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2008 Rice Preview - Defense

CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted May 13, 2008


CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Rice Owl Defense

Rice Owls

Preview 2008 - Defense

- 2008 CFN Rice Preview | 2008 Rice Offense
-
2008 Rice Defense | 2008 Rice Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Rice Preview | 2006 CFN Rice Preview

What you need to know:
The Owls lose little on defense, but that’s not necessarily cause for optimism. Rice finished near the bottom of the country in many statistical categories, allowing 43 points a game and finishing dead last in pass defense. Although the staff spent the past few months hammering home the importance of fundamentals and sound tackling, there’s no easy solution for a squad that lacks the basics, like size, speed, and depth. On a positive note, Rice does return a proven, fringe all-league player at each unit. DE Scott Solomon led the Owls in sacks as a freshman and was a monster in the spring. Although Brian Raines isn’t very big, he’s been a two-year tackling machine at linebacker. The best is yet to come for FS Andrew Sendejo, who led the team with 107 tackles in his sophomore year. It’s a start.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Andrew Sendejo, 107
Sacks: Scott Solomon, 4.5
Interceptions: Andrew Sendejo, 5

Star of the defense: Junior FS Andrew Sendejo
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior DT Chance Talbert
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DE Scott Solomon
Best pro prospect: Senior LB Brian Raines
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Raines 2) Sendejo 3) Solomon
Strength of the defense: The linebackers
Weakness of the defense: Pass defense, interior linemen, third down defense

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: In a sea of mediocrity on the line, 6-3, 250-pound sophomore end Scott Solomon has really begun to stand out. On the heels of debuting with 49 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks, he enjoyed a dominating spring session. A relentless worker who’ll fight through blocks, he’s ready to be the best thing to happen to the Owl defense since John Syptak graduated three years.

In order to prevent Solomon from getting doubled, the defense needs more big plays from the other end, 6-2, 240-pound sophomore Cheta Ozougwu. Like Solomon, he enjoyed a solid first year, making 43 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. However, he can’t be held without a sack again this fall, or else Solomon will pay the price.

The nation’s 100th-ranked run defense will be looking to replace both of last year’s starting tackles. Uh-oh. While it’s subject to change, coming out of spring, the starters at defensive tackle and nose tackle were junior Chance Talbert and senior Chris Ptaszek, respectively. The 6-5, 290-pound Talbert looked like a different athlete in the spring after doing time with the Owl basketball team. A former tight end who’s done little for the program, he showed the quickness and flexibility that turned the heads of the coaching staff.

Although Ptaszek looks the part at 6-5 and 302 pounds, he’s yet to have a breakout year for the program. He has tremendous upper body strength and three letters on his resume, but topped out a year ago with nine tackles and a tackle behind the line in a reserve role.

Projected Top Reserves: Sophomore tackle Cameron Thompson had 10 tackles in eight games, impressing in his first season on campus. At 6-0 and 285 pounds, he’s quick off the snap and uses his leverage and squatty build as an advantage in one-on-one match ups. He’s pushing Talbert for playing time.

Sophomore Aaron Williams is the best of a very lean group of backup ends. A part-time player on defense and special teams, he’s a long and lean 6-3, 218-pounder with the speed to get pressure coming off the edge.

Watch Out For… Solomon to explode into a Conference USA star. He performed exceedingly well for such a young player, backing that up by getting even better in the offseason.
Strength: The ends. In Solomon, Ozougwu, and Williams, the Owls boast three frenetic sophomores who move with the speed and fluidity of outside linebackers.
Weakness: The tackles. Now that veterans George Chukwu and Jonathan Cary are gone, Rice has a big void in the middle of the line that needs to filled. If Talbert and Ptaszek aren’t immediate and effective stop-gaps up front, the run defense will again be a weekly sieve.
Outlook: After Solomon, the situation along the defensive line looks as bleak as it did a year ago. Barring career years from the new starters at tackle, Rice will get run on at will, laboring to improve on last year, when almost 200 yards a game were yielded on the ground.
Rating: 4

Linebackers

Projected Starters: In the Owls’ 4-2-5 set, they can take comfort in the return of both starting linebackers, seniors Brian Raines and Vernon James at strongside and weakside, respectively. The 6-1, 222-pound Raines was second on the team in tackles, making 81 stops, 10 tackles for loss, and three sacks. Although his size is less than ideal, he plays the game hard and with outstanding sideline-to-sideline speed. Just don’t match him up in pass coverage with tall receivers, or else he’ll get exposed.

James is a very similar type of player, a 6-1, 220-pounder who plays with the quickness and ferocity of a strong safety. He has two years of starting experience, peaking as a junior with 74 tackles, five tackles for loss, and a sack. He fills lanes quickly and rarely misses tackles, supporting a run defense that needs all the help it can get.

Projected Top Reserves: Both backups begin the season battle-tested and ready to start if called upon. Behind Raines is 6-2, 220-pound junior Terrance Garmon, an athletic, bigger option at strongside who has played extensively over the last two seasons. As a sophomore, he pitched in 26 tackles, three tackles for loss, and a pair of sacks, rarely missing in the open field.

James’ apprentice for the second straight year will be 6-1, 210-pound junior Robert Calhoun. He has tremendous upside with the program, earning letters in each of his first two seasons out of high school. The Owls’ most consistent backup a year ago, he actually started four games and delivered 31 tackles and four stops behind the line.

