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2007 Rice Preview - Defense

CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Jun 12, 2007


Preview 2007 Rice Owl Defense Preview

 

Rice Owls

Preview 2007 - Defense

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

What you need to know: In an attempt to bolster a run defense that allowed more than 300 yards to five straight opponents in 2006, Rice is shifting from the 3-3-5 to the 4-2-5.  The move puts another big body in the box, but also puts an enormous burden on a line that lost three of last year’s best linemen to graduation.  The new scheme encourages constant pressure from a back seven that boasts the young athletes, such as junior linebacker Brian Raines and sophomore safety Andrew Sendejo, to create havoc for opposing quarterbacks.  Lost in last year’s statistically awful season was the fact that the opportunistic Owls paced Conference USA in turnovers and sacks

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Brian Raines, 118
Sacks: Brian Raines, 4.5
Interceptions: Several with 2

Star of the defense: Junior LB Brian Raines
Player that has to step up and become a star: Senior DT Jonathan Cary
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Terrance Garmon
Best pro prospect: Senior NG George Chukwu
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Raines, 2) S Anderw Sendejo, 3) Chukwu
Strength of the defense: Linebacker
Weakness of the defense:
Line, Pass defense

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: Rice’s shift from the 3-3-5 to the 4-2-5 puts a greater emphasis on developing defensive linemen.  The Owls lost their best pass-rushing end and top two tackles to graduation.  Uh-oh.  The most accomplished of this rebuilt group will be senior nose guard George Chukwu, who spent last season on the outside.  A surprisingly nimble athlete at 300 pounds, he had eight tackles behind the line in 2006 and even dropped back and played a little middle linebacker at one point in the season. 

Lining up next to Chukwu will be fellow senior Jonathan Cary, a former hotshot recruit that has never really fulfilled expectations.  He’ll get a chance to change that at his more natural inside position after playing in 12 games and collecting 15 tackles as a reserve end last year.

The departure of Courtney Gordon puts a lot of pressure on this year’s ends, freshman James Casey and junior Dietrich Davis, to make plays up front.  Not your typical first-year player, Casey spent the past four years playing minor league baseball in the Chicago White Sox system.  Coming off a terrific spring, he looks to have the right blend of size and speed to fit in nicely in the new defensive system.  The Owls are excited to have Davis back in the fold after he missed the end of last season with an injury.  An explosive and intense pass rusher with linebacker speed, he started three games and was headed toward a solid year before getting hurt.     
 
Projected Top Reserves: At 6-4 and 270 pounds, sophomore Victor Brooks gives the Owls their biggest option at defensive end.  He debuted with a couple of sacks against UCLA last year, and is strong enough to hold up against the run.  Playing behind Chukwu at the nose will be junior Chris Passé, a two-time letterman that should see a spike in his playing time in 2007.  One of the line’s strongest players, he’ll be an asset as the defense tries to toughen up against the run.

Watch Out For… Casey to garner some John Styptic comparisons this season.  Sure it’ll be premature, but his size, speed and intensity off the edge bear a striking resemblance to one of Rice’s all-time great pass rushers.     
Strength: Maturity.  The leaders of this unit have been around the program for years and played a lot of football, and the one newcomer, Casey, will be 23 in September.     
Weakness: Stopping the run.  Although adding a fourth lineman should help, Rice was 112th nationally against the run in 2006, when it had a couple of veterans in the trenches.  Without William Wood and Jejuna Cooper, they’ll stumble badly once again.           
Outlook: The league’s better run blocking offenses will toy with this interior, but the pass rushing combination of Casey and Davis has an intriguing opportunity to be the program’s biggest defensive surprise of 2007.                     
Rating: 5

Linebackers

Projected Starters: When everyone was telling Brian Raines he was too small to be a I-A linebacker, he didn’t bother listening.  It’s a good thing, too, considering how well he played in 2006.  Raines was everywhere for the defense last fall, making 118 tackles, 12.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks and a league-high five forced fumbles en route to a spot on the all-conference team.  He plays the game very fast and hits a whole lot harder than most 215-pound players. 

The other linebacker spot in the 4-2-5 will be filled by junior Vernon James, a four-game starter at middle linebacker in 2006 that finished the year with 41 tackles.  Like Raines, he isn’t all that big, but runs well to the ball and rarely misses tackles.                       

Projected Top Reserves: As prolific as Raines was in 2006, Terrance Garmon is capable of pushing him for playing time in just his second season on campus.  Back when the Owls were using three linebackers, he worked his way into the starting lineup for the final three games, bagging 25 tackles and picking off a pair of passes as a true freshman.  Once he adds a few more good pounds in the weight room, he has the safety speed and instincts to be the eventual star of this group. 

The Owls also have high hopes for sophomore Robert Calhoun, James’ understudy in the middle.  He saw enough action as a true freshman to earn a letter in 2006, laying the foundation for significantly more reps this season.          

