2007 Rice Preview - Offense

Posted Jun 12, 2007

Preview 2007 Rice Owl Offense Preview

Rice Owls

Preview 2
007 - Offense

- 2007 Rice Preview | 2007 Rice Defense Preview
- 2007 Rice Depth Chart coming | 2006 CFN Rice Preview 

What you need to know: Todd Graham and his staff are gone, but the spread attack is alive and well at Rice, good news for an offense that returns its starting quarterback and All-American wide receiver.  Although Chase Clement to Jarett Dillard will be a familiar phrase this fall, the Owls are also developing a bunch of good-looking, young pass-catchers that are ready to contribute.  The quest for offensive balance, however, won’t be so easy now that underappreciated running back Quinton Smith has exhausted his eligibility.  Last year was a painful transition for the offensive line, but with four starters back and a full year in the system, there are no excuses for not being much better in pass protection.

Returning Leaders
Passing: Chase Clement
153-265, 1,707 yds, 21 TD, 5 INT
Rushing: Chase Clement
107 carries, 481 yds, 4 TD
Receiving: Jarett Dillard
91 catches, 1,274 yds, 21 TD

Star of the offense: Junior WR Jarett Dillard
Player that has to step up and become a star
: Redshirt freshman LT Preston Thompson
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore WR Toren Dixon
Best pro prospect: Dillard
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Dillard  2) LG Robbie Heos  3) Clemens
Strength of the offense: The passing game
Weakness of the offense: Running backs, pass protection


Projected Starter: Few Owls last year benefited more than junior Chase Clement when Rice scrapped the triple-option for the spread attack.  The rare Ken Hatfield recruit that could both run and pass, he flourished in the new system, tying school records with 21 touchdown passes and 25 touchdowns produced, despite playing in just eight games.  He also finished second on the team with 481 yards rushing and four scores on the ground.  While his size and arm strength are pedestrian, Clement’s leadership, clutch play, and ability to move an offense late in games are off the charts.  He is a winner, which is the one quality that makes him so special to this program.           

Projected Top Reserves: Sophomore John Shepherd returns for his second season as Clement’s understudy.  He was forced into action a couple of times last year, providing the type of experience that’ll serve him well in 2007 and beyond.  A carbon copy of Clement at 6-1 and 190 pounds, he, too, moves well outside the pocket and is more of a dart thrower than a bomb thrower.                                          

Watch Out For… a Joel Armstrong sighting behind center at some point this season.  Although the quarterback-turned-receiver is clearly focusing on his new position, it’s not inconceivable that he’ll take snaps at some point this season if Clement goes down or if the offense wants to open up the playbook.  When the senior got the call last year, he kept the Owls afloat until the starter was done rehabbing.         
Strength: Clement.  Don’t expect to see him at the NFL Combine in two years, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a huge asset to this program.  He runs, never forces passes and calmly delivers big plays when the game is hanging in the balance.                             
Weakness: Durability.  Clement is, at most, 190 pounds and very vulnerable playing behind a line that allowed more sacks than any other Conference USA team in 2006.  In the four games he missed last year, the Owls were 1-3, and clearly not the same team on offense. 
: … All-America wideout Jarett Dillard is back, as is the spread offense, meaning Clement should build on last year’s breakthrough season.  The key will be for the line to give him more time, while keeping the junior healthy for all 12 games.                          
Rating: 6

Running Backs

Projected Starters
: If Quinton Smith wasn’t appreciated last season, he sure will be this season.  It’s going to be impossible to adequately replace his 1,000 yards and 40 receptions, which prevented opposing defenses from focusing solely on the Owl vertical attack.  Sophomore C.J. Ugokwe got enough carries as the 2006 backup to be considered the favorite to replace Smith, but hardly enough to feel totally confident about him as the feature back.  A 5-11, 220-pound north-south runner, he has the compact running style and decent kick to plaster defenders once he gets past the first line of defense.

Projected Top Reserves: Senior Bio Bilaye-Benibo and sophomore Marcus Knox have their sights set on more than just the No. 2 job; both would believe they can jump Ugokwe with a strong summer.  After switching from wide receiver before the spring, Knox has been a revelation, showing cutback ability that his competition lacks.  At 5-9 and 200 pounds, he can hide behind the taller linemen before jetting into the secondary for a first down. 

If Knox can immerse himself in the playbook, he has a good chance of getting the nod for the opener.  Cut from the same mold as Ugokwe, Bilaye-Benibo has sprinter speed, yet failed to earn a carry in 2006.  He did, however, pick up a sack in the bowl game, a testament to his athletic versatility.

Watch Out For… a running game by committee.  Unlike last season when Smith took over 90% of the handoffs, Rice no longer has that one individual that can shoulder the load, week-in and week-out.                               
Strength: Power running game.  Each of the three main backs is at least 200 pounds and powerful enough to create a surge in short yardage, while wearing out tired defenses with a steady diet of straight-ahead running.                                  
Weakness: A proven workhorse.  The trio looking to replace Smith has next to no experience at this level, meaning its education will occur in September when games matter.  Rice was in a lot of nail-biters in 2006, but shouldn’t Ugokwe and Bilaye-Benibo have gotten more than just six combined carries?                               
Outlook: Without Smith, the Owl offense will lose the balance that helped make the passing attack so difficult to defense in 2007.        
Rating: 5


Projected Starters: If Rice returns to the post-season in December, it’ll have a lot to do with the play of the receivers, which feature one All-American and a collection of young athletes with considerable upside potential.  Junior Jarett Dillard authored a magical, storybook season in 2006, catching 91 passes for 1,274 yards and 21 touchdowns.  An improbable Biletnikoff Award finalist, he also takes a streak of 15 games with a touchdown reception into this season, three shy of Larry Fitzgerald’s NCAA record. 

