2013 Rice Preview – Defense
CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - Rice Owl Defense
Preview 2013 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: The Rice D loses virtually no one to graduation. It remains to be seen whether that's good or bad news for the program. The Owls are experienced, but that experience comes off a unit that ranked No. 81 nationally a year ago. The optimist, though, would quickly point out that Rice played its best defense toward the end of the season; the Owls allowed an average of 43.6 points over their first five games, yet only half that number over the final eight. The program will continue to struggle against quality offenses, particularly through the air. But coordinator Chris Thurmond's kids are going to attack the ball, especially up front with DE Cody Bauer and shifty tackles Hosam Shahin and Christian Covington. The secondary can't help but be improved. With all-star CB Phillip Gaines setting the tone in coverage, seven DBs who started games in 2012 remain on campus.
Star of the defense: Senior CB Phillip Gaines
Tackles: Paul Porras, 93
Sacks: Cody Bauer, 5.5
Interceptions: Multiple players, 2
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior CB Bryce Callahan
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DT Christian Covington
Best pro prospect: Gaines
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Gaines, 2) Senior LB Cameron Nwosu, 3) Senior DE Cody Bauer
Strength of the defense: Stripping the ball, interior pressure, experience, third-down stops
Weakness of the defense: Allowing big plays, pass defense, run D, red-zone D
The Rice O-line is littered with returning regulars. The D-line is, too. The Owls bring back three starters, each of whom was a key contributor a year ago. The program is excited about the playmaking ability of NT Hosam Shahin, who made a successful return from a pectoral muscle injury that slowed him in 2011. Extremely quick and feisty for a 6-3, 280-pound interior lineman, he notched career-highs with 45 tackles, 9.5 stops for loss and five sacks. The Canadian import uses his hands well and has a great motor, the characteristics that led to honorable mention All-Conference USA recognition in his debut as a starter.
The Owls boast a dynamite interior tandem, with fellow Canadian Christian Covington joining Shahin at tackle. In just his first season of action, Covington also played at an honorable mention All-Conference USA level, quickly adapting to life in the starting lineup. Stout against the run, the 6-3, 290-pound sophomore also gets off the snap quickly, and slides well up and down the line. Laying a terrific foundation for the future in 2012, he chalked up 43 tackles, eight stops for loss and five sacks, impressive numbers for a rookie tackle.
Taking advantage of all of the attention the tackles will get is 6-4, 255-pound DE Cody Bauer, the third member of the Rice line to earn honorable mention All-Conference USA in 2012. He made a successful return from a knee injury, starting every game in what was by far his best campaign with the program. Consistent with his linemates, the 6-4, 255-pounder is athletic, active at all times and always scraping for a shot at the backfield. Bauer led all linemen with 51 tackles and all defenders with a dozen stops for loss and 5.5 sacks.
With Bauer getting loads of attention, and Jared Williams out of eligibility, 6-2, 240-pound senior Tanner Leland will get his best chance to date to log serious minutes. The former walk-on, with the healthy GPA, has played in 28 games, but only has a pair of starts. Coming off the bench in 2012, he made six tackles. Leland could be pushed by 6-2, 240-pound senior Zach Patt and 6-2, 270-pound Dylan Klare , who earned more snaps in the spring as Bauer rehabbed an injury. Klare can play multiple positions, but has been hampered by injuries. Patt made eight tackles off the bench in 2012.
Former JUCO transfer Stuart Mouchantaf, a junior, started one game and had a dozen tackles as Shahin's caddy. Covington will be backed up at tackle by 6-4, 280-pound redshirt freshman Cody Henessee.
Watch Out For .... the result of the battle at the other end position. Bauer is set on one side, but who'll be the other starter? It's a key question because that Owl should draw the other guy's weaker tackle, while getting a lot of good opportunities to harass the quarterback.
Strength: Interior pressure. It's not common for tackles to consistently create heat, but that was the case with Rice in 2012. With Shahin and Covington providing the weekly spark, the Owls chalked up their most sacks by interior linemen in a season in school history. When a team can shoot the gaps, it makes the ends and the outside linebackers markedly more effective.
