"First off thank you very much for coming today. It's a special year already at Rice. You see this beautiful facility that we've moved into. First, I want to thank President (David) Leebron for making this happen. I want to thank our Athletic Director Joe Karlgaard for the effort that he put in. We had a blast yesterday. We walked the fifth-year seniors in here (and) held them all in a group out front. They went and toured what we were in initially and then we brought them over here and went room to room with them. It was just incredible to watch their faces light up. (It's a) fantastic facility though, from the locker room to the training room to the meeting rooms and this team room. You walk in this morning; the alarm goes off at 5 a.m. You come popping in here and you can't wait to get to work There's still a little construction going on so every day you walk in and they keep improving it. It just keeps getting better every day that I come to work. The players too; you see them walk into the building and seeing it still change every day. But really, this university, Thank You and it shows Rice is committed to getting it done.
As far as the season and the team go; I'm really excited. We've got 16, really almost 17 starters back when you include Graysen Schantz, who was starting for us early in the year at defensive end before he got hurt. I like the way they went to work. After going to three straight bowls, all of a sudden we don't go to a bowl game. As hard that was on us, there is power in failure. It forced us to focus. It forced us to analyze. It forced me to analyze everything we were doing in this program, from offense, defense and special teams. It forced this football team to really look in the mirror and see that they are willing to recommit and dedicate themselves to living to the expectations that we expect. We expect to compete for conference championships. We expect to get a bowl game slot. After doing it for three straight years and you're sitting at home in December; bowl season is not fun when you're not in one. Those are the goals for this year.
The senior class that we have is absolutely amazing. Alex Lyons, defensively, started at linebacker for us the last two years and has been the leading tackler. He'll be one of the cornerstones defensively with Tabari McGaskey, with Derek Brown (and) J.T. Blasingame. So we have great senior leadership on that side of the ball. All of those freshmen that we started last year on defense; you know what? They're sophomores this year. A year of maturity always helps. I think you'll see a much improved defense. We're a sideline-to-sideline defense. Getting Graysen Schantz back and defensive end and Brian Womac on the other side; we'll be able to really get some speed off the edges there and be a very disruptive defensive line. The linebackers will really be the strength of our defensive with Alex, Emmanuel Ellerbee and Nick Uretsky. In our secondary, you'll get a healthy J.T. Blasingame back at corner and that is really going to help us.
Offensively, all of our running backs are back. Jowan Davis had an incredible spring. He had offseason ankle surgery. Darik Dillard is one of the most solid, consistent performers that we've had. Samuel Stewart and really Aston and Austin Walters are very explosive guys with a football in their hands. Our tight ends are back. Connor Cella, who I think is probably the top tight end in our conference.
On the offensive line, the two freshmen tackles that we started are now sophomores and the two sophomore guards are now juniors. Connor Patterson is back in the mix as a senior so I think our offensive line is in great shape with some depth going into it. We've made some moves where we're going to be able to really change tempos when we want. We'll always be able to have a four minute offense but I think we're going to be a lot more explosive offensively this year. Special teams, with Jack Fox doing our punting and kickoffs. He's got one of the greatest legs I've seen in a long time since Chris Boswell. He really, really has a phenomenal leg.
So I'm really excited about the season. It's great to start it off healthy. It's great to start it off in this new building. These young men are phenomenal, phenomenal men. One of the things we'll always know at Rice is that you look at those stars and people rating them five stars, four stars, three stars. We have five star minds here. We have five star young men. We have five star guys that are involved in the community, and for us to win we've got to be the best team. That's what we expect to be, the hardest working, smartest football team in Conference USA."
On the player's mindset before the season:
"I forgot to bring up the receiving core. One of the guys that I'm most excited about is Zach Wright. He's brought tremendous leadership as a senior and he's been a catalyst in making sure we're getting back to where we need to go; of doing everything right and doing everything day-to-day. One of the things we've talked about too is just going back to one play at a time and one day at a time and to just do our best. I also forgot to talk about Tyler Stehling at quarterback. I think he's a guy that you talk about as a fifth-year senior. He was not just waiting on his turn but preparing for this season. He is absolutely ready and is very talented. We need him to just make great decisions with the football because he has a supporting cast around him. If we take care of the football and get it where it needs to go, then we'll be a very explosive offense."
On using last year as leverage:
"I don't know I you would call it leverage. When you meet with the team, they felt exactly how I did about going 5-7. You're almost angry when you sit there in December and you watch teams that you thought you were better than, there and we didn't get there. These guys started working in January with that in mind. What got us to win the conference championship in 2013 and the Hawaii Bowl in 2014 was that we're not ever going to be the biggest or the fastest, but we can be the best team. We came together as a team in 2012, won the championship in 2013 and the bowl in 2014 and we've got to make sure that we're the best team. We've got to make sure that these seniors, as obstacles appear, that they don't divide us. It makes us stronger and that's what last season did. It makes us appreciate what we had going a lot more and we're not going to take winning for granted."
On what it was like to bring the fifth-year players through the Patterson Center:
"It was fantastic. It felt like we had an undefeated season. Just following them around and watching their faces and listening to their descriptions of what they were seeing. It was really more of an emotional response. We had recruited that class to this building and had postponed it. So it's great that they actually are going to get to play their senior year in it. We made sure that we had them in a group. We started here. We took them to the training room together. We took them to the locker room together. We took them to the meeting rooms together. And every time you took them to a different room it was like they opened a better package at Christmas. When you get my age you like watching them and it was fun watching the emotion and the strong relations they have of how they were hugging hand high-fiving everywhere we went. A guy like me; that's what you want to see is that emotional response. This morning at breakfast, that's all they could talk about was what a fantastic facility this was going to be for us. It changes their mindset of wanting to come over here and go to work."
On if the Patterson Center is a game-changer in recruiting:
"Absolutely. I think it's going to help us tremendously in recruiting. Now, you take that Rice education and you look at a team that's gone to four bowl games since I've been here. You realize that we had 10 guys in the NFL last season. It's one where guys realize that all of their dreams can come true, be them athletically, be them academically. This degree is going to take care of them for the rest of their life and really the purpose of college is to prepare you for life and I think that is what Rice University does academically and it is what Rice football does athletically. When these guys graduate, they are in high demand because they are able to excel both academically and athletically."
On the offense:
"We've had an incumbent quarterback around here from (Taylor) McHargue to Driphus (Jackson). This is Tyler (Stehling's) first year to start. SO I changed the staff where Larry Edmundson had been calling the plays. But I wanted him to dedicate his time to just developing the quarterbacks. So I changed Larry and now Billy Lynch will call. They had been co-coordinators, so I made the change. We're going to go up-temp. We're going to have four different speeds, where we'll be able to go fast or we can slow it down completely if we want to go to a four-minute game. I don't think you'll see quite as many personnel packages. But, you'll see different formations. I'm pleased with what we did."
On Darik Dillard:
"You look at how steady he has been for us, how consistent he's been for us. When you need that tough yard, he's been able to get it. The ball security that he has had since he's been here; in his entire career he's only had one fumble in three years. Somebody that is going to take care of the football like that, with being productive as he is; we've got to get the ball in his hands."
On starting the season at Western Kentucky:
"One of the things you really want to do is to start off with a Western Kentucky. If you play somebody that you're vastly superior than, you don't come out of that game knowing where you're weaknesses are. We're going to go up there and compete. We're going to go on the road and try to win a conference ballgame. But at the same time, when that one is over, you'll become a better team because they may find where you're weak and Week Two is when you see all the changes in college football. I'm excited about opening with a conference opponent but I'm more excited about opening with such a good football program too."