October 2009 Archives
Their smiles came easy and shamelessly, connoting a calm and confidence not seen in these parts since Michael Harris, Jason McKrieth and Morris Almond shared one roster and one basketball. Senior guards Cory Pflieger
and Cliff Ghoram
haven't experienced much winning in recent years, yet they firmly believe that this season the Owls will rise again, not like The South
, but like an ascending hoops program on the cusp of something special if not seismic.
A winning season on South Main has eluded both, with the Owls' most enriching effort during their eligibility coming via a 16-16 mark in 2006-07 when Pflieger was a sophomore and Ghoram a freshman. The last two seasons have been particularly miserable relative to W's and L's, the cumulative victory total conjuring memories of a horrid stretch a generation ago.
The Owls were 13-49 from 2007-09, the two seasons that bridged the unceremonious conclusion to the Willis Wilson era and the dawn of the Ben Braun regime. Their overall winning percentage (.210) was reminiscent of the 1977-78 and 1978-79 campaigns when the Owls won just 11 of 53 games, good for 20.8 percent of their contests. As Jimmy Carter conceded to Ronald Reagan, the Owls were mercifully closing a nine-year span where they failed to win more than 10 games in any single season and finished just 24.3 percent of their games with more points than their foes, shuffling through three coaches (Don Knodel, Bob Polk and Mike Shuler) while posting a 24-112 (.176) record in Southwest Conference action.
While two sub-11-win seasons does not equal nine, one can take only so much of displacements and firings and injuries and transitions before the thirst for triumph overwhelms.
"We've been through ups and downs," said Pflieger, a fifth-year senior. "We've been through the facilities, we've been through the coaching changes, we've all had our personal issues as far as injuries. This year we have all the pieces to the puzzle that are necessary to be a good team.
"We improved last year from the year before and we feel like we're going to improve dramatically this year from the time that we've spent working over the summer to the time we put into the weight room and put into our skill work. Everybody has been working and nobody has felt so selfish that they didn't feel like they needed to work. Everybody is buying in to what we have here, and I feel that this is probably the best team overall since I've been here."
Better than the 2006-07 Owls
who won two games at the Conference USA tournament? Only time will tell, but with so much promise (intangible) and dramatically improved depth (tangible), can the Owls shoot for a second consecutive seven-win improvement? If the Owls are to post 17 victories in 2009-10, they'll have to finish above .500 against a non-conference schedule
that features Arizona, Texas and LSU, but also showcases Furman (2008-09 RPI: 332), McNeese State (RPI: 298) and Santa Clara (RPI: 198). A sweep of the season-opening Rice Basketball Challenge (Sacramento State, South Alabama and HBU are on the docket) would set a positive tone, and another C-USA tournament triumph would greatly aid the bottom line.
How the Owls navigate the conference slate will be key. They improved by four games in league play last season, with another similar victory leap meaning a .500 finish in C-USA. The Owls could very easily drop their opening two home league games (against UH and Memphis), so they would need to swipe two on the road to remain even. At Tulane on Jan. 13? At SMU on Feb. 17? Those dates seem so far away, but the prospects exist nonetheless.
What the present reveals are two veterans undeterred by accumulated setbacks and refreshingly optimistic at what lies ahead. Given all they've endured, from home games on the road to coaching purges to surgical procedures and subsequent rehabilitation, who will stand in the way of their earnest hope for a bright future? If they believe, perhaps they will achieve.
"I'm ecstatic about it, honestly," Ghoram said. "This is about the team, especially as I've matured and gotten an understanding of the things we've been through. You just want to be successful and do whatever it takes to help the team, whether it's me getting assists and those guys knocking down the shots or helping the team out in any way that's for the betterment of Rice.
"I want us to do well as a team, and it takes everyone to be on the same page. I just want to make sure that, as a leader on the team, we're all going towards that."
While someone as connected and respected in coaching circles as Ben Braun
doesn't need anyone to fight his battles for him, he made a solid point regarding the NCAA rule prohibiting coaches from teaching or supervising their players during the summer. In theory the restriction has some merit because, truth be told, coaches habitually step over the line with regards to player interaction, and if allowed to coach players year-round they would do precisely that while making participation mandatory for student-athletes deserving of the occasional break.
However, observation, if properly regulated, could prove harmless to the student-athlete and beneficial to the coaching staff, especially one in the position of Braun and his assistants. Braun is attempting to blend six newcomers, including five true freshmen, into his roster this preseason, an arduous process for any coach, even a vet with Braun's sterling track record.
"It's going to take some time for our team to find that identity and maybe to settle into and accept roles," Braun said. "We're experimenting right now with a couple guys who are playing more than one position, and I think that's a plus for our team. We've got a number of guys on the team that can play what I call combo positions, either combo guard positions - guys that are playing both point guard and off-guard - and we've got some forwards that are playing both strong forward and big wings. And that's kind of a luxury for us now. The sooner we get to who's playing where and how well they're playing at those positions the better.
"You really have to take this preseason, whether it's intrasquad scrimmages, it's closed-door scrimmages, it's our exhibition game or early non-conference games, really to settle in to see how well our team adapts to that. It's something our team is going to need to settle into, and that will take some time. It's something you really don't know until you get into a game, but at least we've got those options, and I like the fact that we're able to at least look at those options. Last year we really didn't have those options."
As is his custom, Braun was purposely coy when discussing which players could fill his 'combo' roles, but in all likelihood freshman Tamir Jackson
and sophomore Lucas Kuipers
are the leading candidates. Jackson has flashed the floor generalship to handle the duties of a lead guard, even as a freshman, and while his shooting touch isn't exceptional, Jackson is accurate enough that he shouldn't be left unchecked on the perimeter. Jackson can score in a pinch, but he also appears to take pride in putting his teammates in an advantageous position.
Kuipers averaged 8.8 points and 3.8 rebounds during his injury-shortened freshman campaign, and he is certainly capable of improving upon both averages. While he is best suited as a face-up shooter - Kuipers converted 37.5 percent of his 3-pointers last season - Kuipers can score with his back to the basket, and he is long enough at 6-8 to rebound with the authority of a part-time power forward so long as he is committed to the task. His potential to play both forward positions would appear contingent upon the opposition's personnel, but at this stage of development Kuipers is the most versatile of the Owls' varied frontcourt players.
Back to this past summer: The cohesion process was significantly advanced by the presence of the entire squad minus freshman forward Arsalan Kazemi, who was busy captaining Iran's Under-19 team at the FIBA World Championships in New Zealand. Not only were bonds developed during conditioning sessions, the Owls learned to play with one another in open gym, discovering strengths, weaknesses and tendencies that help teams jell. Kazemi filled out the roster in early August, and it didn't take long for Kazemi to be enveloped after he arrived.
The Owls devised and implemented an additional aid to facilitate camaraderie - team meetings.
"Something that we started doing is having meetings every week as a team, and we talk about the mental aspect (of the game) and dealing with egos, attitudes and having everyone come together and work toward the same goals so that we can work together as a true team," Owls senior swingman Cliff Ghoram said. "That's what it takes, and I think that is helping us."
The relationship between the old and the new has become symbiotic. The upperclassmen provide leadership and guidance; the freshmen youthful exuberance and a competitive spirit in practice sorely lacking last season. Those who suffered through the Owls' three-win season two years ago have been rejuvenated by the enthusiasm of the freshmen while the newbies have come to accept the advice dispensed by the veterans who have been around the block.
One elderstatesman has had the unenviable position of watching the jelling unfold from the sideline while he rehabilitates a dislocated kneecap. From his vantage point he has witnessed some early and expected struggles on the court, but overall he likes what he's seen thus far.
"Progress is being made in a positive way," Owls senior guard Cory Pflieger said. "When the freshmen come in they've got to adapt to a whole new team, but since they were here this whole summer that blending process is shortened. We can actually get there (to a legitimate team dynamic) before the first game of this season. We know our roles, we know what each person can bring (and) trust each other and what they can do, and since everybody bought in and stayed over the summer, that (cohesion) is going to be there before the first game."
You examined the box score
and perused the live chat
, now read what The OG had to say about the Owls' 14-6, 14-inning win over Southland foe Texas State this Sunday at The Reck:OFFENSE:
Jr. SS Rick Hague (0-for-2, two runs) and So. 3B Anthony Rendon (1-for-2, run, RBI) combined to draw six walks, putting the onus on cleanup hitter Diego Seastrunk and Steven Sultzbaugh, batting fifth, to make the Bobcats pay. GDG and Sultz combined for seven RBIs in eight at-bats, delivering quality production that should make opponents reconsider pitching around Rendon. That Rendon was so patient wasn't much or a surprise (he led the Owls with a .461 on-base% as a freshman), but getting three walks out of Hague, who walked only 22 times in 61 games in 2009, reinforces the belief that his plate discipline has improved.
So. OF Jeremy Rathjen finished 3-for-5 with two runs and an RBI, and one of the two times he was retired came on a titanic blast that drove the center fielder back to the warning track. Rathjen smacked an RBI double the opposite way to right field off a righthanded pitcher, and along with Sultzbaugh, offered hope that he might not be an easy out when pitched outside.
"He even had a better day than it looked on paper," The OG said of Rathjen. "That was a good thing that Jeremy broke out like that."DEFENSE:
So much for worrying about Fr. 2B Michael Ratterree making the transition from shortstop. He started three double plays, including a nifty recovery on a ground ball that ate him up. Ratterree picked the ball out of his gut and completed a pirouette before firing to Hague, who tagged second and completed the play with an accurate toss to Jimmy Comerota at first base. When J.T. Chargois spelled Ratterree at second, he made a good play on a difficult grounder, increasing the likelihood he could play the position if the Owls faced a tough righthander with a plus breaking ball. Chargois is a switch hitter; Ratterree bats righthanded.
Oddly, Comerota committed the lone error of the day for the Owls. The OG isn't concerned.
"We got one error from a guy that won't make them in the regular season," The OG said. "It's obvious that Jimmy Comerota really helps our infielders when he plays first."
The Bobcats did not attempt to steal a base, so GDG, Craig Manuel and Geoff Perrott had relatively uneventful days behind the dish. As for handling the staff, they did so with aplomb. PITCHING:
At the worst, every Rice pitcher threw 'solid' with several - Jared Roger, Tyler Duffey and Chargois in particular - building on solid camp performances. Rogers worked two scoreless innings to pick up the victory while Duffey posted three strikeouts and topped out at 92 mph. A communication error resulted in Chargois surrendering one run in his inning of work, but he continues to display the stuff and makeup of a back-of-the-bullpen contributor.
JUCO transfers Boogie Anagnostou (2 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 1 BB) and Tony Cingrani (2 IP, 1 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 1 K) encountered trouble, but The OG wasn't startled. Duffey appeared tentative initially, but once he got hit bit, he bore down and showcased his fastball and competitiveness.
"The guys that got hurt pitching got hurt for the reasons that we illustrated they would get hurt if they don't correct that," The OG said. "When they made pitches we told them to try to avoid or in areas we told them they've got to avoid at this level, they got hurt.
"Duffey looked good. You've got to believe that Duffey is going to have a significant role."
The pitchers did as instructed relative to holding runners on base. That detail paled in comparison to another stellar outing from Jr. LHP Doug Simmons, who struck out four in two innings. The Bobcats' lefthanded batters had no prayer against Simmons' breaking stuff, and the righties had difficulty picking up his change-up. For Simmons, it was par for the course.
"Of course Simmons was a highlight - he was really good," The OG said. "He was hitting with three good pitches going up to 91 miles an hour.
"Simmons right now would have ... a dominant role. He threw change-ups that nobody could have hit the other day. They would have been really good change-ups in the major leagues. When I see a pitch that I couldn't hit in my prime, I figure that's pretty good."
RHPs Matthew Reckling and Tyler Spurlin and LHP Abe Gonzales did not pitch against Texas State, but figure to have "significant roles" over the final two weeks of fall ball and next spring.
"It's going to take a while to get all that pitching settled in," The OG said. "We've got some guys that are throwing pretty good, and a lot of guys that go to 91 with good stuff. Duffey, Chargois, McDowell, Spurlin - those are guys we can work with. Basically the ones that refine a little bit are going to be the ones that pitch, and that's going to be refining right up to March 1st or even beyond."
I would be remiss to allow former Rice AD Chris Del Conte to leave without answering a few queries. Consider this an exit interview with the man who 'got 'er done' more often than not.
Q: Rice offered you your first job in the No. 1 chair. What did you glean from your experience as Rice athletic director that was beneficial in advance of your preparation to lead at TCU?
A: Not to overreact. As you get more seasoned you realize that the sun will come up tomorrow. I made many, many mistakes every single day, but one of the things you realize is not to overreact, just to get all the facts, sit and then make a decision. I always strive for perfection; I always want everything to be absolutely perfect. I fretted on every little detail that sometimes, upon reflection, I could have handled it a little different.
I worked for a great guy in (Arizona AD) Jim (Livengood) that put me in a position where I was in a leadership role overseeing sports. I had overseen so many things there so I always had that. The difficult thing coming here was the buck stops with you, and you have to learn that how you react to people has a ripple effect, and that ripple effect goes far beyond your reach or knowledge base at times. When you're No. 2 there's always someone behind you that's going to make that final call. When it's you, every time that pebble hits the water it's a ripple effect, and you just don't know where it's going to go. You constantly think, 'How is this decision going to effect this, this, this and this?'
