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A Critical Offseason

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No matter your opinion of David Bailiff, whether you remain resolute in the assertion that he represents the ideal steward for Rice football or you adamantly believe his shortcomings as a coach supersede his amiability, everyone can agree that this offseason will forever shape his legacy on South Main, right? Should he stick to his plan of building Rice into a winner and do whatever is necessary to field a bowl-eligible team in 2010, many will forgive the debacle that was 2009. Should Bailiff make questionable personnel decisions next spring and show scant progress in distancing himself from a season filled with errors, injuries and poor preparation, his detractors will stockpile ammunition in the argument that last year's bowl bid was a mirage.

From this corner he remains the right man for the job, but it's easy to sympathize with those who have grown weary of what comes across as excuses. A challenging schedule, Injuries, inexperience and the lack of quality depth played significant roles in the Owls' 2-10 finish, but so did schematic miscues and personnel blunders. Few things in life are cut and dry, and to lay all the blame for the Owls' miserable season on the coaches is as full of folly as harping on youth. Everyone shared in this collapse, and everyone must chip in to rectify the situation.

OFFENSE. The Owls dropped from 10th in total offense in 2008 to 110th in 2009, and fell from eighth in scoring offense last season to 109th this season. I respect the talent and leadership Chase Clement, Jarett Dillard, James Casey, Austin Wilkinson, David Berken and Jimmy Miller provided in their final season with the Owls, but such a precipitous drop off in productivity is about way more than personnel. Several things went terribly wrong on offense.

Quarterback: So. Nick Fanuzzi sparkled in Birmingham, scuffled in Lubbock, won the starting job in Stillwater, missed two games with a shoulder sprain, stumbled upon his return, then posted consecutive games where his brilliance justified the overriding belief that he was the signal caller of the future. He came back to the pack with underwhelming efforts against UTEP and UH, a grouping that includes Miami transfer Taylor Cook and RS Fr. Taylor McHargue.

While already aware of Cook's arm strength and pinpoint accuracy, it made for intriguing conversation when an upperclassman saddled up next to me during one practice and gushed about Cook. His teammates have taken notice of his obvious talent, and plenty of fans are ready to anoint him the starter for 2010. Fanuzzi will have something to say about that as will McHargue, who has that hard-to-define 'it' that made Clement so special. This competition will trump last spring's chase because of the talent (Cook), experience (Fanuzzi) and moxie (McHargue) of the participants. Whoever emerges should be the guy without lingering debate.

Tailback: Charles Ross led the Owls in rushing (491 yards) and scoring (11 TDs) as a true freshman, and Tyler Smith proved to be far more than serviceable. Michigan transfer Sam McGuffie is the fastest player I have seen in a Rice uniform, and he will be a difference-maker.

But what is the best course of action to utilize all three tailbacks? Smith offers that every-down appeal, McGufffie will cause opposing coordinators fits when put in space, and Ross has the potential to be special because of his size, speed and versatility. However, the offense might need some modification to keep all three actively involved, which should be a primary goal.

Receiver: Gone are Toren Dixon and Taylor Wardlow, who combined for 91 receptions, 1,007 yards and seven TDs. Back are a motley mix of secondary receivers (Corbin Smiter, Patrick Randolph, Pierre Beasley, Derek Clark, Taylor Dupree) and two talented (and under utilized) tight ends - Vance McDonald and Luke Willson. Toss in Denzel Wells (shoulder) and Brent Hotard (thumb) - two camp standouts who had their seasons undercut by injuries - and freshmen Donte Moore and Andre Gautreaux, and options abound. But the same thing was written heading into this past season, and the receiving corps made precious little impact.

The staff needs to find a half-dozen viable receivers and coach 'em up. The Owls could run more out of the spread set next season, but the receivers have to pose some semblance of a vertical threat. That maddening series of dink-and-dunk passes didn't scare anybody this year.

