2010 Rice Preview – Defense
CollegeFootballNews.com 2010 Preview - Rice Owl Defense
Preview 2010 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: The coaches change. The players change. The results? Well, they're painfully similar year after year. There's no end to Rice's defensive struggles, a perennial display of futility that tests that staff and forces the offense to operate on a perpetual fast break. Nine starters are back, but that's small consolation for a unit that was helpless against the pass and gave up more points per game, 43, than any other program in America. Although all-star DL Scott Solomon is a nice starting point and FS Travis Bradshaw has been a gem as a walk-on, they're not nearly enough to bolster a defense riddled with holes. In a league that favors the pass, the Owls will continue having trouble until they can recruit and develop a better caliber of defensive back.
Star of the defense: Senior DL Scott Solomon
Tackles: Travis Bradshaw, 121
Sacks: Scott Solomon, 6.5
Interceptions: Jarrett Ben, 2
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior CB Chris Jammer
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore NG Alex Lowry
Best pro prospect: Solomon
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Solomon, 2) Junior FS Travis Bradshaw, 3) Senior DE Cheta Ozougwu
Strength of the defense: The defensive line, the safeties
Weakness of the defense: Pass defense, creating turnovers, run defense, third-down defense, red zone D
Projected Starters: For one final year, 6-3, 265-pound senior Scott Solomon will be the leader of the front four and the entire defense. However, he could be doing damage from a different starting block. In order to get the four best Owls on the field, he's moving to tackle from end, where he was an All-Conference USA second teamer in 2009. Naturally, he'll be giving away some weight, but will overcome it with his intensity, power, and insatiable appetite for the backfield. A sparkplug for the entire defense, he chalked up a career-high 63 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, and 21 hurries.
At the nose, 6-1, 295-pound sophomore Alex Lowry could become a fixture for the next three years. As a true freshman, he started 10 games in the middle, making 16 tackles and getting better as the season progressed. Very wide and very strong, he's come a long way in a short period of time, showing the potential to grow into a quality run-stuffer.
With Solomon relocating , the Owls' best pass rusher from the outside becomes 6-2, 260-pound senior Cheta Ozougwu, a three-year starter with a tremendous work ethic and a knack for constantly being around the ball. He gets off the ball in a hurry and will fight through blocks, making a career-best 61 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks last season. If Solomon stays at end, Ozougwu will be asked to do even more in his final year.
The battle on the other side begins with 6-4, 255-pound senior Kramer Lucio, who's poised for his best season in Houston. Hamstrung by injuries throughout his career, he missed most of the second half of 2009, which limited him to just seven tackles and 1.5 sacks. If he can finally stay healthy for an entire year, he has the know-how and work ethic to carve out a productive finish as an Owl.
Projected Top Reserves: Junior John Gioffre is like having another regular at nose guard. A three-game starter last fall, he finished with 11 tackles and provided valuable depth in the rotation. Also a former high school wrestling champ, he uses his hands well and can be very nasty in tight spaces.
If Solomon heads back to defensive end, 6-1, 285-pound junior Michael Smith is going to be the biggest beneficiary. Currently the backup at tackle, he started seven games at the nose last season, making 24 tackles, two tackles for loss, and a sack. It was a successful return from a knee injury that prematurely ended his initial season.
Sophomore Cody Bauer is looking to build on a solid first season with the program. As a rookie, he became a regular in the rotation at end, making 16 tackles and two tackles for loss, while earning a start in the finale with Houston. Still light at 6-4 and 245 pounds, he'll be a more effective pass rusher if he can add some weight without sacrificing any closing speed.
Watch Out For .... Solomon's adjustment, provided he remains inside. The senior is going to give it all no matter where he plays, but the coaching staff wants to be sure that his playmaking ability isn't neutralized by the extra traffic on the interior. Wherever he lines up, he's sure to attract a lot of attention from the other side of the line.
Strength: The rotation. Rice has its deepest rotation in years, having access to 10 different linemen who lettered last season and a half-dozen with starting experience. It's a veteran group, with no worries about tired legs late in games or a lack of relevant experience.
Weakness: Run defense. The Owls would fight as hard as anyone in the trenches, but too often, it didn't matter. They were routinely bullied off the ball, a perennial problem, ranking 102nd nationally versus the run and allowing 36 rushing touchdowns. It's a problem that shows no signs of going away.