Q: You hired David Bailiff (football), Ben Braun (men's basketball) and Elizabeth Schmidt (women's tennis). Do you take umbrage with your reputation as a 'fundraising' administrator?
A: No, because I think that's all they are going to judge you on. You're supposed to be the wind beneath the wings of coaches - that's our job. When they succeed it's their success; it should never be about my success. When they fail it should be about me. One of the things you're supposed to do is go in, raise the money, unite people, galvanize them toward a direction, and let your coaches do what they do best and coach.
Once you hire them they still have to have all the tools necessary to be successful. How many coaches did they go through at the University of Texas before they hired Mack Brown? Three, and you can say the same thing about USC and their football program. There's not a magic formula for hiring coaches. You try to hire the very best coach you can for that position, but the reality is did you give them all the tools necessary to be successful?
If you know me you would probably realize that I would be known internally as a guy that loves the kids. Every student knows me, I know them all by first name, they come to say 'hello' to me. People on the outside are going to see me for what we've been able to accomplish externally, but if you were to ask a coach or student-athlete what they thought, I'm hoping they would say that I care for them and I love them and I genuinely care about their well-being. But (outside) people don't see that, and I understand that.
Q: What do you feel that you accomplished in your three-plus years as Rice athletic director?
A: I haven't looked at it from a reflection standpoint. The students at Rice are amazing. They're really great people and they're going to do great things in society. I'm hoping that people realize that it takes an entire engine to make the village go, just not one individual. We were very fortunate to come and be able to do the things that we were doing because the people that are associated with this institution truly believe in Rice athletics and are very giving and very generous, and it's been wonderful to see that.
You're always going to have those great feelings because it was your first time to be able to put your thumbprint down and look back and enjoy the successes of going to two bowl games, going to Omaha twice, watching our cross country team win the regional and go to nationals, and our tennis team go to the field of 32. We celebrated those successes in a great fashion and with great fanfare, and you're going to say, 'God, wasn't it a magical time?'
Q: The end zone facility at Historic Rice Stadium and the 2011 Final Four were two of your pet projects. Any regrets about leaving before you could see either project through to completion?
A: You can never control timing. I am really happy that the city of Houston will have the FInal Four twice, (and) I'm excited that Rice will be a part of it. You work your tail off to ensure that you are a part of that process, so I'm happy for that. As far as football is concerned, I'm excited about where the program is going. David Bailiff is a wonderful man who embraces Rice and the type of students we're going to get, but I've never been an individual that's woulda, coulda, shoulda. If you live in that realm you're never going to go forward. You can never be truly positive. You can never be happy with yourself if you always live in the past or doubt what you've done. Timing is never going to be one of those things were you sit and say, 'If I can wait till this, then this is going to happen.' It just doesn't work that way, or I'm not programmed that way.
Q: What will you remember most about your time at Rice University?
A: The one thing that I really hope continues is that the university has embraced and celebrated athletics as part of the institution. I've really loved to see how we've integrated the two cultures, that they (Rice academians) understand that we (athletics) have great students. To see the transformation, especially coming from when I got here off the McKinsey Report, to where we're at today on solid footing where they realize the true value of what an athletic program can bring to a university. That to me, in the three years, has been magical to see.
Sorry I don't have much to add but you saw what unfolded at HRS, and belaboring the regression of the Owls would be pointless given the hypersensitive environment eight consecutive losses tends to create. I refuse to pile on the players for I feel terribly for them (especially the seniors), and initiating a lengthy discourse on why the Owls are winless with four games remaining will only create more of these
. And, to be completely honest, I've grown weary of being the guy wearing the black cowboy hat.
I'll be brief, however I do want to cover two topics before putting a bow on the Owls' 49-7 loss
1. While it was not my call to euthanize the live chat, watching the action this afternoon somewhat validated the instruction to do so. It had become a pit of venom and vitriol, and I don't like getting sucked into all that negativity. Did I miss the banter with you guys? Absolutely, and I thought there were some moments where a discussion of strategy was warranted. But things have been really nasty since the Navy debacle, and it doesn't appear to be improving. Until I can find a way to moderate the conversation without allowing all the snide comments and calls for folks' jobs the live chat will be suspended. I'll miss it greatly, but I've got to find a way to get it under control. I, as always, am open to suggestions from you guys.
2. I liked that David Bailiff eschewed the cliches in the postgame presser. This team isn't improving and chatter about impending wins should be replaced by a focus on a respectable effort, so continuing that verbal charade was pointless. Bailiff talked about evaluating his program and, given the change in administration, that's exactly what he should do. I have no idea how he will right this ship, but luckily for him he has an extra week to figure it all out.
"We haven't had, really, some of the problems we ended up having today," Bailiff said. "I'm glad we're getting into the open week. We've gone eight straight (games without a victory) and it's time I get some things figured out. Figure out how to get this team's confidence back, figure out how to get out of the cycle of making mistakes and the cycle or pressing.
"I'm just disappointed for these young men and this university, and I'm responsible. We're all accountable and I've got to make us all accountable."
There will be a football game at HRS on Saturday, ya know. Given all the turmoil around these parts this week, it is too easy to forget that the Owls are hosting the Knights of UCF. Unfortunately Sr. FS Andrew Sendejo
will not be in uniform, the victim of a career-threatening ankle injury. And to think, his loss was presumed to be the
bad news of the week on Monday.
Everyone should pay close attention to what unfolds on the field over the final five games of 2009. With the Owls' postseason hopes officially dead thanks to last week's loss at East Carolina, shifting focus to what Ben Braun is cooking up at Tudor Fieldhouse and/or the overwhelming optimism at The Reck doesn't take much effort. But the Owls will likely start just three seniors on Saturday, all on offense (WRs Toren Dixon and Taylor Wardlow, RB Jeramy Goodson). The defense features only one senior - hobbled DT Chance Talbert - on its two-deep
, so the Owls running around the field will be the same players vying for starting positions in the spring. In the minds of many, 2010 will be the season that springboards Rice into another echelon on the gridiron. What happens down the stretch in '09 might reveal the validity of those beliefs, so you should pay rapt attention as the schedule draws to a close.
1. Good Luck, Kody Emmert.
It's tough to put your finger on the most devastating injury suffered by the Owls this season, but the loss of So. RG Jake Hicks surely ranks up there. The Owls' revamped O-line has found its footing recently, but the best unit remains the one that started the first three games of the season, the group with Scott Mitchell at left tackle not right. Emmert continues to improve following his insertion into the starting lineup, but as the left tackle he is charged with protecting the blind side of So. QB Nick Fanuzzi. This week Emmert will be lined up against Jr. DE Bruce Miller, he of the 19.5 career sacks in 32 games.
2. A New Hope.
Did you enjoy that flash of So. RB Tyler Smith you witnessed last weekend? It was pleasing, wasn't it? Smith touched the ball four times and racked up 37 yards in his first action since succumbing to turf toe at Texas Tech on Sept. 12. He should be completely healthy against UCF, and with Fr. RB Charles Ross (groin) and Fr. TE Vance McDonald (shoulder) also back in the fold, The Nick has some valuable weapons at his disposal. Great!
3. Who's Got The Power?
UCF ranks 10th in Conference USA in rushing offense, but the Owls should nevertheless expect a heavy dose of So. RB Brynn Harvey (140 attempts for 561 yards and six TDs). East Carolina wasn't that stout on the ground, but that didn't prevent the Pirates from utilizing power formations and pounding out an early lead on the Owls last weekend. Rice eventually adjusted and, thanks to a Dominique Lindsay ankle injury, slowed the Pirates' ground game, but that doesn't mean UCF won't try to do the same thing ECU did to success.
4. Very Special.
By and large the Owls' special teams unit has been solid. Sure there are the flubbed field goal attempts and the occasional backbreaking kickoff returns allowed, but the improvement over the first half of last season has been dramatic. Given their slim margin for error, the Owls can't afford any more catastrophic breakdowns in kickoff coverage, and they need So. P Kyle Martens to return to his sparkling form after his off week in Greenville, N.C.
5. Now, Convert.
A lot of attention has been paid to the Owls' inability to force turnovers, and the Owls answered those concerns by nabbing two interceptions and pouncing on one fumble against the Pirates. Of course they got zero points out of those three turnovers, actually handing the ball back to East Carolina on two occasions. Forcing turnovers is fine because they kill opponent possessions, but cashing them in for points is what coaching staffs crave.
Thoughts? Questions? Concerns?
Two important things transpired on Friday morning when Rice president David Leebron met with department staffers to discuss the process of hiring a successor to AD Chris Del Conte
1. Interim AD David Sayler
delivered a confident message that he is resolutely in control of the department and unflinchingly prepared to maintain the momentum CDC established in his three-plus years on the job. It was a powerfully assertive statement from Sayler, whose undervalued role as CDC's right-hand man aided stability within the department and advanced initiatives CDC devised. There was no ambiguity: Sayler is steering this ship for as long as he is the captain, and that should assuage any doubts supporters might have over this transition.
2. Leebron reaffirmed his commitment to athletics and its vital role within the university. There was a remarkable amount of trust and loyalty between Leebron and CDC, and the nature of their relationship strengthened a partnership that produced sweeping and positive changes in athletics. Leebron supports the continued maturation of Rice athletics, and assured all in attendance that Rice will not veer off the path paved by CDC now that he has departed. To Leebron, the viability of athletics remains a central part of his vision for the second century of Rice U, so instead of allowing doubt to seep in regarding his stance on the matter, Leebron produced a definitive statement alerting all that the ascension of Rice athletics will continue.
Leebon, already engaged in a search to replace outgoing provost Eugene Levy
, aims to assemble a search committee for the AD vacancy within the next two weeks and hopes to have the position filled within two months. With Sayler in charge there is no need for Leebron to rush the process, so the heir to CDC might not be announced prior to the holiday break.
Regarding the triangle of research involving the hiring of David Bailiff in Jan. of 2007, I finished last. At the time I believed that I had made enough phone calls, thoroughly scoured the Internet, and spent the requisite hours analyzing the finalists that my sufficient bead on Bailiff allowed me to question Chris Del Conte's wisdom in naming Bailiff the successor to Todd Graham. What I undervalued was Bailiff's close ties to the Texas High School Coaches Association, and how that carefully crafted relationship would help him bolster the Owls' talent.
As it turns out, Bailiff exceeded my research too. He left no stone unturned while investigating his future boss, and the results of his countless inquiries left him at peace accepting the offer.
"I did my due diligence also on him before I took this job," Bailiff
said. "I called everywhere he had been. Not knowing him, in this
profession you want to make sure you feel good about who you're going
to work for, and I had the same message from every person I talked to.
He was a hard worker, dynamic, a fundraiser, and great to be around.
You couldn't find a negative, and that's hard to find in this day and
age where you can't find a negative said about a person that's been in
the athletic world. He had managed to pulled that off at his different
To watch CDC and Bailiff work in unison was to gain an appreciation for their similar passions. CDC hired Bailiff in part because Bailiff has a vision for elevating Rice football to heights unvisited in generations and keeping it there, and Bailiff gleefully accepted the challenge of laboring under CDC because of the initiatives CDC had in place when Bailiff interviewed on South Main. CDC and Bailiff had been working behind the scenes for several months on the most significant shared goal of their intersecting tenures, the proposed end zone facility at Historic Rice Stadium, before CDC accepted an offer from TCU
to be its athletics director.
Donors had been contacted, architects consulted, and trips scouting other facilities made before CDC resigned. Whereas CDC kept artist renderings in his office at Youngkin Center, Bailiff has blueprints on an ottoman in his office at HRS. They were unquestionably on the same page in realizing Rice's need for a facilities upgrade, and they were well on their way to seeing those dreams realized. Now that CDC has relocated his fundraising skills to TCU, what happens next? Rice football can not afford to delay seeing this project through to fruition.
"I had a great visit with the president (David Leebron), and he's in it," Bailiff said of the much-needed facility upgrade.
"Chris had shared the vision of not only football but the entire
athletic department enough to where President Leebron is excited about
the direction of athletics. He's committed to finding somebody that
will keep moving that way and build the facilities and take care of
these student-athletes the way they deserve to be taken care of."
CDC was fond of saying that it was his job to provide his coaches with everything they needed to compete, that way there could be no excuses for poor performances. That philosophy served as the driving force behind Tudor Fieldhouse, the new track being installed at the Soccer/Track Stadium, and the ongoing effort to build a support facility for Rice tennis. CDC got very little out of the Gibbs Recreation Center, but he insisted that women's swimming coach Seth Huston got what he desired from its construction - a 50-meter competition pool. And while the renovations at HRS could be considered minor, they were necessary, and they paved the way for the substantial improvements CDC and Bailiff were working on developing.
Some forget that CDC hired Bailiff, who led the football program to its first postseason victory in decades, Ben Braun, a respected coach with a national profile who has rejuvenated men's basketball, and Elizabeth Schmidt, an ideal fit for women's tennis. All three of those hires were home runs, yet CDC will be remembered for changing the look of Rice's athletic facilities. To stand at the edge of the parking lot fronting the Shepherd School of Music and take inventory of what currently sits on the right side of College Way/Loop Road is an exercise in admiration.
