2011 Rice Preview – Defense
Rice LB Travis Bradshaw
Rice LB Travis Bradshaw
Posted May 13, 2011

CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Rice Owl Defense

Rice Owls

Preview 2011 - Defense

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What You Need To Know: The Rice defense has been so bad for so long, it's hard to remember the last time it was formidable. A try-hard, veteran group, the Owls simply lack the talent and depth to survive Conference USA, allowing 449 yards and 38 points last season. Momentum-changing plays, such as sacks or takeaways, were virtually non-existent. A hint of good news comes from the return of all-star DE Scott Solomon, who was granted a medical hardship after missing all of 2010 with a foot injury. He's an infectious playmaker, but the Owls need a few more like him to offset its glaring issues against the run and the pass. Above all else, Rice has to generate more pressure to support a secondary that has gamers, but not enough quality pass defenders.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Corey Frazier, 83
Sacks: Michael Smith, 2
Interceptions: Travis Bradshaw, 2

Star of the defense: Senior DE Scott Solomon
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior CB Phillip Gaines
Unsung star on the rise: Junior KAT Corey Frazier
Best pro prospect: Solomon
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Solomon, 2) Senior FS Travis Bradshaw, 3) Senior NT John Gioffre
Strength of the defense: The defensive line, the safeties
Weakness of the defense: Pass defense, pass rush, creating turnovers, run defense, third down defense, red zone D

Defensive Line

State of the Unit: The defensive line is going to be a compilation of hellos and good-byes this fall. The unit has lost a handful of seniors to graduation, but welcomes back its premier performer, an Owl who didn't play a down in 2010. Whatever the combination this fall, Rice needs to find a way to generate more backfield pressure, something that happened far too infrequently last year.

Last season was supposed to be the final one for 6-3, 280-pound senior Scott Solomon , but that was before he broke a bone in his foot and never got cleared to play. Rather than turn pro, he sought a medical redshirt to play one final year as an Owl. Slated to play tackle in 2010, he's moving back to end, where he was an all-star and made 63 tackles, 10.5 stops for loss, 6.5 sacks, and 21 hurries. Intense, strong, and savvy, he has an insatiable appetite for beating the block and making plays behind the line.

Flanking Solomon on the opposite end will be 6-3, 250-pound junior Jared Williams , who's sophomore year was cut short in Week 4 by an injury. A very different defender than his linemate, he's more of a speed rusher, with the burst of an outside linebacker. Pushing him will be 6-3, 270-pound sophomore Dylan Klare , one of the line's strongest players. He made an instant transition to this level, lettering and making 10 stops as a rookie.

The Owls will be experienced on the inside. At nose tackle, 6-0, 290-pound senior John Gioffre returns for his fourth letter and second season as a full-timer. A former high school wrestling champ, with a non-stop motor, he made 30 tackles and was named honorable mention All-Conference USA in 2010. He'll line up to 6-1, 290-pound senior DT Michael Smith , a rock on the interior. He's started 20 consecutive games, a stocky yet nimble lineman, who had 19 tackles, three stops for loss, and a pair of sacks during his junior year. The successor to Smith is 6-3, 290-pound sophomore Hosam Shahin . More important than his seven tackles and first career start against SMU, he added significant size and strength last fall.

Watch Out For .... Williams' contribution now that he's returned form injury. With Solomon sure to attract a lot of attention on the other side, Williams will need to take advantage of seeing a single blocker. It's incumbent upon the junior to bring some flash and energy to a line looking for more athleticism.
Strength: Motors. Solomon, Smith, and Gioffre are the kinds of seniors who will set a good example for the younger Owls. All three will grapple to the whistle, playing with the necessary leverage and intensity to beat blocks and overcome modest stature.
Weakness: Pressure. Solomon will have an instant impact, but what does it say that no one was able to step up in his absence a year ago? The Owls were 105th nationally in sacks and last in the country in tackles for loss, providing little support for an already maligned secondary.
Outlook: The return of No. 13 makes all the difference in the world for the Owl front four. Solomon simply makes everyone around him better. Rice will fight and scrap with anyone on the schedule, but the more skilled opponents are going to have success against a unit that's pedestrian after its one signature player.
Rating: 5.5


State of the Unit: In the Owls' 4-2-5 alignment, only two linebackers are employed, but they need to be versatile and willing to do a little bit of everything. The program favors smaller defenders, safety-sized individuals who can cover a lot of ground and pack a punch upon arrival at their destination.

At weakside, 5-11, 215-pound senior Justin Allen played well in his first season after transferring from Idaho. A former starter with the Vandals, with good sideline-to-sideline quickness, he was in the lineup for last year's final three games and finished fourth on the team with 61 stops. The strongside starter will once again be 6-1, 225-pound junior Trey Briggs , an instinctive defender who missed the final three games to a knee injury. Before getting hurt, he'd made 47 stops.

The first Owls off the bench will be 6-0, 220-pound senior Matt Nordstrom at weakside and 5-10, 235-pound sophomore Cameron Nwosu at strongside. A former walk-on, Nordstrom has been productive on defense and special teams, making 39 tackles over the last two seasons. Nwosu was getting a taste of action as a rookie last fall before suffering an injury. A thick and powerful defender, he'll eventually become an asset to the run defense.

