Owls-Commodores: A Deconstruction

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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.

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Once we get the QB situation settled, these things will fall into place. Vanderbilt did have good coverage, but we also had guys open yesterday that the QB's either didn't find or couldn't get a catchable ball to. If you can't complete those, the short passing routes and running game are never going to open up. The result as we saw last night, was ugly.

I think most of these receivers are more than athletic enough to succeed in this system. When does Hotard return?

Hopefully upon examination of the game film, the Owl QB's will realize those RB's wide open in the flat are eligible receivers. Would be nice to see some two-back sets to open up some more options. Turner needs to get more open field touches than what he's allowed on kickoffs.

At Ease: Hotard might be back for Navy. And I, too, am in favor of some two-back sets. Anything to add some versatility to this inconsistent offense. - MK

Pretty good summation MK. I think most of us would have felt better if our offense had struggled due to Vandy's D while we were running something that looked like last years game plan. It's hard watching UH, Tech, Tulsa, and just about everyone else recruit to a system and work the players into it. With us once again we are trying to invent an offense for the players we have and it hasn't worked.

The play calling was as predictable as the late Hatfield years and some of us older folks were commenting that it seemed to be "flashback night" to the offenses of Bo Hagan and Jerry Berdnt.

Loved the hitting by the D once the shackles were removed after the first Vandy TD but with the O converting only 3 of 18 third downs it was just a matter of time before the D was gassed.

I'm not ready to bail on the WRs, MK, nor do I think you're necessarily painting an accurate picture.

There were numerous occasions where receivers broke open last night but the QBs just simply failed to make the play. One that stands out was Roddy Maginot breaking open for a touchdown only to have JT-S lob up an ugly duck of a pass that would make an intramurals crowd shudder. Another was Ryan Lewis' strange collapse (without being touched) and subsequent 15 yards short pass that was picked intended for a Rice receiver running a corner route who was plenty open for a ~30 yard gain. To speak to your crossing routes point, which I agree with by the way (but where are the quick slants? we have plenty of WR talent to execute quick slants, nothing is easier), Wardlow was open a few times across the middle only to have the ball thrown too late by the QB leading to either a contested drop or a pass deflection.

Denzel Wells is talented, but hurt, which sucks because he would definitely be helping right now. Pat Randolph can stretch the field, and he has taken the top off of the defense a few times this year, but we've yet to have a QB capable of getting it to him (maybe if Fanuzzi can stay in a game for more than a few series at a time we will see that). Toren Dixon can run short and intermediate routes well and shield defenders, you know full well the talents of VMcD and Luke Willson as well as Clark's raw ability. Things aren't so dire there. Maginot is good too, he hasn't had many opportunities to show it though, remember at one point last season he was almost starting as a true freshman. Patterson, Gautreaux and Moore haven't had any chances yet really, so noone can say whether or not they have the stuff to be successful at this level.

The disaster we saw out there in the 2nd half was all about the QB position. Both a lack of talent and preparedness and a lack of confidence in the available players by the OC. Shepherd, I'm afraid to say, just isn't a D-1A spread quarterback. He's not and never was going to be (which concerns me as to what the coaches ever thought they saw to put him on the same tier with Fanuzzi). He lacks the requisite arm strength, and if that wasn't enough to render him incapable, he also shows no decisison making ability in the passing game. His first interception vs. Vandy was vintage early UAB game debacle. All kinds of time to throw and survey the field and he just throws it directly into the pads of a defender without any Rice player in the vicinity. I don't care if the receiver did foul up his route a bit, that's just plain bad. Lewis has potential, but he's not ready for this yet, he rushed things, and he didn't have a developed pocket presence. He also seemed unwilling to go through much of a progression in terms of targets, which is understandable at this point.

EZ's game plan was very conservative, and to a degree that was justified given what the QBs have shown. Bailiff mentioned to Vargas at half-time (and I'll paraphrase): "we've been limited on offense in this first half because of who we've had in there (read as JT Shepherd), and now we've got a little something and we plan to open it up a bit in the 2nd half (read as we are going to take the training wheels off of Lewis). Sure enough Lewis botched his chance and threw a pick and the offense went back to hyper conservative mode and yet the QBs continued to produce turnovers.

