In late spring of last year, I was laid off by my long-time employer and for all the negatives of no longer having a steady job, I had ample time to write.
Now with steady gainful employment, but in the time of a global pandemic, I find myself once again with more time than expected to write and bursting at the seams to write about the Cougar sports we hope return in several months.
My plan is to simultaneously, as my current job and life allow, begin this series about the 2020 Cougar football opponents and simultaneously start another one breaking down what I think each Cougar position group will look like.
Thinking about a future that involves significantly less pandemic is what we all need right now, so let’s all cast our minds forward to week 1 of the 2020 football season and the return of the Bayou Bucket.
Big Picture Outlook:
There is no such thing as a ‘quick rebuild’ for a program like Rice football.
Even considering that football (and to a degree all Rice sports) have less stringent admissions standards for athletes than non-athlete prospective students, the fact that Rice is an elite academic institution works at least somewhat counter to consistent football success.
Rice’s small alumni base, at times apathetic leadership and facility issues are also big parts of the equation as to why the Owls haven’t sustained success over their football playing history. To wit, under previous head coach David Bailiff the Owls had 3 straight winning seasons (2012-14) and that was the first time this had occurred on South Main since 1948-50.
So, it only makes sense after Bailiff’s tenure bottomed out with a 1-11 final season in 2017 that the Owls brought in a coach from college football’s most consistent recent winner among the academically selective schools: Stanford.
Mike Bloomgren, current Owl head coach and Stanford OC/offensive line coach from 2011-17, is now entering his 3rd year on South Main.
Since Bloomgren’s been in charge the mantra has been ‘Intellectual Brutality’ a desire to lean into the school’s high academic standards and combine it with a smash mouth offense brought from Stanford. Think lots of I-formation, 2 or 3 tight end sets and running the ball between the tackles.
The 5-20 overall record since Bloomgren and his staff has been in charge distracts from how improved the Owls were in 2019. That’s not to say they were good or close to it, but they were dramatically more competitive and had their highest conference win total since 2015.
Right now, there are still questions unanswered about this Owl team, but there are also lots of positive signs that Bloomgren will eventually turn this team into a winner.
Despite Bloomgren’s offensive background, this is the side of the ball that has lagged under this staff. For the 2019 season, the Owls finished 127th out of 130 Division 1 FBS teams in Bill Connelly’s offensive SP+ metric.
I find it amusing that in present day college football running an offense heavy on I-formation and jumbo sets is now going against the grain, after growing up with this offense as the norm.
One big, obvious impediment to the Owls success so far has been lack of continuity or production at quarterback. Tom Stewart, a Harvard grad transfer, did a solid job in the 2nd half of the 2019 and led the team in passing yards but has exhausted his college eligibility.
Sophomore Wiley Green started all 7 games he appeared in last year but was the 2nd most effective of the Owls’ 2 regular starting QBs while only completing 52.5% of his passes. Green still has time to develop, but 5.5 yards/attempt and 4 passing TDs in 7 starts aren’t wildly encouraging early returns and in spring practices he was relegated to being the scout team QB.
JoVoni Johnson played in 4 games and attempted 18 passes last season and kept his redshirt while playing as a change of pace/running QB in certain situations. Michael Collins joins the Owls as a grad transfer after starting his college career at Penn and playing the last 3 years at TCU. From 2018-19 Collins appeared in 10 games and attempted 145 passes for the Horned Frogs. Whenever we have football again, I expect a competition for the job with Collins and Johnson as favorites to win it.
The Owls will get a welcome return in the form of sophomore RB Juma Otaviano, who missed most of 2019 hurt and only rushed for 114 yards in 3 games. Otaviano was one of the few offensive bright spots of 2018, ending that season with a Rice freshman-record 224 rush yards against Old Dominion.
The bad news is 3 of the top 4 rushers from 2019 are gone and the leading returning rusher is a QB (JoVoni Johnson). Even with a pair 5th year guys (Charlie Booker and Aston Walter) anchoring the Owls’ rushing attack last year, the team only averaged 128.1 rush yards/game and 3.6 yards/carry, both paltry numbers.
I almost forgot to mention the fullback, a position that’s no longer en vogue but one the Owls rely on quite often. The listed fullbacks on the Owls’ 2020 spring roster are walk-ons Luke Armstrong (son of Lance), Jerry Johnson III and Brendan Suckley, who made 3 starts in 2019. The Owls also bring in the top fullback in the class of 2020: Brian Hibbard of Baton Rouge.
Whoever ends up starting under center for the Owls will have the benefit of an experienced receiver group that returns last year’s top 5 in receiving yards. Junior Brad Rozner was a revelation in his first Division 1 season last year as a big (listed 6 foot 5), sure-handed target out of Cisco JC. Rozner led the team in receiving yards (770), yards per reception (14.0) and receiving TDs (5).
