but if there is the slightest tweak he'll be out of there. We're not going to risk anything. We don't really need him to play intrasquad games but inactivity is not good for an athlete, not if he wants to play.
Q: Based on what you already know of the candidates, what is your ideal weekend rotation?
A: (Taylor) Wall is a cinch. (Tony) Cingrani is surprisingly a weekend guy. He's funky as well as having good stuff. He's one of those guys whose 90-mile-and-hour fastball is more like 94 because, like Cole (St. Clair), the way he hides the ball behind his body and it's hard to find. (Diego) Seastrunk noticed that the first day catching him. He can throw strikes, he's got three pitches, and he's pretty good.
The third starter could be any number (of candidates). That's where you're coming into it with an open mind because somebody could really step forward when you've got a group like this. The obvious candidates are (Jared) Rogers and (Boogie) Anagnostou. If (Matthew) Reckling keeps improving, you never know. (Tyler) Duffey looks real good; (Tyler) Spurlin looks good. Now its highly likely that people like Spurlin and Duffey will wind up as part of your bullpen, but one of those guys from among Duffey, Spurlin, (Chase) McDowell and (Andrew) Benak is going to step forward and be one of the top four starters.
We've thrown more bullpens this fall than we've ever thrown getting guys ready, and not only getting them ready but telling them what they're going to have to do to get a chance to pitch. There are so many guys that have a chance, a valid chance.
Q: How do you plan to juggle your depth in the outfield and the opening at second base?
A: Jeremy (Rathjen), his status has improved so much that if we don't find a place where he plays every day then we're going to have four outfielders that rotate. Obviously (Ryan) Lewis gives us an option as another lefthanded bat in the lineup if he plays first base, and we've already given him a first-base mitt to work with and break in. Ratterree is a quality athlete - he's got some pop in his bat. He's another guy where you're talking about first base (or) second base. The positions that look like they are going to evolve and revolve are DH, first base and second base. We've got guys that can definitely play it and some very good candidates.
Rathjen, Lewis and Comerota are guys that have got to play ball this year.
Q: How do you work around not having Anthony Fazio and Mike Ojala at full functionality during fall ball when you know that, if healthy, they both factor into your plans next season?
A: In terms of willingness, they're totally willing. We've got to keep a close eye on their physical condition and what the doctors say they can do, and that's kind of a back-and-forth thing. You don't have any assurance of them, it's like a luxury. You recognize their effort, their desire and their ability, so you're going to give them the opportunity somehow. Even if you're one hundred percent solid (with your pitching staff), you'd still give them the chance because they're the right stuff mentally and physically if they're a hundred percent (healthy).
One lasting memory I will take with me from my years covering this football program is the scene outside the visitor's locker room at the Sun Bowl on Nov. 1, 2008, an environment rife with euphoria after the Owls clinched a .500 season and ostensibly a postseason bowl berth.
The Owls had just completed their third consecutive game where they scored 40-plus points, and were in the midst of a string of offensive explosions that yielded at least five touchdowns over seven consecutive games. The Chase Clement-led offense produced 543 yards, did not commit a turnover despite taking 84 snaps, and possessed the ball five minutes longer than the UTEP Miners. Despite such an awesome display of offensive brilliance, the Owls required a James Casey onside kick recovery to seal the 49-44 victory
, their sixth of a fantastic season.
Afterward Clement was asked, almost cavalierly, about the strain put on the offense to score every possession. The defense was injury-riddled, sieve-like and seemingly incapable of producing a timely stop that would enable the offense to merely exhale. It must have been maddening, right Chase? Frustration was surely boiling over with a unit not pulling its weight?
Clement felt no such animosity. In fact, he spoke of his obligation to not only lead the offense into the end zone every possession, but to pick up his fallen comrades on defense. There was no division on that team, no internal bickering over who was doing their job and who wasn't. Clement spoke of playing on one
team, not one unit, and that moment was truly inspirational.
Fast forward to Monday afternoon and Owls senior free safety Andrew Sendejo
. He had assumed the leadership mantle from Brian Raines as a junior, but Sendejo cemented his position of hierarchy when he expressed his opinions on the Owls' scuffling offense. Like the defense early last season, this offense is injury-marred and confidence-starved. The line is young, the quarterbacks inexperienced and the skill players largely untested, and the offense hit a low point last Saturday against Vanderbilt, struggling to even budge the football while the defense fought valiantly against the Commodores. It took Vanderbilt 73 plays before scoring a second touchdown, at which point the battle was lost. The defense could hang on no longer.
So, the question I posed to Sendejo was this: What can an experienced defensive unit do to bolster the spirits of a strained offense, one hurting like the defense did most of last season?
"One thing is to not point any fingers, don't play the blame game," Sendejo said. "I don't think that's happening and that's not going to happen. Just get them to come along and to start making plays, and a lot of that has to go with us getting turnovers and getting them the ball.
"We're going to keep doing our job and try to improve every week, and getting the turnovers and three-and-outs is going to help the offense get the ball in good field position."
Did you notice what Sendejo did there? He turned the responsibility back on the defense. He relayed a need to force more turnovers and record more three-and-outs. He assumed the challenge of giving the offense the ball in prime field position, realizing that multiple scoring opportunities will lead to touchdowns that embolden the spirit. Like sophomore KAT Travis Bradshaw on Saturday night following the 36-17 loss, Sendejo made the offense's issues his. He revealed the unity that exist within this team, a bond that won't be easily broken by duress.
And that's why this team will pull it together, why it will rise from the ashes like a fiery phoenix. Who knows when Nick Fanuzzi, Jake Hicks or Tyler Smith will be back in the lineup, but even if they don't return against Tulsa the offense won't be chastised for any shortcomings. The defense will bow its collective neck and attempt to extend its dominance into the fourth quarter. Sendejo and his charges will simply give more than they did against the Commodores, which was more than they delivered against Oklahoma State the weekend before, which was more than they produced against Texas Tech the Saturday before that. Sendejo can control two things, his effort and his attitude, and best believe that he has relayed that message to his defensive mates. They will be there for the offense no matter how long it struggles because the offense was there for the defense in the exact same situation last year.
David Bailiff must find such talk invigorating. It shows that he has developed a team, a group of men that will fight with fists instead of pointing with fingers. It removes any worry he has about division and allows him to focus on rebuilding the swagger of an ego-bruised offense.
"We have to maintain our confidence, we have to maintain our belief that we can win, we have to keep our expectations high," Bailiff said. "And we'll get it done.
"We have talent, and we've got to get those guys prepared to where they hit the field confident. We need to get a lucky stone in our pocket on some of those injuries and continue to aim high and not let this football team fall short. We are talented. We've got to get them to show the growth this team has had, and get them to play fast and confident. We can do that."
Bailiff then spoke to the leadership he has seen develop from unexpected sources, the commitment to drawing a line in the sand in this moment of adversity. There were concerns over where the Owls would generate leadership after losing two dozen seniors from last season, but leadership has been cultivated. This is not the same losing program that existed when I arrived in 2004. These failures seem temporary by comparison to what transpired in 2005, and if the posture of a senior safety is to be believed, the Owls will turn the corner soon.
"If we will stay (together) as an offensive unit we'll be fine," Bailiff said. "We have talented young men, and we've got to get them on the same page."
First of all, a rant.
If the first half of Saturday night indicated anything it's that David Bailiff has done an exceptional job recruiting defensive skill players. In sophomores Travis Bradshaw and Chris Jammer and freshmen Phillip Gaines and Trey Briggs, the Owls have a core to build upon. It seems safe to assume that Bailiff will continue to fill in the gaps around that quartet, with his primary recruiting concern coming on the interior of the line, a spot that worries many staffs.
However, the same can not be said at receiver. While we can debate until the end of time why the Owls were so dreadfully pitiful on offense against Vanderbilt (fearfully conservative play-calling, the O-line's inability to run block or pass protect, ineffective/incapable quarterbacks), it has become painfully obvious that Rice is hamstrung at receiver, a problem that will worsen when Toren Dixon, Taylor Wardlow and Corbin Smiter exhaust their eligibility. Bailiff has completed three recruiting classes on South Main, and you'll be hard pressed to find a receiver that has either contributed to this offense or has flashed the potential to do so soon:2007
: Michael Fuda, Taylor Dupree, Brent Hotard, Randy Kitchens.2008
: Derek Clark, Roddy Maginot, Michael Patterson, Denzel Wells.2009
: Andre Gautreaux, Donte Moore.
Fuda has set up permanent residence at Reckling Park, while Dupree, Hotard and Kitchens were initially signed to play elsewhere. Clark might be the class of the '08 class - physically - but he has yet to display his game-breaking ability in an actual game. Wells, like Hotard, is injured, so it's difficult to gauge what lies ahead in his future. Gautreaux and Moore haven't shown anything in practice that would suggest they are superstars in the making, but in all fairness they deserve time to grow into their bodies and to develop into FBS-caliber players.
With all the griping over Ed Zaunbrecher, collapsing pockets and errant-armed quarterbacks, did anyone notice how often the receivers actually broke free from coverage? The Owls are either too small or too slow to consistently carve holes in the secondary, and given the injury problems on offense, the receivers' struggles only exacerbate those issues. And unless Wells can prove that his first two days of fall camp were an indicator of what is to come and Clark awakens from his slumber, what reason is there to believe things will improve? No matter the future quarterback depth or tailback potency, it's tough to run a spread without able receivers.
"It is what it is," Bailiff said in an unusually transparent moment of near resignation. "They're ours and we've got to get them better. We work hard every day at practice getting them off press coverage and running through routes, and we've got to get them more disciplined and accountable when they take the field. A lot of the little things we're not doing well and it hasn't become second nature to them, and we've got to continue to work hard with them.
"We've got to get more people making plays if we want to win football games."
As for that vile offensive 'performance' at HRS, there can be no discounting the impact of the injuries. Vanderbilt dominated the line of scrimmage defensively, but the Owls were without starting right guard Jake Hicks and lost his backup, Eric Ball, during the game. That put Cameron Vester in the line of fire against a superior defensive front, the same Vester who was making his Rice debut. Mix in Charles Ross' asthma attack, two bewildered quarterbacks and the aforementioned receivers, and the recipe for disaster was complete. Nick Fanuzzi would have helped, but only a little bit. He would have absorbed many of the same licks Lewis took, and with the receivers scuffling and Ross ailing, there is no guarantee things would have been that
much better. It's doubtful that the Owls would have mustered just 31 yards in the third quarter with Fanuzzi at the controls, but he's not Jay Cutler. He can't do it by his lonesome.
At some point, the staff needs to mix in a middle screen against a charging defensive front. And, if the quarterbacks aren't able to get the ball down field to their blanketed receivers, perhaps a few more shallow crossing routes are in order. There were some last night but not enough, especially considering how the Commodores had zero fear of the deep ball. Zero.
Bailiff remained resolute that the Owls will continue to get better as the weeks tick off the calendar, but he neglected to admit that the Owls took a step back last night. The defense was brilliant and the punting sublime, but you can't put that feeble of an offense on the field in your home opener and expect fans to believe improvement is forthcoming. It sure didn't look like it.
Ah, the comforts of home. Waking up on a Saturday morning with your daughter sitting on your back whispering breakfast requests in your ear sure beats listening to the air conditioning unit in some random hotel room rattle away following another sleepless night. Perfection.
And your luck has improved exponentially with the Owls' long-awaited return home. Now you have four options to consume Rice-Vanderbilt this evening: live and in person at Historic Rice Stadium, on television with Comcast Sports Southwest carrying the contest, via ESPN 97.5 The Ticket with the most capable broadcast crew on radio, and through the live chat at The R.
Need a rundown on the Countdown to Kickoff with Saltzy and the crew? Glad you asked:
6:00 - The 60th season at Historic Rice Stadium kicks off. Let's set the scene, shall we?
6:05 - The crew focuses on the defense and how the lineup changes shook out last weekend.
6:10 - Nate Griffin chats with tailback Jeramy Goodson, who delivered in his first start at OSU.
6:15 - An examination of Vanderbilt, which scuffles a bit on offense but dominates defensively.
6:25 - The Owls' injury-riddled offense goes under the microscope. Who will stand tall tonight?
6:30 - Griffin and running backs coach Darrell Patterson discuss what got into Goodson.
6:35 - Jorge Vargas cuts into my segment with his blabbering about injuries. I'll save him the time: Fanuzzi, Smith and Hicks are out. Now, on to 'It's OK with MK' and dropping knowledge.
6:40 - Griffin reads the scores through tears after Southern Miss falls to No. 19 Kansas.