"What he did here was so good we'll feel the effects for five years, at least," Owls baseball coach Wayne Graham said. "Maybe more.
"When I needed money to maintain Reckling (Park) he came up with the money through a donation. He's the guy who got the donation. You've got to have facilities; you can't compete without facilities. You can't be the least bit bitter when a guy has done so much to help you."
The OG, only half-jokingly, called yesterday 'Black Wednesday' for, like Bailiff, he not only lost a boss he respected, he lost a confidant and a trusted friend. In CDC both men had an athletic director who worked tirelessly to advance their program's goals, and the truth of the matter is that such relationships are not a given in intercollegiate athletics. The onus will be on Leebron and his presumed search committee to find an AD who is as good of a fit at Rice as CDC was.
"It's somebody that I knew was with me every step of the way," Bailiff said. "I relied on him and bounced ideas off him, and he bounced them off me on building Rice and building an athletic department and trying to keep momentum. So I will miss him not only as a friend, not only as an athletic director, but (as someone) who I would seek his counsel and he would seek mine."
Said The OG: "If I were at TCU, he would have been my No. 1 candidate."
I had dinner last Friday night with Chris Del Conte, a handful of donors, and several members of the Rice support staff at an Italian restaurant in Greenville, N.C., and CDC carried on as usual. He probably told outrageous anecdotes while engaging his end of the table with his typically humorous banter. At one point he paid a visit to our end just to get our opinion of the cuisine. CDC did the same thing in Stillwater, visiting our table of four despite the fact he was dining elsewhere in the same restaurant. CDC has an innate desire to connect with people.
Our group of 15 took a charter bus to that restaurant in Greenville, but we needed a cab for the return trip to the hotel. A dozen of us squeezed into a minivan, with CDC immediately to my right. He rambled on with sincere enthusiasm about the recruits volleyball coach Genny Volpe is poised to sign, flailing his arms about like a rabid fan of Rice athletics. He knew every detail on those recruits, and expressed pride over the bright future of his volleyball program.
Hours earlier I received a phone call from a trusted friend who informed me that CDC was being targeted by TCU to fill its athletics director vacancy. I walked down what was the Rice sideline of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium to get a little privacy and debated the rationale of CDC leaving Rice for TCU. From the moment I realized his impressive fundraising ability, I publicly acknowledged that CDC would not be at Rice long. However, I believed that he wouldn't leave South Main for another institution locked out of the BCS picture, and I made that very point to my good friend. He replied that TCU annually had a Top 25 football program and I agreed. I even chimed in that their facilities were vastly superior, and their commitment to athletics far exceeded Rice's. But CDC had work left to do here. In my mind, his legacy was incomplete.
Hours later, as he boasted over Volpe's handiwork, I felt validated in my belief that he'd stay.
I was wrong. On Wednesday, CDC accepted the same position at TCU
that he held at Rice, closing the curtain on his three-year run as Rice AD. It was a fabulous ride, one where CDC flexed his considerable fundraising might in renovating Rice Stadium, Autry Court (now Tudor Fieldhouse) and Reckling Park. He orchestrated the construction of the Gibbs Recreation Center, and has projects at the Soccer/Track Stadium and Jake Hess Stadium well underway. CDC got things done at Rice that few thought possible because he is brash and fearless, undeterred and irrepressible. Yes his hyperactivity rubbed some the wrong way, but he lived by his 'get 'er done' mantra, and his indefatigable nature served a desperate department well.
But knowing CDC like I've gotten to know him, I didn't think he would leave just yet. The much-discussed end zone facility remains on the drawing board, and that project stoked the fire within CDC. The 2011 Final Four is just around the bend, and CDC worked his rear end off to get Rice into the picture so that it could co-host the event with UH. He is genuinely excited over what Ben Braun is accomplishing on the recruiting trail, and was confident that the Owls would knock on the door of an NCAA Tournament berth in the very near future. Those three tasks - the end zone facility, the Final Four, and an NCAA Tournament bid - remain unfinished, and I was positive that CDC would see them to completion. Then, come April 2011, he would have his pick of BCS schools clamoring for a leader with his dynamic ability to raise funds and tab the perfect coach for a program in need. His legacy at Rice would have been without blemish, and no one could have questioned his commitment to the university or his move to greener pastures. He would have served nearly five years on the job, five incredible years.
Fairy tales don't always come true. TCU offered CDC a significant pay raise, an expansive operating budget, and the freedom to run an athletic department without unnecessary headaches. As far as Rice had come under CDC, it still lags well behind its peer institutions regarding its commitment to athletics. That is an irrefutable fact. It's why Todd Graham left for Tulsa, and why Tom Herman, Yancy McKnight and Blake Miller departed for fruitful situations. Until Rice fully delves into the competition that is Division I athletics, it will remain lukewarm. Visionaries like CDC will come to South Main, work their magic, and depart when an institution with greater resources and the desire to advance up the ladder come calling. Few will admit that Rice is the Triple-A to TCU's major leagues, but one look at the Horned Frogs' facilities
will silence that discussion. TCU wants to run with the big boys. It has made the commitment.
I, for one, am sad to see CDC go. He truly cared about Rice student-athletes, and his relationships with David Bailiff and Wayne Graham broached levels beyond the boss-subordinate dynamic. He is engaging and passionate, and the Rice experience had taken a hold of him. He wanted this athletic department to succeed not simply to advance his career, but because he fantisized about how wonderful Rice would be if it committed to athletic excellence with the same vigor it does to academic achievement. Rice has few peers academically, and no one can question its desire to annually challenge the elite academic institutions of this nation. Can you imagine what Rice would be if it exhausted itself athletically as well? If it pushed to remove the hurdles that have slowed football and basketball for years?
Those obstacles don't exist in Fort Worth, so after pouring every ounce of his being into Rice, CDC departed prematurely. His legacy here is, in some ways, unfulfilled, and that's a shame. I remember sitting in his office in the weeks leading up to the grand opening of the Gibbs Rec Center taken aback at how exhausted he looked. CDC was burning the candle at both ends, working frantically to oversee the final delicate touches at the Gibbs Rec Center while barreling ahead on the end zone facility. He wasn't going to accept failure and he didn't like hearing 'no' come from the other end of his Blackberry. CDC wanted things done, and even if he had to run himself ragged to get multiple tasks complete, he had a bottom line to adhere to.
Now I wonder what will come of those architectural renderings sitting in the corner of his office. Who will pick up the ball and run with the same reckless abandon as CDC? Who will continue the momentum CDC established, and will they do it with his unmistakable zeal? The next athletic director need not possess CDC's quirky charm, but he should believe that Rice athletics can be extraordinary. Chris Del Conte most certainly believed in that vision, and TCU will be better served for making the decision to put him in control of its athletic depatrment.
Spent most of a glorious afternoon with head in the clouds at The Reck, watching The OG and Co. instruct the Owls as they began the third week of intrasquads. Miss any interesting news?
The Owls will hold their first and only exhibition at 1 p.m., Sunday against Texas State, and the live chat will be in full effect. Come join the party and be sure to tell a friend or two, for we'll discuss the team, project who will hit where and sort through pitching roles. There will be some play-by-play and analysis for those souls who won't be at The Reck for Owls-Bobcats.
As for today
, the bad news first: Fr. RHP/OF Tyler Spurlin took a line drive (clocked at 105 mph off the bat of Michael Fuda) off the right elbow and immediately left the game. He was in a sling afterward and scheduled for an x-ray. Results should be available Wednesday. Spurlin has allowed 10 runs (six earned) on 11 hits and nine walks over 10 2/3 innings (5.06 ERA) with three strikeouts. He is batting .300 with seven runs, four RBIs and six extra-base hits.
Fr. RHP Tyler Duffey logged four perfect innings by attacking the strike zone with impunity. Unlike Spurlin, who was hamstrung by a sloppy defensive performance, Duffey kept his defense active by working quickly and throwing strikes. His appearance was the most impressive on the mound, but it wasn't the only noteworthy pitching outing. Doug Simmons (3 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 4 Ks) continues to prove that his sudden effectiveness isn't a fluke, wielding a devastating change-up plus nimble footwork and reliable leather on the bump.
If Sr. RHP Jared Rogers keeps his mechanics and maintains his health, he will solidify the weekend rotation. His fastball bores down and in on righthanders, and his assortment of breaking balls and off-speed pitches are equally effective when controlled with confidence.
Sr. OF Steven Sultzbaugh continues to smack the ball hard, as does Jr. SS Rick Hague. Sr. C Diego Seastrunk showed signs of emerging from his slump with a two-run homer off Spurlin and an RBI double off Fr. RHP Chase McDowell. Soph. OF Jeremy Rathjen also found a groove, delivering three singles and a well-struck fly ball that produced a loud out to left field.
It wasn't a great day behind the plate for reserve catchers Craig Manuel and Geoff Perrott, but it is the third of five weeks of fall ball. Attention is starting to wane and an exhibition is needed.
This is Rice U
, correct? Can't some brainiac devise a plan to clone your intrepid reporter and ombudsman (ha!) so that I can watch the Owls stumble about in Greenville and
witness the fall debuts of RS Fr. RHP Anthony Fazio and Jr. LHP Matt Evers? Can I get some help here?
It goes without official documentation that I was bent out of shape when John L. Sullivan
fired off a text message last Saturday at 6:14 p.m., alerting me that Fazio took to the bump for the first time this fall. I, like many of you, had been waiting for that moment and I remained hopeful that The OG wouldn't plunge the knife of ill timing deep into my latissimus dorsi and send Fazio to the mound while I was on the road. Alas, The OG works on schedule independent of mine, so I was forced to scurry about Monday and gather information like a squirrel hoarding nuts for the winter. Benevolently The OG obliged, and he shared some informative nuggets.
As previously noted (I think), Owls great Wade Townsend
has been working out privately with The OG and David Pierce for the past several weeks, and he was kind enough to share some advice with Fazio on traversing the road to recovery from Tommy John surgery. Townsend underwent ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction in the fall of 2005 while Fazio endured the same procedure just prior to the start of the 2009 season. He was fast-tracked through his rehabilitation and worked out of the bullpen during individual pitching sessions last month. The coaching staff opted to delay his fall debut until the close of the second week of fall workouts.
"I think Wade helped him with the thinking that you're going to have some discomfort at times," The OG said. "A lot of that is just adhesions
turning loose, and you've got to just push forward.
"If those adhesions turn loose it's going to hurt, and it's going to hurt the next day. But if it's gone the day after that then that's all it was. If it's still there two or three days (later) you may have to back off."
Fazio worked one inning
last Saturday, striking out the side on just 11 pitches. If he does not experience any lingering discomfort, Fazio will make his scheduled appearance Wednesday. His first outing constituted a huge step in the right direction, especially given the role he was set to have within the staff as a true freshman before blowing out his elbow in mid-February.
"He's had a lot of time to think about it and he's immersed himself in it," The OG said of Fazio and his recovery process. "I liked pretty much everything. It looked like he had a real good changeup, the right spin on his breaking ball, and I liked his delivery. So we'll just see. We're very hopeful, and it was a very positive outing."
Evers' recovery is more mental than physical. He suffered a precipitous drop-off in productivity as a sophomore in '09, numbers so shockingly odd that a total reclamation project is in order:
2008: 4-1, 3.00 ERA, 54:23 K:BB, .232 BAA, 1.38 WHIP
2009: 4-3, 6.89 ERA, 37:34 K:BB, .311 BAA, 1.91 WHIP
Evers did enjoy a recovery of sorts pitching for the Santa Barbara Foresters (2-1, 1.44 ERA, 34:12 K:BB, .217 BAA, 1.18 WHIP) this past summer, but the coaching staff is retooling Evers' breaking pitch, which has lost its tilt. They are of the opinion that his flat slider was the source of his problems and are working diligently to reconstruct it so that Evers can regain his effectiveness. They did the same with Jeff Niemann's slider and Townsend's curveball.
"He used to have good deception, too, and that would account in part for not having good command yet," The OG said of Evers. "We're trying to get him to stay closed longer, and that would mean keeping his glove in front of the hitter longer, increase his deception, and give him a little more time to get his arm on top and get the breaking ball down and get more tilt on it."
As an experienced southpaw reliever, the coaching staff has a vested interest in getting Evers back to form. As The OG noted, when his slider has tilt it is devastating, but Evers must regain command in order to regain his spot in the back of the bullpen. He remains a work in progress.
"All a coach can do is make sure he communicates exactly what he means," The OG said. "The so-called dirty work, the amount of reps to correct a flaw (Malcolm) Gladwell talks about in The Outliers
, they're up to the guy. He's got to take and run with the coaching."
I'll come to relish my infrequent opportunities to observe the Fightin' Ben Brauns practice, for being granted that privilege only once per week makes player evaluations extremely difficult.
What's most interesting is watching Braun force the Owls to adhere to his exacting standards. He wants this team tough and
fundamentally sound, and no amount of practice stoppages or running will deter Braun from that goal. The drills are detailed and intense, and the scripted plays are to be executed with a precision that should make the Owls offensively efficient once they get it right. And you'd better believe they'll get it right, or Braun will make them do it again.