Watch Out For… Calhoun. It’s James’ job at weakside, but that hasn’t stopped Calhoun from clawing for more playing time and improving each offseason. He’s an outstanding athlete, making it difficult to keep him on the bench.
Strength: Speed and athleticism. Rice has four athletic, undersized linebackers, who are basically safeties to everyone else. Collectively, they have outstanding range, a must when playing a level behind the Owl D-line.
Weakness: Size. Even if you believe what’s listed in the press guides, this is an undersized unit that can get manhandled by linemen and overmatched by taller receivers. The linebackers are small and fast by design, but it will backfire against physical opponents that move well.
Outlook: Arguably the most consistent unit on the battered defense, Raines and James give the Owls a couple of playmakers who can clean up many of the messes that begin up front. They have limitations, but with solid backups in the rear view mirror, this is an overall solid and deep group of defenders.
Rating: 5.5

Secondary

Projected Starters: In the Owls’ 4-2-5 set, the five defensive backs are comprised of three safeties and a pair of cornerbacks. The best of the group is junior 6-1, 213-pound FS Andrew Sendejo, who arrived in his second season as a starter, leading the defense with 107 tackles and five interceptions. Part safety and part linebacker, he’s made strides in pass coverage without sacrificing any of his aggressive, hard-hitting tendencies.

Returning to KAT safety, essentially a centerfielder, after missing 2007 with a foot injury is 5-11, 200-pound senior Bencil Smith. More than anything, his leadership and experience were missed after he went on the shelf. A part-time starter throughout his career, he’ll have no issues sliding into a permanent role in the secondary.

Rounding out the group at strong safety is 5-11, 195-pound sophomore Willie Garley. More of a top athlete than a true thumper, he began distinguishing himself a year ago, working his way into the lineup and chipping in 33 tackles as he learned on the job.

Rice’s top cover guy at field corner is 5-9, 182-pound senior Brandon King. He plays with a swagger and isn’t afraid to take chances, but can get burned downfield on a regular basis, especially by bigger receivers. He had 46 tackles, but was most valuable as a pass defender, picking off three passes and breaking up a team-high 16.

At boundary corner will be 5-11, 180-pound sophomore Joseph Leary. One of just six true freshmen to play a year ago, he played in 10 games and started three, finishing with 28 tackles and a couple of fumble recoveries. Although his future is bright, he’s still going to get picked on plenty by opposing quarterbacks.

Projected Top Reserves: Although senior Ja’Corey Shepherd has been upstaged by Leary, he still represents a valuable reserve at boundary corner. At 5-11 and 190 pounds, he’s a terrific athlete with 22 career starts and five interceptions, but is soft in coverage and prone to getting exposed too often.

After mostly playing on special teams, the coaching staff is banking on sophomore Max Anyiam to provide depth and a physical presence behind Garley at strong safety. At 6-2 and 210 pounds, he has outstanding size and good quickness, the right combination for a defense that wants to attack whenever possible.

Watch Out For… more of the same. The Owls were absolutely embarrassed in pass defense last season, a trend that shows no signs of ending unless the pass rush suddenly morphs into a beast.
Strength: Tackling. Across the board, the Owls do a good job of wrapping up and preventing yards after contact. Unfortunately for the defense, the defensive backs get plenty of practice making stops downfield.
Weakness: Pass defense. Although it’s a group effort when a secondary allows 37 touchdown passes and 312 yards a game, there’s no debate that the defensive backs are dreadful in coverage and permit way too many big plays.
Outlook: Although the Owls have more depth and talent than in recent years, it’s unlikely to make a profound impact on the field this fall. Rice will once again struggle badly to slow down opposing quarterbacks who won’t be bashful about attacking the defense’s throbbing Achilles’ heel.
Rating: 4.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: By every imaginable measurement, Rice ranked among the nation’s worst special teams units. On a positive note, the only way is up in 2008. Junior walk-on Clark Fangmeier is back to do the kicking, looking to improve on last year’s weak 7-of-12 performance on field goals. Although his leg strength is adequate, he needs to work on his accuracy and consistency.

A new punter is being sought to replace Luke Juist, who exhausted his eligibility. The top contender coming out of spring was redshirt freshman Mark Brundage, a walk-on who’ll also challenge Fangmeier at placekicker.

Senior Ja’Corey Shepherd will be the centerpiece of the return game, but needs to get much better after averaging just 5.5 yards on punts and 17.5 yards on kickoffs. If the staff looks elsewhere for a spark, sophomore Tyler Smith and senior Brandon King are no strangers to handling the ball on special teams.

Watch Out For… the new punter. More than just an integral part of the special teams unit, Brundage will also impact a defense that needs every advantage it can get from special teams and field position. If he’s no better than Juist, the Owl D will pay the stiffest price.
Strength: King. He was a weapon for the return game two years ago, a role he must reprise in order to give a jolt to a sagging and lifeless unit.
Weakness: The return game. If King doesn’t come through and Shepherd is the primary returner, it’s doubtful Rice will make a quantum leap from last season’s 109th and 115th place finishes in punt returns and kickoff returns, respectively.
Outlook: It doesn’t get a lot of attention, but the special teams unit is one of the dirty little secrets that have hampered the Owls the past few years. While there are too many problems to address in one season, the group will make progress if Fangmeier grows from his debut and Brundage holds up marginally well as the new punter.
Rating: 4