Watch Out For .... Briggs to be among the team's leading tackler. He was just beginning to hit his stride last fall when an injury put him on the shelf for the balance of the year. Active and instinctive, he should be good for 80 tackles, more if the line does a better job of slowing down ballcarriers.
Strength: Range. By design, the Rice linebackers are not that big, but very quick and able to weave through traffic in a hurry. Allen and Briggs will not only press up to support in run defense, but can also drop back and defend the pass like a safety.
Weakness: Size. The Owls pay a price for their lack of girth, often getting trucked at the point of contact and overwhelmed in run defense. Even opposing tight ends will present problems for a group that isn't very tall or very thick.
Outlook: The linebackers will make plenty of tackles this season. The key for the Owls is that the majority of those snaps come close to the line of scrimmage instead of nine yards downfield. Allen and Briggs are steady, not spectacular but not prone to making mistakes either.
Rating: 4.5


State of the Unit: Rice employs five defensive backs in its unique scheme. If it was feasible, the Owls wouldn't mind getting six or seven players crammed into the secondary. Anything might help a group that hasn't defended the pass with much success in years. Last season was a painful reminder of how far the group has to go, allowing 34 touchdown passes and picking off only six.

The leader of the secondary will be 6-1, 210-pound senior FS Travis Bradshaw , a three-time letterwinner. Exceeding all expectations after beginning his career as a walk-on, he has a nose for the ball and a knack for never being far from it. Second on the team with 76 stops a year ago, he's No. 9 on the school's all-time list, with a shot of leaving Rice with more tackles than any other player in program history.

At KAT, a hybrid of a safety and a linebacker, 6-1, 210-pound junior Corey Frazier is hoping to build on his first season as a starter. The son of current Minnesota Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier, he had a team-high 83 tackles and broke up six passes. The third of three starting safeties will be 6-2, 190-pound sophomore Paul Porras, a converted wide receiver who's made a nice transition to defense. Although he needs more muscle for strong safety, he's a nice all-around athlete who made 30 stops last season. The Owls have both youth and experience putting pressure on the starters. Behind Porras is 5-11, 205-pound senior Xavier Webb, who's lettered each of the last three years and had a career-high 37 tackles in 2010. Sophomore Gabe Baker has great size and a year of valuable experience under his belt. Frazier's caddy, he broke into the rotation in his first year on campus and had 20 stops.

Neither cornerback job has been decided coming out of spring. Redshirt freshman Bryce Callahan is the one constant for both spots, battling a couple of upperclassmen. A fluid 5-10, 180-pounder, he's turned the coaches' heads throughout the offseason. Senior Chris Jammer has 28 career starts, making 27 tackles and five pass breakups in 2010, but hasn't been the lockdown defender the Owls have needed. The 6-1, 185-pounder looks the part, but looks can sometimes be deceiving. Junior Phillip Gaines is also in the hunt, making starts in each of the last two years and collecting 64 tackles. However, like Jammer, a few too many blown coverages have left him vulnerable to some of the younger players on the roster.

Watch Out For .... Callahan. No matter how bad the pass defense has been, it speaks volumes about his potential that he's forcing a junior and a senior to earn their place in the lineup. While raw, he has the kind of upside the defensive backfield has craved for some time.
Strength: Tackling. When you're an Owl defensive back, you either learn to wrap up in the open field or you get steamrolled on a consistent basis. These five Rice defenders get plenty of practice lowering their shoulders and dragging bigger players to the grass, courtesy of a front seven that often resembles a turnstile.
Weakness: Pass defense. For what seems like the past decade, Rice was once again a blue and gray sieve whenever the ball was in the air. You name it and the Owls struggled with it, ranking 115th nationally in pass efficiency defense, yielding 34 touchdown passes, and picking off just six for a second straight year.
Outlook: There's no way to sugarcoat it—Rice is home to one of the nation's least effective pass defenses. The defensive backs are tough and will pack a punch, but their coverage skills remain at an FCS level. Factor in a feeble pass rush and it's hard to imagine the results getting much better in 2011.
Rating: 4

Special Teams

State of the Unit: The all-star punter returns, but just about everyone else is a question mark on a special teams unit that did more harm than good in Houston last year. A number of loose ends need to be tightened up between now and the opener before this area can be considered one of the program's strengths.

The star of the group is senior Kyle Martens, who has emerged as one of the nation's premier punters. He averaged a school-record 46 yards a punt in 2010, earning All-American honors from various outlets. A long and lean 6-6, 200-pounder, he gets tremendous drive on his kicks and has continuously supported his coverage teams with his hang time and directionals.

The situation at placekicker was far less concrete. Heralded sophomore Chris Boswell took over the job last fall and showed excellent leg strength, but also missed three extra points, hit just 11-of-17 field goal attempts, and had three blocked. Neither he nor Brandon Yelovich was much help on kickoffs either.

The Owls primary return men, sophomore Andy Erickson and junior Charles Ross will be competing for the same role on special teams again this fall.

Watch Out For… Boswell to improve markedly from a year ago. The most important thing to keep in mind is that Boswell possesses the leg and the fundamentals to be successful. Last season's problems had more to do with inexperience and nerves than anything else. He'll be more settled and consistent the second time around.

Strength: Leg strength. Purely in terms of pop and leg drive, Rice might have the best combination of kickers in Conference USA. Martens ranked third nationally in distance, and Boswell was 2-of-3 from 50 yards and longer.
Weakness: Covering. The coverage teams were weak for a second consecutive year, providing little help to an already vulnerable Owl defense. The program ranked 77th nationally on punt returns and 55th on kickoffs, giving up a touchdown.
Outlook: Yeah, there are concerns, but there's also reason for optimism on the special teams. Martens is a bona fide weapon and one of America's top amateur punters. The key will be Boswell. No one around the program doubts that he has the tools for success, but now he has to put it all together and help the Owls finish drives with points.
Rating: 6

- 2011 Rice Preview | 2011 Rice Offense
- 2011 Rice Defense | 2011 Rice Depth Chart
- Rice Previews  - 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006