6:45 - David Bailiff with the daily affirmation. You'll feel so much better afterward - promise.
The upside to opening the season with three consecutive road games? Eight of the last nine contests are within Texas' borders including six at Historic Rice Stadium
, where the Owls finished 6-0 last season. How's that for an optimistically heaping dose of sunshine and roses?
It'd be nice to quote Jemaine Clement and announce that 'conditions are perfect
' for an upset in the home opener, but they aren't. Consecutive body bag games have cost the Owls three starters on offense - QB Nick Fanuzzi, RB Tyler Smith and RG Jake Hicks - and have compromised the depth on defense - SS Willie Garley (knee) is out while SS Chris Jones (knee) and LB Justin Hill (concussion) are hobbled. Rice was down five defensive starters last season against Vanderbilt, and the rematch finds the Owls in a similar pickle. Can they defeat the Commodores and snap their ignominious losing streak against BCS schools (17 and counting)? Yes. Were the Owls better in 2008, and didn't they lose to Vanderbilt then? Uh-huh.
So, what must be done to break the hex and record the first victory on the season? The defense should play with enthusiasm and passion and embrace the challenge of Vanderbilt trying to control the clock with its running game. The offense must keep charging despite the injury losses, with John Thomas Shepherd delivering the game of his career and the stable of tailbacks producing their finest effort to date. Special teams gaffes and turnovers cost the Owls dearly a year ago in Nashville, so it goes without saying that those must be eliminated.
Those are some general talking points. Here is a specific rundown of the keys to Victory No. 1:
1. Hello, Stewart!
Remember that tall, lanky and swift Vanderbilt defensive end who spent most of last season's game harassing Owls quarterback Chase Clement? Well, his name was Broderick Stewart
and, by gosh, he's back and looking for a pound of Shepherd's flesh. This is not to disparage the Commodores' defense - Bobby Johnson has done a fabulous job of developing a program with some defensive bite - but Stewart is the focal point of that unit. The Owls must find a means to neutralize Stewart in order to take their passing attack to the air.
2. Introducing ... Ryan Lewis!
The two-sport Baton Rouge native deserves a proper introduction, for his fourth-quarter insertion for mop-up duty against Texas Tech didn't do the outfielder/quarterback justice. Lewis held his own against the Red Raiders (7-for-15 for 66 yards), but the situation will be completely different against Vanderbilt. The odds are good Lewis will earn playing time while the game is still hotly contested, so it would behoove you to get to know the lefty a little better. He likes sunsets and long walks through (Reckling) Park ...
3. The Bradley Vierling Proclamation.
When your defense ranks 113th nationally in yards surrendered, opponents often feel emboldened. Exhibit 1: Vanderbilt center Bradley Vierling, who practically guaranteed
that the Commodores will run the ball down the Owls' throat just like they did last season (43 rushing attempts for 273 yards and five touchdowns). It doesn't matter that Vanderbilt is no offensive juggernaut (No. 88 with 329.0 yards/game) or that its passing attack is so feeble that the Owls could stuff nine defenders in the box with impunity. The Owls have been irrefutably sorry on defense, and the onus is on them to prove otherwise.
4. The White Courtesy Phone.
Feel free to pick it up, Corbin Smiter. If Smiter hadn't practiced a lick over the past few weeks, there would be no reason to develop expectations relative to his contributions. But Smiter practices every day, ostensibly putting his mid-summer hernia surgery further behind in the process. Yet he has managed zilch in the production category this season. His reputation is what it is, but Smiter is too talented - and far too important - to remain silent much longer. The Owls desperately need his experience. The phone is ringing ...
5. The Young And The Old.
Freshman nose guard Alex Lowry has drawn raves from David Bailiff, and his fourth college game offers a grand opportunity to take another step toward stardom. Senior defensive tackle Chance Talbert has participated but been limited by an ankle injury. The Owls need his production, but they long for his authoritative presence even more. If Lowry and Talbert can plug the middle against Vanderbilt, the Owls' shot at winning increases.
Thoughts? Questions? Concerns?
That is the question
I pondered while watching the Owls practice this afternoon.
As I observed Nick Fanuzzi
gingerly rotate his right arm above his head then back down to his waist while his teammates practiced late Thursday afternoon, I contemplated the tweet-worthy necessity of that unfortunate scene. David Bailiff and I have established a system of sharing information that isn't fit for publication, but he made no such designation regarding Fanuzzi. He listed Fanuzzi as day-to-day on Monday even though it was obvious to me that Fanuzzi would not play against Vanderbilt unless the Black Knight
laid healing hands on him this week.
I bumped into Fanuzzi on Monday morning prior to his appearance at the weekly luncheon, and as he opened the door adjoining the Youngkin Center and Tudor Fieldhouse he reminded me of my dearly departed paternal grandfather getting out of his armchair. I knew then that he wouldn't be ready for the Commodores, but for some reason I bought into the notion I should keep the blatant seriousness of his injury veiled. Was that the proper decision at the time?
And I did the same thing today. With several fans thirsting for the latest news on Fanuzzi I felt compelled to sit on the information. I considered a post on the Parliament referring to keeping injury information secret because, in all honesty, numerous coaches practice that procedure besides the most genuine leader of young men
we've all had the pleasure of knowing. If Bailiff wanted to close practice he could, and if he wanted to keep injuries close to the vest he has every right to do so. But since he doesn't I tell it like I see it although moments of conflict arise.
Writing all that to note that Fanuzzi won't play on Saturday. Tyler Smith (turf toe) and Jake Hicks (foot) are out, too, and that's a shame considering the Owls will finally enjoy their home opener after starting the season with three consecutive road games, and that in Vanderbilt they'll face a team with an awful offense (No. 88 nationally). With their full complement of weapons the Owls might have snapped their skid of 17 consecutive losses to schools from BCS conferences. Without them, the Commodores are more than capable of shutting down the reserves. Heck, their defense (No. 21) is stout enough to do so against the Owls' regulars.
Oh, and one more thing to feel sad about: The Rob
will be packed on Saturday night. Why Commodores-Owls and Red Raiders-Cougars are kicking off an hour apart is well beyond me, but I do know that Team Sumlin will siphon all the attention no matter what the Owls pull off.
It seems outlandish to suggest that anyone should seek to rebound from an All-American campaign, but when the season prior to that All-American campaign produced a memorable string of wins and All-American honors, what Bruno Rosa
is facing comes into clearer focus.
Rosa accomplished two things last weekend while winning five matches in three days to claim the singles title at the Midland Invite: He opened his senior season by confirming his status as one of the top singles players in the nation, and he convinced Owls coach Ron Smarr that the commitment shown throughout the summer months will pay dividends this fall and next spring.
"He's back on track now to hopefully play at the level he did his (sophomore) year," Smarr said. "He didn't play as much in the summer (prior to 2008-09) - he had an internship - which affects your play. This summer he played some and he's going to play more tournaments this fall than normal. He's playing five tournaments in order to get ready for the spring."
Rosa is attempting to join Mike Estep (1969-71) and Zan Guerry (1969-71) as the only three-time All-Americans in program history. But the perception of his junior campaign pales in comparison to his first season of eligibility at Rice, one that commenced with 14 consecutive victories, including a title at the National Collegiate Tennis Championship. Rosa reached the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Singles Championship as a junior, falling to eventual national champion Devin Britton of Ole Miss, but his overall singles record (13-11) exposed his inconsistent play.
A Brazilian reared on clay courts, Rose should be better suited for the challenge of facing the opposition's No. 1 player each and every tournament. The whirlwind start to his sophomore season seemed to catapult Rosa to extraordinary heights, and he rode that crest of momentum throughout the season. But after finishing 8-5 against ranked opponents in 2008, Rosa was 7-9 against No. 1s last season. He recovered to close the year with a flurry and a No. 22 singles ranking, but clearly there was some disconnect regarding his ability to sustain excellence, a reasonable expectation given his immense talent and immediate track record.
"It's not like he was having a horrible year, but obviously it wasn't quite as good as his first year," Smarr said. "To finish 22 in the country is still pretty good, and this year he is capable of winning the NCAA Tournament if he plays well. He's beaten too many good players."
Last weekend offered hope that Rosa has reverted to his dominating form. He won a trio of three-set matches, rallying from a set down to defeat Ionut Beleleu (Oklahoma) in the second round, Maros Horny (Baylor) in the quarterfinals and Josh Zavala (Texas) for the championship. Rosa displayed similar resilience as a sophomore, winning all six of his singles matches where he was extended to three sets. The performance in Midland served as an appetizer for an entree of tough tournaments, starting this Friday with the Baylor Invitational.
Rosa will also participate in the main draw of the D'Novo All-American (Oct. 8-11) in Tulsa, Okla., and if he meets expectations should earn an invite to the National Intercollegiate Indoor Championships (Nov. 5-8) in New Haven, Conn. Two weeks after the All-American, Rosa will face the region's top players at the South Central Regional Championship in College Station.
And that's just the fall schedule. Next spring the Owls are slated to face only four teams that finished unranked in 2009 or failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament: Lamar, Prairie View A&M, Loyola Marymount and Tulane. If Rosa is to fulfill his vast potential in his final go-around with the Owls, he will have to hurdle the obstacle of defeating the top players on the nation's most talented teams. That makes for a daunting chore, but it's a chore Rosa can complete.
"The bad thing about playing the schedule we play is there is no let-up," Smarr said. "He's playing the best of the best every match. He's playing the best players that are available to play college tennis ... and I guarantee that everybody we play has somebody that can play at a high level. So every day that he goes out there it's going to be tough.
"But he's ready. I'll be surprised if he doesn't have another really good year."
That David Bailiff steadfastly believed freshman corner Phillip Gaines
was prepared to make his first collegiate start at Boone Pickens Stadium before 51,000 orange-clad fans primarily because Gaines had displayed swagger in practice and played at Converse Judson High speaks to two things: Bailiff's confidence in Gaines' potential, and his respect for Judson.
Having shown their mettle in practice and as reserves at UAB and Texas Tech, Gaines and freshman nose guard Alex Lowry
were inserted into the lineup on the road against No. 16 Oklahoma State. From the outside looking in Bailiff appeared to be testing his youngsters' resolve, but he was resolute in their ability to swim - and not sink - in that hostile environment.
"They both excelled. They both had great games," Bailiff said. "Alex Lowry has just been dominant up front in all three football games. The same with Phillip Gaines. He knows what to do, he plays hard and he's got a little swagger to him. Even when (Cowboys All-American receiver) Dez (Bryant) caught that one (23-yard touchdown pass) on him, he went back and fought the next play. There wasn't any worry about what happened. He was determined to get back out there and not let it happen again. That's the attitude you've got to have out there."
It would be hyperbolic to proclaim that Gaines and Lowry, along with freshman linebacker Trey Briggs
and freshman tailback Charles Ross
, enjoyed breakout performances in the Owls' 41-24 loss to the Cowboys. However, given the unique needs the Owls had at each position, the fact that four freshmen filled the voids reflects the stock Bailiff put in the quartet and the occasional audacity each has flashed since fall camp commenced. When presented an opportunity each delivered, despite circumstances that would have made some others wilt.
Because Gaines had grown accustomed to playing on the big stage at Judson, Bailiff never fretted over his mental preparedness for Oklahoma State. Lowry, on the other hand, is a product of tiny Caddo Mills High, so his exposure to FBS competition has been incremental.
Neither flinched last Saturday, with Gaines producing four solo tackles and Lowry a trio of solo stops. And when Briggs showed the intensity and athleticism that made him a coveted prospect and Ross produced three touchdowns as the primary ball carrier in the Jumbo package, Bailiff earned a heap of vindication for bringing both Briggs and Ross along slowly.
"He made some plays that we've been needing linebackers to make," Bailiff said of Briggs, who recorded two tackles against the Cowboys. "We ran a bullet, he blitzed downhill, the back tried to cut him, and he just went over the back and launched himself at the quarterback. We hadn't seen that, and that's what we've got to have. He plays with a lot of instincts.
"Right now (Ross) can run the football, but we've got to make sure he can protect (the quarterback) when he's in there. We've got to make sure he knows the pass routes. We're planning on giving him more and more each week as he learns what to do."
With Ross, as with Gaines, Lowry and Briggs, it seems only a matter of time before he can wield greater influence on the outcome of a contest. The learning curve is steep for most newcomers, but by acing individual tests in Stillwater, this quartet is gaining critical knowledge.
That Nick Fanuzzi and Matt Nordstrom shared the podium at the media luncheon on Monday presented an interesting juxtaposition and offered some transparency on David Bailiff's beliefs.
