2012 Rice Preview – Defense
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Rice Owl Defense
Preview 2012 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: Porous defense. It's a perennial problem around these parts. Recruiting in Texas at a school with a very high academic requirement, Rice simply doesn't attract enough size or talent to compete effectively in a league brimming with high-powered passing attacks. The result? A lot of gaudy numbers that can get a coaching staff canned. The Owls actually showed hints of improvement in 2011, yet still ranked 111th nationally in total D, while allowing 33 points a game. A turnaround is unlikely, especially since six starters, including most of the D-line, have graduated. The team is going to struggle in the trenches, which will heap added pressure on LB Cameron Nwosu, KAT Paul Porras and FS Corey Frazier to press up in order to slow the hemorrhaging on running plays. Rice's best approach might be to attack liberally, creating the kinds of momentum-changing takeaways that offset the final box score numbers. The most glaring exception to the defensive mediocrity is sophomore CB Bryce Callahan who appears to have a Big 12 skill set as a cover man.
Star of the defense: Junior LB Cameron Nwosu
Tackles: Cameron Nwosu, 108
Sacks: Multiple players, 1
Interceptions: Multiple players, 1
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior CB Phillip Gaines
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore CB Bryce Callahan
Best pro prospect: Callahan
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Nwosu, 2) Callahan, 3) Junior KAT Paul Porras
Strength of the defense: Linebackers, safeties, creating turnovers
Weakness of the defense: The D-line, getting pressure, pass defense, run defense, third down defense, red zone D
If the O-line is getting a facelift, the D-line will be undergoing an extreme makeover. Three key starters, particularly Scott Solomon, have graduated, leaving explosive senior Jared Williams as the lone returning regular up front. A glorified outside linebacker at 6-2 and 250 pounds, he'll be asked to up his production from a year ago, which included 35 tackles, six stops for loss and only one sack.
Flanking Williams at left end will be 6-4, 255-pound Cody Bauer , a letterman in his first two seasons with the program. However, he never got on the field in 2011 because of a knee injury that required surgery. He'll be in the lineup to complement the speedy Williams, and provide more of a strongside presence to help defend the run.
At the nose, redshirt freshman Christian Covington is on the verge of locking up a starting job in just his second year removed from Vancouver College Prep in British Columbia. He's a powerful and explosive interior rusher who the program feels could blossom into one of the hidden gems of the 2011 recruiting class.
The battle brewing at defensive tackle pits 6-0, 270-pound senior Jamael Thomas versus 6-3, 270-pound sophomore Nico Carlson. A former walk-on, Thomas appeared in all 12 games last fall, making a career-best seven tackles. Carlson will be looking for an expanded role after earning a letter as a backup in 2011.
Watch Out For .... the recoveries of injured junior defensive tackles Dylan Klare and Hosam Shahin . Neither was listed on the post-spring depth chart, but that situation should change in the summer. At 6-2 and 270 pounds, Klare can play multiple positions, and notched 19 tackles last fall. The 6-3, 290-pound Shahin, yet another of the school's Canadian Imports, also had 19 tackles, and is one of the line's strongest players.
Strength: Work ethic. Although Rice does not attract top-tier linemen to the program, its kids are traditionally among the hardest working in Conference USA. And this group is no different. With the competition, especially on the inside, about to heat up in the summer, the Owls are going to play to the whistle regardless of the situation or the score on the clock.
Weakness: Pressure. The Owls collected just 21 sacks a year ago, when Solomon was still on campus. Now that he—and his 8.5 sacks—are gone, who is going to generate the heat on defense? Blitzing will pass defense suicide, and there isn't a returner on the roster who got to the quarterback more than one time in 2011.
Outlook: There's no getting around the fact that Rice is going to be vulnerable at the point of attack this season. There's not much proven experience, and there's absolutely no star power. There is a glimmer of hope on the inside, provided Klare and Shahin are healthy, but the pass rush will do no favors for an already vulnerable defensive backfield.
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 prefers smaller, safety-sized defenders who can cover a lot of ground and pack a punch upon arrival at their destination. One such player at strongside is 5-10, 235-pound junior Cameron Nwosu who earned honorable mention All-Conference USA in his starting debut. Along with a team-high 108 tackles, he made six stops for loss and returned a pair of fumbles for touchdowns. He plays with the instincts and pad level of a quality run defender.
Behind Nwosu at strongside is 6-1, 235-pound junior Trey Briggs , who's trying to battle his way back from knee problems that shelved him at the end of 2010 and throughout 2011. Before getting hurt, he'd started nine straight games as a sophomore, and was looking like a potential stalwart on D.
Joining Nwosu in the starting lineup at weakside will either be 6-1, 230-pound senior Kyle Prater or 6-2, 210-pound sophomore James Radcliffe . The staff won't make a final decision until the summer. Prater is a former LSU transfer and four-star recruit from the 2008 class. He led the Owls with 10 special teams tackles in 2011, leaving him with one final year to approach those once-lofty expectations.
Radcliffe is coming off a solid offseason that has him in the hunt for a starting gig. He's going to need to fill out that wiry frame in order to handle the rigors of defending the run, but has the range and athleticism at the position that the coaches are after.
Watch Out For .... Briggs' progress. There was a time during last year's offseason that it looked as if he might make it back to the field, but it never happened. Now that he's had the extra rest needed to fully rehab, there's hope around the program that he'll be able to gradually recapture the form that made him such a promising player in 2010.
Strength: Range. By design, the Rice linebackers are not that stout, but are very quick and able to weave through traffic in a hurry. Nwosu, Prater, Briggs and Radcliffe will not only press up to support in run defense, but can also drop back and defend the pass like safeties.