Weakness: Run defense. The Owls are terrific at getting pressure from the inside, but can they maintain gap integrity, while stuffing the run? It just didn't happen quite enough last fall, as 89th-ranked Rice yielded almost five yards per carry.
Outlook: Above average by its standard in 2012, the Rice D-line is poised to be outstanding this season. Three starters return, all with an eye on bigger postseason accolades than they earned a year ago. The Owls should be frequent flyers into opposing backfields, but still need to plug some of the recurring leaks in run defense.
Leading the charge from the second level will once again be senior Cameron Nwosu, a key figure at strongside in the Owls' 4-2-5 alignment. He's very smart and instinctive, the byproduct of having played so many games already for the program. The 5-10, 240-pounder may lack ideal size for the position, but he's a week-in, week-out playmaker on defense and special teams, with back-to-back All-Conference USA honorable mention achievements. In vintage Nwosu fashion last year, the vet was second on the team with 92 tackles, adding seven stops for loss, 2.5 sacks, two picks and NCAA-record three blocked PATs in a single game.
Nwosu will be joined in the lineup at weakside by 6-2, 220-pound James Radcliffe. The junior started seven games in 2012, making 42 tackles, 4.5 stops for loss and a pair of sacks. He's added weight since arriving looking like a safety, yet has maintained the quickness and range that the Owls need at the position.
Rice's veteran off the bench will be Nwosu's backup, 6-0, 205-pound senior Michael Kutzler. The two-time letterwinner is a heady reserve, with special teams experience, who had a career-high 16 tackles, two sacks and two fumble recoveries last season.
Watch Out For .... the arrival of true freshman D.J. Green. The three-star recruit, who originally committed to Baylor, will get every opportunity to assist a unit looking for more speed and depth. The rookie has the physical and intangible skills to lay the groundwork to start in 2014 once he adds weight and learns the scheme.
Strength: Lateral range. By intention, the Owls linebackers are not that stout, but are very quick and able to weave through traffic in a hurry. Nwosu and Radcliffe will not only press up to support in run defense when needed, but can also drop back and defend the pass like safeties. The starters are versatile, and not to be pigeon-holed into a single characteristic.
Weakness: Depth. Nwosu is an all-star, and Radcliffe is experienced. After the starting pair, though, Rice lacks players who can confidently slide into the lineup if necessary. Kutzler is a nice player to have in the locker room, but it's an issue when he's No. 3 in the pecking order.
Outlook: Nwosu is a very nice player to have in the middle of the field. He and Radcliffe will make a ton of plays, in part because of the line's inability to stuff the run. After starting just half of last year's games, Radcliffe, in particular, needs to become more productive from weakside against the run and in coverage.
The secondary made strides in pass defense toward the end of last season. That trend is likely to continue in 2013. All of last year's starters return, led by First Team All-Conference USA CB Phillip Gaines. The senior is about to enter his fourth season as a starter, with an eye on impressing NFL scouts. At 6-1 and 185 pounds, he has the size to match up with bigger receivers and the instincts to shut down the league's better ones. Gaines had 33 tackles in 2012, and ranked second nationally with 18 passes defended. However, after 38 career games, he has yet to pick off a pass, a level of futility that needs to change this fall.
Manning KAT, a hybrid between a safety and a linebacker, will once again be senior Paul Porras. The converted wide receiver has been a perennial success on defense, making 184 stops over the past two seasons. Last year, the 6-1, 200-pound honorable mention All-Conference USA selection racked up a team-high 93 stops, four passes defended and two interceptions. Porras is the kind of all-around athlete and physical run defender that the Owls require at the position.
Rice was pleasantly surprised by the play last year of FS Julius White, a first-time starter for the program. A playmaker against the pass and the run, he was third on the Owls with 79 stops, adding 3.5 stops for loss, three forced fumbles, two picks and six passes defended. Despite being only 5-10 and 195 pounds, White will play with reckless abandon, charging the line in order to provide additional support for the front seven.