Fanuzzi was the three-star recruit
out of San Antonio Churchill who originally committed to Miami, changed his mind and signed with Alabama, and later transferred to Rice where many presumed he claimed the title of heir apparent to Chase Clement the minute he stepped foot on campus. Fanuzzi had a reputation, renown and resumé worthy of entitlement, so when he wasn't named the starting quarterback in the spring, some close observers grew concerned.Nordstrom
was an undersized and unheralded linebacker from Rochester (Michigan, not New York) who walked on at Rice two seasons ago. He carved out playing time in last season as a special teams contributor, even earning a letter in the process, and appeared destined to play out his career away from the spotlight. He performed with enthusiasm and earned pats on the back designed to inspire his more talented - and lethargic - teammates. That was his role.
Last Saturday in Stillwater, their paths intersected in measures beyond their standing as teammates. Fanuzzi flashed his vast potential and unequivocally earned the right to be designated the Owls' starting quarterback, and after practicing his way into his first career start, Nordstrom earned a return engagement for the home opener against Vanderbilt. Although they originated from different ends of the same athletic spectrum, Fanuzzi and Nordstrom revealed the lasting benefits of pride and persistence, of drive and determination.
"It's been a difficult road. There were times when I questioned if I could play at this level and if I was ever going to get an opportunity," said Nordstrom, who made his first start at linebacker since leading Rochester Hills High against Rochester Adams High in 2006. "I just kept my head down and kept working hard and kept grinding, and I wanted to be ready when I did get the chance. I felt like if I kept myself ready and I kept an open mind, when I did get my chance I would hopefully be able to take advantage of it and that hopefully what I could do out there would be helpful to the team and that I could contribute."
When Bailiff and co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Chuck Driesbach applauded Nordstrom during fall camp, it felt like a ploy designed to motivate the linebackers on scholarship. When Robert Calhoun (knee) and Justin Hill (concussion) went down to injury, Bailiff felt the time was right to reward the linebacker who practiced with intensity and played with inspiration. That Nordstrom remained a walk-on could no longer factor into the decision, not given the Owls' depth concerns and the lack of productivity from more athletic options.
"We're going to play football players," Bailiff said. "You're going to be accountable to the rest of this football team, and if you're making mistakes - it's no different than what the Texans said a week ago - stay out of the huddle. That's how we're treating it: you're either with us or against us, and it's time to be passionate and be accountable to this football team.
"Matt walked on to this football team and he's now a starting linebacker at Rice because Matt knows exactly what to do and he does it with passion. And Matt is a football player, and we're going to win with guys like that."
Once he adjusted to the speed of the game, Nordstrom responded with a solid effort. Only three Owls recorded more than his four solo tackles, a performance that should earn Nordstrom additional playing time even with Hill set to return on Saturday against Vanderbilt.
"There was never a feeling that I wasn't going to be able to perform, that I wasn't going to get my chance," Nordstrom said. "Coach Driesbach and Coach Bailiff kept encouraging me to keep working hard and I'm just grateful to them. I'm grateful to the coaching staff for giving me the opportunity to play.
"One thing my dad always talked to me about concerning football was playing a hundred percent. There is no substitute for playing absolutely as hard as you can. And I think sometimes people take for granted the game of football, and I try not to. I try to always make sure that I'm going as hard as I possibly can, and in some circumstances effort can make up for talent. You can't coach heart, and I think I bring a lot of that."
After showing flashes of promise in the opener at UAB, Fanuzzi regressed during his start at Texas Tech. He came off the bench against Oklahoma State, promptly led the Owls into the red zone, and then got on such a roll in the second half that Bailiff was summarily forced to abandon the quarterback rotation. The Owls scored three consecutive touchdowns with Fanuzzi at the controls, and not only did he flex his unquestioned arm strength, he showcased the moxie and leadership that were staples of Clement. If Fanuzzi was to secure the job many thought was his for the taking, he needed to unlock the confidence he had bottled deep inside.
"There is a big difference in the team's confidence in you as a leader versus guys coming to me saying, 'Who's starting this drive, you are him (fifth-year senior John Thomas Shepherd)?'" Fanuzzi said. "It's definitely more comfortable when you know who is going to be leading you down there. You have the confidence in one another, you build a relationship (and) chemistry.
"That was part of the process, and I feel like we've gotten some steps closer to what we want."
And Fanuzzi, barring complications from the right shoulder injury he suffered in the fourth quarter against the Cowboys, moved several steps closer to securing his place as a team leader. Any quarterback worth his jersey can produce elusiveness when that skill is needed, and when asked whether he had earned the right to start, Fanuzzi artfully dodged the query.
If any questions remained of his candidacy, Fanuzzi has answered each one with aplomb.
"I'm confident in myself to go out there and be the guy," Fanuzzi said. "I've been confident, a hundred percent confident ever since camp started. It's just been trying to get that out there, doing the best I can to help this team. I'm confident with what I can do and what I can help this team achieve."
This is all anyone with logical expectations of such a young team desired. They craved visions of a squad with pluck, one willing to fight no matter the circumstances, one able to display signs of progress even in the face adversity. The trip to Stillwater was about self-discovery almost as much as it was pursuing 1-0. A victory would have exhilarated, but by taking steps toward an offensive identity and defensive pride the Owls provided all reason to believe.
David Bailiff did what he could to acknowledge that he was indeed disappointed with the outcome, but he also beamed with satisfaction. He had prodded and patted, chastised and coddled his charges through two difficult weeks, and his efforts finally yielded something tangible. The Owls looked
better, their grit throughout a 41-24 loss
offering a jolt of optimism.
"We've gone toe-to-toe with two of the best teams in the country, and you saw how we improved from one week to the next," Bailiff said in an almost subdued tone. "And we'll continue to improve. You'll see a better football team next week against Vanderbilt.
"We had some leadership at a lot of different positions where we hadn't seen it. As I leave here, I leave with a little inner peace that we are getting better and we're going to be a good football team."
It would be presumptive to state that anything definitive arose from the events at Boone Pickens Stadium, but a few questions should have been answered. Not only did sophomore Nick Fanuzzi
display the physical tools to end the quarterback competition once and for all, he showcased both the intelligence and mental toughness to earn the job. He made minimal mistakes, oftentimes going through his progressions before finding an open receiver. Superior arm strength enabled Fanuzzi to gun several throws to receivers in tight spaces, and a willingness to stand in the pocket and absorb blows while attempting passes should have won over his teammates. Fanuzzi did everything anyone could want from a starting signal caller.
He showed elements of those characteristics at UAB, but to do so against vastly superior competition on the heels of an underwhelming performance at Texas Tech spoke volumes.
"I learned a lot from last week, and I told myself that the team as a whole each drive we were going to go down with a purpose to score," Fanuzzi said. "Every play mattered, every play counted. When you think like that and think about the next play, you're going to score each drive.
"(Growth) didn't come in (this) game, I felt like it came as a process. This past week coach talked about having a positive attitude. It's all about attitude, and if you have a positive attitude and the right focus good things will come. It was unfortunate that we lost, but (with) myself and some teammates I feel like there is an inner peace that you went out there and gave it your all and did the best you could. I'm pleased about that."
Not only did Bailiff find a quarterback, he discovered useful methods to get freshmen Vance McDonald and Charles Ross involved. A meeting of the coaching minds produced a decision to move McDonald off the line as a pure tight end and to the slot. The results were positive.
McDonald began the game with two catches for 27 yards on the season. He recorded five receptions for 44 yards against the Cowboys, showcasing his pass-catching ability and athleticism at crucial points of scoring drives. Visions of McDonald against smaller or slower defenders finally manifested, and his skill should create another dimension for the offense.
Ross had his confidence bolstered by scoring three touchdowns as the primary ball carrier in the jumbo package. Injuries to Justin Hill (concussion) and Brent Hotard (thumb) elevated Ross into position to serve as the Owls' short-yardage back. Despite having just one week of practice in his new role, and drawing a delay of game penalty on his first snap, Ross excelled.
"It's a good thing we worked snapping it fast when he was in there, huh?" Bailiff said with a chuckle. "The amazing thing about the jumbo package is we went though Hill and we went through Hotard and then we went through (Andrew) Sendejo and then we went through, oh jeez I can't remember. Then he got hurt so we didn't have it last week. So that's why we're going to Charles Ross.
"You saw him move the pile on some of that jumbo or find the seams in the holes. He had great vision, he played a big-time football game, and he continues to get better each week as we get him out of his glide."
Said Ross, who scored on runs of 2, 1 and 3 yards: "My confidence has gone up a lot. Just getting that playing time and getting in the end zone really will let me open up in upcoming weeks - hopefully."
Those were technical innovations. The bigger, broader picture offered promise because the defense drew a line in the sand and fought back when the Cowboys attempted to overpower the Owls with their ground game. The Owls struggled covering Cowboys All-American receiver Dez Bryant - who doesn't? - but they didn't buckle in the second half like they did in Lubbock. Aside from a fumble return on a muffled field goal attempt and a short field that came courtesy of an interception off a deflected ball, Oklahoma State had to earn its points, a development that exposed the Owls' will and their decision to no longer accept being smacked around.
Offensively the Owls simply grew up. Fanuzzi has made just one career start, the line is dominated by underclassmen, and the skill players - the healthy ones at least - are still learning as they go. But in Stillwater the excuses went out the window. The Owls finally decided to answer the bell, throw a few haymakers, and get off the mat when the Cowboys dropped them into a 28-3 hole. It was a performance that vets like junior end Cheta Ozougwu and senior receiver Toren Dixon could reflect on and note as a point when fortunes turned.
"We actually went out there and had fun as a defense," Ozougwu said. "Before we got hit in the face and didn't respond right. What you saw was us getting hit in the face and responding well."
Said Dixon: "If we continue to build on these things and take it into next week, we can be a pretty good football team. I saw a lot of guys growing up. If we continue to build the sky is the limit for us. We just have to continue progressing every week and keep this momentum going."
After consecutive weekends in Birmingham, Lubbock and Stillwater, starting to feel like Willie
Want a promise you can take to the bank? The Rice-Oklahoma State live chat will start on time (roughly an hour prior to kickoff). There will be no technical difficulties today. Guaranteed!
As for the crew at ESPN 97.5 The Ticket
, here is the rundown for the Countdown to Kickoff:
5:00 - Scene setting from Pickens Stadium. Perhaps we'll find a few Franklins
5:05 - Focus on the Owls' scuffling defense, with special attention on Pokes WR Dez Bryant.
5:10 - Nate Griffin interviews native Oklahoman and Owls O-lineman Travis 'Moose' Mason.
5:15 - An examination of Oklahoma State, which relies heavily on Houston-area prospects.
5:25 - The Owls' offense has moving parts that need to be synced. The crew will discuss.
5:30 - Griffin chats with Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, who is liable to say anything
5:35 - It's OK w/ MK. Sunshine and roses, folks, sunshine and roses. No need to be defeatist.
5:40 - Scores from around the nation and C-USA. Can East Carolina rally against UNC?
5:45 - David Bailiff shares pointers on how to survive with gravel in your gut. Helpful info.
Rice golf coach Drew Scott will be the halftime guest after Jorge Vargas (sideline) pulls Bailiff aside to chat about the first half. Let's all hope that Bailiff is still in a good mood by that point.
"I don't care if you don't have any wins, you're going to play to win."
Coach Herm is always good for a little perspective. STILLWATER
- No matter what anyone infers, the Owls didn't come to Stillwater to grab a slice at The Hideaway. And while improvement is always paramount, the primary goal for the Owls is to beat No. 16 Oklahoma State. Are the odds stacked against their effort? Absolutely, and there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that fact. The Cowboys are bigger, stronger, faster, and after being shellacked at home by UH, the talk around these parts is that the Fightin' Pickenses need to sacrifice the Owls at the altar to reclaim their national reputation.
With Tyler Smith, Justin Hill and Willie Garley back home in Houston, the Owls' third game will present a wonderful opportunity for reserves to make their mark. Freshman tailback Charles Ross is poised to earn more PT with Smith out (turf toe), but he must show signs of developing a clue at protecting the quarterback, especially considering the fact Oklahoma State will come with the heat against John Thomas Shepherd/Nick Fanuzzi. Freshman linebacker Trey Briggs can take advantage of Hill's absence and the struggles of Tanner Shuck and Aaron Williams, both of whom have played their way into the doghouse. Max Anyiam gets Garley's reps, but it'd be nice if he held his weight in pass coverage and didn't drop sure interceptions. With Chris Jones dinged up, Anyiam will get another shot to shine.