Line: The prevailing theme from the first half of the season - "we're starting four sophomores and one junior!" - was muted by injuries to So. RG Jake Hicks (foot) and shaky performances down the stretch. Bailiff is a real stickler on linemen, and these guys are players he recruited and signed. Beyond Eric Ball and Bobby Janish, it's difficult to identify serious threats to crack the starting five of Keshawn Carrington, Davon Allen, Tyler Parish, Scott Mitchell and Hicks. Should this quintet improve with another offseason of working together under their collective belts? Absolutely, but not one member should be resting on his laurels. The line did not block or protect well enough as a group to reclaim starting roles automatically. Those jobs must be earned, and hopefully those five linemen will be pushed hard throughout spring workouts.

DEFENSE. In the three seasons Bailiff, Chuck Driesbach and Craig Naivar have run the defense, the Owls have ranked 118th, 113th and 117th nationally in total defense, and 118th, 104th and 120th (dead last in 2009, folks) nationally in scoring defense. Injuries have forced them to juggle lineups in all three seasons, with walk-ons and true freshmen filling gaps other programs would plug with veterans. For the first time since Bailiff arrived, he will have athletes who played linebacker in high school playing linebacker for his defense. That will be key. So will be the experience the Owls gained by starting so many freshmen and sophomores as injuries mounted. But is returning 10 starters from the 117th-ranked defense a good thing?

Line: The Owls really missed the depth Arnaud Gascon-Nadon would have provided had he not gone AWOL, but they managed behind exceptional performances from Jr. DEs Scott Solomon and Cheta Ozougwu, who combined for 124 tackles, 21 TFLs, 11 sacks and assorted other statistics reflecting general mayhem. Jr. DE Kramer Lucio struggled to stay healthy while Jared Williams and Cody Bauer grew up and should be serviceable reserves.

But what of the depth at end and tackle? Will RS Fr. Nic Hammett remain at DE, where he appears to be more valuable, or shift back to LB? How much will a healthy RS Fr. Josh Skinner (knee) reinforce the depth at end? And where will help emerge in support of young DTs Alex Lowry, Michael Smith, John Gioffre and Brian Stacey? That four-man rotation could use some bolstering; will RS Fr. Hosam Shahin, plus a couple of walk-ons, be the answer?

Linebacker: Driesbach will finally get to coach linebackers with the instincts for the position. No more converted safeties, ends or tailbacks (well, except for Justin Hill), and that should help. Trey Briggs wore down a bit playing as a true freshman, but a full offseason should positively impact his frame. Idaho transfer Justin Allen looks like a keeper. The depth? Will it be provided by true freshmen - again? That's not the ideal situation, so hope that Matt Nordstrom and Ronnie Lillard continue to improve given the opportunity that will be presented.

Secondary: Now playing the role of Andrew Sendejo, defensive leader, is Travis Bradshaw. While his position at KAT is secure, the remainder of the secondary is in flux. Is Chris Jones the answer at free safety, or will he shift back to strong safety to allow Xavier Webb to grow into the role as starter? Will Willie Garley and Max Anyiam continue to platoon at strong safety, or will the staff finally move RS Fr. Tolu Akinwumi from corner to strong safety, where he could be a beast? What role will RS Fr. Andre Brackens play in the secondary? Broderick Jackson? Paul Porras and Turner Petersen? Will one of those two wind up on offense permanently? And what about the cornerbacks? That turned out to be a mess, didn't it?

Surely Chris Jammer and Jarrett Ben will bounce back from substandard seasons, right? Or will they find themselves backing up the true freshmen who played without fear in 2009 - Phillip Gaines and Kevin Gaddis? Cory Frazier moved to safety early in the season, and he might thrive there once he fills out. Alex Francis should be better prepared to carve a place in the corner rotation. Joseph Leary (hamstring) is committed to reviving his career one last time.

Specialists: Shane Turner was a pleasant surprise returning kicks, a role he should hold for the remainder of his career. Mark Brundage proved to be a blessing in disguise punting behind starter Kyle Martens, and Chris Boswell will get his shot to be the No. 1 placekicker. Brandon Yelovich acquitted himself quite nicely after struggling mightily while handling kickoffs in 2008.

As always, the floor is open for your contributions on this topic.

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15 Comments

Great article. The offense will determine our success next year. We simply don't have the personnel on defense to succeed. LBs and CBs are particularly weak, Gaines excepted. I hope I'm wrong. Freshmen will contribute here again next year...