Watch Out For… Garmon.  Only two linebackers will be starting this season, but the Owls will have to find a way to make room for one of their budding defensive stars.  On raw talent alone, he was terrific at the end of last year.  With a better idea of what he’s doing in 2007, he’ll be even more productive, starting or not.                              
Strength: Speed and athleticism.  All of the Rice linebackers are basically big safeties that can fly to the ball, back-pedal into pass defense and pressure the quarterback on the blitz.                    
Weakness: Size.  Being small and fast sometimes comes with a price.  When Rice faces offensive lines that quickly get to the second level, the undersized linebackers have a tendency to get swallowed up in their wake.                                     
Outlook: When a big defensive play is made by the Owls in 2007, there’s a real good chance it came from one of the linebackers.  This is an exciting group of playmakers whose best football is still ahead of it.                               
Rating: 5

Secondary

Projected Starters: The burden of correcting a pass defense that allowed 32 touchdown passes in 2006 falls on a young secondary that could start three sophomores this fall.  Two of those underclassmen, strong safety Andrew Sendejo and boundary corner Ja’Corey Shepherd, started 11 games each as freshmen and represent the building blocks of the group.  A safety/linebacker hybrid, Sendejo is 6-2 and 210 pounds with a head-hunting quality and a thirst for wreaking havoc on the blitz.  As a true freshman last year, he started 11 games and finished with 53 tackles, seven tackles for loss and a pair of sacks.  In just his second year, Shepherd is already the program’s best cover corner.  He’ll still jump the route and make occasional mistakes in coverage, but compensates for his youthful indiscretions with outstanding quickness and leaping ability. 

If junior Brandon King remains academically ineligible this season, sophomore Christopher Douglas is the favorite to earn the start at field corner.  He plays with an attitude and a swagger, but at only 5-9 and 175 pounds, will be a liability when matched up with bigger, physical wideouts.

Filling out the secondary will be a pair of first-time starters, juniors Carl Taylor and Bencil SmithTaylor is penciled in at KAT safety, basically a centerfielder, after redshirting last season.  A heralded recruit three years ago, he has the size and superb athleticism to be a smash hit with the Owls before too long.  At free safety, Smith runs well and isn’t shy about coming up and bringing the payload on run defense.  A natural leader, he had 18 tackles and a pick as a key reserve last year.

Projected Top Reserves: Fifth-year senior Gary Anderson has battled injuries throughout his career, but is finally healthy and ready to contribute at field corner as a part of the secondary rotation.  The son of a former Arkansas and NFL great by the same name, he’s too athletic and experienced to keep off the field in 2007. 

While senior Justin Abt isn’t the smoothest athlete in blue and gray, he’s an enforcer from his free safety spot that can destroy opposing receivers crossing the middle.  He’s also one of the program’s most valuable special teams players. 

Behind Taylor at KAT is freshman Max Anyiam, who’s been opening eyes in the off-season.  Big and quick, he has the right physical makeup to fit nicely into a defense that wants to attack from every angle with top-flight athletes. 

Watch Out For… King’s progress in the classroom.  The Owls need every viable defensive back they can get, and the junior is 1A to Shepherd as the team’s best cover corner.   
Strength: Athleticism.  First and foremost, the Rice defensive backs are quality athletes that run extremely well and can deliver big plays when the ball is in their hands.  Now if only they were a little better in…                   
Weakness: Pass defense.  It’s still a very raw group that gives up too many big plays and too much cushion on third and long.  With no guarantee of a pass rush to make life easier in 2007, it’s imperative they grow up in a hurry before September rolls around.              
Outlook: You can see the potential in players like Sendejo and Shepherd, but growing pains are unavoidable, meaning good quarterbacks will pick apart the Rice secondary again in 2007.                
Rating: 5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: A former walk-on, sophomore Clark Fangmeier took over the short-range placekicking duties early last year, connecting on 8-of-11 field goals and all 35 extra point attempts to earn all-Conference USA honors.  He kicked the game-winner with three seconds left against East Carolina and finished the season with a career-best 43-yarder in the New Orleans Bowl. 

When the Owls need a long field goal, they’ll typically turn to big-legged senior Luke Juist, who is also replacing Jared Scruggs at punter in 2007.  He was 4-of-6 outside 40 yards last year, and has exhibited an ability to deliver beyond 50 yards during his career.  While leg strength is not a concern, Juist still needs to show that he can he master the finesse aspects of punting, such as handling an errant snap and pooching a punt inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.           

Junior Brandon King led Conference USA in punt return average last season, but unless he qualifies academically, he’ll be no help.  Either way, Ja’Corey Shepherd will be in the mix after fielding nine punts as a freshman in 2006.  Sophomore jitterbug Chris Douglas is the likely choice to be back on kickoffs after averaging 19.3 yards a return last year.

Projected Top Reserves: In the event that Fangmeier suffers a sophomore slump, Juist is in place to take over all of the placekicking duties.  The senior will be challenged at punter this summer by 6-3, 200-pound Clay Joseph, a true freshman signed at the end of April to specifically put some heat on Juist.   

Watch Out For… Juist to struggle as the punter this season.  Even without the presence of a rush in the spring, he was wildly inconsistent, forcing David Bailiff to bring in Joseph as an insurance policy.                   
Strength: The two-headed kicker.  Ideally, a team has one primary placekicker on special teams, but Fangmeier’s short-range accuracy and Juist’s long-range potential is a combination that seems to work for the Owls.           
Weakness: Kick coverage.  The Rice special teams unit put added pressure on the defense in 2006, finishing 49th nationally covering kicks and 87th defending opposing punt returners.  A little more pop from its own return team, which finished 10th in the conference, wouldn’t hurt either.     
Outlook: If the Owls can’t manufacture a dependable punter or cover kicks better this fall, the already beleaguered defense will endure the brunt of the special teams futility.                 
Rating: 5.5

   

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