Joining Gaines at corner is 5-10, 180-pound junior Bryce Callahan, who has started eight games in each of the last two seasons. His push toward becoming an All-Conference USA performer was hindered by an injury that cost him a month of the season. He finished his second year with 33 tackles, two stops for loss, seven passes defended and two picks to bring his career total to eight. Callahan is smooth in coverage, a fluid all-around athlete who breaks nicely on throws.
The enforcer of the group will again be 6-1, 210-pound Gabe Baker. He was late to the starting lineup, joining it on Oct. 20, but finished with 40 tackles, two stops for loss, a pick-six and a forced fumble. The junior can get exposed in coverage, but will support the run D and punish receivers when he lowers his shoulder.
Versatile junior Malcolm Hill is back to help wherever he's needed. He's currently listed at strong safety, where he started eight games in 2012, but he was also in the lineup at corner for four games. The 5-11, 185-pounder needs to become more influential on the field after making just 42 stops, a pick and a forced fumble. The veteran backup among the corners is 5-9, 185-pound senior Alex Francis. He started last year's UTEP game, finishing the season with 20 stops.
Watch Out For .... Callahan to begin recapturing the form he had as a Freshman All-American in 2011. He has the right base of talent to be a successful corner in Conference USA, with an ideal partner across the field in Gaines. Now that he's healthy, don't be surprised if he winds up leading the league in picks.
Strength: Experience. For the second consecutive year, Rice is flush with upperclassmen who've played a ton of football in Houston. Two players earned at least honorable mention All-Conference USA, and incredibly, seven returning Owls started games in 2012. The secondary boasts both depth and talent entering 2013.
Weakness: Breakdowns in coverage. Yeah, the Owls improved in 2012, and should be better in 2013, but this is still a defensive backfield that yielded an absurd 14.3 yards per pass completion and nearly twice as many touchdown passes than picks. Keeping the ball in front of them is a mandate for the defensive backs this season.
Outlook: Will a year older mean that the secondary is a year better? Rice remains hopeful. The Owls are brimming with returning starters, all of whom must do a markedly better job of defending the pass than they have in recent years. There's cautious optimism surrounding the unit, through it'll still be vulnerable against the more prolific passers on the schedule.
Record-setting PK Chris Boswell is back for his final season with the program. The strong-legged 6-2, 200-pounder leads all active kickers with 11 field goals of at least 50 yards, with his closest competitor having hit only four. In 2012, Boswell was good on 23-of-29 three-pointers, capped by a school-record-tying 57-yarder versus Louisiana Tech. No one-dimensional special-teamer, the senior also boomed a remarkable 49 kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks and placed five of 14 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
The multi-dimensional Boswell might punt. Heck, he averaged more than 40 yards on 14 attempts a year ago. The staff, though, would prefer to go with redshirt freshman Cameron Decell, who was groomed and recruited for this job. The 6-4, 205-pounder should give the Owls the distance and hang time they lacked in 2012.
Watch Out For… senior Jeremy Eddington to get another crack at inciting the kick return team. The 6-2, 235-pounder took a kickoff back for six against UTEP last Nov. 24, the first Owl to do so in almost three decades. Rice needs a spark on special teams that that the physical Eddington is hoping to provide.
Strength: Boswell. He's by far the brightest component of an otherwise dim Owls special teams unit. The senior represents the total package at placekicker, nuancing accuracy with enough pop to split the uprights from long distance. Since he'll continue to handle kickoffs, and even punt intermittently, he'll be one of the most valuable players on the roster this season.
Weakness: Punter. Is Decell the answer for a position whose 37-yard average was good for 120th in the country a season ago? The situation can't get much worse than it was in 2012, though no one has seen the rookie punt during live action either. If Boswell is forced to pull double-duty, it's an issue for Rice.
Outlook: Thank goodness for Boswell. He's a next-level placekicker, whose leg strength puts Rice in scoring range shortly after entering the opponents' side of the field. However, after No. 9, the Owls are sort of pedestrian in the areas of punter, the return game and the coverage teams. Decell is going to be an underrated key for the team in 2013.
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