"I used to talk with Dean Smith
about this. I asked him once, 'Do you make sure they are fundamentally sound first and then get them to play hard, or is the first thing you get them to do is play hard and then work on the technique?'" Braun said. "He said activity can be without achievement. You've got to get a combination of both. I want our team to play hard but I don't want them to lose our fundamental structure. So I've got to stop practice, go back to the fundamentals, break it down, teach players how and why they're doing something, and once I know they understand it now I can turn it up a little bit. It's hard to get somebody to go hard if they don't know what they're doing, so you've got to make sure our players know what to do."
Braun had no issue with the level of competition - the Owls went at it with vigor on Monday. He'd prefer that the mistakes are minimized, but with the Owls opening camp just three days earlier, certain miscues are to be expected. What's clear is that the superior depth created by Braun's first full class of recruits will serve the program well. The Owls practiced without Cory Pflieger (knee) and lost Trey Stanton to a minor ankle sprain early in the workout, and they barely missed a beat. The posts were physical and the guards applied admirable defensive pressure on the perimeter. The Owls looked tougher and committed to defending and rebounding, and given their shortcomings in those areas last season, that was a real positive.
What's obvious is that last season would have unfolded differently had Lucas Kuipers not broken his wrist in practice at midseason. His ability to score inside and out is a true asset, especially when he is on the floor with Stanton. He isn't as aggressive on the block as one would prefer, but he is crafty inside, and his deft shooting touch will provide the Owls a dangerous weapon when combined with the proper personnel. Braun will tinker with rotations for a spell, but there is reason to believe that once he settles on one, the Owls will be potent.
Arsalan Kazemi is skilled, but he and his classmates (sans Tamir Jackson) have adjustments to make. Again, that is to be expected. Whether it's consistent aggression (Kazemi), ball handling (Chris Eversley) or decision making (Egheosa Edomwonyl), the newcomers have ground to cover. But their commitment is apparent, so there is no need to worry on that front.
Jackson plays with infectious enthusiasm and abundant confidence. His willingness to get others involved will serve sharpshooters like Connor Frizzelle well. If Jackson and Cliff Ghoram can penetrate the lane consistently, the Owls' offense will thrive. If not, the posts will have to do a better job passing from the block, especially against double teams. Without Stanton on the floor it's unfair to grade the performance of the bigs in that department, although Emerson Herndon displayed such a scoring touch on the interior that it's difficult not to ponder his potential. He should help this team this season, even if his minutes are limited.
The same can be said of Suleiman Braimoh, who has just enough in his toolbox that his junior season should be his best in a Rice uniform. And if Braimoh continues to lead, that is a plus.
"I think some of our young guys are going to get overwhelmed," Braun said. "And that's where I want our older guys to take them and go over some fundamentals."
As referenced earlier, Braun is implementing strategies to take advantage of his interior size and perimeter depth. He believes the Owls can be more aggressive on the ball and physical in the post, facts that should free up several players to focus on defense only. Bonding so many new parts into one team will take effort, but Braun furthered that process by having the Owls visit former letterwinner and Tudor Fieldhouse namesake Bobby Tudor on Sunday evening.
Let's be thorough and fully examine what the Owls will return on defense next season, and attempt to analyze whether or not they'll actually show improvement on that side of the ball.
First we must peruse the two-deep depth chart coming out of East Carolina. Now it isn't entirely accurate for it has Jr. Kramer Lucio listed as the backup to Jr. DE Cheta Ozougwu and RS Fr. Jared Williams as the backup to Jr. LB Justin Hill. Lucio (ankle) did not make the trip to Greenville, and that forced Williams to back up Ozougwu and So. Ronnie Lillard behind Hill. However, for the sake of keeping things clear, we'll stick to what's on the page in front of me.
The Owls' two-deep on defense featured two seniors (FS Andrew Sendejo and DT Chance Talbert), seven juniors (Ozougwu, Lucio, and Hill plus DE Scott Solomon, LB Aaron Williams and SS's Chris Jones and Willie Garley), six sophomores (NG's Michael Smith and John Gioffre, FS Xavier Webb, KAT Travis Bradshaw, and CB's Chris Jammer and Jarrett Ben), and seven freshmen (Jared Williams, DT Alex Lowry, DE Cody Bauer, LB Trey Briggs, KAT Corey Frazier, and CB's Phillip Gaines and Kevin Gaddis). Sendejo, who might miss the rest of this season with a Grade 2 ankle sprain, will be sorely missed, but Talbert has attempted to play through assorted injuries this season, forcing the Owls to accelerate So. Brian Stacey. Webb is the heir to Sendejo, so the starting lineup against UCF will provide a skeleton for what David Bailiff, Chuck Driesbach and Craig Naivar will have to work with going into the offseason.
Jones, to the surprise of many, has played poorly this season, and he could lose his starting spot to Garley this weekend. Of course that doesn't solve the long-term problem at strong safety because Garley has been injury-prone. Bradshaw had a forgettable performance at East Carolina, but he is an all-conference candidate and a fixture in the secondary. The corners have been erratic, but we're talking about two sophomores and two freshmen. Give them time.
Linebacker is a concern with Hill and Briggs projected as the starters for the rest of the season and scant depth behind them, and the interior of the line is solid but unspectacular. The ends remain the strength of the front six with Ozougwu and Solomon serving as gifted bookends and Lucio (when healthy) and Bauer as serviceable backups. There are some holes on this defense, so we need to check the rest of the roster to see who is capable of filling those gaps.
There are 14 freshmen (including six walk-ons) and seven sophomores (including Stacey, Lillard and three walk-ons) identified as defensive players not on the ECU two-deep depth chart. The freshmen with the greatest potential impact play in the secondary, with DE Josh Skinner and LB Nic Hammett being the exceptions. Tolu Akinwumi could ultimately supplant Jones/Garley at strong safety while Andre Brackens and Alex Francis should provide quality depth at safety and corner. Paul Porras and Turner Petersen, listed at receiver, are intriguing prospects with ample athleticism and versatility. They certainly are freshmen who might help.
The three seniors on the roster but not on the depth chart are injured LB's Terrance Garmon and Robert Calhoun, and reserve corner John Welch, a former receiver who hasn't made an impact on defense. Sophomore walk-on LB Matt Nordstrom, out with a foot injury, will soften the blow of losing Garmon and Calhoun, as will sophomore Idaho transfer Justin Allen, who was a gift to this roster. Otherwise, the Owls will be searching for depth via their incoming class of recruits (Bailiff intends on signing 13 prospects in February) or hoping that the light finally comes on for sophomore linebacker Tanner Shuck, who has struggled on game day.
On the line, Skinner and freshman tackle Hosam Shahin should find their way into the rotation, but as members of the scout team it is difficult to gauge their promise. Hammett and freshman safety Broderick Jackson could take the leap in the offseason, but we'll have to wait until the spring to see if any of the defensive players currently sporting redshirts are capable of helping the Owls reverse their defensive trend. The statistics don't lie, and they tell the tale of one of the worst units in the nation three years running. Several players will have to grow up mighty fast for the Owls to suddenly become TCU South, a notion that sounds like wishful thinking.
But remember this: The Horned Frogs were 100th in total defense in 2004. Over the next four seasons they finished 25th, 2nd, 15th and first, and they are currently fourth
allowing 238.0 yards/game. It can be accomplished, but can the Owls do it with what they will have available?
As the Owls stumbled to their seventh consecutive defeat last Saturday (Positive Spin Alert: the Owls are playing .500 football over their last 14 games!!!), the Five Things To Watch
post preceding the opener at UAB came to mind. The tone for this season was set with that miserable loss to an ordinary Blazers squad because, in hindsight, odds were good that the Owls would scuffle during their six-game stretch against opponents coming off bowl berths.
The Owls have been drilled by the average score of 45-14 during that span, and considering that they close their schedule against No. 17 UH
, eight losses are all but guaranteed. How the Owls compete against UCF, SMU, Tulane and UTEP over the next five weeks (thank goodness for open dates!) will shape attitudes going into the offseason for those closest to the program. Win those four contests - or at least play competitively - and take something positive into spring drills. Lose with the same maddening penchant for poor preparation and pitiful execution, and David Bailiff will have to mend spirits before the Owls take to the field in March.
If the Owls are to rise like a fiery phoenix and salvage something from the wreckage that has been this miserable campaign, three things should happen between now and Thanksgiving:
1. The Nick must take ownership of this offense
. Sophomore quarterback Nick Fanuzzi has made just three starts in his first season on South Main. He missed two contests with a separated shoulder and alternated possessions with fifth-year senior John Thomas Shephard through the opening three weeks of the season in an experiment gone awry. He wasn't given the opportunity to establish himself as the unquestioned starting quarterback, let alone the leader on offense, until recently, yet he is of the belief that he should be that leader by virtue of his position. Barring injury, The Nick has five starts left to become the leader he desires to be.
"I don't care how many snaps you get. If you're the quarterback of a team, you're the leader of the team," Fanuzzi said. "Obviously more experience helps because guys know you that much longer, but you can't tell me that me and the guys haven't had the time to build a relationship.
"We have a strong relationship, and I think it's going to keep building, especially in this next week. We're going to make sure that our relationship is better than any other team's. We're going to work for each other to get better to pull out a win."
2. Bailiff must dust off his most inspiring motivational speech.
For the second time in three weekends the Owls followed a potentially game-altering score with a unexpected and backbreaking special-teams gaffe. Against Tulsa they took their first lead of the season on a field goal late in the second quarter only to surrender a long kickoff return and field goal that knotted the score just prior to the intermission. In Greenville, N.C., The Nick and Toren Dixon delivered a burst of energy by combining on an 80-yard scoring play, then watched in horror as Dwayne Harris responded with a 92-yard return for a touchdown on the ensuing kickoff.
Afterward, Bailiff was clearly exasperated. His vocal inflections reflected a coach at wit's end, and one desperate to drag his team out of the doldrums. As the Owls get healthier - RG Jake Hicks and TE Vance McDonald could return this weekend - they must find a way to stop shooting themselves in the foot when those rare opportunities to succeed are present. When the offense gets on a roll, it must end drives with touchdowns, not field goals. When the defenses forces a third-and-long, it must get off the field, not surrender the first down. And when the offense does push into the end zone, the special teams must step up, not fall apart.
Bailiff spoke of a team with a fragile disposition. He must reinforce their constitution this week.
"They need to see the mistakes we've made and need to know that when things go bad you can't forget about your fundamentals and technique," Bailiff said. "And that's what we'll do."
3. This program must establish a defensive identity.
For anyone questioning whether the 4-2-5 works, all you need to do is take a look at what TCU has accomplished defensively this decade. The scheme is sound with the proper personnel, and given the results of the past two-plus seasons with Bailiff at the helm, one has to wonder if the Owls have the proper personnel. All should be hesitant to assume that things will improve once the last remnants of Ken Hatfield/Todd Graham recruits are gone and Bailiff has a defense loaded with his
players because wasn't the assumption that the Owls would be superior in Year 3 in this scheme?
Well, the Owls rank 116th in total defense and 120th
(affectionately known as dead last) in scoring defense, rankings that remain relatively unchanged from 2007 (118th in both categories) and last season (113th in total defense and 104th in scoring defense). The Owls will lose FS Andrew Sendejo, LBs Terrance Garmon and Robert Calhoun and DT Chance Talbert from their defense, and if anyone sees a demonstrative talent upgrade coming at those four positions please share with the rest of the class. No matter how much better the Owls are offensively in 2010, ranking near the bottom nationally on defense is absolutely unacceptable.
Interested in Rice-East Carolina? Your options are aplenty, from television on Comcast Sports Southwest via the Mid Atlantic Sports Network to the live chat here at The R and radio on ESPN 97.5 The Ticket with David Salztman (Play-by-Play) and Nate Griffin (Analysis). Sideline reporter Jorge Vargas is MIA and in search of an Emmy for his Hurricane Ike work.
1:30 - Scene setting from Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, which will be filled on homecoming.
1:35 - Finally some continuity on offense, but does that mean proficiency for the scuffling unit?
1:40 - Senior tight end Taylor Wardlow does his best to explain the impact of the 'senior rush.'
1:45 - The Pirates are analyzed, from their stout defense to their struggling offense.
1:53 - Back to the Owls, in particular their banged up defense. Any linebackers available?
2:00 - Pirates coach Skip Holtz gushes about Owls end Scott Solomon, among other things.
2:05 - It's OK with MK. We'll chat about who bats leadoff for the Owls in 2010. Baseball!!!
2:10 - Griffin runs down the scores and tries to explain why Texas can't tally a touchdown.
2:15 - David Bailiff pulls his lucky coin out of his pocket and prays aloud for better health.
With Vargas out of pocket, who will quiz Bailiff as the Owls head to the halftime locker room?
GREENVILLE, N.C. - Every time David Bailiff recalls the time he spent in Afghanistan with U.S. military this past summer, the pitch of his voice changes and the look in his eye intensifies. He truly underwent a life-changing experience while stationed with American troops, and his will participate in a somber reunion at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium when he hosts roughly a dozen members of the Air Force 336th Rocketeers squadron he met during his visit.
