The Owls rank No. 128 in Athlon's Top 130 for 2018
After a successful run as a Stanford assistant, first-year head coach Mike Bloomgren inherits a Rice program coming off three consecutive losing seasons. He spent the spring instilling a physical brand he wants to be the Owls' calling card. "We're not where we want to be," Bloomgren said at the end of the spring, "but thank God we're not where we used to be."
Previewing Rice Football's Offense for 2018
At the end of spring practice, Bloomgren said that Jackson Tyner was the "leader in the clubhouse" at quarterback, although the job will remain up for grabs in preseason camp. The top two contenders (Tyner and Sam Glaesmann) never seized the job last season, allowing true freshman Miklo Smalls to throw for 623 yards and four touchdowns. Smalls missed spring practice for personal reasons and left the team over the summer. Glaesmann was out following shoulder surgery in the spring, but if healthy, is expected to battle for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart. Adding to the mix are walk-on Evan Marshman and Shawn Stankavage, a graduate transfer from Vanderbilt.
The deepest position on offense is the backfield, and Bloomgren wants to continue the physical brand of football from his days at Stanford. The top three rushers return -- Nahshon Ellerbe, Austin Walter and spring standout Emmanuel Esupka.
Aaron Cephus gives the Owls a big-play threat, finishing tied for third nationally with six catches of at least 50 yards. He had a touchdown in four consecutive games and is a matchup nightmare. After starting three games, Austin Trammell will be counted on to play a bigger role.
Rice must replace four starters on the offensive line, including standout left tackle Calvin Anderson, now a graduate transfer at Texas.
Previewing Rice Football's Defense for 2018
Tragedy struck the program in early March when junior defensive end Blain Padgett unexpectedly passed away. "Right now, we are in a good place because we have had a chance to grieve and go through all the steps and get back on the football field and kind of learn what our new normal is without Blain beside us," Bloomgren says.
Even with the graduation of Brian Womac and the transfer of Preston Gordon (Texas Tech), the Owls' three-man front should be the strength of the unit. Sixth-year senior Graysen Schantz was granted another year of eligibility and will be used as a rusher off the edge.
Anthony Ekpe will be tasked with replacing Emmanuel Ellerbee, who had a team-high 120 tackles from the strong-side linebacker position. Dylan Silcox is regarded as the team's top interior linebacker, while Martin Nwakamma will man the middle.
The secondary will have a new look, which may not necessarily be a bad thing after the Owls had only three interceptions, second fewest in the nation. New defensive coordinator Brian Smith comes from Michigan, which relied on strong man coverage in the back end.
The Owls plan to run a 3-4 base but will use five defensive backs a good percentage of the time.
Previewing Rice Football's Specialists for 2018
Punter Jack Fox "can be a big-time player at the next level," Bloomgren says. Fox led C-USA with a 44.2-yard average, including 17 of at least 50 yards. The Owls attempted only five field goals, with Will Harrison going 2-of-4.
With a game at Hawaii, the Owls will play a 13-game schedule that includes eight bowl teams from 2017, including games against Houston, Wake Forest and LSU. Don't expect Bloomgren to be a miracle worker as he builds the program for the long haul.