Save us, Nick Fanuzzi.

Talon: I respectfully disagree regarding the receivers (not counting the talented young tight ends, BTW). Outside of Clark (unproductive) and Wells (injured), I just don't see much physical talent. I sincerely hope that mine is faulty evaluation. - MK

Wow, that's a major downer spin on our receivers. However, the spread is supposed to make a productive offense without superstar athletes even in the skill positions. It will succeed more readily with the starts, but even mediocre guys who buy into the system and execute can make the plays. So if there's a commitment to getting these guys trained up in the system they and the offense can be successful.

Owl-88: I agree. But you have to admit there is a serious talent drop off after Dixon (again, discounting the tight ends). Bailiff has done a fine job recruiting generally speaking, but he and his staff need to step their game up at receiver. I just don't feel all that confident about that position next season. Perhaps it's just me. - MK

I actually agree with you about the WR recruiting looking present and future. I am concerned right now about that position in the 2010 class. We need at least 2 receivers, and tall, good ones, no more of these smurfs of the past 2 classes. And as of right now, the coaches are going to have to pull some rabbits out of the hat to make that happen on signing day, which concerns me a good bit. We have a few guys who fit the bill offered, but they've also been offered by all of the Big 12.

As far as the past recruits, these guys aren't and weren't scrubs:

Gautreaux and Moore from the 2009 class are very different animals as WR prospects. Gautreaux is an overachiever technician type without great physical gifts (5-11 with 4.5ish speed) but great technique, good hands and tremendous HS productivity against even the best programs (I believe he had like 400 total yards against La Marque one year). Gautreaux will be good here too. Moore on the other hand is the UH type receiver recruit. He's a track guy first. Raw as heck as a receiver but with speed you can't coach and decent height (6-1) and long arms. Get back to me in 2-3 years and he could be lighting it up as a deep threat.

Out of the '08 class Wells was the gem on signing day. He's got legit 4.35 speed, he's jacked, and based on his fall camp performance, he's figured out how to catch the ball and play WR. Maginot was the most heavily recruited (big 12 offers, also BYU), but he's of the Gautreaux mold, and needs a good QB to be effective. Clark is a late bloomer, but I feared when I heard about his good play in fall camp that it would be slow to translate to the field on Saturdays, so I'm not too surprised by that. He was never better than a 3rd option even in highschool (he played with Maginot, who got most of the touches, and also another smurf sized playmaker on that Bowie team), so give him some time to get used to being a playmaker at the D1 level. Patterson, well, he's the son of a current coach, don't know what I can tell you on that one. Most thought he'd be placed at CB when he was signed. But then again he impressed in Spring camp.

From '07, we should have recruited more receivers, but TG screwed us out of that. Losing Fuda really hurt more than I think anybody realized. He was a 5A all-state talent in football that had all the tools to destroy in CUSA, but it's easier to stay healthy and pursue the pros in baseball than as a 5-11 white receiver. The other guys you listed I'm not holding my breath on. Dupree was supposed to be an LB originally, he ran a 4.7 in HS. Honestly I was surprised how quickly he made it into the playing line-up at WR. Kitchens is to this point a misfit, but hey maybe he'll blossom at WR, he has size and athleticism, who knows on his hands at this point. Hotard is an H-Back, he has solid hands though.

All this analysis just reiterates the coaches really need to try and find some gems to sign in the '10 class. But I think it also shows that the cupboard isn't bare, there is some good, coveted talent in that group. And as 88 says, you don't really need a ton of talent at WR to have a productive spread offense, you just need 3-4 solid ones, and since we have 3 good TEs, we really only need 3 good-solid WRs. Right now I think we have that in Randolph, Dixon and a healthy Smiter. But honestly I'd like to see DC become the #2 Wide Receiver.