1. Impeach the Prez.
Ask David Bailiff his impression of Cowboys receiver/return specialist Dez Bryant and he calls him the best he's seen in all of his years of coaching. Know what that means? If Kyle Martens has the gall to actually punt to Bryant, don't be surprised if Bailiff sprints off the sideline and tackles Martens, a la Helen 'Mama' Boucher
in The Waterboy
2. Take Your Time, Do It Right.
The film doesn't lie, and Bailiff has grown weary of his defensive backs and their penchant for sloppy play. There had better be no more peeking into the backfield and/or executing improper coverage in critical situations. The more Bailiff discusses the fundamental flaws of his defense, the more gravely his voice becomes. The time has come for the experienced defense to start playing like it, or changes may soon follow.
3. No Need To Panic.
Owls offensive line coach Ronnie Vinklarek has been careful to keep a level head when dealing with his youthful offensive line. Last week wasn't the best performance for the unit, but instead of focusing on that fact, Vinklarek continued to reinforce the finer details of mastering blocking up front while stressing to his players to embrace improving. Everyone knows the Owls will have their hands full opening holes and protecting the quarterback against the Pokes' front, but fretting over the challenge is counterproductive.
4. Waiting On The Youngsters
. Yes, Derek Clark and Vance McDonald had their horns tooted during spring drills and fall camp, and neither has done much of anything through two games this season. They are both freshmen so they deserve a little time to adjust to the bright lights, but that doesn't make the wait less anxious. The sooner Clark wakes up the better for Toren Dixon, who was shut down by the extra attention he received last weekend against Texas Tech. As for McDonald, don't be surprised if he is detached from the linemen more frequently.
5. Rotating Quarterbacks, Week 3
. Are you tired of this? Join the club. Here's hoping one of the two candidates excels against the Cowboys and ends the competition once and for all.
Thoughts? Questions? Concerns? A little Sounds of Blackness
for the anti-defeatist crowd?
No matter how much time men's basketball coach Ben Braun spends on the road recruiting, it appears that he always keeps at least one ear to the ground here in Houston. Well, that's the impression given following an interesting conversation that unfolded on Thursday afternoon.
While discussing the measures he and his staff have taken to drum up support for his burgeoning program, Braun drifted off to a relevant tangent about his recruiting patterns. For those unfamiliar with the composition of his staff, Braun has assistants with ties all around the nation. Louis Reynaud and Kevin Mouton have the West Coast locked down, Mike Roberts has ties in Texas and the Midwest, and Marco Morcos is dialed in out east. Braun, a Chicago native, is gold in the Midwest and abroad, and collectively the Rice staff can canvas the globe.
Given the hoopla that surfaced recently over UH assistant and Phi Slama Jama alum Michael Young
and his son Joseph
, who opted to commit to Providence instead of the Cougars
, Braun sounded sensitive to any discussion on when he will begin targeting local talent. The Owls have two Houstonians on their roster - Friendswood native Trey Stanton and Worthing product Emerson Herndon - and four Texans total. In fact, the Owls have more New York/New Jersey products (three) than locals, something that someone might have brought to Braun's attention.
"I know that people have said, 'Hey, are you going to get some players from Houston?" Braun said. "Nobody is going to hold it against our players if they're from Chicago or New Jersey. Our players are going to be part of this community whether they are from Houston or not. I've never felt that because our players are from this area or Texas they are more a part of this community. I find that sometimes players from out of state adopt this as their home anyway."
In a perfect world Braun could have replaced Rodney Foster (Mayde Creek) and Aleks Perka (Klein Forest) with two local players, but coaches play to win the game, and Braun did what was best for the immediate future of his program. Will he someday get traction with the top available local talent? Sure, but he shouldn't undermine the development of his program to appease those who root for local kids more than those who hail from Minnesota
Besides, given the effort Braun has produced trying to weave his program into the fabric of the greater Rice community, you can best believe Tamir Jackson
and Arsalan Kazemi
will be Houstonians sooner rather than later. Based on his words, Braun won't have it any other way.
"This is my home now, so it doesn't matter where I came from," Braun said. "I feel like I'm part of this community. I want my family to be part of this community whether we're joining religious affiliations or clubs. We're meeting other families and that's really positive, and I want our players to go through that interaction. I think it's going to be important to our success."
Wayne Graham holds a deep appreciation for Reckling Park that very few can comprehend, and his admiration extends well beyond the tangential impact the 10-year-old facility has had on his ability to adroitly maintain one of the nation's premier college baseball programs.
After a decade of hosting the Owls, high school playoff games and numerous summer camps, Reckling Park remains stately beautiful
thanks in part to several renovations over the years. But with North Carolina, LSU and South Carolina erecting new palaces that feature all the bells and whistles national powerhouses crave in their facilities, Graham has grown increasing adamant that Reckling Park requires improvements to keep Rice competitive with its peers.
"We have to really make a conscious effort to keep everything upgraded around here in the sense that we've got work that needs to be done now," Graham said. "And that takes money."
What needs to be done? As anyone who attended games at The Reck last season and ducked foul balls can affirm, the netting behind home plate requires upgrading. But before that process can began, the support poles for that must be replaced. Neither is thick enough to harness tighter netting, so merely reinforcing the current poles would be insufficient.
Graham has designs on turning the current training room into an interior equipment room and moving the training room, which is far too tiny for head trainer Donna Papangellin to work her magic, to the weight room, which is no longer needed given the newer weight rooms at Rice Stadium and Tudor Fieldhouse. That move would allow for a training room twice the size of the presently allotted space, with space left over for an adjacent rehabilitation center.
Those needs are immediate. Graham has long-range visions of replacing the stadium lights, constructing a trophy case to house the Owls' bounty of hardware, and extending the wrought-iron fence outside the facade of The Reck so that it encloses the stadium. Funds have already been allocated for the construction of an exterior equipment shed and to revamp the visiting dugout, but the price tab for the aforementioned projects could reach $500,000.
"It's not any huge expenditures according to how you view something as a huge expenditure," Graham said. "But it still costs money to do all those things."
A cool half-a-million pales in comparison to the $25-35 million spent constructing Boshamer Stadium (North Carolina), Alex Box Stadium (LSU) and Carolina Stadium (South Carolina). Not surprisingly, all three are listed among the top facilities in the nation, but in an impromptu polling of Kendall Rogers of Rivals.com/Yahoo! Sports
and Eric Sorenson of College Baseball Today
, both listed stadiums old and new among their five favorite facilities around the nation: Alex Box Stadium (LSU)
- Opened February 2009Carolina Stadium (South Carolina)
- February 2009Haymarket Park (Nebraska)
- March 2002Miller Field (BYU)
- April 2001Davis Stadium (Ohio State)
- March 1997Baum Stadium (Arkansas)
- May 1996Murakami Stadium (Hawaii)
- February 1984Dick Howser Stadium (Florida State)
- March 1983
That four stadiums older than The Reck made their lists reflects the value of upkeep. Fund raising will be a two-pronged project for Graham and Rice athletic director Chris Del Conte, whose plate is already full with renovation/construction projects for football, tennis and track. Graham isn't attempting to jump places in line, but as The Reck prepares to open its second decade as the
distinctive sports facility on campus, Graham wants to protect his best interests.
"Considering how good the facility is, we've had a very cost-efficient facility," Graham said. "Our costs on this facility aren't quite $11 million overall counting all the new improvements. To replace it would cost $25 million, so it's not even good business not to keep up what we have.
"When you've got something that's basically rated one of the top five programs in the country, you should be very conscientious about the facility. I just think there needs to be awareness."
Greg Williams is in search of silver linings. His constitution remains hardened and his focus resolutely sharp, but Williams could use a bit of fortuitous luck. His first three seasons coaching women's basketball at his alma mater were marred to varying degrees by injuries. Last season issues of health were overshadowed by a galling lack of productivity and general malaise that resulted in one of the dreariest campaigns in program history. It was a dark cloud.
Since things can't get worse
, Williams is anticipating better. Nearly two years after joining the program sophomore forward Jackie Stanley
is finally eligible (she transferred from Kansas State at the semester break of the 2007-08 season) and healthy (Stanley has been cleared following microfracture knee surgery last year). Her low-post scoring and artful passing skills should positively impact a team that lacked an interior threat and shot miserably from behind the three-point arc last season. She is the force Williams' program has lacked since Lauren Neaves
graduated: a talented, tenacious presence Williams can build his offense around.
"We were disappointed in Jackie's injury a year ago when we thought we were going to get her at the semester break," Williams said. "But the silver lining in that situation is she now has three full years to play. And what Jackie gives us is that low-post offensive presence that we didn't have last year but had been spoiled the three previous years with the combination of Lauren Neaves and Valeriya Berezhynska
, who for three straight years gave us a double-double in the post.
"The minute she stepped on our campus we haven't been able to guard her, and that's even when we had Val. She just has an ability to score, she has really expanded her offensive game, (and) she's increased her range. The big question mark with Jackie is her knee. It's still an unknown what workload we can put on her once practice and the season starts."
Stanley will be one of five rotation newcomers, joining a freshmen quartet that fills out a roster composed entirely of players Williams signed. Guard Jessica Goswitz, at 5-5, is the lone freshman under six feet tall as 6-1 forwards Lacey Neu and Zoe Rogers and 6-2 center Opal Taskila join a frontcourt already featuring six-foot-plus sophomores Candace Ashford (6-2), Megan Elliott, Bri Hypolite (both 6-0) and Stanley (6-2), and 6-1 junior forward Morgan Mayse.
With junior guard Memri Carmon lost for the season (Achilles), Mayse joins senior guards Tara Watts and Shyrelle Horne as upperclassmen. One great disappointment Williams endured last season was spotty play by veterans, and while he is confident in the talents of his recently-signed players, he understands the inherent risk of relying on 10 sophomores and freshmen.
"We hope that they keep that upward progression in their careers," Williams said. "We had some players last year not continue that upward progression, which was not only surprising but unexpected. On paper you always expect players to improve their game and get better, and we're certainly going to need that out of the sophomore class."
For the first time in program history, the entire team enrolled in summer school and remained on campus, playing together and forging a bond Williams hopes will transfer onto the court. Team chemistry was solid last season but leadership was lacking, and since it is no guarantee that Watts, Horne or Mayse will supply the leadership the Owls desperately need to rebound from their 7-23 finish of a year ago, Williams is banking that the two players with the biggest talent and personality - Stanley and sophomore point guard D'Frantz Smart - will lead the way.
Resolving leadership issues is but one obstacle facing the Owls this coming season. They led Conference USA in 3-pointers attempted (569) but ranked second-to-last in 3-point shooting percentage (.279). Questions abound regarding scoring - Smart is the only returning player who averaged double figures (10.8 points/game) last year - and Mayse, who regressed following a promising freshman season. Amenemope McKinney has returned from a rare illness, but the Owls remain young at lead guard. And after guiding the Owls to the C-USA tournament final in his first two seasons on the bench thanks in large part to the full cupboard left by Cristy McKinney, Williams has led the program to a 21-41 (8-24 in C-USA) mark since.
If there was a positive to last year's misery, it's that expectations were lowered heading into this season. And with the spotlight shining elsewhere, Williams can rebuild without distraction. Given the storms Williams has experienced recently, he could use a rainbow right about now.
If only unbridled enthusiasm were directly proportional to victories ...
On an afternoon when David Bailiff expressed his love for his job, the Owls began the process of preparing for No. 16 Oklahoma State, the very same Cowboys who were exposed at Boone Pickens Stadium last Saturday afternoon by the Houston Cougars and subsequently dropped 11 places in the national rankings. While the Owls attempt to pick up the pieces from their second humiliating loss on the season, the Cowboys are looking for a team to obliterate in an attempt to regain their preseason swagger. The Owls, it seems, are the perfect opponent.
Despite those facts, Bailiff isn't deterred. He continues to talk of remaining upbeat and focused and delving fully into the ongoing task of improving the Owls. Yes the Pokes will be angry and their fans ravenous, but Bailiff seems intent on ignoring the sizable odds against success. The Owls have dropped 16 consecutive contests against teams representing BCS conferences, losing those games by an average score of 46-14. Bailiff, to his full credit, remains positive.
"You'll see us going to Stillwater this week with a great attitude. We're never going to quit," Bailiff said. "We're going to keep fighting and get better.
"They (the Owls' offensive unit) know they're young; we're going to get better every snap we take. They realize that. We have the 10th-hardest schedule in the country; they know that. And they know if we keep working hard great things are going to happen for us. That's what they expect and that's what we expect. I've got to keep them going and upbeat, and let them see what the future holds. And our future is very bright."