Outlook: All things considered, Rice should be in better shape up front than in recent years. It has a lot of hard-working, experienced bodies, and Solomon is the kind of leading man, who makes everyone better. Although the Owls will still labor in run defense, they'll mount a push that could cause problems for opposing quarterbacks.
Projected Starters: In Rice's 4-2-5 set, the program only requires two starting linebackers, but both must be a jack-of-all-trades. At weakside, 6-1, 220-pound sophomore Trey Briggs is going to play a lot of football for the Owls before he's through. He moved into the lineup after Robert Calhoun was injured, starting four games and making 25 stops and two tackles for loss. While not an elite athlete, he has the instincts and sure-tackling to make plenty of plays in his first full year as a regular.
In the middle, 5-11, 220-pound senior Justin Hill is eyeing his first full season as a starter in his second full year on the defensive side of the ball. A running back when he first matriculated, he changed roles, finishing sixth on the team with 43 tackles and three tackles for loss last season. A compact, explosive athlete, he'll be even more productive once he has a better feel for his assignments and his place on the field.
Projected Top Reserves: Pushing Briggs for playing time is 5-11, 190-pound senior Willie Garley, a converted safety and three-time letterwinner. An active defender, with 19 career starts, he had 31 tackles and forced a couple of fumbles in a little more than half season. While he lacks ideal size for the position, he's a playmaker on defense and special teams when he can get into space.
Providing depth behind Hill is 5-11, 215-pound junior Justin Allen, a transfer from Idaho returning closer to home. Before sitting out a mandatory year in 2009, he was a starter for the Vandals, finishing third on the team with 68 tackles. He has good sideline-to-sideline quickness and will contribute as a pass defender.
Watch Out For .... Hill to make a decent amount of big plays. Sure, he'll get burned at times, but he's too good of an athlete not to make his share of momentum-building stops. He's quick, strong, and plays with good pad level, a combination that could result in 75 tackles.
Strength: Athleticism. The Owls are home to a bunch of undersized, yet athletically-gifted players on the second line of defense. No, you don't ever want them taking on pulling guards, but they cover a lot of ground and will have plenty of chances to turn that range into tackles.
Weakness: Size. When lured into the pile, Rice has a penchant for getting mauled by opposing linemen and overmatched in the passing game by taller receivers. At an average of around 6-0 and 210 pounds, a lack of girth is going to be a problem as long as the program insists on targeting smaller and faster linebackers.
Outlook: Too often, this unit is dragging down opponents well beyond the line of scrimmage and getting bowled over by bigger players. The linebackers will make a lot of stops, but not the kind that force third-and-long or get the ball back to the offense. They're essentially glorified safeties masquerading as linebackers.
Projected Starters: Rice's offseason objectives are to replace standout Andrew Sendejo and somehow patch up a defensive backfield that's a perennial sore spot. Junior FS Travis Bradshaw is the unchallenged front man of the group, coming off a monster second season as a starter. A 6-1, 210-pound former walk-on, with outstanding instincts, he recorded a team-high 121 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and four forced fumbles. Solid in the open field, he's a wrap-up tackler, who explodes on impact.
At strong safety, hard-hitting 6-2, 200-pound senior Chris Jones is working to secure a starting job he held sporadically throughout the last two seasons. In and out of the lineup last fall, his production slipped to 41 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and three fumble recoveries. He has good speed and the right measurables, but too often gets caught out of position in coverage.
The third safety in this alignment, the KAT defender, is expected to be 5-11, 200-pound junior Xavier Webb, a two-game starter after Sendejo was injured a year ago. He responded with 22 tackles, laying the foundation for a much larger role this season. A former dual-threat quarterback in high school, he's still adjusting to the nuances of playing defense, but has the tenacity gradually evolve into a success.
The veteran among the Owl cornerbacks will be 6-1, 190-pound junior Chris Jammer , who has 18 career starts, including 11 last season. He had 34 tackles and a team-best five pass breakups, but too often let the receiver get behind him, a familiar weakness of this group. He has good size and speed, needing to keep working on his press coverage and back pedal.