At the other outside receiver will be sophomore Toren Dixon, a physical player that worked his way into the rotation as a true freshman late last year.  In stark contrast to Dillard, he’s got the 6-2 and 220-pound frame to occasionally make plays over the middle.  If Dixon can help take some heat off Rice’s headliner in 2007, the entire offense will benefit.           

Inside, the Owls will once again turn to senior Joel Armstrong and sophomore Taylor Wardlow.  A former quarterback, Armstrong is an all-purpose prodigy, who can run, throw, and catch passes when asked.  Whatever the offense needs, he’s poised to deliver.  In 2006, he ran for 135 yards and a score, caught 24 passes for 265 yards and two touchdowns, and threw eight touchdown passes as Chase Clement’s emergency replacement. 

The 6-5 Wardlow came to Houston as a receiver, but has evolved into Rice’s version of a tight end, or Y receiver.  He kept improving as a freshman, finishing with ten receptions for 142 yards and a score, numbers he should soar past this season.         

Projected Top Reserves: Armstrong isn’t the only one-time quarterback finding success as a pass-catcher.  Junior Tommy Henderson caught 31 balls in 2006 for 245 yards and one touchdown.  A gamer at just 5-9 and 180 pounds, he’ll back up Armstrong, while trying to improve on his meager yards after the catch.  But wait, there’s more. 

The Owls will also be trying to convert freshman Pierre Beasley from quarterback to the X receiver behind Dillard this year.  Naturally gifted at 6-3 and 210 pounds, he has the leaping ability and big mitts to blossom into a star with a little more seasoning and a better knowledge of the playbook. 

The No. 2 Z receiver will be sophomore Corbin Smiter, who actually broke into the starting lineup for the final two games of his freshman season and caught six passes in the New Orleans Bowl.  Like Dixon, he’s 6-2 and 220 pounds with enough speed to get behind a secondary.  Even as a backup, he’ll be good for at least 20 catches in 2007.

Watch Out For… Armstrong to flourish this year.  With his focus solely on being a receiver in 2007, he’ll be good for 50 catches in the slot as defenses exhaust all of their resources trying to slow down Dillard.          
Strength: Dillard.  So much more than just a stat-compiler, Dillard is a smooth operator with uncanny ball skills and a knack for coming up big in the clutch.  His presence will deflect attention away from the young receivers, allowing them to mature at a quicker pace.        
Weakness: A proven complement to take some heat off Dillard.  There are plenty of upstarts at the position, but until one of them demands attention, opposing defenses are going to gang up on the Owls’ premier pass-catcher.                         
Outlook: Dillard is going to get his numbers and big plays in 2007, but true success from this unit in 2007 will mean he also got more help from a raw corps that’s busting at the seams with long-term potential.          
Rating: 6.5

Offensive Linemen

Projected Starters: When four starters return to a line that allowed more sacks than any other Conference USA, are you petrified or optimistic? Rice won’t know the answer to that question until the 2007 season gets rolling.  The anchor of an experienced line is senior Robbie Heos, who earned all-conference recognition in 2006 after shifting from left tackle to left guard.  A physical run blocker at 6-4 and 300 pounds, he’ll be even better in his second consecutive year playing the same position. 

Next to Heos is the most intriguing story, redshirt freshman Preston Thompson.  At 6-5, 290 pounds and growing, he pulled ahead of junior Robby Hamilton in the spring in the battle to guard Chase Clement’s backside.  On a line that’s searching for consistent blockers, Thompson has a chance to shine very early in his Owl career.

The right side of the line includes senior tackle Lute Barber and junior guard David Bergen, who have four letters and a few too many missed blocks between them.  Both struggled in pass protection last year, which may have had something to do with the complete shift in offensive systems.  This year, there’ll be no excuses.  A rangy lineman at 6-7 and 300 pounds, Barber got better as the season progressed, earning all-Conference USA honorable mention from league coaches.  Bergen showcased his versatility last year, starting one game at left guard, three at left tackle and eight at right guard where he’ll be this fall.
Junior center Austin Wilkinson has been a pillar of the Rice line for the last two years, starting 24 games in-a-row.  He’s just 6-2 and 270 pounds, but has the smarts and fundamentals to often out play bigger and stronger opponents.   
Projected Top Reserves: Thompson is listed as the starting left tackle heading into summer camp, but Hamilton is 1A, and still knocking on the door.  A two-time letter winner with starting experience, he needs to impress the coaching when the Owls reconvene in August.  Senior David Perkins and junior Jimmy Miller brings a veteran presence to left and right guard, respectively.  Perkins started five games last season and has earned three letters during his college career.  One of the team’s biggest linemen at 6-3 and 300 pounds, Miller played extensively at guard a year ago, and can also fill in at center if needed.            

Watch Out For… the line to make noticeable strides in its second season in the spread offense.  Remember, this is a group of linemen recruited by Ken Hatfield’s staff to pass block about once or twice a quarter.  Last year’s 13-game trial and error will begin paying dividends in 2007.          
Strength: Experience.  No matter their shortcomings, it helps immensely to have four starters back for another year and a two-deep littered with seven upperclassmen that have logged important minutes at this level.
: Size.  Yeah, pass blocking is a big issue that must be addressed, but the line’s size and lack of maulers leaves it extremely vulnerable to nasty defensive fronts.  Just one of 12 linemen is listed north of 300 pounds, a rarity in this era.                
Outlook: Expect improvement from last season, but not enough to keep Clement from getting pummeled from time to time.  If the spring is a fair indication, the Owls are still struggling to hold up at the point of attack.                    
Rating: 5


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