Can the Owls get better quickly enough to upset Oklahoma State? And if not, can they play well enough to develop a modicum of confidence for their long-awaited home opener the following Saturday against Vanderbilt, another automatic qualifier? Few expected the Owls to beat Texas Tech, but it was desirous for them to perform better than they did against UAB a week earlier. Five hundred and sixty yards and eight touchdowns later those dreams were deferred, and given the Pokes' offensive prowess, gratification might be delayed yet again.
Which hole in the dike should Bailiff plug first? By his own admission the offense lacks an identity, and with starting tailback Tyler Smith sporting a walking boot to protect turf toe on his right foot, the Owls might be forced to go with someone else at tailback in Stillwater. The rotation at receiver remains in flux with senior Corbin Smiter having yet to snag a pass, senior Toren Dixon held to one catch for nine yards in Lubbock, and the presumed boost by the younger receivers having yet to materialize. The three-headed monster at tight end, perceived to be a strength of the offense, has combined to produce 10 catches, 143 yards and one TD.
As far as continuity at quarterback, don't hold your breath. Bailiff acknowledged that he will continue rotating both quarterbacks, fifth-year senior John Thomas Shepherd and sophomore Nick Fanuzzi, for at least another week. He also noted that his quarterbacks failed to handle the Red Raiders' blitz, either holding the ball too long and contributing to the six sacks allowed or not passing in the lanes where the pressure originated. Those miscues, combined with the continued sharing of reps, will only hinder the process of establishing an offensive identity.
"We've got to get consistent at that position," Bailiff said. "Once we get that consistency, we're going to be OK."
The Owls would be well served to change their defensive identity. No amount of cockeyed perspective can hide the fact that the Owls have surrendered 1,076 yards and 99 points in two games. They rank last in Conference USA is practically every defensive team statistic, and considering their experience in the secondary, their pass defense (364.5 yards/game) and pass defense efficiency (185.1) numbers are appalling. After harassing Tech quarterback Taylor Potts with regularity in the first half, the Owls spit the bit in the second as the Raiders scored touchdowns on six successive possessions to turn an 11-point lead into a blowout.
So, why has the secondary struggled so mightily over the first two contests?
"It's little technique things," sophomore safety Travis Bradshaw said. "A lot of us not keeping eyes in the right place, that's hurting us. We've just got to be fundamentally sound and really focused on the details of the game. That's going to be key, especially with the speed of the Oklahoma State receivers and their athleticism. We've really got to be perfect in every aspect."
Perfection is an awful lot to ask for. Perhaps the Owls should lower their standards to a more modest level in light of how far from perfect they have been thus far. The last thing this team needs is a repeat of the fiasco in Lubbock, where an inspired first-half effort was followed by a distressful collapse that seemed to reflect a team boiling over with frustration and confusion.
Or perhaps Bradshaw outlined the true key to success. The Owls should keep their heads up.
There will be plenty of space devoted to David Bailiff and his admirable moment of testicular fortitude early in the second half on Saturday at Jones AT&T Stadium, but first an observation.
Anyone see the movie Apocalypto
? Remember the procession in the sacrifice scene
? Well, that's what watching the Owls-Red Raiders game drew to mind. The Owls fought valiantly throughout the first half and one series into the second, but their fate seemed inevitable. Texas Tech quarterback Taylor Potts was the Mayan wielding the dagger, the Red Raiders' defense the Mayan handling the decapitation, and Tech coach Mike Leach the ruler watching with an amused expression. The 48,000 fans at Jones AT&T Stadium? They were the bloodthirsty lot applauding as heads rolled down the stairs, impatiently waiting for another to tumble to earth.
The Owls were brave and noble but hopelessly overwhelmed. How many were leveled by Tech defenders Saturday evening, ferocious blows that verified the athletic chasm that exists between the two programs? Off the top of my head I recall John Thomas Shepherd, Patrick Randolph and Roddy Maginot having their momentum abruptly stopped first by a tackler and then by the artificial surface below. The Owls were slower and smaller, and while they swung like a boxer with a puncher's chance to win they knew heads would roll. And it would be theirs.
Bailiff noticed this too, and that explains why he did what he did at the Tech 47. The Owls trailed 14-3 at the time, and had they played it safe and punted on fourth-and-one, perhaps they could have pinned the Raiders deep and summoned another defensive stop. Instead, Bailiff sent the right message, one of reckless abandon in the face of dire circumstances. The Owls were not going to win that game, not with the way the Raiders were dominating the line of scrimmage, and not with they way Potts was carving up the Rice secondary. Why not roll the dice and show your players you believe in them? Bailiff did, and the result was immaterial.
Nick Fanuzzi had his pass to Luke Willson disrupted by Tech end Brandon Sharpe, and the bottom fell out soon thereafter. Tech, which covered fewer than 60 yards on its two first-half scoring drives, breezed 53 yards for a score following the turnover on downs. Fanuzzi fumbled on the ensuing possession, giving Tech the ball at the Rice 24. Touchdown. The Owls moved backwards 18 yards on their third drive of the third quarter, Kyle Martens produced a measly 31-yard punt, and Tech regained control at the Rice 33. Touchdown, game, set and match.
"I really felt like we had a lot of momentum going into that third quarter," Bailiff said. "And we did have a lot of momentum. When I went for it on fourth-and-one and we didn't make it, at that point it just didn't look like we were the same football team after that."
A conversion would have been symbolic of the Owls' pluck, but ultimately it would have been only that - symbolism. The young offensive line was whipped from start to finish, putting Fanuzzi in panic mode from the opening possession. Credit Shepherd for making lemonade out of lemons and leading the Owls on two scoring drives, but without adequate protection, things weren't going to get any better. The downfield coverage that was so exceptional in the second quarter evaporated in the third and fourth as corners Jarrett Ben and Chris Jammer were twirled in circles more often that a teenage girl at a hoedown. The safeties were (again) a step too slow, and the pressure up front was nonexistent. Credit Leach for making the necessary halftime adjustments, for the second half was as lopsided as the score indicated.
So what now? Bailiff bristled at the suggestion that his defense went from defiant to demoralized in the second half after being routinely asked to guard a short field, but there did appear to be a moment of acquiescence as Tech scored touchdowns on six consecutive possessions. What silver lining can be stripped from yet another dark cloud defensively?
"Nobody at Rice is ever going to quit," Bailiff said. "This team sees it's got talent. This team knows that it's going to improve every week. That's what we did even a year ago; we got better each week. We caught momentum at the end, and that's what we're going to do here. We're going to outlast this, we're going to keep working hard, we're going to keep focusing on the effort, focus on the little things and keep closing ranks. We're going to be a team with a great attitude and great chemistry. We're not going to quit. We're going to get better each week.
"We're not demoralized. I'm mad because I don't like to lose. It puts that much more gravel in your gut."
Speaking of stomach pains, the quarterback conundrum took a turn in the opposite direction with Shepherd clearly outplaying Fanuzzi. But Bailiff could start Tommy Kramer this Saturday in Stillwater and it wouldn't matter, not with No. 16 Oklahoma State coming off its humbling loss to Team Sumlin
. The Cowboys were knocked down a few pegs and will have blood in their eyes, meaning that There Will Be Blood
splattered all about T. Boone Pickens Stadium.
Anyone want to take a guess at which team will be bleeding profusely?
Don't let your imagination run wild this evening. Owls-Red Raiders will not be available for your viewing pleasure - not on television, not online. Don't frustrate yourself trying to visualize what's going on at Jones AT&T Stadium. Make the smart, simple choice: follow the live chat at The R, and listen to the most skilled collection of broadcasters in the history of civilization.
David Saltzman (Play-by-Play), Nate Griffin (Analysis) and Jorge Vargas (Sideline) will join you at 5 for the Countdown to Kickoff on ESPN Radio 97.5 The Ticket. Here's the rundown:
5:00 - Scene setting from Jones AT&T Stadium. Ignore the jackhammers in the background.
5:05 - Rice Owls In Focus, with emphasis on the offense (Fanuzzi-Shepherd, tailbacks, etc.).
5:10 - Griffin chats with The Professor, Owls offensive coordinator/QB coach Ed Zaunbrecher.
5:15 - The discussion shifts to Texas Tech which, like Rice, is breaking in a new quarterback.
5:25 - More focus on the Owls, this time on the defense and its search for pride restoration.
5:30 - Griffin shares the plank with Red Raiders coach and Pepperdine Law grad Mike Leach.
5:35 - It's OK with MK. Is it? After last weekend, perhaps this segment needs a new name.
5:40 - It's a night game, so scores from around Conference USA and the nation are in order.
5:45 - David Bailiff speaks! Pretty sure Coach will put a positive spin on the proceedings.
As an aside, Kirk Herbsteit is a lucky man. Four sons?!? A father can only dream ...
LUBBOCK - While walking around Jones AT&T Stadium as the Owls conducted their Friday walk-through, it was difficult to avoid day dreaming about what the Owls might one day be.
Towering over the west side of the stadium was a multilevel suite and press box facility that didn't quite blend in with the original structure but certainly added a splash of panache. In the north end zone construction workers went about their business of expanding the seating bowl, and just behind the east stands another set of club seats and luxury boxes were beginning to take shape. All told, Texas Tech plans to bump capacity to 60,000, and while Jones AT&T won't be the largest stadium in the Big 12, the Red Raiders are certainly making the financial commitment to improving the facilities so they are within shouting distance of what UT, A&M and Oklahoma State feature. If appearances can be believed, Tech is all-in on the arms race.
Without the financial backing of a Big 12 affiliation, Rice can never afford facilities as gorgeous as the Raiders'. However, matching what TCU and SMU have constructed in recent years should be a modest goal for Rice athletic director Chris Del Conte. David Bailiff is curt in his assessment of what Rice needs to be competitive in football, and on Friday we all got a peek.
1. Surviving An Air Raid. Anyone remember the classifications of the three Texas defensive backs who played key roles in the Red Raiders' game-clinching drive last season? Blake Gideon, who dropped a sure interception that would have sealed a UT win, was a freshman, as was Earl Thomas who, along with then-sophomore Curtis Brown, allowed Michael Crabtree to catch a deep pass and slip into the end zone for the winning touchdown. Why is this significant? If the Owls utilize a dime package against the Raiders, freshman corner-turned-safety Corey Frazier will be on the field guarding someone in open space. The Owls' corners are a pair of true sophomores - Chris Jammer and Jarrett Ben. Better grow up fast, fellas.
2. Under The Lights. While on the subject of hasty maturation, freshman receiver Derek Clark and freshman tight end Vance McDonald must put last weekend behind them. Both showed flashes of their talent and potential in fall camp, and both dropped passes in Birmingham against UAB. Those first-game jitters were to be expected, but as the Owls continue to sort through their skill players, those with the most skill need to rise to the top of the heap. At worst Clark should be the fourth receiver, and McDonald has as much raw talent as anyone on offense. Both were granted mulligans in the opener; now comes the time to show and prove.
3. Start Of Something New? True freshman linebacker Trey Briggs made the trip, ostensibly to take the roster spot of senior Robert Calhoun, who tore his ACL last week and is lost for the season. Briggs and junior Aaron Williams battled for Calhoun's place in the rotation, and while Williams will likely remain above Briggs in the pecking order, it wouldn't hurt to test Briggs to see what he is capable of. Given the state of flux at linebacker, experimentation is warranted.
4. Easing Into The Fanuzzi Era. Sophomore transfer quarterback Nick Fanuzzi will make his first career start and, if he leads the Owls to early success, can dictate how long he remains in the game. Despite the fact that the coaching staff will stick with some semblance of a quarterback rotation, the skill players have made it obvious that they are ready for one guy to take the snaps. That won't happen this weekend, but what can Fanuzzi do to expedite matters and move closer to securing the title of starter outright before the Owls travel to Stillwater?
5. Ignoring Marsellus Wallace. You recall what the infamous gangster from Pulp Fiction said about pride. Following their embarrassing performance at UAB last weekend, the Owls' defense would be wise to disregard that advice. All they will have is pride against the Raiders, and they should rely on it to fuel their motivation. Do they wish to get shredded a second time in two games, or would they prefer to fight valiantly in the face of superior opposition? The Owls closed their huddle on Friday with an 'Upset!' chant, and if they have any legitimate hope of shocking Tech and winning as a four-touchdown 'dog, they must channel Butch Coolidge.
Thoughts? Questions? Concerns?
