The Gifted & The Grinder

| 4 Comments | No TrackBacks
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."

No TrackBacks

TrackBack URL:


Nice piece, MK. Nordstrom's is a great story.

What did the coaches think of some of their other defensive changes, particularly the performances of Gaines and Briggs?

Will the success of Charles Ross in the short yardage situations translate to more PT out of the normal offense?

At Ease: You know, I didn't ask specifically about Gaines and Briggs; I'll have to do that tomorrow. As for Ross, I hope so. He HAS to play more. - MK

MK -- You mention Fanuzzi's shoulder injury near the end of your post -- do we know any more about the extent of it or the prognosis?

karrief: A grade-1 separation with a day-to-day prognosis. - MK

Any word on the expected crowd this Saturday? The weather should be great but I'm guessing that the UofH game will siphon off the limited pool of casual college football fans in the area.

Owl-88: The fact that a story broke about students camping out to procure Tech-UH tickets doesn't bode well for Vanderbilt-Rice drawing much casual interest. I'll ask around on ticket sales for the home opener. - MK

Hey MK,

I know you said that Fanuzzi was day-to-day with his shoulder sprain (grade 1 separation, whatever). I was just curious if the coaches had set a day this week that he needed to be able to participate in practice if he was going to play this Saturday. Or, is this going to be a game time decision sort of thing?


d1owls4life: If Fanuzzi doesn't practice on Thursday, I can't imagine that he will play against the Commodores. Friday the Owls conduct a generic walk-through, and by the way he looked on Tuesday, I doubt that Fanuzzi will practice this afternoon. It comes as a bit of bad timing that the Owls could be down four offensive starters (Fanuzzi, Smith, Parish and Hicks) for their home opener against Vanderbilt. - MK

Leave a comment





  • Loading Tweets...
    1 second ago