did not play in a bowl game to end its 2015 campaign, ending a streak of three straight postseason appearances. David Bailiff's team returns plenty of experience as the Owls will look to start a new streak while navigating a challenging non-conference schedule.
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Previewing Rice’s Offense for 2016
Changes are on the way as Rice plans to use a slightly more up-tempo offense. For the first time in three years, Rice has a new quarterback, as senior Tyler Stehling gets his turn. Stehling has been used in mop-up duty the last two years, throwing a touchdown on his first career pass late in the 2014 season opener at Notre Dame and playing five games last season and throwing for 320 yards. “He realizes now that this is his time,” coach David Bailiff says. The book on Stehling is that he’s an accurate passer and — despite being 6'6" — is mobile and not afraid to run.
Rice likes to eat up the clock and returns its top four running backs from C-USA’s second-best rushing attack (177.6 ypg). Darik Dillard has accounted for more than 1,300 yards and 16 touchdowns the last two seasons. Rice needs a bounce-back year from Jowan Davis, who was bothered by injuries and ran for only 236 yards in 2015 year after just missing rushing for 1,000 yards in 2014.
The offensive line had to grow up fast a year ago and returns second-year tackles Calvin Anderson and Sam Pierce, who played extensively as freshmen.
Leading receiver Zach Wright (39 receptions, 554 yards) is back. The only other returning receiver with at least 25 receptions is Temi Alaka.
Bailiff made some changes involving his co-coordinators, with Billy Lynch taking over play-calling duties and Larry Edmondson concentrating on developing the quarterback position with Stehling set to graduate after this season.
Previewing Rice’s Defense for 2016
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Help is on the way for Rice’s four-man front that was banged up most of last season. After sitting out the 2014 season, end Derek Brown had four sacks in his first year playing defense full time, and end Brian Womac posted a team-high 12.5 tackles for a loss. Another end, Graysen Schantz, is set to return after missing all but one game last season with an ACL injury. He earned Freshman All-C-USA honors two years ago.
Because of the injuries, three freshmen — Carl Thompson, Blain Padgett and Preston Gordon — saw extensive action last season. Overall the Owls used 31 true or redshirt freshmen on both sides of the ball, the most of any FBS team.
The unquestioned leader of the defense is senior middle linebacker Alex Lyons, who has led the Owls in tackles each of the past two seasons. Rice made a switch in the offseason, moving Tabari McGaskey to strong safety and replacing him with Emmanuel Ellerbee at strong-side linebacker.
Two areas that need vast improvement: pressure on the quarterback and turnovers. Rice finished 111th in the nation with 16 sacks and last with two interceptions.
Previewing Rice’s Specialists for 2016
Hayden Tobola joined the team as a walk-on before fall camp and went on to convert 8-of-13 field-goal attempts. Jack Fox is slated to take over the punting duties following the graduation of James Farrimond, who finished his career as one of the best in school history. Austin Walter, who averaged 21.7 yards on kickoff returns, has the type of speed that gives the Owls a breakaway threat.
Bailiff says “it’s an exciting time” as Rice prepares to move into a new $31.5 million end zone facility this summer, the first major upgrade in decades at Rice Stadium. After having its run of three consecutive bowl appearances snapped, the Owls face a challenging schedule beginning with the opener at defending C-USA champion Western Kentucky. Two other key conference games (against Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech) are on the road, and the Owls’ non-conference schedule includes a home game against Baylor and trip to Stanford in the season finale.