by Chuck Pool (cpool@edu) -
Rice (1-7/1-3) @ UAB (5-3/3-2)
In the face of adversity, there is opportunity and Roe Wilkins has made the most from an opportunity he'd just as soon never seen develop.
Ground Game Leads to Overtime Win at UAB
Luke Turner ran virtually untouched from one yard out to give Rice University football a 37-34 overtime win at UAB on Thursday night at Legion Field. The Owls piled up 328 yards on the ground but needed one extra drive to earn the team's eighth win of the season against the Blazers.
The two had been a productive pair on the Owls front wall in 2016, with Wilkins manning the nose tackle spot after Zach Abercrumbia was lost to injury and Padgett attacking from the defensive end position. It marked a return to familiar surrounding for the pair, who had might have been rivals in baseball in Sour Lake, but always teammates in football.
"We grew up together and always played sports together," Wilkins said. "We've always been really close. We played against each other in baseball for a while, but never in football. I was recruited by Lamar and a few other schools, but I received a late offer from Rice. Blain had committed to Rice early and when I had the chance to look into it a little more, it seemed like the best fit for me."
The switch to the 3-4 proved to be an opportunity for Wilkins to move to a role more suited with his own physical gifts, even if it put him in the same position as his high school teammate.
"It was a transition going from nose guard to defensive end," Wilkins admitted. "But with Coach (Frank) Okam, it's made the transition much easier. He's played the game and understands it to a T. It makes it that much easier to change positions when you have such a good coach."
"He was kind of thrown into the fire in as a redshirt freshman (when Abercrumbia was hurt) and again this year when Blain was hurt," Okam said. "The thing he has done the best is that he has taken advantage of the opportunity. He's been really diligent about trying to do the little things right. That's something I've always stressed with him."
After Padgett's season came to a premature end three games into the 2017 season, Wilkins has stepped into the void to provide added stability and production to the Owls defensive front.
In his first start of the year against FIU, he stormed through to sack Panther quarterback Alex McGough for a seven-yard loss at the FIU 15 late in the fourth quarter and set up the Owls final drive that fell just short. He added multiple tackle totals in each start and has 22 after eight games (two more than his total for all of 2016). He has four tackles for loss, including three sacks which ranks him second on the team to Brian Womac.
"When you see Roe Wilkins play on the field, you see a guy who gives great effort all the time, but his talent didn't show up consistently," Okam noted. "That's something that is starting to show up more and more this season. I think he's one of the top interior linemen as far as sacks go in our conference and I expect him to continue to do that as long as he continues to grind it out as he has so far."
Wilkins credits Okam for his continuing emergence each Saturday.
"Everything he says we take as the law," Wilkins stated. "It's something he's lived and experienced (in the NFL). I feel that's why we've had such a productive D-line this year. He makes the standard very clear and we know what we have to do."
Okam is not surprised that Wilkins has thrived after moving outside.
"He had the power and strength to play the nose last year, he just didn't have the size," Okam said. "His athleticism is what separates him from some of the others who are true interior linemen. He had enough speed and quickness to make that transition smoothly and easily."
"End is a little bit more of an athletic position than a nose guard and Crum (Zach Abercrumbia) probably wouldn't like that I'm saying that," Wilkins noted with a grin. "But you have to rush the passer and also be able to contain, so it requires a bit more mobility. I've had some challenges that I have faced, but I feel like I am starting to overcome them. All I can do is work this offseason on the challenges that I see and become that much better next season."
Okam says Wilkins has only begun to reach his potential.
"The thing you really get to see with Roe is a guy who is violent at the point of attack, does a great job shedding blockers and is evolving into a good pass rusher. He's not where I want him to be yet, but he's going to get a whole lot better."
As he continues to progress, he does so as his Hardin Jefferson teammate watches and continues to rehab his injury. As satisfying as his own results might be, Wilkins also acknowledges there is a bit of a void in not having Padgett on the field with him.
"Of course there are emotions to it. I've grown up with him," Wilkins stated. "I want to see him excel. I hate to see something like that happen, but I know that Blain is going to bounce back. He's an insanely hard worker so it's just a matter of time before he is back doing what he was doing before."