That particular squadron returned to North Carolina in September minus two members who were killed in a crash of an F-15 E Strike Eagle only days after Bailiff returned stateside. The squadron buried one pilot on Thursday, a fact that left Bailiff reflective as the Owls readied to board their flight here. Assistant strength and conditioning coach Rusty Whitt, an Army Ranger who served in Iraq, will also host members of his military family on the Rice sideline. If the Owls are in need of motivation and inspiration, they won't have far to look Saturday afternoon.
1. Calling All Linebackers. Just prior to the team buses departing campus for Hobby Airport Friday morning, co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Chuck Driesbach boarded the bus reserved for support staff and playfully asked if anyone could play linebacker. Well, he was half kidding, for after losing Terrance Garmon (lung, concussion) and Matt Nordstrom (foot) to injuries last week against Navy, the Owls lost Tanner Shuck (knee) in practice on Tuesday. That leaves them with four linebackers - starters Justin Hill and Trey Briggs, a true freshman, and reserves Aaron Williams and Ronnie Lillard. Williams worked with the scout team before the rash of injuries and Lillard contributed on special teams. Good luck, fellas.
2. Bring The Heat. Remember the first half against Tulsa? Do you recall how the Owls blitzed the dickens out of Golden Hurricane quarterback G.J. Kinne? Given the success the Owls enjoyed before Tulsa made an adjustment at the break (five sacks) and the questionable decision-making of East Carolina quarterback Pat Pinkney (his 103.06 passer efficiency rating doesn't rank in the top 100 nationally), it would make sense if the Owls brought the house and forced Pinkney to think on the run. Is he capable? The Owls should repeatedly test his wits.
3. The Value of Experience. The Pirates opened the season with the third-largest senior class in FBS (28), and they will start eight seniors on defense against Rice. Left end C.J. Wilson, middle linebacker Nick Johnson and free safety Van Eskridge are earning their fourth letters with East Carolina, and they represent the heart and soul of a physical unit that ranks fourth in C-USA in total defense (354.0 yards/game) and fifth in scoring defense (24.8 points/game).
4. Non-Traditional Scoring. With the Owls ranking dead last in C-USA in scoring and total offense and the Pirates ranking 10th and 11th in those categories, respectively, points might be hard to come by for both offense. The team that can vulture scores via returns (kickoffs, punts, turnovers) will earn the edge. The Pirates recorded six returns for touchdowns last season, and got a 77-yard kickoff return from Dwayne Harris last weekend against SMU. The Owls have recorded just one interception all season, and their previous returns for touchdowns via kickoff (Nov. 17, 1984) and punt (Nov. 8, 1997) came a long, long time ago.
5. Wildcat! Maladies suffered by freshman tailback Charles Ross (asthma attack, groin strain) have slowed the Owls' introduction of the Wildcat to their offensive repertoire. With Ross dinged again (he is listed as questionable against East Carolina), it's anyone's guess how often the Owls will run the Wildcat with senior tailback Jeramy Goodson. The Pirates are fond of the formation, and now that senior tailback Dominique Lindsay is back from a shoulder injury, look for East Carolina to liberally utilize the formation as an aid to its rushing attack.
Thoughts? Questions? Concerns?
You see a gaggle of shooters (Trey Stanton, Lucas Kuipers and Connor Frizzelle), yet all Ben Braun can talk about is defense. Your thoughts ponder a Stanton-Kuipers-Arsalan Kazemi frontcourt and all the matchup problems that could present for Rice opponents, yet Braun is lecturing you on the principle of five defenders focused on two opponents. Will this team terrify the opposition with its perimeter scoring? Not before it fully commits to the defensive end first.
If Braun is to stamp his personality on this program in his second season on the bench, the Owls must rebound with abandon and defend with dedication. There are no other options. Braun doesn't expect the Owls to shut down the most prolific scorers in Conference USA, but he longs for a concerted effort on the defensive end of the court. That remains his primary point of emphasis, and defense remains the message Braun aims to deliver as camp opens
"I want our team to make it difficult for opposing teams to score," Braun said. "I want our defense to make it difficult for us to score in practice. I want no easy baskets, I don't want any cheap fouls. We gave up too many fouls last year, we gave up too many layups, we gave up too many uncontested shots - just things that broke our back in crunch time. We have to eliminate those things.
"If you want to win consistently you have to start on the defensive end. You can hope to out-shoot your opponents, but you're not going to be on your 'A' game every night offensively. You're going to have some off nights or fatigue is going to set in, so what do you do when that happens? If your base isn't defense you're in trouble, so we've got to find ways when we're not scoring or we're struggling offensively to stay in games."
The Owls lost their top scorer from last season (Rodney Foster at 12.0 points/game) but return five players that averaged at least eight points/game (Kuipers, Frizzelle, Stanton, Corey Pflieger and Cliff Ghoram). With the influx of reputed scorers like Kazemi and freshman guard Tamir Jackson, Braun shouldn't have too difficult of a time uncovering offensive production.
And while his roster lacks a traditional post player and experience at shooting guard, Braun is content to utilize unorthodox lineups in order to make his offense proficient. If that means two lead guards on the floor simultaneously, then so be it. Braun at least has the depth to tinker.
"We've got a pretty good idea of what our returning players can give us, and we've got a pretty good idea of what our incoming players can give us although less with them because they haven't really played yet," Braun said. "We're a little steadier in terms of what we want to do.
"We'll be able to go into this year and say, 'Hey, let's try to accomplish this, this and this based on our personnel,' whereas a year ago it was really difficult to try and asses what we could and couldn't do."
What remains a mystery is who will provide leadership. Foster was a vocal presence on the court and an accountable figure in the locker room, and while Pflieger and Ghoram are poised to offer the requisite senior leadership, Braun wouldn't mind a primary ball handler stepping forward and asserting himself, or Stanton and Kuipers taking a definitive stand and leading.
"We got some guys that are vocal, and we've got some guys that are playing confidently," Braun said. "We need both. A leader has got to be confident. I want guys to be assertive and aggressive, and they've got to play with confidence. It's hard to be a leader when you're not confident and not taking care of business yourself. We've got a couple of candidates that are doing that right now."
While Braun wasn't comfortable identifying those candidates, he had no qualms pointing out who could serve secondary roles as rugged rebounders, defensive specialists and energy enthusiasts off the bench. Suleiman Braimoh certainly fits the bill as a rebounder, screener and hustler, and with so many others capable of scoring in the frontcourt, Braimoh could really find his niche in the aforementioned role. Ghoram, who showcased his toughness playing out of position defensively on several occasions last season, could fill that rugged role yet again.
Braun challenged Bryan Beasley to become dominant defensively, a job that suits his athleticism. How veterans take to being complimentary players remains to be seen, but Braun expects to start the process of identifying who is capable of filling certain voids during camp.
Want some good news? My pleasure.
It appears as though Fr. CB Phillip Gaines (wrist) will give it a go this Saturday at East Carolina. He was fitted with a cast and told that as long as he can tolerate the pain of playing with a broken wrist, he is free to participate. The news is a bit more hazy with Fr. RB Charles Ross (groin), who is questionable for the C-USA tilt against the Pirates. All told, there are 15 Owls who have started at least one game this season injured to some extent. Only five are on the two-deep depth chart for this weekend: Gaines, So. WR Brent Hotard (thumb), RS Fr. OL Eric Ball (ankle), Sr. DT Chance Talbert (back) and Jr. SS Willie Garley (knee).
So. LB Tanner Shuck (knee) joined the walking wounded on Tuesday, and with Sr. LB Terrance Garmon (lung, concussion) and Matt Nordstrom (foot) already out for this weekend, David Bailiff was forced to move DE-turned-LB-turned-DE Jared Williams back to linebacker. Keep your fingers and toes crossed that Justin Hill and Trey Briggs stay out of harm's way.
Shifting gears for a second, since this is the midpoint of the season the time has come to reexamine the over/under numbers
posted prior to the season. At 0-6, some of the stats make perfect sense, but with good health a couple players could make up ground down the stretch:
1. Taylor Wardlow receptions (32). Wardlow is on pace for 44 catches. Sticking with the over.
2. Combined sacks for Solly and Cheta (12). Solomon has four sacks; Cheta 0.5 sacks. Push.
3. Rushing yards/game - team (146.3). The Owls are averaging 86.7 yards/game, and given the injuries on the O-line and at running back, there's no reason to believe things will improve.
4. Combined INTs for Jammer and Ben (6). The Owls have one interception total
, which is as amazing a statistic as you will stumble across. Ben was demoted following the Tech debacle.
5. Toren Dixon touchdowns catches (10). Dixon had as many drops against Navy as he has touchdown receptions on the season (two). He'll need a miraculous second half to cover.
6. Combined tackles for Sendejo and Bradshaw (167). Barring injury, the Owls' deep safety tandem will obliterate that number. Sendejo and Bradshaw have totaled 101 tackles thus far.
7. Non-senior receptions leader total (31). Hello, Patrick Randolph. Not only did he snare both of the Owls' scores against Navy, Randolph (40-catch pace) has improved with each game.
8. Turnover ratio (plus-8). With just one interception through six games, it's difficult to post a positive turnover ratio. The Owls sit at minus-7, which explains, in part, their winless record.
9. John Thomas Shepherd rushing yards (307). Shep is on pace to rush for 224 yards, but I don't anticipate his playing nearly enough to reach that total if Nick Fanuzzi remains active.
10. Nick Fanuzzi passing yards (1,818). This one is difficult to call. If Fanuzzi continues to start, he should average at least 200 passing yards/game. That would put him right around the number, so I don't see any legit reason to take the under. The bigger goal for The Nick: 2,000.
The OG can spin a yarn with the best of them, and while his vocabulary is extensive and his experiences so exceedingly entertaining that a lack of embellishment is oftentimes difficult to believe, the man is not one for hyperbole. The OG tends to shoot straight as an arrow, even when he is being purposely coy. So, when he started dropping plaudits on freshman infielder Michael Ratterree
late Tuesday afternoon, the notepad flew open and the pen got to writing.
"He's going to be very good," The OG said. "If he isn't very good by March, he will be by April. The way Ratterree has played so far, he's going to be a starter somewhere.
"He's got the raw tools; we just need to refine them. Tool-wise he's not restricted, and attitude-wise he's not."
There's nothing like knowing that Ratterree has the physical gifts to play Division I baseball and the mental capacity to thrive for the Owls. He appears ready-made as a hitter, so it seemed appropriate to question The OG on how Ratterree is developing defensively. He has the soft hands, arm strength and expansive range to man second base, but he has to learn how to play the position at a greater depth. Formerly a shortstop at Memorial High, Ratterree needs to recognize the possibility of extending his range, his responsibilities on pop-ups as a second baseman, and the different angles that come from shifting one position to his left.
It's good that Ratterree is a willing and apt pupil, because his instructors are ready to teach.
"Our job is to familiarize him with everything before the first game," The OG said. "No surprises."
Ratterree has the largest profile of the 11 true freshmen on the roster, but several others enjoyed a solid opening week to fall ball. It should be noted that the three pitchers who have impressed thus far - Tyler Spurlin, Chase McDowell and J.T. Chargois - are superior athletes capable of playing in the field. While the Owls' lineup is ostensibly set, versatility remains an asset on a veteran club. Pitching is an area of need, but handy glove work isn't frowned upon.
"Two of the young arms, Spurlin and McDowell, have shown good velocity and good breaking balls so it's all about command with them," The OG said. "We like Chargois both as a position player and a pitcher; he's pitchable right now because he can spin it. For our kind of defense he's good because he's going to throw a lot to contact, but he's going to throw off the fat of the bat a lot.
"(With) Spurlin, McDowell and Chargois, how much they pitch this spring is going to dependent on their command and how well they hold runners and how well they field their positions. It's about being a complete pitcher."
Catcher Geoff Perrott and lefthander Holt McNair have been pleasant surprises. Perrott is progressing to the point where the staff can consider utilizing veteran catchers Diego Seastrunk and Craig Manuel as designated hitters, while McNair has pitched well enough to earn consideration as a spot reliever. McNair remains in the running to contribute next season.
One reason behind delaying the start of fall ball was to get the freshmen acclimated to their surroundings and the expectations that come with contributing for a national title contender. The additional two weeks the newcomers had to become accustomed to their teammates and expectations facilitates their rapid development, and it opened the door for several freshmen to step forward and begin the process of seizing the precious few slots that remain available.
The OG also revealed that redshirt freshman righthander Anthony Fazio
and junior lefthander Matt Evers
will pitch during the next intrasquad cycle. Neither has participated this fall.
"You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your (explicative) fingers and say, 'That's the bad guy.'"
- Tony Montana
For the sake of fair play, I will eschew the annual midseason report card because nothing positive can come from doling out D's and F's like candy corn on Halloween (aside from Owls MVP Kyle Martens
, who is deserving of an A+). Instead of wallowing in the muck that was the first half of the 2009 season, let's examine where the program is heading under David Bailiff.
