July 17, 2013
IRVING, Texas – Rice defensive back Phillip Gaines was named the Conference USA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year on Wednesday, as voted by the league’s 14 head coaches. The senior is joined on the preseason all-conference team by offensive lineman Nate Richards and defensive lineman Christian Covington. The coaches also predicted the order of finish for each division, with the Owls placing second in the West behind defending champion Tulsa.
Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato earned the preseason Offensive Player of the Year nod after becoming the league’s first underclassman to win Most Valuable Player in 2012, and Tulane place kicker Cairo Santos was selected as the C-USA preseason Special Teams Player of the Year.
The 2012 season was a breakout campaign for Gaines, as he returned to his role as the Owls' leader in the defensive backfield after missing most of 2011 with an injury. Gaines was a consensus All-Conference USA selection after leading the league and finishing second nationally with 18 pass breakups. Gaines led the conference and was tied for eighth nationally with 1.50 passes defended per game. His career PBU total of 29 coming into the season is the most in school history. The 29 PBU’s are tied for the 10th-most in NCAA history since the statistic was first tracked in 2003.
In his first season at Rice in 2012, Richards anchored the young Owls offensive line, starting all 13 games and missing just one snap all season. Last month, he was named to the Athlon Sports preseason all-conference team.
In a solid rookie season in 2012, Covington led all C-USA newcomers with six sacks and was named to the C-USA all-freshman team. He also earned honorable mention all-conference honors after making 43 tackles on the year, including 10 behind the line of scrimmage. He capped off the year by earning a place on USA Today's All-Bowl team for his efforts against Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl.
Tulsa received all 14 first-place votes and 98 total points in the preseason coaches’ poll for the West Division, 22 votes ahead of the second-place Owls. Newcomer Louisiana Tech ranked third with 72 points, followed by UTEP (46), North Texas (39), Tulane (31) and UTSA (30).
East Carolina was tabbed as the East Division favorite with 11 first-place votes and 95 points. Marshall placed second with a pair of first-place votes and 82 points, while Middle Tennessee was selected third with 70 points and the final first-place vote.
As announced on Tuesday, Rice’s season opener at Texas A&M kicks off at noon on Aug. 31 and will be televised nationally on ESPN.