Talon: I knew you would see things my way ;-)

But seriously, Maybe the '09 class gets a boost when Kubiak arrives. You and I both like Wells, but he's not healthy so it's hard to guarantee that he'll be the player we both hope he becomes. And without Fuda, we're still waiting for someone from that '07 group to distinguish himself. The clock is ticking ... - MK

MK, your analysis is spot-on regarding receiving talent but I must also agree to everyone else's analysis of the QB play. I thought Ryan looked better out there and would like to see him get more of a chance to get into a groove in practice this week if Nick is out. He needs to develop that pocket timing and rhythm. If we are in a building phase, we need to get Nick and Ryan more looks and give fewer to JT. That may be harsh for John Thomas but we don't have the luxury for him to develop - he has to be able to play well NOW because any development investment in a 5th yr Senior is wasted effort.

Regardless of who's out there, there needs to be more creativity in play calling - not enough pass/run mix and not enough pass plays to deliver the ball quickly.

On the defensive side, great overall effort but it's hard with the depth we don't currently have to keep that up for 60 minutes. This would have been a much different second half if the O could have moved the ball.

Another huge improvement was special teams. Great punting and coverage performance to keep Vandy deep in their own territory, not to mention Andrew almost breaking loose on the punt return late in the game.

wiessguy: Oh, I agree about the quarterbacks - they were terrible. Lewis looked fine until he got hit in the mouth a few times. After that he started to flinch and rush, and he appeared to be weighing two options: more licks to his chops by bigger, stronger, faster defenders, or The OG berating him for failing to hit the cutoff man on a throw from right field. The second option is much more appealing. - MK

MK, are we going to hear an update about Fanuzzi today? Hopefully he can get going in practice this week. Otherwise, you need to pick one of the other 2 and let him be the guy. This rotating QBs BS just doesn't work. There is no rhythm to it. Personally, I'd let Lewis get a shot at it.

d1owls4life: Bailiff gets the weekly injury report at 3, but I won't hear anything until practice tonight. I'll be sure to tweet what I see when the Owls take to the field. - MK

Ok, great. Thanks MK.

Regarding Lewis, he did get jumpy back there in the pocket. The drive where he led us down for Fang's FG, he was on the ground after every throw. He definitely took it for the team there just to get us moving. After a while, yeah, you just get happy feet a la David Carr after you get whacked like that and you haven't played much the last 2 years. If he had to play this week, I would expect improvement from him. I just think he has the better tools than Shep from what I could see on Saturday, but I could be wrong.

d1owls4life: No, you are right. He does have superior tools, and if Fanuzzi doesn't = the Black Knight, Lewis should start and play as long as the O-line keeps him upright against the Golden Hurricane. Ah, a David Carr reference. Thanks! - MK

MK -- Nice article on the mother site about JD and Thor -- thanks. I laughed out loud at JD's first quote. It is too bad about Chase -- he should have given the CFL a longer chance.

Owl-1983: Thanks. What's funnier is that when Casey stood up by his locker to chat with me, I was taken aback by how broad he is through the chest. I think he's been working out, but I could be wrong on that one. As for Chase, he wanted to play 'real football' - I think that was the quote - so he had rational reasons for abandoning the CFL. He deserves his shot in the NFL, and I sincerely hope he gets it one day. - MK

I agree with MK about the WRs. We have a lot of scholarships at the position, and none of them are getting open regularly. Many have mentioned that we didn't force Vandy to respect the deep ball, but the one time we threw long they had two DBs all over Maginot.

I appreciate Bailiff's candor on the subject. At this point a sugar coat would do no good.

I can understand the rationale for scaling back the offense, but clearly it hasn't worked. Our playbook, which seems to consist of the zone read, the double option, the WR screen for no gain, and the desperate chuck under heavy pressure, needs to diversify no matter who is in the game.

I wouldn't call the defense brilliant. No, the offense didn't help them out, but as I said on the chron blog, good defenses get themselves off the field. The bottom line is that we gave up 36 points and 484 yards to a bad offense.

On the plus side, our special teams were our best in a long time.

Gothic R: I respectfully disagree about the defense. It allowed one touchdown over the first 72 plays and three touchdowns over the final 12. That's fatigue, and I won't let that erase what I witnessed with my own eyes - an absolutely brilliant effort. - MK

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