On offense we have to pick a QB before the season starts. We also have to find a way to get production out of our WRs. McGuffie needs to touch the ball 20 times a game in some form or fashion. McDonald needs to take a big step up. Hopefully the continuity in the o-line builds some chemistry.

Kitzbuhel: Twenty touches for McGuffie? No concern that might be too many for someone of his size, or because C-USA isn't the Big Ten is that no longer an issue? - MK

I sort of forgot about Arnaud Gascon-Nadon. Did he formally leave the team?

MKing: By opting not to return to Rice, AGN formally left. He is playing for a team in Montreal (IIRC) per my conversation with Scott Mitchell a few weeks back. - MK

McGuffie averaged 16 touches per game at Michigan, and more than 20 if you pull out a few games where he barely played. Between rushes, receptions, and returns, I think he can get there. Hopefully we save some touches for Ross and Smith as well, as you mention.

Nice piece, MK.

A lot of positions where we need people to step up. QB, WR, OL on offense. LB and S on defense. Hope our guys are up to the challenge.

I'd like to see McGuffie get plenty of time at WR to give him touches and create defensive mismatches.

Hopefully we've learned from last season with the QB situation, and a clear #1 will emerge from the spring practice. The consistent praise coming to Cook sounds great, but really, the dual-threat ability McHargue offers has me most excited. How many times did Chase pick up crucial first downs with his feet in 2006-08?

I feel good about DE and CB next year. Gaines is a great one, and I like what I've seen from Gaddis and Francis. Hopefully the freshmen can solidify the mess at the safety spot right now, and you make a nice point about the LB position being manned by actual LB'ers. Allen could be a godsend, if his reputation as a playmaker holds true.

There's also talk about changes in the offseason workout routines to increase mental toughness/leadership, which we'd love to hear more of. Mark says he's done reading about football, but I think the rest of us would love to hear what's going on all offseason. This is one of the most important periods this program will ever face.

MK, could we see one of the backs play some slot WR to get him on the field? I'm thinking this is going to fit McGuffie more than the other 2. Not saying a permanent change, but you've got to find creative ways to get your best athletes on the field and as many of them on the field at the same time.

Russell: It makes sense to put McGuffie in the slot, or at least motion him there on occasion. I'm curious to see how this all shakes out. - MK

I was thinking about AGN as well during parts of this past season. It was unfortunate he decided not to return as I thought he gave us way more as a freshman than was predicted.

I'd like to see more two back sets and some QB under the center next year. As far as McGuffie goes I think putting him as a slot back will yield the most results as it will force the D to really consider if they want to cover him with a LB. The results could be a lot like they were with Thor where our secondary receivers could get covered with lesser DBs if we can find a good #1 receiver. I think Dixon's numbers in 2008 showed what happened when defenses had to cover the #1 JD and then allocate someone for Thor. If we had someone who could play the big blocking FB role a few sets in the Bone with McGuffie as one of the RBs is a really interesting thought.

So many thoughts, but it's hard to separate the disappointment of this season from an evaluation of the team and its components. On offense, no matter what mix of QB, receivers and running backs are on the field, if the line isn't effective, it won't matter. Job No. 1 has to be getting those guys playing well as a unit. On defense, it doesn't get any more basic than tackling and far too often the guys just weren't getting it done. For my money, the players on the field need to be the ones who want to bring guys down, whether or not they're the fastest or "best fit" for a given position.

Any insight regarding the 2010 class of recruits? Are the verbal pledges sticking? How many more slots to recruit?

Kennett: Bailiff announced last week at the Bayou Bucket luncheon that he has nine commitments with 13 slots to fill. They are recruiting as I type. - MK

If you want to know how to effectively balance and use Ross, Smith, and McGuffie, look at what the Saints are doing with Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell, and Reggie Bush. Look at giving them all 10+ touches per game to keep everyone's legs fresh throughout the game. Give McGuffie at least 5 carries per game, but also use him a lot in passing downs to create space. Then use a balance of Ross and Smith for the remainder of the runs.