For the record, I firmly believe CDC made the correct choice when he selected Bailiff to lead this program in January of 2007. And I'm not just writing that because no one outside of UTSA wanted Larry Coker
, and Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez
will be fired any day now. Bailiff had a vision for Rice football, and unlike the previous coach, he has embraced all
of the challenges that make this job a difficult one. He hasn't shied away from the academic rigors, he isn't pleading to lower standards so that he can plug gaps with JUCO players who might raise a ruckus on the other side of campus, and he continues to recruit his backside off. Is it justifiable to debate his coaching acumen? Sure it is, but no one can refute that Bailiff has the perfect disposition for his post. And, the day might soon come where his X's and O's are bigger, stronger, faster than the other coach's, so his ability to out-scheme every coach on the schedule might not be necessary. Bailiff has this ship heading in the right direction - period.
Was last Saturday difficult to stomach? Absolutely. It was gut-churning football at its worst, but the fact is things aren't going swimmingly on the Rice sideline, and it's difficult to gauge the impact injuries and youth are having on this team. I touched on some of that inexperience during 'Five Things To Watch'
last week, but there are freshmen and sophomores everywhere. The Owls started two seniors on defense (FS Andrew Sendejo and LB Terrance Garmon) and two seniors on offense (WRs Toren Dixon and Taylor Wardlow) against the Midshipmen. We discussed at length the problems this team would have without extensive senior leadership, and those concerns have manifested. Everywhere you look the Owls' roster is taking on water:FACT:
Sophomore quarterback Nick Fanuzzi played well considering he missed two weeks with a separated shoulder, and displayed rust relative to his time sidelined. It's hard to sneeze at a 130.08 efficiency rating for a quarterback making his second career start, and doing so behind a makeshift offensive line and with a running attack hampered by critical injuries. FACT:
Right guard Tyler Parish is not a guard. If it's one thing we learned last season, it's that Parish has a nice upside as a right tackle. Try as Parish might, his transition to guard has been rocky, and the Owls are in desperate need of health on the O-line, not toughness. With Jake Hicks and Eric Ball, this team would have continued to progress off the performance at Oklahoma State. And at this stage, depth on the offensive line is nonexistent. Lose two members of the rotation - two at the same position, no less - and disaster isn't far behind. FACT:
Freshman tailback Charles Ross keeps getting dinged at the worst possible time. The Vanderbilt game plan called for Ross to get 20 touches, but an asthma attack scuttled that. With the Middies coming to town and Fanuzzi back in the fold, Ross was set to be the feature back on several plays designed to get him outside of the box. One undisclosed injury later and the Owls were forced to rotate Shane Turner and Jeramy Goodson. Not having Ross or Tyler Smith to contribute to this hamstrung offense has only undermined the problems on defense.FACT:
The Owls might be down to four linebackers against East Carolina. Garmon (lung, concussion) and Matt Nordstrom (foot) are likely out for this weekend, meaning Justin Hill and true freshman Trey Briggs will be your starters. Tanner Shuck and Aaron Williams, who has been on the scout team for weeks, are your backups. Does that sound like an ideal situation?FACT:
The Owls might also be without Ryan Lewis (shoulder) and Phillip Gaines (wrist) against the Pirates. Just when you think it can't get worse, it does. These are tough times.
So, what of the second half of this season? If Fanuzzi remains active, the offense will continue to develop, just not by leaps and bounds. The defense had shown signs of improvement before Navy got everyone all confused, so there is reason to remain optimistic. Special teams have been fine (thanks, K-Mart!!!) aside from four flubbed field goals, so keep your chin up there, too. Perhaps I was overly optimistic in predicting five victories, but no one could have imagined another ravaging spate of injuries sapping this team. I thought 1-5 was a distinct possibility at this point, and while I maintain that the Owls could have defeated UAB, a loss in Birmingham is understandable considering how many guys were starting for the first time on offense. If the Owls play at East Carolina like they did in the second half against Oklahoma State and the first halves against Vanderbilt and Tulsa, they should be respectable. And, given how low expectations should have been coming into this season (replacing The Triplets plus three starters on the O-line and
the Black Knight wasn't easy), that is a reasonable goal.
Perhaps it is more fair to judge Bailiff's coaching acumen when he has a roster full of players he signed. Chances are good that Sam McGuffie and Taylor Cook, plus a second year of Fanuzzi, Ross, Vance McDonald and Luke Willson will make Coach Z look wiser, and bigger, stronger, faster defenders will lend more teeth to the 4-2-5. Building a program takes time, and after consecutive lost years recruiting (2005 and 2006), three years just might not be enough.
Saturday was not about Andrew Sendejo, who despite blowing coverage on the Middies' first play from scrimmage, played valiantly in recording 17 tackles (including 15 of the solo variety). And it certainly wasn't about Nick Fanuzzi, who certainly wasn't sharp (20-for-33 for 242 yards, two interceptions and two touchdowns) in his first game action in three weeks. This debacle against the Naval Academy was about David Bailiff and his staff, who did not have the Owls prepared to play against the Middies. This embarrassment falls squarely on their shoulders.
And, as is his custom, Bailiff attempted to fall on the sword in the aftermath of the Owls' 63-14 loss
. But this time there could be no escaping with his patented 'players win games, coaches lose 'em' spiel. Knowing full well what the Middies planned to do, the Owls still surrendered 471 rushing yards, including 82 yards and three touchdowns to backup
quarterback Kriss Proctor. How? Why? And what were the Owls doing in practice this week?
"It's not important how much I know or the coaches now, it's what we can get taught to the young men. And not just taught to where they know it, but how they execute it," Bailiff said. "We didn't do that, and got outplayed today.
"It's just learning how to defend that offense. This is a team that took Ohio State to the brink, it's a team that's been to six straight bowl games, it's a university we need to try to emulate where we're going to six straight bowl games."
I'd rather not revert to the option, thank you very much. In fact, given that Navy picks through the leavings of other programs, especially here in Texas, no one should ever have to witness what transpired at HRS. The Middies not only outplayed the Owls, they out-toughed and out-coached the Owls. That should not happen, especially in such dramatic fashion. Navy walked up and down the field, and the Owls appeared clueless on defense. And offensively it was the same ineptitude, even with The Nick at the controls. Something is systemically wrong when a team averaging 230.2 rushing yards per game after having played Ohio State and Pitt can more than double that total against a defense playing respectably of late. Very wrong.
"Every adjustment we made, everything we did didn't work," Bailiff said before stating he needed to look at the film to determine what went wrong right before his eyes an hour earlier. "We couldn't get off blocks (or) make plays. We've got to put them in situations where they can be successful.
"It was a matter of them operating at a game speed that we can't simulate in practice."
That statement sounds like a program-building problem. Bailiff has done a solid job recruiting in his three seasons on South Main, and it's going to take another year or two before this roster completely reflects his evaluation of talent. We all know that the Owls lack quality depth, and Bailiff seems well on his way to developing a talent pool that should serve Rice well.
However, one has to wonder when schematic advantages will unfold. When will the Owls take advantage of the individual brilliance of many of their players? When will the coordinators concoct game plans that are successful despite the lack of 6-3, 230-pound linebackers on the bench? Shouldn't we see more of Charles Ross, and not in option plays against option teams? Shouldn't we see Luke WIllson taking advantage of smallish linebackers and Derek Clark breaking free against undersized corners? When will this team look
smarter than its foes?
It remains to be seen whether this staff is an X's and O's staff, or one known for recruiting and motivating. And, at this stage, it's easy to question whether last season's success had more to do with senior leadership, which looks more valuable at this point than ever before, than anything the coaches did in terms of game preparation and management. The Owls lost way too much in terms of leadership and production, but even those losses shouldn't yield this. No matter what Navy did at the Horseshoe, the Middies should not hang 63 points on the Owls.
"We've got a lot of work to do," Bailiff said. "We knew this was going to be a tough year. There are wins out there for us. The thing we've got to do is not fragment, keep working hard and work through this. History is full of guys that quit; we're not going to quit. I'm not going to tell you we've quit.
"We're trying to get a group of men that have not played a lot of games together and get them seasoned and ready fast, and it hasn't happened. And that falls on me."
It's safe to assume that everyone attending Rice-Navy will participate in the military supply drive
, right? This cause is way too important to disregard or claim ignorance over, so consider this another friendly notification. When David Bailiff recalled his time in Afghanistan this past summer, he zeroed in on how appreciative our troops were during supply drops. Participate.
The stars have aligned for the Owls to record their first victory on the season. A key starter will return on offense, the defense has developed momentum since the return to HRS, and Navy is down a pair of fullbacks - a critical position for an option team. Furthermore, the Middies are coming down from an emotional high of defeating rival Air Force in thrilling fashion last week. They see the Owls' woeful record (0-5), consider how they've dominated the series in recent years (three consecutive victories including two in a row at HRS by the combined score of 79-15), and understand that the Owls can't be prepared to stop their offense after three days of practice. Rice is no Ohio State or Pittsburgh, and surely the Middies are aware of that.
This is the Owls' best opportunity at launching a sneak attack. Question is, are they capable?
1. Return of The Nick.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Nick Fanuzzi at this point of his career is the confidence that oozes from his pores. He has a way of casually discussing his role in the offense in such a straightforward manner that it elicits contentment. He always appears in complete control and cavalierly represents himself like everything will be alright, and Fanuzzi has been that way since the start of camp. Now, the Owls' problems run deeper than their two-week stint without Fanuzzi, but before you can achieve you must believe, and Fanuzzi certainly seems to believe that his return will cure most of what has ailed the Owls.
2. School Is In Session
. Did you know that five members of the Owls' eight-man rotation on the defensive line are freshmen or sophomores? That's a mighty inexperienced unit, especially against an option offense designed to confuse opposing defensive fronts. Junior end Kramer Lucio was moved inside to provide experienced depth at tackle, but the responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of freshmen Alex Lowry, Jared Williams and Cody Bauer, and sophomores John Gioffre and Michael Smith to stick to their assignments. The Owls' linebackers shouldn't be asked to chase fullbacks and quarterbacks all game long.
3. Swing It To The Right.
With Fanuzzi back at the controls, left tackle Kody Emmert (making just his second career start) will have blindside duty. But a lot of the Owls' problems up front against Tulsa came on the right side of the line where tackle-turned-guard Tyler Parish surrendered too much ground too often, and tackle Scott Mitchell struggled staying in sync with Parish. With one game and a second week of practice under their belts, Parish and Mitchell should show signs of improvement. They'd better, or Fanuzzi will be on his backside.
4. Don't Forget JT.
There was an unwritten backup plan in place that involved John Thomas Shepherd playing a 'slash' role in the Owls' offense if he failed to win the starting quarterback job. Well, with Fanuzzi and redshirt freshman Ryan Lewis ahead of Shepherd on the depth chart, the time has come to utilize Shepherd in a creative manner. While he is the backup to Andrew Sendejo on punt returns, Shepherd must see the field at receiver in some packages. He is good in space, has solid hands and, as a quarterback, could serve as a unique weapon.
5. Take a Seat, Fellas.
For all the chatter about the Owls' improved defense, the opponents' third-down conversion rate (40.9 percent) is nothing to laud. The Owls rank 82nd nationally in that category, and with Navy aiming to run the football and chew up time of possession (Navy ranks fifth nationally in T.O.P. at 33:29), the Owls must find a way to stall Midshipmen drives when opportunities are presented. If the offense is to snap out of its funk, multiple possessions would be a plus. That means the Owls need to force punts, not watch the chain gang move.
Thoughts? Questions? Concerns?
I don't plan on utilizing that corny title too often, but every now and again I stumble into an interesting conversation with a student-athlete on campus, and when I do I have to frame it somehow. What will I write when I chat with Funmi Jimoh
? I shudder at the mere thought.
Owls senior RHP Mike Ojala
began his throwing program on Oct. 8, just 10 days shy of the four-month anniversary of his June 18th Tommy John surgery
performed by Dr. J.P. Bramhall. The throwing program consists of two sets of 25 throws from 45 feet and gradually increases to 180 feet, which is the final step before throwing out of the bullpen. Ojala is set to work from the bullpen rubber in late November, and remains on schedule for an April 1 return to action.
Ojala selected Bramhall, the father of former Rice pitcher Bobby Bramhall
and disciple of famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews, because Bramhall has an aggressive approach to rehabilitation. Texas A&M LHP Aaron Daab
pitched this past summer, just nine months after Bramhall performed his ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction. Because Ojala had a fraying of the ligament, not a full tear, he is confident he'll be back in under 10 months.
"Me, Dr. Bramhall and Matt Holland, the rehab guy, (April 1) is what we are shooting for," Ojala said. "(Dr. Bramhall) likes to release guys nine months, 10 months (out from surgery) and let them get back out there and get after it. It's a big year for me. I want to get it done this year."
Primarily used as a starter throughout his sophomore and junior seasons, Ojala (drafted in the 34th round by Milwaukee last June) knows that when he does return he will have to contribute out of the bullpen. That, Ojala said, won't be a problem. He considers his relief appearance last March 17 against No. 1 Texas
as one of the highlights of his college career, and given the impact former Owls pitcher and Tommy John success story Bobby Bell
had as a reliever down the stretch in 2008 (1-0, 1.31 ERA with three saves, a .139 BAA, 0.87 WHIP and 28 Ks in 20 2/3 IP), Ojala is looking forward to the opportunity to work from the back end of the bullpen.
"I'd love to do the Bobby Bell set up," Ojala said. "I love closing. If I get the opportunity to do that, I'll jump on it for sure. I really feed off those big pressure situations. I love those."
