For David Bailiff and Rice, last season was the ultimate rebuilding year.
His team lost most of the players that made history in 2008, most notably quarterback Chase Clement, James Casey, and all-American wide out Jarrett Dillard. While I'm certain that Bailiff knew his team would struggle, I don't think he believed that they would take as big of a step back as they did last season.
Saying that team struggled is an understatement, as the Owls rounded up the season last in the Conference USA in both offense and defense.
Offensively, they averaged only 305 yards and 18.5 points per contest. Not good for a program who relies heavily on offensive production. The defense was among the worst in the country, allowing 464 yards and 43 points per contest, giving them a national defensive ranking of 117.
Now, the youth of this 2009 Rice team has to be taken into account. Out of 22 starters, 14 of them were either freshmen or sophomores, which made them perhaps the youngest team of all division one schools. Going into the 2010 season, that fact alone is extremely encouraging for Rice fans. What's more encouraging are the 18 returning starters.
So, here is a breakdown of some strengths and weaknesses, both offensively and defensively, for the Owls in 2010.
Offense: 9 returning starters
If you haven't already heard of Sam McGuffie , be prepared to. The transfer from Michigan was among the most sought after high school running back in the nation out of Cypress, Texas. As a true freshman, the five-star recruit led the Wolverines with 486 yards and four touchdowns, despite missing three games due to a leg injury. His most impressive performance came against Notre Dame, where he gathered 178 all-purpose yards.
Look for the electric running back to be the centerpiece of this offense for the next two years.
With the addition of McGuffie, Bailiff will have an impressive group of running backs to work with, including sophomore Charles Ross , who ran for a team-high 491 yards and 11 touchdowns, and junior Tyler Smith , who ran for 428 yards and a touchdown.
These three backs have the potential of becoming a kind of three-headed monster for Bailiff, and will most likely be the primary source of offensive production in his spread offense.
With spring practice come and gone, it looks like there may be questions regarding the quarter back position.
Filling in for Chase Clement, Nick Fanuzzi didn't quite live up to expectations in 2009. Throwing for 1,600 yards and 11 touchdowns, he wasn't terrible, but rather failed to make a significant impact in the passing game.
His play last season has opened up the job to both Miami transfer Taylor Cook and redshirt freshman Taylor McHargue . Both quarterbacks impressed in the annual Gray-Blue Spring game, which will most likely lead to a three-way battle for the starting job.
Whoever starts must be productive, in Bailiff's spread offense. As evidenced by the 2008 season, the Owls have and will continue to rely heavily on their passing game to get the wheels rolling.
On the receiving end, the Owls might be limited.
The lone returning playmaker is senior wide out Patrick Randolph , who caught 39 passes for 356 yards in 2009. However, sophomore tight end Vance McDonald should emerge as a star after dazzling the coaching staff this Spring.
Given Rice's spread offense, the receiving core needs to improve if this offense is going to score. Senior wide receivers Taylor Dupree and Pierre Beasley have to step up and become reliable targets if the Owls are going to find success.
This Rice offense will be young for the second year in a row, but has the talent capable to put points up fast. Sam McGuffie might be the most athletically gifted player in the conference, and won't waste any time in becoming a household name.
Defense: 9 returning starters
If the defense doesn't improve, don't expect to see defensive coordinator Chuck Driesbach around much longer.
The Owls finished dead last in the conference defensively last year. Pretty bad, considering that the Conference USA isn't known for being stellar on the defensive side.
However, Rice do have a shining star in defensive tackle Scott Solomon, who was selected second-team all conference after recording 6.5 sacks for the Owls in 2009. Solomon also ranks fourth on the Rice all-time sack list.
The other leader of this defense, Cheta Ozougwu , joins Solomon to make a pretty good pass rushing squad. Last season, Ozougwu recorded 61 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and 10.5 tackles for a loss.
The secondary will also look to improve, as Jarrett Ben and David Gaddis should emerge as a solid duo in pass protection.
There's not much to say about this defense except the obvious: the only way to go is up. With nine returning starters, you have to believe that Rice will improve my some increment.
Following a disappointing 2009 season, David Bailiff's Owls come into the 2010 season with virtually the same team. What's interesting is the fact that this team is still remarkably young despite returning 18 starters.
What this team lacks in experience, it makes up for with talent, especially on offensive side of the ball. With a weapon like McGuffie, they'll have as much talent and athleticism on the field as almost any offense in the conference.
Bottom line: Bailiff has options. He has the personel to make plays on both sides of the ball. It's just a matter of instilling a winning mindset in his players once again.
Prediction: 6-7 with a bowl berth
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