The youngest of the probable starters is 6-0, 170-pound sophomore Phillip Gaines , who cracked the huddle as a rookie and was playing better than expected before breaking his wrist. A long and lean athlete, who could have played in the Big 12 or SEC, he had 31 tackles and three pass breakups during his baptism under fire. He breaks nicely on pass and has the wingspan needed to jam receivers and redirect balls headed to the receiver.
Projected Top Reserves: Providing cover for Jones at strong safety is 6-2, 205-pound senior Max Anyiam, a veteran of three letters and one of the hardest hitters on the team. Also one of the Owls' better special teams performers, he'll play with reckless abandon, making 13 overall tackles a year ago.
Sophomore CB Kevin Gaddis enjoyed a productive debut in his first season on campus, starting the month of November, making 22 stops and a pick, and earning Conference-USA All-Freshman honors. He has enough raw skills, like catch-up speed and leaping ability, to help overcome his modest 5-9 and 170-pound frame.
While the staff is still excited about the future of 5-10, 175-pound junior Jarrett Ben , he failed to fulfill expectations last season. Projected as a possible starting cornerback, he slipped in the pecking order and wound up making 10 tackles and a couple of picks as a reserve. Still, it's hard to ignore the physical gifts, such as his speed and aggressiveness when the ball is in the air. For now at least, he's Gaines' caddy.
Watch Out For .... the health of junior Joseph Leary. The owl staff has been tossing Leary's name around the last two years, but hamstring problems have kept him on the shelf, including all of 2009. He's a physical presence that this secondary sorely needs, but a spring thigh contusion was a reminder of his fragility.
Strength: Tackling. When you're a Rice defensive back, you either learn to tackle or you get steamrolled on a regular basis. These five Owls get plenty of practice wrapping up in the open field and dragging bigger players to the grass, courtesy of a front seven that often resembles a turnstile.
Weakness: Pass defense. For what feels like the past decade, Rice was once again a blue and gray sieve whenever the ball was in the air. You name it and the Owls failed at it, ranking 119th nationally in pass efficiency defense, yielding 28 touchdown passes, and picking off just six.
Outlook: There's no nice way to put it—Rice has few redeeming qualities as a pass defense. The defensive backs are physical out of necessity, but their coverage skills are at best rudimentary, which makes opposing quarterbacks salivate. Even more help from the pass rush is not going to spark a turnaround in 2010.
Projected Starters: The graduation of PK Clark Fangmeier creates an opening, which isn't such a bad thing considering how erratic he was throughout his career. The contenders are junior Brandon Yelovich and redshirt freshman Chris Boswell . Yelovich has lettered the last two years, handling kickoffs, but has yet to attempt a field goal for the Owls.
Boswell was one of the top recruits at the position in 2009, drawing offers from multiple Big 12 schools. He possesses good fundamentals and has the follow through to reach from 50 yards out. If he's ready to handle the pressure, he has more upside physically than Yelovich.
The situation at punter is far less unsettled, with the return of Kyle Martens for his junior. Despite missing part of the year with an injury, he still managed to finish fourth in the league and 16th nationally at 43.4 yards a punt. He has good form and the hang time to support his coverage team.
While Rice will be auditioning new punt returners, sophomore Shane Turner is expected to handle kickoffs once again. In his first year, he averaged 23.8 yards a return, giving a little spark to the special teams.
Watch Out For… Boswell to win the kicking job and not look back for the next four years. He could have easily called a bigger program home, opting instead to be an Owl and play early. He's got an outstanding leg, and if Yelovich was a serious threat, wouldn't he have gotten an opportunity when Fangmeier was struggling?
Strength: The punting game. The Owls finished No. 16 nationally in net punting, largely because of the ability of Martens to hang the ball in the air and allow his teammates to get downfield. Even without its regular punter for a quarter of the year, Rice put up a good showing in this area.
Weakness: Covering. The coverage teams went south a year ago, ranking 76th at covering punts and 100th on kickoffs, allowing two to be taken back for six. The Owl D needs as much help as it can get, something the special teams unit failed to provide in 2009.
Outlook: The parts are there for Rice to have an above average Conference USA special teams unit. Martens is on the cusp of being an all-star, Boswell has the tools to be a four-year starter, and Turner is an exciting return man. And all three have at least two years of eligibility remaining.
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