The Owls wouldn't mind a quality bullpen addition for the final three months of the 2010 season. If Ojala returns for the Rice-UH series that first weekend in April, he could provide a boost of significant proportions, the kind that ignites runs to Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha.
Blame Nick Fanuzzi
Had Fanuzzi eschewed the impromptu John Elway
imitation during the second half in Stillwater on Sept. 19, many of you would not have spent the third quarters of the past two games running aimlessly around the metal bleachers at HRS, a la Ricky Bobby
, asking Fanuzzi to help the Owls' offense. You would have rationally accepted the fact that those dreadful performances (23 plays for 42 yards against Vanderbilt and
Tulsa) were as much a product of athletically capable defenses and hastily reconfigured offensive lines as they were a reflection of the Owls' confounding struggles at quarterback. The invisible fire surrounding an offense going down in flames obstructed your view, and Fanuzzi should be held liable for elevating your hopes to a stratosphere where only his presence can sate your qualifications.
Well, dreams apparently do come true and Black Knight
s can slip surreptitiously into the living quarters of third-year sophomores and lay healing hands on separated shoulders in the still of the night. In a matter of days Fanuzzi has been transformed from Fred Sanford
to Jack Lalanne
, and he will start behind center for your Mighty Owls on Saturday afternoon against the Naval Academy. Will his return alone be enough to jump-start the Owls' stalled attack?
"It's a little bit more than that," Fanuzzi said. "Obviously there are going to be things going on in the game that I'll have to pick up, but more than anything I can bring excitement and enthusiasm and a confidence - call it a swagger - back to this team, and get this ball rolling for the second half of this season. Go at it one play at a time, and one play at a time means getting first downs and scoring the first drive. If it doesn't happen the first, do it the second, third and fourth. At Oklahoma State we didn't have a smooth start, but we got things rolling."
OK, so Fanuzzi is confident, a character trait one expects from signal callers. But is it fair to heap the responsibility of reigniting the Owls' offense on his rehabilitated right shoulder? Don't the Owls need a suitable performance from the right side of their line, where tackle Scott Mitchell and guard Tyler Parish will start out of position for a second consecutive contest? Doesn't left tackle Kody Emmert need to provide better protection than he did last week against Tulsa? And shouldn't the staff utilize freshman tailback Charles Ross in a manner that benefits the offense as a whole while alleviating pressure on Fanuzzi as he makes his return?
The excitement over Fanuzzi's return is warranted; his arm strength, cocksure and toughness are sure to provide a breath of fresh air to the Owls' deflated offense. But so many pieces must fall into place before the Owls can pick up where they left off at Boone Pickens Stadium, and that truism should weigh on those waiting anxiously for Fanuzzi to make his HRS debut.
"He's just got to make sure he distributes the football to everybody that he can," Owls coach David Bailiff said. "It's not just on his shoulders. We've got to get everybody over there stepping up and making plays."
Efforting to be in two places at one time ...
Since I'm not in the business of telling others what to believe, I'll present two facts regarding Owls So. QB Nick Fanuzzi and will let you determine his playing status for this weekend:
1. After taking reps with the 2s on Monday night, Fanuzzi took the majority of reps with the 1s Tuesday afternoon. And, he looked completely fine doing so save for a couple of sailing balls.
2. David Bailiff said he will determine Fanuzzi's status for the Navy game on Wednesday morning after Fanuzzi checks in with the trainers to gauge his pain following these workouts.
Having Fanuzzi back in the fold enables the Owls to add some wrinkles to the offense. With some players seeing increased playing time, others switching positions in recent weeks, and others armed with the versatility to play multiple positions, the possibility would exist for an expansion of the playbook if the Owls weren't playing two linemen (Scott Mitchell and Tyler Parish) out of position and sending another (Kody Emmert) out for just his second career start.
"It's not really the quarterbacks, it's the offensive line," Bailiff said of scaling back the offense in order to improve pass protection. "What people don't realize is those (linemen) have got to work together."
Bailiff bolstered the depleted interior of his defensive line by moving end Kramer Lucio to tackle. Chance Talbert (back) and Brian Stacey (knee) are unavailable, and with Lucio sliding down expect freshman end Cody Bauer to see more playing time in the four-man end rotation.
After one quick dash across the expanse of concrete separating the grass practice fields at HRS and The Reck, the news from Day 2 of fall ball was Fr. RHP Chase McDowell touching 90 on the gun a dozen times. McDowell also displayed a good curve, a positive development considering he arrived on campus with a mechanical flaw that David Pierce flushed out. Sr. RHP Jared Rogers also touched 90 several times, a drastic turn of events relative to last fall when he didn't hit 90 once. As long as Rogers sits between 87-90 and pitches with movement, he'll be OK. He is a four-pitch pitcher, and that arsenal makes 90 mph more that sufficient.
So. C/DH Craig Manuel continues to show good plate discipline and bat control. In fact, several hitters in need of improvement in the plate discipline category showed well against Matthew Reckling, who unleashed a handful of tough curves just south of the strike zone. Steven Sultzbaugh enjoyed another multi-hit day at the plate, and one day after producing a fabulous sliding catch on a dead run to second base, he delivered a fantastic grab with his back to the plate. One can imagine what will magic will unfold when Sultz puts it all together.
Defensively, the Owls recorded a half-dozen 'very good' plays, a surprising total considering it was a split-squad affair. By Week 3 the defense will deteriorate as the focus wanes, but watching the Owls perform at their peak inspires promise for their defensive potential in 2010.
Now, if I could get Bailiff and The OG to adjust their practice schedules so I can attend both ...
When the news that Owls senior receiver Corbin Smiter
would not attempt to play again this season and that he would seek a medical redshirt so that he could participate as a fifth-year senior in 2010 reached my iPhone last Friday afternoon, I immediately thought back to a candid offseason conversation I had with an anonymous member of the football program.
While outlining the Owls' potential depth at the skill positions, my conversation partner lamented the fact that former Rice coach Todd Graham opted not to redshirt Toren Dixon and Smiter when they were true freshmen in 2006. Dixon and Smiter combined to catch 14 balls for 136 yards and no touchdowns in '06, numbers that could have been made up elsewhere. Had Dixon and Smiter watched and learned as freshmen, they would be fourth-year juniors this season and, better still, would be back in the fold in 2010 when Rice expects to have Nick Fanuzzi or Taylor Cook at quarterback, and Sam McGuffie and Charles Ross in the backfield.
We both drifted off into a happy place envisioning that collection of talent before moving on. Without Dixon, Smiter and Taylor Wardlow, the Owls were positioned to lack experience at receiver next year, that is before Smiter and the Rice coaching staff decided to end Smiter's fruitless attempt to return and contribute following his mid-summer sports hernia surgery.
"That was definitely pretty difficult," Smiter said of the decision to seek a medical redshirt and cut short his senior season. "It was something I had to talk to my family about, I had to pray about, and get Coach (David) Bailiff's opinion on. It was difficult, but I feel that I made the best decision for this ballclub as well as myself.
"I could struggle through this season and push through pain or potentially re-injure myself, or I could come back when I'm really healthy and really contribute more than I can now. That was definitely something that was on my mind."
Smiter could have made a similar decision in 2007 when he participated in three games in October before breaking his foot. He returned for the Owls' Conference USA game at Marshall and broke his foot again in pregame warm-ups. Smiter was sidelined for the remainder of his sophomore season and didn't regain his footing (no pun intended) until the midpoint of the 2008 campaign, one in which he produced 30 receptions for 487 yards and three touchdowns.
Following hernia surgery in early July, Smiter was cleared for full participation midway through fall camp. However, despite his best efforts, he struggled to regain form, and after catching one pass for nine yards against Vanderbilt two weekends ago, decided to stop fighting in vain.
"There was definitely progress being made," Smiter said. "The problem was that it would continually re-aggravate itself. I would rest, it would heal, progress would be made, then during practice a lot of times it would bother me. In games it definitely started bothering me a lot. It just was not healing. It was obvious that I was not a hundred percent healthy."
Smiter practiced Monday, and will do so in a limited capacity for the rest of this season. The injury does not require additional surgery, only rest, and the expectation is that Smiter will be without restriction for spring drills. Perhaps then he will finally get an opportunity to cut loose.
"It's real hard to watch your teammates play," Smiter said. "Your brothers are out there playing and you have to sit out on the side just watching, just dying to get in there. All I can do is focus on getting healthy and helping this team next year."
Here's an update on the eight players signed in 2006 who have played or intended to play receiver:Pierre Beasley
: 11 receptions, 214 yards, 1 TD.Toren Dixon
: 126 receptions, 1,328 yards, 11 TDs.Evan Fentriss
: transferred to North Texas following the 2006 season and is out of football.Kasey Nobles
: transferred to Clemson after redshirting in 2006.Andrew Novak
: forced to retire following foot injuries and serves as a team videographer.Patrick Randolph
: 33 receptions, 336 yards, 2 TDs.Corbin Smiter
: 44 receptions, 659 yards, 3 TDs.Taylor Wardlow
: 48 receptions, 550 yards, 6 TDs.
When Nick Fanuzzi
completed the Period 1 drill Coach Z takes his quarterbacks through, the one where they throw balls from the 5-yard line over the crossbar and to another quarterback standing by the wall at the lip of the tunnel, eyebrows were raised. Fanuzzi was unable to finish that same drill without pain last week, giving indication he would not play against Tulsa.
When Fanuzzi actually took reps with the second-team offense, well, it was time for a chat:
"I've taken some huge strides since (the shoulder separation at Oklahoma State) first happened," Fanuzzi said. "Coming out (Monday night) was more fun. Obviously it's a lot better to get some throws in and get some reps with the team versus sitting back and watching, which is always tough. It's great to finally get out here and start doing some drills and team play."Q: How do you feel right now after starting and stopping the past couple of weeks?A:
Right now I know that I've made some strides and I'm getting closer to where I want to be, but I realize that I'm still not where I want to be. I'm very happy with where I'm going at this point, but I'm still not to the point where I want to get to. I realize there are still a lot more things I need to do to get prepared for (a game): get more reps, get in the game mentality, and (have) no hesitations. Coach (David Bailiff) and I have been talking (about) taking it one step at a time. I'm very happy to finally get some reps with the team. I'm very excited about that."Q: Are you finally able to see where the rehab from the past two weeks is paying dividends? A:
Oh definitely. The first week I came out in warmups I could barely get my arm around. It's very difficult to know that you can't do little things like that. Obviously to get out here and get some balls thrown feels a whole lot better, so I'm very excited about where it's gotten to."Q: How do you avoid the temptation of rushing back given the recent struggles offensively?A:
We've had a lot of struggles with guys getting hurt, and there is no point of trying to get out there too early if you can't perform at your top level. So you need to be smart and realize that, even though you want to get in very, very badly and help your team out, you've got to wait until you're a hundred percent so when you do get in there it's not just pretending your a hundred percent it's knowing you're a hundred percent and having confidence in your throws and running the team. We're going to make sure that when I get out there I'm fully ready to play."
Given the immediacy of this news, I'll postpone the Corbin Smiter conversation until Tuesday.
Excuse me, Mr. Simmons
. Are you planning to pitch like that
during the 2010 season? The Owls could use a lefthanded reliever with a solid changeup, a burgeoning breaking ball and a low-90s heater with late bite down in the zone. If Monday was a preview of what's ahead, cool.
Look, there is no need to get all excited about Anthony Rendon (The OG: "It's good that he looks like he's still having a good time out there.") rolling out of bed and collecting three hits and two RBIs, or Rick Hague, Michael Ratterree and Steven Sultzbaugh notching two hits apiece. Hague drawing that walk in his first at-bat was a plus, especially considering the live chat conversation on his disturbing strikeout-to-walk ratio last season (69-to-22). The staff tied the problem to his looping swing on fastballs away, an issue that has since been corrected.
One two-way player with potential that I failed to mention earlier: Fr. RHP/OF Tyler Spurlin (The Woodlands High). He opened the game DHing for Taylor Wall, who played left field (don't ask) and was the final pitcher of the afternoon for the Gray. Spurlin has a "good arm" with a "workable breaking ball" but, like the other youngsters, he "must command the strike zone."
Tony Cingrani started for the Blue and had some issues (four runs allowed on four hits and three walks), but not the sort of problems that caused The OG to blink. As he recalled, Josh Geer was "murdered" in his first three fall outings prior to the 2005 season. It all worked out.
Fr. OF Will Maxwell (Marietta, Ga.) showed a good line-drive stroke, but that's one crowded outfield. Keep an eye on him and chart his progress as the pitchers get their repertoires going.
As for Simmons, The OG said: "He was a plus. He threw a lot of good pitches. If he continues on that path he can help us."
In the postgame aftermath of the Owls' dismal 27-10 loss to Tulsa
at HRS, David Bailiff made two comments that raised antennae. Before offering some perspective, read both for yourself:
"I know there's a lot of wins left in this season for this team. There's a lot of good still out there for us. We've got seven opportunities left, and I know that each week we continue to improve."
"No matter what anybody tells me we're going to keep the expectations for this program high, and we're not going to change the expectations. And we're not going to let the virus of losing set in to this program. I want the virus of success infecting this program, and we're going to continue to work hard to give Rice University what Rice deserves and this football team deserves."
