Rice has enjoyed success during David Bailiff’s decade-long tenure, but the Owls have seen their win total drop in successive seasons. After going 3-9 in 2016, Bailiff decided a change was needed on defense, as he brought in a new coordinator who will replace the head coach's customary 4-2-5 scheme. The defense only has one way to go up after ranking near the bottom of the FBS in every major category. The offense is far from a sure thing either as all of the returning starters can be found up front. Rice was devastated by injuries last season, so better health should help produce better results. However, a road-heavy opening to the schedule and a lot of unknowns throughout the starting lineup could lead to another rocky season for Bailiff and the Owls.
Previewing Rice Football’s Offense for 2017
Quarterback is up for grabs with Jackson Tyner, J.T. Granato and Sam Glaesmann vying for the job. Tyner saw the most action of the group, playing in five games and throwing for nearly 200 yards and two touchdowns in a C-USA win over UTEP. He started the final game at Stanford. Incoming freshman Miklo Smalls could also emerge as a candidate.
Running back Sam Stewart managed 479 yards despite making only four starts due to a knee injury. When healthy, Stewart has the ability to be an every-down back, and he also catch passes out of the backfield. Emmanuel Esukpa is a 230-pound bruiser in the mold of Charles Ross from a few years ago. The plan is to use him in short-yardage situations. Austin Walter is a multi-purpose threat at running back who can line up in the slot. “He’s somebody we want on the field,” coach David Bailiff says.
A year after being ravaged by injuries, the Owls return all five starters on the offensive line, led by center Trey Martin and left guard Peter Godber. Martin missed time with a foot injury and underwent offseason shoulder surgery, although he will be cleared in time for fall camp.
At 6'4" and 205 pounds, redshirt freshman receiver Aaron Cephus gives the Owls’ a big-play target. Kylen Granson shed his redshirt at midseason and finished second in receptions (33) and yards (381).
Previewing Rice Football’s Defense for 2017
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No stranger to these parts, Brian Stewart was hired as defensive coordinator to turn around a unit that ranked among the worst in FBS in several major categories. The Owls allowed 30 or more points in nine games while allowing more than 500 yards per game. Stewart brings a wealth of experience, including stints as defensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys (2007-08), University of Houston (2010-11) and Maryland (2012-14).
Gone is the Owls’ 4-2-5 scheme, replaced by what Bailiff says will be “multiple fronts” that should take some pressure off the secondary. “I needed to change,” Bailiff says of the 4-2-5 he had used since his days at New Mexico.
The Owls lost just two seniors on defense and return seven starters, led by All-Conference USA first-team linebacker Emmanuel Ellerbee, who had 118 tackles a year ago.
The defensive line should be strength with Blain Padgett capable of being an all-conference performer and a combination of Brian Womac and Graysen Schantz at the other end position. Zach Abercrumbia will fill one of the spots in the middle after being lost in Week 4 with a wrist injury.
J.T. Ibe provided a physical, big hitter at free safety, and KAT Destri White was one of the team’s top players at the end of last season. Cornerback Justin Bickham is set to return after missing all of last season with an ACL injury. One area that needs improvement: The Owls’ 11 forced turnovers were among the fewest in the nation.
Previewing Rice Football’s Specialists for 2017
The Owls cast a wide net in search of a kicker, ultimately signing Will Harrison from the state of Indiana to compete with Haden Tobola. Tobola has made only 62.5 percent of his field goal attempts (15-of-24) the past two seasons. Jack Fox will handle the punt and kickoff duties.
This is a critical year for Bailiff, who has two years left on his contract. Entering his 11th season, Bailiff is under pressure to turn around a program that has gone 5-7 and 3-9 the past two seasons since going to a school-record three straight bowls. The margin of error is slim at a small FBS school like Rice, so avoiding a repeat of the injury bug is paramount for a bounce-back season. The opening month is a grind, with four of the first five games on the road, including the opener against Stanford in Sydney, Australia.
National Ranking: 118
C-USA West Prediction: 5
(Emmanuel Ellerbee photo courtesy of Rice Athletics/Tim Cowie)