Weakness: Size and strength. The Owls pay a price for their lack of girth, often getting mauled at the point of contact and overwhelmed in run defense. Even opposing tight ends could present problems for a group of linebacker that isn't very tall or very thick.
Outlook: Not unlike most years, the linebackers are in a very familiar position at Rice. They're athletic, aggressive and tough, but lack the size and pedigree to corral some of the league's better defenses. Nwosu has an all-league ceiling as a 100-tackle guy, but needs the best from Prater and Briggs for the unit to exceed subdued expectations.
The faces are familiar. After allowing 32 touchdown passes and ranking 112th nationally in pass defense, the Owls hope that the results are not. Rice could use a few more players like 5-10, 180-pound sophomore Bryce Callahan , the budding star of the secondary. In his first season, he broke up a team-high nine passes, while leading the country's freshmen with six interceptions. He's a fluid all-around athlete in coverage, and makes terrific adjustments to balls in the air. If voters are paying attention, and Callahan takes another step forward, he could elevate to All-Conference USA this fall.
While Callahan will line up at left corner, Phillip Gaines is slated to be on the right side. A starter in each of the last three seasons, he had his 2011 cut short by an injury after just three games. At 6-1 and 185 pounds, he has the decent size to be an effective drag-down tackler, but needs to limit the number of times receivers get behind him.
The backups at cornerback will be 5-11, 185-pound sophomore Malcolm Hill and 5-9, 190-pound junior Alex Francis . Hill will step off the sidelines when the Owls go into a nickel package, and Francis when the team goes dime.
Returning to KAT, a hybrid of a safety and a linebacker, will be 6-1, 190-pound junior Paul Porras, a converted wide receiver who has made a smooth transition to defense. He excelled in his first full season on the job, finishing third on the team with 91 tackles, and adding five stops for loss, two picks, eight pass breakups and two forced fumbles. He's a solid all-around athlete who'll continue to improve as he gets more reps on the defensive side of the ball.
The team's free safety is 6-1, 210-pound senior Corey Frazier , the son of current Minnesota Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier. Although he has a great feel for the game and his spot on the field, he'll need to recapture the form he had as a sophomore. In 2010, Frazier delivered a team-high 83 tackles and broke up six passes, but only registered 46 stops last fall.
Battling it out at strong safety are 6-2, 220-pound junior Tanner Leland and 6-1, 200-pound sophomore Gabe Baker. A former walk-on, the hard-hitting Leland was a key contributor in the secondary last year, finishing seventh on the team with 43 tackles. Baker has a higher ceiling, and is a better athlete, but needs to show he's all the way back from an injury that limited him to just four games in 2011.
Watch Out For .... Callahan to take the next forward in his evolution. While playing in the Rice secondary won't help his national reputation, those close to the program believe he has a trajectory that could wind up in the NFL. He's an up-and-coming cover corner, with the ball skills to pick off another half-dozen passes this fall.
Strength: Experience. The Owls pass defense is a lot of things, but green is not one of them. The defensive backfield is flush with upperclassmen, and every member of the five-man two-deep has earned at least one letter.
Weakness: Pass defense. New year, same doggone issue. Rice simply gives up too many big plays through the air. Beyond just the 32 touchdown passes yielded, the Owls gave up a whopping 13.6 yards a completion, a generous figure that needs to be reduced this fall.
Outlook: Hope springs from a defensive backfield loaded with returning starters and contributors from the last two seasons. However, the Owls must be more than just older in 2012; they've got to be better when the ball is in the air. While Callahan is on the verge of becoming a special player, Rice needs a couple more players to step up in pass defense, and occasionally bat balls down.
The Owls program are enduring an enormous blow now that next-level P Kyle Martens has exhausted his eligibility. A record-setter for the school, he'll be missed by the defense as much as the special teams. Taking his place, at least in the spring, was junior Chris Boswell , who's better known as the Rice placekicker. A Groza Award semifinalist in 2011, he tied a school single-season record by making 17-of-21 field goal attempts. Powerful as well as accurate, the 6-2, 210-pounder nailed three three-pointers from beyond 50 yards, capped by a career-best 54-yarder. Boswell also normed a healthy 63 yards on kickoffs.
Trying to keep Boswell from pulling double-duty will be incoming freshman Cameron Decell , a 6-4, 195-pound recruit from local McKinney (Tex.) High School. The Owls wouldn't mind having a four-year starter at the position, but won't assume anything if the rookie appears unable to handle the pressure.
Watch Out For… the Owls to run its streak of seasons without a kickoff return for a touchdown to 28. Not since 1984 has a Rice player gone the distance on a kickoff, a degree of futility that 10 players were unable to reverse last fall. Junior Jeremy Eddington got 21 attempts on special teams, but averaged less than 21 yards a return.
Strength: Boswell. He's by far the brightest component of an otherwise dim Rice special teams unit. The junior is the total package at the position, blending accuracy with enough pop to split the uprights from long distance. If he punts as well, he'll be one of the most valuable Owls on the roster this fall.
Weakness: Uncertainty at punter. No matter what happened, Rice was going to take a huge hit at the position once Martens graduated. The fact that a true freshman or the team's placekicker will be his successor is especially problematic news for the team's defense.
Outlook: The special teams unit at Rice will be a classic case of good news and bad news. Boswell is one of the premier kickers in America, a boomer who could be performing in the NFL two years from now. However, he's surrounded by a nest full of question marks, ranging from the punting situation and coverage teams to the feeble return game.
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