The first comment clearly speaks to the prospects for this season, which in all honesty look quite depressing at this juncture. At the season's onset, the best-case scenario for the Owls would have yielded six wins and a possible bowl berth, and by any definition losing three offensive starters does not equate to a best-case scenario. Current results serving as a guide, the Owls will be lucky to win four of their remaining seven games, and that's with Nick Fanuzzi, Tyler Smith and Jake Hicks back in the fold. The team lacked experience and depth going into Birmingham, and the injuries have only exacerbated those obvious shortcomings.
The second comment really struck a nerve because one has to wonder who questioned Bailiff to his face about the direction of the program. Those with intimate ties to Rice football have expressed excitement over the prospects for the 2010 and 2011 seasons, such unbridled enthusiasm that it was easy to assume that even those with their fingerprints all over Rice football had conceded this season as one for rebuilding. With just two senior starters on defense (FS Andrew Sendejo and LB Terrance Garmon), no seniors in the offensive line rotation, and a pair of gifted transfers (RB Sam McGuffie and QB Taylor Cook) set to bolster a collection of skill players teeming with potential, the immediate future of Rice football is bright. Who believes otherwise?
Clearly someone with some access to Bailiff does, or he would not have gone on the record with his defensive statement. It was easy to write off this season before the Owls faced UAB. The senior class is fractured, the non-conference schedule was unforgiving, and the Owls were at a talent deficit thanks to recruiting hauls in 2005 and '06 thin on impact players. This 0-5 start underscores the notion that today's strife will be erased by tomorrow's success, although Bailiff went out of his way to declare that the final seven games really do matter.
So if all hope isn't lost and the rest of the schedule has value what, beyond getting healthy, can be done to reverse this losing skid? With the recent performances delivered by the defense and the stunning maturation of sophomore punter Ray Guy, err, Kyle Martens, will plugging Fanuzzi, Hicks and Smith back into the mix revive what has lost breath the past two weeks? Or, are the Owls in desperate need of some other jolt (aggressive play-calling, etc.)?
As for Corbin Smiter, the lingering soreness from his early-July sports hernia surgery made the decision to sit him for the balance of this season an easy one. Smiter has endured an injury-marred career on South Main, and one can only hope that given a full 10 months to recover he can come back for his fifth season ready to contribute according to his capabilities.
Looking back, that '06 class of receivers has been snake bit. There was so much hoopla over their arrival, which coincided with the Owls switching to the spread and the overwhelming worry over the lack of returning receivers capable of thriving in the new offense. As it turned out, Jarett Dillard, Joel Armstrong, Mike Falco and Tommy Henderson did just fine. The eight athletes signed in February 2006 to catch passes? Only Toren Dixon has made a real impact.
For all the pregame chatter about Owls fans sitting in the stands at HRS, the participation in last weekend's Rice-Vanderbilt live chat was exceptional. The standard for home games has been set, so the expectations are that you guys will adhere to it. Chat with you this afternoon.
As for the Countdown to Kickoff on ESPN 97.5 The Ticket, here is what the crew of David Saltzman (Play-by-Play), Nate Griffin (Analysis) and Jorge Vargas (Sideline) have in store:
5:30 - Saltzy sets the scene from HRS. Expect a reference to the last time Rice opened 0-4.
5:35 - The crew analyzes the defense and the potential field day for the Owls' junior ends.
5:40 - Owls senior free safety Andrew Sendejo provides the perspective of a star performer.
5:45 - Time to talk Tulsa and perhaps dissect the ridiculous Capt. Cane that debuted recently.
5:50 - A little love for senior tailback Marcus Knox, the focus of the Tomorrow's Leader feature.
5:55 - A serious discourse on the offense, which will feature freshman tailback Charles Ross.
6:00 - Co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach Craig Naivar screams his way into your heart.
6:05 - 'It's OK w/ MK.' Perhaps we can steer the discussion to food, and the sushi at Kubo's?
6:10 - Griffin gets you up to speed on the scoreboard and artfully avoids that UAB-USM final.
6:15 - David Bailiff convinces all they can move mountains. Or at least that the Owls will win.
Like a candle flickering in a faint breeze, Ryan Lewis
provided hope for illumination to most everyone who watched the first half of the Owls' home opener. He displayed surprising mobility, somewhat startling arm strength and, most importantly, Lewis showcased a modest command of the offense operating in relief of John Thomas Shepherd, who himself was starting only because Nick Fanuzzi was sidelined with a Grade-1 right shoulder separation.
For a fleeting series of moments Lewis left most everyone feeling that everything would be OK no matter how long Fanuzzi was sidelined. Everyone recognized that Lewis possessed talent and cool, but to watch it manifest in an actual game enabled all concerned parties to exhale.
Then, during the course of the Owls' most labor-intensive drive of the first half, Lewis absorbed a succession of vicious blows that yielded a negative cumulative effect. In the second half he wasn't as calm or collected, and he certainly was nowhere near as accurate. He was clearly frazzled, a victim of a two-year layoff combined with a ferocious series of hits. By the close of the night we were left wondering what was next for Lewis and how he would respond when given another opportunity to climb aboard that horse and ride once more.
Ryan Lewis, your steed awaits. The Owls' offense is in need of your moxie and leadership.
1. In Search of ... Stephen Reaves
. Yes, the similarities are striking. In 2007, the Owls opened the season with a loss to what many assumed was an inferior opponent, then dropped three consecutive games in decisive fashion to BCS opponents. They followed that 0-4 start with a surprising win at Southern Miss thanks in no small part to Reaves' four interceptions and the Golden Eagles' seven turnovers. Chances are good G.J. Kinne has no intentions of tossing four picks, but if someone wants to exchange his No. 4 jersey for the No. 12, go right ahead.
2. Turnover No. 6!
The Owls have forced only five turnovers (including just one interception) this season. No matter how resilient the effort, the defense won't survive against the Golden Hurricane without takeaways. And it's not like the injury-ravaged offense couldn't use a little help in the possessions and field position departments. Someone - anyone - pick and pounce.
3. Solly Feels Like Bustin' Loose
. Surely this is the game in which junior defensive end Scott Solomon wreaks havoc and spends most of the evening in the opposing backfield? Solomon has received a disproportionate amount of attention from opposing offenses, and the number of chip blocks he gets from tight ends and tailbacks must be wearing on his patience. But Tulsa has started two left tackles, three left guards and two centers over its first four games. Its line has had problems protecting Kinne, so the time is right for Solomon to finally break out.
4. Breathe In, Breathe Out
. Hey, Charles Ross
, be sure to get a good night's sleep. Word on the street is that your workload is set to increase 20-fold. You were scheduled for similar duties against Vanderbilt before you lost your breath and couldn't get it back following your breathtaking touchdown run against the Commodores. Your problem is nothing a sizable dose of albuterol can't cure, so load up on the inhalers and get primed to carry one weary offense.
5. Let's Go Crazy!
Well, let's get reckless and open up that playbook! It is totally justifiable that Coach Z opted to play it close to the vest against Texas Tech and Vanderbilt given his overwhelmed O-line and the issues of his ineffective and inexperienced quarterbacks. And while Tulsa has superior athletes, the advantage isn't so galling that the Owls should be limited to the conservative pages in their playbook. The time has come to empty the clip and come out with guns blazing. This offense needs to be given a chance to prove it's trustworthy.
Thoughts? Questions? Concerns?
The Houston Race for the Cure is being held on Saturday at Sam Houston Park downtown. The event benefits Susan G. Komen for the Cure, an organization dedicated to ending breast cancer through research and education. The Mighty Owls have a participating team, Rice for the Cure, and additional members as well as donations are being accepted. Also, 'Rice for the Cure' t-shirts are available for purchase with net proceeds benefiting Race for the Cure.
Day-of-event registration begins on-site at 6 a.m., with opening ceremonies kicking off at 7:45 a.m. Rice for the Cure team members will meet at Bagby and Lamar (Heritage Park corner) at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday.
For additional information, visit Komen Houston Race for the Cure
• • •
The Rice Athletics Hall of Fame induction if scheduled for Friday, Oct. 9 in the Grand Hall at the RMC. Drinks and hors d'oeuvres will be served at 5:30 p.m. The program begins at 6:30.
Former men's basketball coach/'R' Association executive director Don Knodel, 3-time NCAA 400 meter champion and six-time All-American Allison Beckford, and All-American shortstop Damon Thames will be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Ron and Margie Sass (Honorary R Award), and Gene Walker and Leland Winston (Distinguished R Award) will also be honored.
Visit the Hall of Fame
page for ticket information.
• • •
Saturday's Rice-Tulsa clash at Historic Rice Stadium coincides with the Take a Kid to the Game promotion which enables a child 13 and under to receive a free youth ticket with the purchase of an adult ticket. For information on this marketing bonanza, call 713-522-OWLS.
Jim Bevan isn't a man consumed by doubt, so even as he prepared his collection of cross country athletes for the Islander Splash minus veterans Allison Pye
and Nicole Mericle
he awaited something positive, a jarring jolt of optimism in the midst of an injury-marred start.
Freshman Heather Olson obliged when she placed third overall, completed the 5K in 17:00.5 and as the first varsity competitor, and earned Athlete of the Week honors from the C-USA office. With Pye (chin splints) and Mericle (foot) lost for this cross country season, Olson provided Bevan hope that his youthful squad might ultimately develop into something formidable as the events accumulate and the weeks methodically tick off the calendar.
"When I recruited her (Olson) I expected her to have a lot of potential and to be good, but I didn't expect it right off the bat," Bevan said as he prepared to travel his team to South Bend, Ind., for Friday's Notre Dame Invitational. "She has done a tremendous job and she, I think, has the characteristics and earmarkings of someone who is going to be a great runner following in the footsteps of a lot of the great runners we've had. I'm very impressed with her."
Olson isn't alone in that regard. Freshman Joanna Ohm has flashed tremendous potential, while classmates Marie Walsh and Kathryn Zebrowski could provide sufficient depth given the opportunity they will be presented. Marie Thompson has progressed so dramatically that Bevan drew comparisons to the incredible development Britany Williams
and Lennie Waite enjoyed. With Pye needing two months of rest after her chin splints responded negatively to treatment and Mericle struggling to return to form after breaking her foot in the steeplechase at the NCAA Regional in Norman, Okla., last May, Bevan needs his youngsters to step up. This squad lacks experience and might not capture the C-USA title, yet expectations remain.
"We still have a good team this year, and we still are setting the bar to try to get to the national meet," Bevan said. "It just may take a little longer this fall to see if it happens. We're going to have to do something great at regionals most likely."
The injuries to Pye and Mericle and the emergence of Olson and Ohm prompted Bevan to make an audacious move: he will redshirt Williams, a senior, and junior Becky Wade
this fall. Wade and Williams ran unattached at the Islander Splash and finished first and second, respectively, but they will be shut down and initiate preparations for the indoor track season. They will train with their younger teammates and provide leadership along the way, but Bevan envisions a golden opportunity ahead in 2010, one that requires unorthodox maneuvering.
With Wade, an All-American in the 10K at the NCAA Outdoors, Williams, Pye, Mericle and the aforementioned freshman class all back next season, Bevan will field his deepest and most talent-laden cross country squad, a team that could potentially challenge for supremacy at nationals. Sitting Williams, who was raring to explode as a senior, and Wade, who arrived this semester in the best shape of her career, is a risk, but one Bevan feels is absolutely justifiable.
"This program is getting to where I was hoping it would get," Bevan said. "We have quality, we have kids that we've recruited or have already been to that level, and then we have another group that has a chance to mature and get to that level with time. We have two things going on: an experienced group, and a young group where those girls who are experienced that's where they were two or three years ago. If we can get the same type of development (from the freshmen), we can be a player at the national level. And not just to get to nationals.
"We're getting to where we can talk about us in the same sentence with (seven-time national champion) Villanova and (five-time champion) Stanford and (two-time champion) Oregon. We're getting to where we can talk about our women's cross country program at that level."
Bevan would not have hatched this plan, approved by Rice athletic director Chris Del Conte, if Pye and Mericle were healthy. And had Williams insisted on running as a fourth-year senior, Wade would have run, too. But by redshirting both, Bevan is positioning the Owls to make noise on the national level next season and beyond because Pye and Wade will be seniors in 2011 and Bevan is making inroads on the recruiting trail. The ability to develop depth - potent, quality depth - was the impetus behind this rare, but previously successful, move.
So Bevan will train his young charges to run hard and pursue lofty goals, but the success the Owls are sure to enjoy this season could merely whet the appetite for what may come. Bevan is planning to excel in the present, but the distant future is bright. There is no doubt about it.
"We want to do something great; we just don't want to do something good," Bevan said. "If we would have kept running everybody that is healthy I think we could have made it back to the national meet. But we want to make a breakthrough at the next level, not just make it to nationals, not just finish in the top 20. We want to make a breakthrough, and I feel like we need something like this to make a breakthrough. And once we make a breakthrough I'm hoping we can sustain it. I believe we can sustain it, we just need to make a breakthrough.
"This could put us over the top. This could put us where next November, we've got a shot at a trophy."