If you happen to stumble across men's tennis coach Ron Smarr
this weekend during the Holiday Inn Houston South Loop Rice Fall Invite at Jake Hess Stadium, leave him be if he is in the process of compiling copious notes. Smarr has some critical decisions to render in the months ahead, and this weekend's season-opening tournament will provide some vital information.
Rice will play host to LSU, SMU and Tulane this weekend, and Smarr is excited over the opportunity his players will have to display their skills against someone beside teammates.
"This is for our individual players, and for us to get a chance to look at our new players and see how they stack up," Smarr said. "The good thing about the format of this tournament is everybody gets to play three singles and three doubles regardless. And that's a good format."
Doubles matches will being at 9 am with Michael Nusslein/Christian Saravia and Sam Garforth-Bles/Dennis Polyakov representing the Owls against doubles teams from LSU while Vishnu Rajam/Jonathan Chang take on partners from SMU and Isamu Tachibana/Oscar Podlewski face off against a duo from Tulane. Singles action will start roughly an hour later.
Smarr will be seeking players capable of helping the Owls take that proverbial next step. Rice was ranked as high as 17th last spring, and the Owls qualified for their seventh consecutive NCAA Tournament. However, an inability to close matches - the Owls fell 4-3 on seven occasions - left Smarr frustrated, and with arguably the toughest schedule ever assembled on deck in 2010, one that includes 18 NCAA Tournament teams, Smarr is seeking competitors.
"This gives us a chance (to see) who we think can play," Smarr said. "Oftentimes in basketball people can play exhibition games better than they can in real situations. This is a real situation, and players know how they perform will somewhat affect where they play in the lineup. I think that's a fair way to (determine seeding).
"We've got lots of opportunities this spring."
In some ways, the first day of spring is Friday.
As the Owls scurry about on defense, locking in on members of a scout team charged with the task of mimicking the prolific offense Texas Tech coach Mike Leach helped create so many moons ago, the thought that the Owls' efforts are futile pushes its way into your subconscious.
The coaching is clear and concise, and instructions are heeded with pleasing sincerity and unmistakable earnestness, but you still wonder if it's all for naught. These are the Red Raiders after all, and teams with rosters significantly more athletic than the Owls' have crumbled under the immense pressure of trying to defend the indecipherable schemes Leach concocts.
That's no hyperbole. The proof is, frighteningly enough, in the pudding of the following stats:YEAR TOTAL OFFENSE
) NATIONAL RANK
2008 531.0 4th
2007 529.6 2nd
2006 448.8 6th
2005 495.8 6th
2004 491.7 6th
The more entrenched Leach became in Lubbock the more access he gained to superior athletes, and with those athletes at the ready his offense became that much more proficient. Tech is one of only four programs (UH, Tulsa and Hawaii) to average at least 500 yards/game in consecutive seasons over the past five seasons. When the Owls and Raiders met two seasons ago at The Stadium, Tech hung 592 yards on the Owls in a runaway 59-24 victory
The lasting image of that game was of then-redshirt freshman receiver Michael Crabtree dashing unabated to the end zone for a 74-yard, second-quarter touchdown, the first of his three scores of the game and the ignition for a 35-0 blitz that snuffed the Owls' upset hopes. And while that gruesome scene remains etched in my memory, what was mildly shocking was the number of Owls who will start against Tech on Saturday that started on Sept. 15, 2007.9/15/07
DE - Scott Solomon
DT - George Chukwu
DT - Jonathan Cary
DE - Dietrich Davis
LB - Brian Raines
LB - Robert Calhoun
CB - Ja'Corey Shepherd
CB - Brandon King
FS - Willie Garley
SS - Andrew Sendejo
KAT - Justin Abt9/12/09
DE - Scott Solomon
DT - John Gioffre
DT - Chance Talbert
DE - Cheta Ozougwu
LB - Terrance Garmon
LB - Justin Hill
CB - Chris Jammer
CB - Jarrett Ben
FS - Andrew Sendejo
SS - Chris Jones
KAT - Travis Bradshaw
Yep, just two starters (Solomon and Sendejo) remain, and when David Bailiff reviewed film of the previous meeting between the former Southwest Conference rivals with his staff, he took note of the maddening number of missed alignments and blown assignments, and inventory of how many of those players are no longer with the program. Does the roster turnover give the Owls any semblance of hope? Can they do to Tech at Jones AT&T Stadium what Appalachian State did to Michigan
in the Big House, what Boise State did to Oklahoma
at the Fiesta Bowl, or what Stanford did to Southern California
at the Coliseum as a four-touchdown underdog?
Or will Leach, guns a blazing
, make the Owls walk the plank
With Wayne Graham, the deepest truths are revealed via his biting wit and knowing glances. Some answers are startlingly direct while others so subtly delivered that the inference takes a second to seep into the crevices of the brain. Then and only then is the point driven home.
The Owls will be national title contenders in 2010; that is an irrefutable fact. As Graham notes with a confident arch of his brow, the Owls return 11 of their top 12 position players, and while the pitching staff took a hit with the departures of ace Ryan Berry and closer Jordan Rogers, there's enough available talent for Graham to assemble another collection of formidable arms.
Taking that information into consideration, it should shock no one that Graham stacked his 2010 non-conference schedule with a number of quality national programs. At first blush the competition makes one, well, blush. Despite the strong showing Conference USA had in the 2009 NCAA Tournament, the league has not yet earned the national reputation that would benefit a member's ratings percentage index. Factor in the perceived role RPI played in the Owls being shipped to Baton Rouge to face eventual national champion LSU in the Baton Rouge Super Regional, and Graham took the logical step while constructing the '10 schedule
"You can do what some of the other teams do. They're confident that their conference will take care of their RPI," Graham said with a thinly veiled poke at the SEC. "The other thing is I like to play competition. It's a lot of fun to play competition. Sometimes it can be nerve-wracking."
The Owls' nerves are officially on alert. The Owls will make two trips to the West Coast, opening the season with a three-game series at Stanford before returning four weeks later to face San Diego. They will host California, a rising Pac-10 program, for a four-game series and will also grapple with Elon (2009 RPI: 24) and Oklahoma State (RPI: 26), along with state rivals Texas (RPI: 2), Texas A&M (RPI: 18) and TCU (RPI: 8). Toss in Texas State (RPI: 34) and Dallas Baptist (RPI: 40), and the Owls have a schedule that will test their presumed might.
Opening with the Cardinal is the kicker. After dropping season-opening series at Long Beach State in 2008 and Cal Poly last season, the Owls will test their luck again in California. Include unsuccessful trips to Fullerton in 2007 and San Jose State in '05, and the Owls have an ignominious stretch of results going out west. Stanford, added in part to fill a void at the top of the schedule created by the uniform start date, could very easily extend that series losing skid.
"Rather than bring in a weak team and pay them a lot of money, we had
an opportunity to get a home-and-home with Stanford and we decided to
do it," Graham said. "That gives you a little bit of an imbalance (competition-wise), but
it also gives you a very tough RPI schedule.
"I don't think it's a bad idea. Stanford is going to play good ball and they're going to have good pitching. We're going to be on the road so it should have a tendency to focus our guys on the fact that they'd better be ready if you're going to open up with that kind of team. This is not supposed to be a down year for Stanford; this is supposed to be an up year compared to some of the years they've had recently."
No matter the level of expectations emanating from Stanford, the Cardinal will certainly offer a far stiffer challenge for the Owls than Central Missouri State did when the Mules played the role of opening-weekend punching bag over a three-year stretch beginning in 2005. Those contests, which Rice won by an aggregate score of 19-2, enabled the Owls to ease into their seasons, two of which ended with their participating in the College World Series in Omaha.
But most everyone would agree that these intersectional battles are far sexier, and while the season is filled with twists and turns, how the Owls perform early against the heavyweights dotting their schedule could give an indication of exactly where they are headed come June. And given the Owls' recent history of brilliance, performing in June is the paramount goal.
Junior libero Tracey Lam
had no desire to turn her return to the Bay Area into a triumphant procession. Given everything she had accomplished in two successful seasons at Rice, Lam deserved a gaudy celebration, something akin to Commodus' entering of Rome in Gladiator
She wanted no part of the spotlight. But sensing the moment, Owls volleyball coach Genny Volpe presented Lam with the first serve last Friday against San Diego State at the USF/Asics Challenge in San Francisco. When Lam, a 2007 graduate of Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep in San Francisco, took note of the friends, extended family, past teammates and former coaches in the stands who were breathless with anticipation, she felt the nerves tingling up her spine.
"This was the first time my grandpa and my aunt and uncle had ever seen me play," Lam said. "All of my cousins, they've never watched a real game of volleyball before. I think it's the first game my brother has seen me play as well.
"I was really nervous. Genny made me the first server so I started the game, and I missed my serve. I was really, really nervous because the freshmen, JV and varsity teams from my high school all came to watch. All my high school coaches, my club coaches, my brother's teammates, the boys I used to manage for - pretty much everyone came to watch, and I was really nervous."
Lam could only smile at the memory. The former walk-on turned 2008 Conference USA Libero of the Year, along with Oakland native and senior middle blocker Natalie Bogan
, helped lead the Owls to a sweep of the tournament field that extended their winning streak to six games. As they typically are, Lam and Bogan were integral to the Owls' success, and that they had the chance to shine at home was no coincidence. In fact, it was a product of design by Volpe.
"It really has made me happy to be able to take those players back to their hometown," Volpe said. "Hopefully next year we'll be able to do that for someone like Meredith Schamun - she's from Southern California (Murrieta). It's fun to see the support in the stands; we had so many people at that match supporting Tracey and Natalie and even the Southern California girls.
"It's so much fun to play great competition in a meaningful place. We're not just traveling anywhere to play a team from the Midwest. We're trying to go to competitive places where our players are from, and we're going to continue that as much as we can."
Lam is the quintessential underdog-turned-superstar story. She walked on in 2007 and was named the Owls' Newcomer of the Year after pacing the squad with 499 digs, the second-highest single-season total in program history. As a sophomore she matched the school record of 569 digs set by Yvette Kirk in 2006 en route to claiming the league's top honor at her position, and she began this season with 1,068 digs and well within range of setting a new career standard at Rice. Fittingly, Lam was placed on scholarship prior to this season.
Her return home validated her perseverance. The honors are a reward for her steadfastness.
"I've gotten a lot of praise for working hard and for being brave enough to go for it," Lam said. "I know a lot of people I used to play with in high school aren't playing anymore because, like me, they weren't big enough to get recruited. But they chose to give volleyball up instead of continuing to pursue it like I did, and I've gotten a lot of praise for that, for being brave enough to continue to go for something that I love and not being afraid to get rejected for it."
Bogan initiated her assault on the Rice record book in 2006, earning C-USA All-Freshman Team and Rice Newcomer of the Year honors before garnering All-C-USA second team recognition as a sophomore after leading the Owls with 432 points. The ascension continued in '08 when Bogan paced the team and finished fifth in C-USA in hitting percentage while being named first team All-C-USA. She has amassed 1,014 kills and needs roughly half of the 311 kills she posted as a junior to move into the top 10 on the Owls' career list in that category.
Like Lam, Bogan had a number of friends and extended family in attendance last weekend. She managed her jitters well enough to secure a place on the All-USF/Asics Challenge team.
Thomas Wolfe, it seems, was wrong.
"I was really grateful to Genny and the coaches to schedule that tournament," Bogan said. "At first I was nervous because they had never seen me play and I wanted to make a good impression, but once we started playing I kind of forgot who was watching. But afterward, just hearing them say, 'You did a good job,' that meant a lot to me. Yeah, it was (very gratifying)."
After the wailing and gnashing of teeth had subsided, something surprising jarred my memory while I mentally reviewed the Owls' defensive effort (if it can be called that) against UAB.
More often than during any game I can recall under David Bailiff, the Owls appeared to have shown sound assignment principles against the Blazers. The Owls' tackling was as poor as it appeared because more often than not, they were actually in proper position to make the play. So when Bailiff noted on Monday that video review confirmed what I suspected, all I could do was shake my head in amazement. The Owls were this
close to executing the game plan.
"We had one of our better days of having so few missed assignments and alignments. We had one of our worst days at finishing at the point of attack," Bailiff said during his weekly press conference. "Way too many missed tackles."
Two days after the debacle, Bailiff continued to hammer at his players' passion and willingness to take risks defensively, and as much as he tried to shoulder the blame for their lack of preparation, there is no getting around the fact that the Owls can't play timidly. It cost them dearly against UAB senior quarterback Joe Webb, whose 415 total yards and four touchdowns made him the obvious choice for Conference USA Offensive Player of the Week
"It was hard to watch," Owls sophomore safety Travis Bradshaw said of the gruesome game film. "It really comes down to attitude. A lot of the attitude out there wasn't like it was last year. Our assignments - we knew what we were doing. We just weren't making plays.
