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2009 Rice Preview - Defense

CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Jul 29, 2009


CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Rice Owl Defense

 

Rice Owls

Preview 2009 - Defense

- 2009 CFN Rice Preview | 2009 Rice Offense
-
2009 Rice Defense | 2009 Rice Depth Chart
- 2008 Rice Preview | 2007 Rice Preview | 2006 Rice Preview 

What you need to know:
Is this the year that Rice finally starts turning the corner toward becoming a respectable D? It has to be because the offense will take time to adjust to so many changes. The Owls have been garroted for years, but cause for optimism comes in the form of nine returning starters and a whopping 26 returning lettermen. Progress was creeping in toward the second half of 2008, as three of the last six opponents were held below 20 points. The run defense, in particular, began to stiffen, forcing teams into more third-and-long situations. With three starting defensive linemen back, including budding DE Scott Solomon, there’s hope that trend can continue in 2009. Still, Rice needs to do a much better job defending the pass in a league loaded with high-powered aerial attacks. There are quality, young athletes everywhere, led by FS Andrew Sendejo, but if you can’t stop the pass in Conference USA, you’ll constantly be playing catch up.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Andrew Sendejo, 94
Sacks: Scott Solomon, 4.5
Interceptions: Andrew Sendejo, Chris Douglas, 3

Star of the defense: Senior FS Andrew Sendejo
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore CB Chris Jammer
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore S Travis Bradshaw
Best pro prospect: Sendejo
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Sendejo, 2) Junior DE Scott Solomon, 3) Senior DT Chance Talbert
Strength of the defense: The defensive line, the safeties, creating turnovers
Weakness of the defense: Pass defense, run defense, third-down defense, red zone D

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: With three starters back, there’s cautious optimism that this will be Rice’s best defensive line in years. It all begins with 6-3, 263-pound junior end Scott Solomon, who’s on the brink of becoming one of Conference USA’s top pass rushers. He had 40 tackles, nine tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks last season, playing his best football over the last month of the season. A tireless worker, with a great first step, he spent much of the offseason toyi9ng with the Owl offensive linemen.

Solomon’s tag-team partner is once again expected to be 6-2, 250-pound junior Cheta Ozougwu, an underrated run defender despite his modest size. He was constantly around the ball last season, fighting through the blocks to make 40 tackles, six tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks. With the other side expected to see more attention, he’ll be asked to contribute even more to the pass rush.

Rice’s best player on the inside will be 6-5, 283-pound senior Chance Talbert, a veteran of three letters for his work on both sides of the ball. He made a successful transition to the defensive line, turning 28 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks into honorable mention all-league recognition. A terrific athlete, who’s also lettered on the basketball team, he has the quickness to really break out in his final season of eligibility.

The newest member of the starting unit is 6-0, 293-pound sophomore NG John Gioffre, who played in nine games, made six stops, and logged a start versus North Texas. He’s tough at the point of contact and plays with good pad level, lending hope that he can clog some running lanes and help a defense that sorely needs it up front.      

Projected Top Reserves: The top defensive end in the rotation figures to be 6-4, 235-pound sophomore Arnaud Gason-Nadon, who earned Freshman All-Conference USA honors with 11 tackles and a pick. More of a situational player on the outside, he’s quick off the snap, plays with a great motor, and shows the potential to be a viable pass rusher.

Battling Gioffre for the starting job at nose guard will be 6-1, 307-pound sophomore Michael Smith. He showed promise before a knee injury prematurely ended his season, starting against Southern Miss and making six stops in seven games. Although not the type of player, who’ll wreak havoc on the inside, he does have the size and strength to eat up space and occupy blockers. 

