By: chalifour.eric | 5/5/12, 3:39 PM EDT
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You can read the entire Rice Owls preview in Athlon Sports' 2012 National magazine, available for purchase now at the Athlon Sports store.
C-USA West PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: David Bailiff, 23-38 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: John Reagan | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chris Thurmond
The Owls have some pieces, but they need good health and a more effective passing game to become truly dangerous. A full, healthy season out of versatile playmaker Sam McGuffie, who likely will see time at both running back and receiver, would be a good place to start. McGuffie missed the last five games of ’11 with an ankle injury but was back to full strength in the spring. Juniors Turner Petersen (485 yards, five TDs) and Charles Ross, who missed most of last season with an injury, are back and expected to play big roles.
Junior Taylor McHargue returns under center after completing 57.5 percent of his passes last year. He can move well and has a sound arm but must be more reliable with his decisions, or coach David Bailiff may go with speedy redshirt freshman Driphus Jackson. Expect Jackson on the field sometimes anyway in special packages to showcase his legs.
The passing game will feature two big targets, tight end Luke Wilson and Vance McDonald, a tight end/receiver hybrid who led the team with 43 receptions last season. Sophomore wideout Jordan Taylor has the size and speed to be special, but he needs to develop consistency.
The offensive line was a question mark heading into the spring, but the emergence of junior college center Nate Richards, an early enrollee, gave Bailiff some confidence that the unit would be all right. It’s still a young bunch — expect a pair of redshirt freshmen and a sophomore to start — but it should improve as the year goes on.
The Owls allowed 33.3 points and 462.1 yards per game last year, the biggest reasons they finished 4–8. Five starters return to the defense, and there are playmakers on every level, but quality depth will be a concern.
Up front, returning regular Jared Williams (six tackles for a loss) should be bookended by junior Cody Bauer, who missed 2011 rehabbing a torn ACL he suffered the season before. That’s a good start, but the Owls need junior Hosam Shahin, senior Jamael Thomas and redshirt freshman Christian Covington to form a solid rotation inside. None made a huge impact last year.
The return of top tackler Cameron Nwosu (108 stops) to the strong side gives the linebacking corps some pop, and Bailiff hopes swift LSU transfer Kyle Prater can lock down the other spot in the Owls’ 4-2-5 scheme. A pair of tough safeties, Paul Porras (91 tackles) and Corey Frazier, anchors the secondary, which also includes corner Bryce Callahan, who intercepted six passes last year.
The Owls have so much faith in kicker Chris Boswell that they allowed him to try a 60-yarder last year against Northwestern. It hit the crossbar, but Boswell nailed 17 of his other 20 attempts. The departure of punter Kyle Martens (43.6-yard average) leaves that position open, and the Owls are hoping incoming freshman Cameron Decell will fill it.
If you believe Bailiff, the Owls are coming on. Well, they had better be improving, because following up 2008’s 10-win season and Texas Bowl triumph with a 10–26 record over the next three campaigns has made even the most patient Rice fans a little antsy.
The offense must become more proficient, especially through the air. McHargue will benefit from last year’s experience, but if the line doesn’t perform, he could be a target. The defense must get tougher up front, or teams will again gash Rice on the ground and have plenty of time to attack through the air.