"We know that we're better than that. Next week is another opportunity to prove that we're better than that."
Said Bailiff: "We can be a lot better on that side of the football and should be a lot better on that side of the football. They're a prideful bunch, and you'll see a defense that will be greatly improved."
Perhaps Texas Tech, which is annually positioned near the top of the national rankings in total offense with Mike Leach
at the controls, is the wrong opponent to use as a measure for defensive improvement. However, if the Owls simply tackle like FBS athletes, most everyone will be a tad happier. The expectation isn't for a shutout, but rather a defensive effort that can be built upon, one similar to the Owls' performance against UH in the 2008 Bayou Bucket.
The issues on offense aren't so cut and dry. Bailiff was hesitant to roundly applaud Nick Fanuzzi, opting to focus as much attention on his misreads in the running game as his exceptional stewardship of the passing attack. Without disparaging fifth-year senior John Thomas Shepherd, Bailiff made it clear that Fanuzzi was the better quarterback last Saturday by naming him the starter this weekend at Texas Tech. In fact, despite not explicitly saying so, Bailiff effectively put a clock on the quarterback rotation by stating Fanuzzi will remain in the game if, "Nick leads us down the field and we score twice. But I think it's just for the good of this football team that we need to continue that a little longer."
Fanuzzi did err on occasion with the read option, but the only way he will improve in that aspect is through game reps. Now, would Bailiff be prudent in throwing Fanuzzi to the wolves against the Red Raiders and Oklahoma State when he has much more room to develop? No. And with Shepherd providing a welcome change of pace and the potential to eliminate his crippling mistakes in the red zone, there is a justifiable rationale for playing both on Saturday. However, the two-series-per-quarterback rotation should soon go the way of the dodo bird.
"Sometimes you just look at that stat sheet and see Nick was 12 of 20 with a touchdown and 154 yards and everybody wants to say, 'Nick's the guy,'" Bailiff said. "John did a lot of good things in that game, too."
Said senior receiver Toren Dixon: "It's hard for receivers and I know it's tough for those quarterbacks basically playing a series here and there. It takes time. You need reps and you need to be in tune with the game, and coming out every other series makes it hard to get in rhythm."
Sophomore center Keshawn Carrington
had an outstanding debut as a starter, drawing the Blazers offside on three occasions while converting 100 percent of his assignments and snapping accurately in a steady rain. He was deserving of Player of the Game honors, and if the Owls can sort out their glut at tailback and receiver, Fanuzzi and the linemen can start the process of getting the entire offense on the same page. The beauty of having Chase Clement entrenched at quarterback was that the receivers knew his arm angle and where the ball would be delivered. With two quarterbacks attempting to orchestrate the offense, constant adjustments are required of the receivers, many of whom earned their first taste of the spotlight. Perhaps that explains key drops by Luke Willson, Vance McDonald and Derek Clark.
But beyond the solid effort on special teams, Bailiff was pleasantly surprised by the youthful offense. Had the Owls managed to convert those two first-quarter penetrations into the red zone, perhaps the outcome is different. But those failings shouldn't mar an otherwise strong effort by a unit with two new starters on the line, two quarterbacks in relatively foreign roles, and several skill players asked to make significant contributions for the first time. The triplets are sorely missed, but it might not take the Owls too long to reload on offense. Not long at all.
"We're going to get consistently better on that side of the football - fast" Bailiff said. "We're a little better now than I thought we would be."
Back to the defense for a second. The Scott Solomon Experiment
will be shelved, with the junior from San Antonio moving back to his natural position at end this weekend. Perhaps Solomon will get a rep or two inside, but by and large the decision to move him inside to tackle did not pay the sort of dividends Bailiff and the defensive staff had eagerly anticipated.
"I don't know if you're going to see him as much inside anymore because I thought we lost some of what he's been able to do being at defensive end," Bailiff said. "When he played end he got off the ball well because I thought he was very confident, but when we moved him inside sometimes he was late off the football and wasn't as disruptive as we though he would be. So there may be just some special situations where we put him down in there."
Getting senior tackle Chance Talbert, who took eight snaps at UAB, up to speed will only help.
First of all, let me set a scene, for that will go a long way toward explaining why David Bailiff said what he said in the moments after the Owls' humbling 44-24 loss to UAB at Legion Field.
Bailiff stood hunched over a beige table in a nondescript interview room adjoining the Owls' locker room. Seated to his left was senior free safety Andrew Sendejo, who looked every bit like an athlete coming off a 15-tackle effort for a demoralized defense. Seated immediately to Bailiff's right was senior quarterback John Thomas Shepherd, who had Nick Fanuzzi, still dressed in uniform, to his right. They were crowded around that table in that cramped room.
With that image in mind, Bailiff said the following regarding the performances of his quarterbacks and the subsequent evaluation of the two-quarterback system that failed at UAB:
"We have to watch video on that. There's a whole lot of both of them I'm proud about, and I also know that there are things that we're going to have to grow from and improve on."
Bailiff is an astute observer of the game, and he doesn't need film study to verify what his eyes saw on the field. Fanuzzi clearly outplayed Shepherd, so much so that this two-quarterback plan should be shelved immediately. However, Bailiff is too noble to throw Shepherd under the bus, especially with Shepherd sitting right next to him in a room full of reporters. Bailiff knows what must be done, but he wasn't going to discuss that move in a public forum following a loss in which the Owls were exposed at spots beside quarterback.
The numbers are too glaring to ignore. Shepherd, who started the game, and Fanuzzi worked six series apiece discounting the series in which the Owls conceded the final seconds of the first half. Fanuzzi finished one series in which Shepherd was momentarily sidelined by a staggering blow, so I won't reward the subsequent touchdown to either quarterback. What follows are the numbers the offense posted with Shepherd and Fanuzzi at the controls:
Shepherd: 39 plays, 163 yards, three points, two punts, an interception and one missed FG.
Fanuzzi: 38 plays, 248 yards, 14 points, two punts, a fumble and a turnover on downs.
Shepherd, who began his third season in the system, posted a passer rating of 67.29. Fanuzzi, seeing his first action since closing Alabama's blowout victory over Western Carolina two years ago, had a passer rating of 141.18. For someone who hadn't played a meaningful game since high school, Fanuzzi was incredibly poised. His fumble was a product of adrenaline and exuberance, and he learned the lesson to slide once the first down is gained.
"I guess you could say there was a little inexperience going out there," Fanuzzi said. "My (second) drive I made a read and cut it up (the field) and didn't have the ball tucked away."
UAB turned the Fanuzzi turnover into a touchdown and a 20-0 lead, but the Owls squandered their shot when they twice penetrated the red zone only to come away empty in the first quarter. Shepherd nearly threw an interception on the first drive after trying to squeeze a pass to Taylor Wardlow despite the presence of UAB free safety Chase Daniel. That march ended with a blocked field goal, an inexplicable play considering it was only a 23-yard attempt. When the Owls pushed to the Blazers' 3 on their next possession, Shepherd again tried a pass into coverage, and this time Daniel made the interception at the goal line. That error was critical.
"I made a poor decision trying to hit Tyler (Smith) in the flat," Shepherd said. "Obviously you can't do that and expect to score.
"Looking from the pre-snap (read) I felt like I had a good opportunity to get a little pick and have Tyler out there in the flat. I left it a little behind him and probably should have thrown it a little quicker, and the safety was able to cut underneath and get it."
But let's not make too much of the quarterback fiasco. With Texas Tech and Oklahoma State up next, Bailiff might be forced to play both quarterbacks simply to keep Fanuzzi healthy enough for the home opener against Vanderbilt on Sept. 26. The Owls' young, revamped offensive line performed OK, but the expectations are that the Red Raiders and Cowboys will generate far more pressure than the Blazers mustered. If Fanuzzi is the future, Bailiff will need to ensure that he actually has one that includes his standing upright with all his of faculties.
The most egregious misstep was taken by the experienced defense, which instead of carrying the weight while the young offense found its footing, as promised, buckled under the awesome power of UAB senior quarterback Joe Webb, whose No. 5 must have looked twice as big to the Owls who whiffed at his vapor trail and stumbled at his feet. While Webb played the role of Vince Young, the Owls were the USC Trojans in the 2006 Rose Bowl. They missed tackle upon tackle early, and appeared petrified late after Webb embarrassed them repeatedly.
"I'm very disappointed in the way we tackled," Bailiff said. "That's me. I should have done more live scrimmage, I should have put them in more scrimmage situations and made them do more live work. We're going to work extremely hard on fundamentals starting Monday when we go back to practice. This defense has a lot of talent, and we've got to get them playing like it.
"He (Webb) put us on our heels, and instead of risking to be great we turned passive."
It was difficult to determine which was worse: the Owls' paralyzing fear of tackling Webb in the open field, or the Blazers' frequent exploiting of the Owls' secondary with their tight ends. Jeffrey Anderson and Zach Lankford combined for four catches and 100 yards, an average of 25 per reception against a defense that didn't seem to have a clue what was going on about it.
"That was just us not making a play," Sendejo said. "They didn't really come out with anything that we hadn't seen before. It just came down to us not stepping up and making a play.
"We had a good week of practice and we really didn't expect to get gashed like that, especially by the tight ends. We were in position a lot of times, we just didn't make the play. And that's just something we've got to work on next week when we come back on Monday."
Bailiff went on to describe instances where the devil was in the details: junior strong safety Chris Jones failing to turn his head while the ball was in the air on one scoring pass, and defenders peeking into the backfield while UAB receivers streaked past. Bailiff fell on the sword for the players not being prepared to do the little things properly, but the Owls' lack of toughness is their burden to shoulder alone. If they don't want to get embarrassed next weekend in Lubbock, they'd better find a way to bow their necks and come out tackling.
And, it wouldn't hurt to settle on one quarterback once and for all.
BIRMINGHAM - Different locale, same production. Stick with what works.
Labeling season openers 'must-win games' might seem cliche, but take a gander at the Owls' last three openers and note how each performance set the tone for the rest of that season:
2006: UH 31, Rice 30. No one knew what to expect from Todd Graham, the spread offense or the stack defense. And though the Owls lost the Bayou Bucket, their frenetic play and inspiring resilience that memorable evening at The Stadium ultimately became their hallmark, especially down the stretch of the season when they won out to clinch a postseason berth.
2007: $0.05 State 16, Rice 14. Everything that could go wrong did against the Colonels. A lightning delay stymied a potential scoring drive, Chase Clement played arguably the worst game of his career, and David Bailiff took precious few risks in his coaching debut. The Owls traded out of a contest against Oklahoma State to face a beatable FCS team only to stub their toe at home, a harbinger of things to come as the Owls stumbled through the schedule. Clement was erratic, the offense overly conservative, and some were declaring that Bailiff was in over his head on South Main. It took a full calendar year for Bailiff to live down that debacle.
2008: Rice 56, SMU 27. Everyone figured the senior-dominated offense would be good, but who knew it would be that good? The passing attack was awesome, with Clement setting the stage for a phenomenal campaign with his shredding of the Ponies. The defense, while porous, was aggressive, and that subsequently resulted in a season-saving plus-15 turnover margin. When SMU scored, the Owls scored more, and that was a reoccurring theme in 2008.
So, now do you understand how critical Saturday will be? And, to further that argument, the Owls will fly home Saturday night knowing that, starting with Texas Tech on Sept. 12, they'll face six consecutive opponents that participated in the postseason in 2008. Could the Owls take a six-game skid into their C-USA home tilt against UCF on Oct. 24? While improbable it is possible, so a victory over the Blazers would go a long way toward buffering a brutal stretch.
1. Who's Gonna Take the Reps? Both John Thomas Shepherd and Nick Fanuzzi will get snaps at quarterback, but who will take the most? How will the alternation be handled? Will game situations dictate the rotation, or will performance? And, if one quarterback clearly outplays the other, with the competition be settled even with Tech and Okie State up next?
2. Who's Gonna Take the Reps, Part II? If Bailiff wants to make life easy on whomever leads the offense, he'd be wise to ratchet up the rushing attack. How he does that with five tailbacks in the mix will be interesting, especially considering the fact each has a specific skill set. Perhaps Charles Ross and Shane Turner see most of their action returning kicks, but Marcus Knox is by far the best blocker, Jeramy Goodson the best receiver, and starter Tyler Smith the most consistent. And leaving Ross, the lone home-run threat, on the bench would be criminal.