Watch Out For… Solomon to moonlight at defensive tackle. Provided Gason-Nadon makes it possible by filling in ably at defensive end, he’ll be able to slide inside, where’s there’s a greater need and where he’s had some success during practice. While it won’t be a full-time gig, it’s a shift that could get the school’s four best linemen on the field at the same time.
Strength: The ends. Relatively speaking, this is a solid group that will easily go two-deep with productive players. In Solomon and Ozougwu, the Owls boast a pair of juniors, with the experience and the pass rushing skills to be real nuisances for opposing tackles.
Weakness: The interior. It’s an on-going problem that shows no signs of going away. Rice simply doesn’t have enough big, strong bodies on the inside, who are capable of gumming up running lanes and allowing the ends and linebackers to swoop in to make plays. It wasn’t the only reason, but certainly one of the biggest why the Owls were 99th nationally against the run.
Outlook: While the Owls are surely headed in the right direction with Solomon, Ozougwu, and Talbert, there are still plenty of concerns that need to be resolved. In particular, they’ve got to do a better job of holding the line of scrimmage and preventing other teams from running the ball right down the heart of the D.
Rating: 5

Linebackers

Projected Starters: In the Owls’ 4-2-5 set, the program is looking at a half-empty glass at linebacker. All-star Brian Raines is gone, but 6-2, 220-pound senior Terrance Garmon is prepared to become the new pilot of the group. A veteran of 34 career games and 15 starts, he’s coming off the best season of his career, highlighted by 66 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks. The type of athlete Rice seeks at weakside, he plays with enough range to make stops from sideline to sideline and contribute in pass defense.

One of the surprises of the offseason has been the play of 5-10, 210-pound sophomore Tanner Shuck, the surprise frontrunner at strongside. After quietly making 15 tackles in seven games as a rookie, he has zoomed up the depth chart to surpass far more experienced teammates. He has outstanding speed and instincts that belie his minimal experience at this level.

Projected Top Reserves: Senior Robert Calhoun is actually the most experienced of the linebackers, but he’s also the guy, who’s been lapped by Shuck at strongside for the time being. The 6-1, 233-pounder had 35 tackles and three tackles for loss last season, and doesn’t plan to go away without a fight this summer.

The successor to Garmon at weakside is 6-3, 213-pound junior Aaron Williams, who logged three starts and had 20 tackles last season. A speedy and versatile athlete, he’s also played some defensive end in Houston, making him a natural to be used in blitz packages.

Watch Out For… Shuck to continue holding off Calhoun. He was a little raw at the beginning of spring, but the staff couldn’t stop raving about his speed and his lateral quickness. If the game continues to slow down for the sophomore, he’ll be impossible to keep off the field in September. 
Strength: Speed and athleticism. Rice has a slew of athletic, undersized linebackers, who are basically safeties to everyone other school. Collectively, they have outstanding range, a must when playing one level behind the Owl D-line.                    
Weakness: Size. Even if you buy what’s listed in the media 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 and get to the second line of defense in a hurry.                                     
Outlook: Although there are some good athletes here, it’s going to be difficult to replace Raines, one of the program’s best defensive players this decade. The onus falls on Shuck to continue developing because if Calhoun remains on the bench, quality depth and experience will not be problems.
Rating: 4.5

Secondary

Projected Starters: There are plenty of familiar faces in the Owl secondary, but history shows that doesn’t necessarily mean better production. The best of the unit, by far, is 6-1, 210-pound FS Andrew Sendejo, who’s been honorable mention All-Conference USA in back-to-back years. Tough, physical, and athletic, he possesses all of the characteristics coaches want in a free safety. A fourth-year starter and team captain, he’s always around the action, making a team-high 94 stops last season to go along with three picks and three fumble recoveries. He’s one of the hidden gems of this program.

Hard-hitting junior Chris Jones is back at strong safety after floating to a couple of different positions last season. He broke into the lineup midway through the season and never left, finishing fourth on the team with 59 tackles, two tackles for loss, and five pass breakups. He can also play some weak safety, a testament to his versatility.

The third in the Owls’ three-safety set is talented 6-1, 200-pound sophomore Travis Bradshaw, a former walk-on and borderline all-star after just one season. Sure, he can improve in pass defense, but he’s a terrific wrap-up tackler and run defender, finishing second on the team with 89 tackles and forcing a couple of fumbles.