As long as we don't head into game #1 next season rotating 3 QB's to see who will step up, I feel pretty good about the position. I mean, no matter what Fanuzzi should be at least a little better than this year, so at worst (barring injuries) we should start 2010 with improvements at QB, RB, and O-line.

One of the nice things about someone as athletic as McGuffie is that not only can he be used as a playmaker in space, but he will also draw a lot of attention from opposing LB's, which with even average playcalling could create tons of open space for our talented tightends releasing off the line.

I noticed a lack of aggression on the O-Line this year. Perhaps that could be attributed to injuries, youth or lack of confidence with assignments (coaching). Regardless of the cause, the O-Line needs to improve leaps and bounds before 2010 or it could be another frustrating year. To be successful, the Owls must own the line of scrimmage.

It seems like every year we are dependent on freshman to fill the void on defense. What the hell? I can understand the last couple of years, but I mean, haven't we gotten to a point where we are not depending on freshman? And if that is not the case, then why has the team not gotten there yet?

As far as the offense, I was thinking that maybe we could use Cook like we used Thor. I remember reading somewhere that he played some tight end in HS. I can see a resurrected Thor package. I have hope for next season. I just wish the team can live up to it.

Chef Owl: Interesting idea on Cook. If he doesn't win the starting QB gig, don't you have to find a spot someone on the field for a 6-7, 235-pound athlete? - MK

MK, I've continued to enjoy your writing since you came over from the "Comical" and am now glad to be able to get through with comments/questions.

Was the LB who transferred in & is supposedly a tackling machine (Allen?) eligible to play this year? If so, why didn't he? If not, why not?

Is the thinking that Hodde & Shaw won't be ready to challenge for playing time on the OL next year? I noticed that you didn't mention them.

It's a long way off & not nearly as important as the actual results, but it looks to me like the "experts" will be predicting the Owls to win less than half of their games going into next season. That would make 6 wins (i.e., 4 more than this year)& being bowl eligible a successful season. Am I off base here?

Bev: Allen was not eligible this season per NCAA transfer rules (he moved to Rice from an FBS school - Idaho). Hodde and Shaw should be on the depth chart by the close of the spring, but I would anticipate that Bailiff would prefer his upperclassmen be in the rotation, not redshirt freshmen (besides Janish, who could be special). Given everything that unfolded this season, six wins might be a good place to start for the Owls in 2010. A .500 season is the minimum expectation. - MK

MK, Thanks as always for the good piece. I read JM's articles this morning with a sigh when he reported Baliff's "no coaching changes". You don't mention anything here related to coaching changes from last year to this year, and their impact. How much do you think coaching changes from last year meant to this year's performance, and what if anything positive can you see for next year?

Barn Owl: That's a tough question because the personnel changes were so drastic within each unit where there was a new position coach. The Owls lost Blake Miller (Utah) and three experienced seniors from the middle of their o-line, so how much blame can one lay at the feet of Ronnie Vinklarek? Chase Clement was the most statistically accomplished quarterback in program history, and he surely made Tom Herman (Iowa St) look better than any of the new signal callers made Coach Z look. I think of Larry Edmondson as a fine coach, but he didn't have Jarett Dillard and James Casey catching passes for him like Coach Hammer (Wyoming) did. Perhaps the offensive coaching will look more superb with superior talents next season. - MK

MK- random question: Did you ever see Bert Emanuel play? I am interested to know if think Sam M is faster than Bert was. I recall seeing Bert the first time and being awed that he seemed 2 steps faster than anyone else on the field. If Sam is that fast, wow!

owl1991: I did see Emanuel play live and direct, and I would give the slight edge to McGuffie. I wouldn't mind seeing a footrace between the two when both were in their prime. - MK

Sam M faster than Bert E? Wow! Get him on the field.

Did our scout team this year include the transfer players like Cook and McGuffie? If so, did the scout team routinely whip the starters?

TFW: McGuffie didn't practice for most of the season because of a cranky hamstring, and even when he was involved the scout team was limited in its ability to torch the defense. Besides Cook and Brackens, Porras and Petersen caught my eye with their work on the scout team. I am interested in seeing them come spring practice. - MK

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