3. Throwing Kitchens At the Blazers. Third-year sophomore safety Randy Kitchens will make his return after sitting out the 2008 season following hip surgery, and the staff isn't easing him back in. Not only is Kitchens the backup to KAT Travis Bradshaw, he serves as the sixth defensive back when the Owls go to their dime package. That's a ton of responsibility for a player who earned precious few snaps as a true freshman making a position switch two years ago. Kitchens has a world of potential, and it seems he'll get a chance to fulfill it in Game 1.
4. Is Scott Solomon the Next John Randle? After opening fall camp getting a noticeable number of reps at defensive tackle, Solomon, an end his first two seasons on campus, moved back to tackle recently. Now, the logic is sound: get the best four linemen on the field in order to keep UAB quarterback Joe Webb corralled. But how many snaps at tackle is too many for Solomon? He is arguably the strongest player on the team, and his fanatical style makes him a candidate to succeed anywhere. But can he be as influential at tackle as he is at end?
5. The Ghost of Bernard Morris Past. Ask the defensive staff who Webb reminds them of among the Owls' most recent opponents, and former Marshall quarterback Bernard Morris is recalled. If Webb tortures the Owls the way Morris did on Oct. 27, 2007, the Owls are in deep trouble. Morris rushed for 120 yards and two touchdowns and passed for 227 yards to lead the Herd to its first victory of that season. Webb is better than Morris, so if the Owls don't want to get steamrolled, they'd better find a way to keep him contained and make him into a passer.
Thoughts? Questions? Concerns?
What follows is a sensible assumption of how you'll consume Rice-UAB on Saturday:
1. Hands are on you Mac/PC/mobile device participating in the live chat at The R.
2. Eyes are focused intently on the action broadcast from Legion Field on CSS or Owl Vision.
3. Ears are locked in on ESPN Radio 97.5 The Ticket
with David Saltzman (Play-by-Play), Nate Griffin (Analysis) and Jorge Vargas (Sideline) completing the orgy of football stimulation.
The Rice Owls Sports Network Countdown to Kickoff begins at 2 with an emphasis on the Owls' offense and defense, UAB quarterback Joe Webb, and conversations with Owls quarterback John Thomas Shepherd and coach David Bailiff as well as Blazers coach Neil Callaway. Also, just past the bottom of the hour, there will be a can't-miss segment entitled "It's OK with MK" where everyone's favorite scribe attempts to provide levity to the most critical game of the season. Well, that is until the Owls take on Vanderbilt at The Stadium on Sept 26.
Additionally, Vargas will tackle Bailiff before he scoots off to the locker room at the half, and he'll have all the postgame reaction as well. Griffin will also share his conversation with Owls volleyball coach Genny Volpe at halftime. So it's me, tons of other audio goodies, and me!
Face it: No matter how confident you may be in this experienced defense, the potential for improvement on special teams, or the uncanny ability of David Bailiff to shed a positive light on the most dreadful scenario, it's difficult to get a read on how the 2009 season will play out. Last season, with Chase Clement, Jarett Dillard, James Casey and a trio of senior offensive linemen in the fold, you at least had an inkling of the offense's prowess. This season? You don't know diddly. Whether or not you want to admit so rests solely on your myopic shoulders.
Will the revamped O-line jell? Will the two-quarterback system work until one candidate rises above the other? Will the tailback quintet combine to produce a formidable running game? Will the young receivers supply quality depth? Will the freshmen on defense sink or swim?
Well, since statistics never lie
, the obvious solution to your concerns is to play a little over/under on the upcoming season. I'll provide 10 numbers with corresponding information and you take the over or under, which should give you a gauge on key aspects of this season.
1. Receptions for Sr. TE/Y-receiver Taylor Wardlow
. Quietly Wardlow enjoyed a terrific camp. His hands were reliable, route running dependable, and maturity apparent. Bailiff loves to chat about the senior rush
, and Wardlow is as good a candidate as any to finally fulfill his potential in his last go-around in a Rice uniform. And, given the absence of Dillard and Casey, the quarterbacks are more apt to spread the wealth, especially in the slot. Of course, Wardlow will begin the season with 32 career catches, so doubling his total might be a bit of a stretch.
2. Combined sacks for Jr. DEs Scott Solomon
and Cheta Ozougwu
. Solomon and Ozougwu combined for 4.5 sacks as freshmen (all by Solomon) and eight sacks last season. Solomon will play the role of John Randle
and man the tackle slot with frequency against UAB, and how that experiment unfolds might impact how often he lines up next to John Gioffre. It seems too conservative to predict that tandem averaging just one sack per game, yet neither has recorded half a dozen sacks by themselves over the first two seasons of their careers.
3. Team rushing yards/game: 146.3
. As most everyone recalls, the Owls were abysmal running the football two seasons ago (110.9 yards/game - ranked 103rd nationally), and a miraculous second-half push last season bumped their average to a respectable 143.7 yards/game, which ranked 63rd of 120 FBS teams. The assumption is that with five tailbacks and a bigger, stronger, faster offensive line, the Owls should strike a more successful run-pass mix. Given their meager to modest history of late, finishing in the top 60 would mark progress.
4. Combined INTs by Soph. CBs Chris Jammer
and Jarret Ben
. In each of the Owls' two seasons under Bailiff and his 4-2-5 defensive scheme, the cornerback with the most interceptions finished with three. Brandon King pulled the trick in 2007, and Chris Douglas shared the team lead with free safety Andrew Sendejo last season. If Jammer and Ben record three apiece that's six, but that would require both to remain healthy and active. It's a safe bet that teams will test the Owls' young corners, especially given the Owls' experience at safety.
5. Touchdown catches by Sr. WR Toren Dixon
. T.D. has been the model of consistency during his career - well, at least in terms of representing the No. 5. He had five receptions as a true freshman in 2006, and five touchdowns grabs in each of the past two seasons. Bailiff has made frequent proclamations that Dixon should double his receptions total (50) from last season, but Dillard never caught 100 passes in a single season. What isn't out of the question is Dixon doubling his touchdown total from last season, which would match his career output.
6. Combined tackles by safeties Andrew Sendejo
and Travis Bradshaw
. If Sendejo meets his average of the past two seasons, campaigns in which he paced the Owls in tackles, he will tally 100 this season and approach the school career mark of 367 held by O.J. Brigance (1987-90). Bradshaw posted 89 tackles, second to Sendejo, despite not joining the starting lineup until midway through last season. The 4-2-5 is designed to funnel ball carriers to the safeties, and under Bailiff the top two safeties totaled 151 tackles in 2007 and 183 last year.
7. Most receptions by a non-senior: 31
. During the Owls' three seasons operating the spread offense, their third leading receiver totaled 31 receptions (Tommy Henderson) in 2006, 46 (Dixon) the following year and 50 (Dixon) last season. The odds are good that Dixon, Wardlow and Corbin Smiter, another senior, will pace the Owls in receptions this season, but who will finish fourth? Junior Patrick Randolph
, who was fourth last season with 16 receptions? RS freshman Derek Clark
, who displayed big-play potential throughout camp? Or one of the freshmen tight ends: Vance McDonald
or Luke Willson
? And, with greater balance in both the passing and rushing attacks, how many balls does that leave for the fourth-leading receiver?
8. Turnover ratio: plus-8
. If it's one thing we've learned as a group watching the Owls the past three seasons it's that turnovers matter. When the Owls went bowling for the first time in a generation in 2006, they finished the season with a plus-8 turnover margin. When the wheels fell off the wagon in their first season under Bailiff, the Owls finished minus-2. Last season, when they won seven consecutive games to close the schedule and posted their first postseason win in eons, they Owls finished at an astonishing plus-15. If they are that good again, they'll be back in the postseason, but that is a gaudy number for a 12-game schedule.
9. Rushing yards for Sr. QB John Thomas Shepherd
. No way the offense needs Shepherd to run as often as Clement did over his final two seasons (1,228 yards and 20 TDs), right? If Shepherd rushed for half the total Clement averaged over that span, it means he's played well enough to remain a viable part of the offense, yet the Owls have rightfully relied on their collection of tailbacks. If Shepherd approaches 500 rushing yards, either the tailbacks failed to meet expectations, or the other
quarterback dropped out of the lingering competition.
10. Passing yards for Soph. QB Nick Fanuzzi
. Jeez, where does one begin here? Will Fanuzzi see enough action to pass for the average of Clement's sophomore season plus half his passing yards as a junior and senior? Does he play well enough early to win the job outright and pass for 2,000 yards while still leaning on the potentially competent tailbacks? Or does he exceed these modest expectations and burn porous C-USA defenses for 3,000 yards? Where is the middle ground for a quarterback who is alternating snaps with another?
"Do not gloat over me, my enemy! Though I have fallen, I will rise. Though I sit in darkness, the Lord will be my light."Micah 7:8
needed something extra to propel him through the laborious weightlifting sessions and excruciating conditioning exercises he had to endure if he wanted to reach his goal. The sheer magnitude of his will, irrepressible as it might be, would not suffice this time.
Team physicians gave Talbert a mid-September target for his return from early-April right ankle surgery, and in typical Talbert fashion he dismissed any suggestion that called for him to miss games. Talbert had every intention of playing defensive tackle against UAB the opening Saturday of the season, and the only way he could shave two weeks off the original prognosis was to work like never worked before. That task required inspiration of biblical proportions.
"I've been down a billion times in my life and had to climb back up," Talbert said, referencing the Old Testament scripture tattooed on his back. "The mental part was nothing to me because I've got great people on my side keeping me up, and the desire to get back on the field."
Those "great people" - head coach David Bailiff and strength and conditioning coach Jared Kaaiohelo - unconditionally pledged their support to Talbert because Talbert showcased a relentless commitment to rehab. Under normal circumstances Kaaiohelo is concerned about the psyche of a rehabbing athlete, but Talbert attacked the chore with such vigor Kaaiohelo was forced to shift his focus to keeping Talbert reined in and on a proper recovery schedule.
Because Talbert had a lower extremity injury, he dropped weight during the summer. Thanks in small part to an illness, Talbert opened camp at 247 pounds, roughly 30 pounds shy of his desired weight for the opener. Kaaiohelo carefully monitored Talbert as he first addressed recovering his range of motion in his ankle while attempting to add bulk. That was a delicate process, but one Talbert worked through while also charging into his conditioning reps.
When Kaaiohelo pushed, Talbert requested more. Hurdles were cleared and Talbert kept pursuing his goal. Small movements, balance, single-leg strength work, then both legs in concert proceeded exercises taxing lateral quickness both in the weight room and on the field. Kaaiohelo grew confident that Talbert would regain the weight, but he wanted to make sure that Talbert gained strength and cardiovascular power along with the girth. No problem.
"We were smart because we didn't rush it, but then again he's back ... ahead of schedule because of the work that he put in," Kaaiohelo said. "He believed in what we were doing - we spent a lot of time with him. But he was the one who put the work in. He was the one who would come ask us what he could do. He has a lot of energy, we just had to channel that in the right direction."
Kaaiohelo was sensitive to the fact that Talbert was entering his senior season. If Bailiff had any doubts as to how much participating in the opener meant to Talbert, they were dismissed as Talbert worked feverishly on the sideline during camp while constantly seeking reassessments. When Talbert said he would play against the Blazers, he obviously meant it.
"He's got Brian Raines. He's willed himself healthy," Bailiff said of the former Rice linebacker who twice returned from career-ending injuries. "It's amazing when a young man is that dedicated to get back what can happen. He made it very clear to the doctors, the trainers, the coaches that his goal was the first game, and you were either with him or against him. He didn't want to hear any of this third game stuff, and he's really dedicated himself to the cause. I am really proud of him. He has actually been an inspiration to a lot of people on this football team."
Talbert eclipsed the 270-pound plateau last week, was cleared for full participation over the weekend, and practiced against full contact for the first time on Monday. He strung together a half-dozen reps without a break and has Bailiff aiming for 20-30 snaps out of his honorable mention all-conference lineman. If Talbert can contribute against UAB, it would be a boon to a line inexperienced at tackle and rebounding from the unexpected loss of end Arnaud Gascon-Nadon. Plus, any help against UAB quarterback Joe Webb would be appreciated.
Webb, it seems, provided Talbert initial motivation. The prophet Micah helped him get over the hump.
"As soon as we left the Texas Bowl I was thinking about Joe Webb. That's all I thought about," Talbert said. "All I think about is different pass rush moves, different ways to tackle Joe Webb. I just want it. It's fun to me.
"For so long I haven't been a football player, and now I'm a football player again and it's the best feeling I can have. I get to be myself."