The most experienced of the cornerbacks is 6-1, 180-pound sophomore Chris Jammer, who started six games in his debut and had 40 tackles, two tackles for loss, and a game-winning 69-yard interception return for a score. He has good size and speed, but just needs to spend more time working on the finer points of pass coverage.

Arguably the most dynamic of the defensive backs is the field corner, 5-10, 171-pound sophomore Jarrett Ben. Although he played sparingly a year ago and had just seven tackles, his raw athleticism and closing speed portend a very bright future with the Owls. The way he breaks on the ball and moves his hips, he’s going to surprise a bunch of quarterbacks, who think they can pick on the youngster without paying a price.

Projected Top Reserves: Two-time letterwinner Max Anyiam will once again bring reliable depth and intensity to strong safety. The 6-2, 210-pound junior is one of the hardest hitters on the defense, finishing with a career-high 18 stops, almost half of which were KO tackles.

The heir apparent to Sendejo at free safety looks to be 5-11, 207-pound sophomore Xavier Webb, who has come a long way in a short period of time. He had eight tackles in his first season as a reserve and a special teamer, showing the pop and tenacity that could garner him a starting assignment in 2010.   

Watch Out For… the health of junior Joseph Leary. He’s had problems with his hamstrings going back to last year, a recurring issue that limited him to half a season in 2008. When healthy, he’s one of the program’s top cover corners, which is why there’s such a sense of urgency to get him back on the field.
Strength: The safeties. Unquestionably one of the team strengths, the Owl safeties bring a combination of size, speed, and ferocity that makes them the MVPs of this defense. They get asked to do a lot and usually deliver with a resounding exclamation point at the end of a punishing hit.
Weakness: Pass defense. Although strides were certainly made from 2007, the Owls still allowed 34 touchdown passes and were 110th nationally in yards allowed. With the offense less likely to bail it out this fall, the secondary needs to tighten up in coverage and start making more timely stops, especially in the red zone.
Outlook: Strides are being made, even if you have to look real hard to spot them. Rice continues to do a nice job of recruiting athletes and trying to coach them up into quality defensive backs. It’s worked with a player like Sendejo, but in order to keep progressing, similar results will be needed from the likes of Jammer and Ben.
Rating: 4.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Both primary specialists return, looking to improve on last year’s results. Senior Clark Fangmeier doesn’t get many opportunities for anything other than extra points, but has shown decent accuracy and good leg drive, especially now that he’s completely healthy. He connected on 6-of-10 field goals and all 73 of his extra point attempts.

The Owls’ punter is back as well, but that might not necessarily be a good thing. Sophomore Kyle Martens struggled in his debut, averaging just 38.3 yards and rarely providing much help for a defense that needed it. At 6-6 and 196 pounds, he does have the long frame to blossom once he hones his technique.

The departures of James Casey and Ja’Corey Shepherd mean Rice will be looking for two new players to spark a moribund return game. Based on prior experience, seniors Andrew Sendejo and Jeramy Goodson, and sophomore Chris Jammer will get long looks.

Watch Out For… the arrival of true freshman Chris Boswell. One of the nation’s premier prep kickers a year ago, he has razor accuracy and is already good enough to challenge for the job if Fangmeier leaves an opening.
Strength: The coverage units. Despite all of the problems on special teams the last few years, Rice actually did a commendable job limiting damage on returns. In fact, the Owls were 14th nationally covering punts and 68th covering kicks. In relative terms, it’s a strength.
Weakness: The return game. For such an explosive team, you’d think the Owls could generate a little splash here. You’d be wrong. For the second straight year, the program was feeble in this area, finishing 88th nationally in punt returns and 81st on kickoffs.
Outlook: Without the luxury of an unstoppable offense, Rice will need to get better in other areas in order to maintain the momentum. Special teams, for instance. If nothing else, the kickers should be improved. Fangmeier is healthy, Boswell has arrived to push him, and Martens will benefit from that first season of experience.
Rating: 4.5