Senior Austin Trammell also returns after accruing 1,358 receiving yards and 7 receiving TDs the last 2 seasons. Trammell also led the Owls in receptions in 2019 and the combo of Rozner/Trammell ended up accounting for 115 of the team’s 180 total receptions a year ago. Yet another senior multi-year starter returns in the form of tight end Jordan Myers.
So much of what Bloomgren envisions this offense being depends on a strong offensive line and the staff has aggressively pursued grad transfers up front, including Jovaun Woolford from Division 1-FCS Colgate this year. Woolford was a multi-year starter at Colgate and a 2017 1st team All-Patriot League selection. I expect he’ll start at one of the tackle positions.
Junior Shea Baker played a ton his first 2 seasons, with a combined 24 starts in the Owls’ last 25 games and has the flexibility to play both guard and center. I remember being somewhat impressed with Baker as he drew the unenviable assignment of blocking Ed Oliver in his first collegiate action in the 2018 season opener.
Sophomore Clay Servin locked down the left tackle spot as a redshirt freshman last year, starting 11 of the team’s 12 games. Sophomore Cole Garcia became the first Owl offensive lineman since 2007 to start multiple games as a freshman in 2018 and started 4 games last season while preserving his redshirt.
If the Owls can find 1 more steady, experienced lineman then I’ll really like what they have up front. Having that much experience somewhat counterbalances a lack of proven difference makers at running back.
We haven’t seen anything close to a full season’s work from Otaviano, but if he can stay healthy running behind a pretty experienced offensive line, then this could be the Owls’ most dynamic rushing attack under Bloomgren.
The lack of a full spring practice especially hurts with what looks like an open QB competition. Whoever wins the job (my guess is Collins) will have the benefit of a super experienced receiver group and experienced O line, but not a single one of these guys is a proven commodity at this level.
I think this will be a better offense than the Owls ran out in 2018 or 2019, but on paper I am having a hard time talking myself into this being their breakout season.
By the metric of returning production, nobody in Division 1-FBS returns more of their 2019 production (96%, specifically) than the Rice defense. Devoid of context that’s good news that becomes much better when you consider the Owls defense was by far the team’s best unit.
The Owls held 8 of their 12 opponents in 2019 to under 30 points. No matter the opponents, that’s impressive considering how much of a struggle it has been to field a solid defense on South Main in recent years.
To be clear, strength of schedule played a part (see: the Owls finishing 95th in defensive SP+) but I think if the Owls defense had been paired with an average CUSA offense this team would have flirted with 6 wins in 2019. I can’t imagine how excited DC Brian Smith and Bloomgren are about this group returning their top 7 tacklers and nearly all major contributors.
Up front, senior Elijah Garcia should start in the middle at the Nose after starting the final 10 games of 2019. Garcia finished the year with 50 total tackles, an impressive amount of involvement for an interior lineman.
One of the few impact guys to graduate on this side of the ball was every-game starter Myles Adams but I expect returners like junior Trey Schuman and sophomores De’Braylon Carroll, Cameron Valentine and Ikenna Enechukwu to play a fair amount on the line.
The most encouraging sign for this Rice defense going forward is returning the entire linebacker group from a run defense that only allowed 138 rush yards per game. Even more encouraging in the bigger picture is that the 3 top tacklers from this group were brought in by Bloomgren’s staff.
Out of that group, senior Blaze Alldredge is probably the most exciting returner on this defense and certainly ‘the face’ of the Owls’ defensive resurgence. Alldredge only had an offer from Rice after a year of JuCO ball and has racked up 167 tackles, including a team best 102 total tackles last season (in addition to leading the team in solo tackles, TFLs and sacks) as the every-game starter at weakside linebacker.
If the Owls’ defensive resurgence continues into 2020 and the team can take a step forward in other areas, its not a crazy notion at all that Alldredge could be the CUSA defensive player of the year.
Junior Antonio Montero grabbed the starting middle linebacker job midway through his freshman season and hasn’t let go. Montero, a one-time Minnesota Mr. Football, is 2nd in just about every statistical category behind Alldredge. Montero also moonlighted as an emergency placekicker and became the first Owl position player since 1989 to make a PAT in a game.
Like Montero, junior Treshawn Chamberlain won a starting job midway through the 2018 season and started every game last season, was 3rd on the team in tackles and tied for the team lead with 2 interceptions. Junior Kenneth Oriji, a product of Alief Elkins, started the last 7 games of 2019 and finished the year with 43 total tackles.
In the defensive backfield the Owls also return basically every key contributor from a year ago.
Rice’s pass defense peripherals weren’t nearly as positive as they were against the run, specifically allowing opponents to complete over 64% of their passes at 8.3 yards per attempt. Some of that can probably be tied to the Owls only sacking opposing quarterbacks 14 times last season.
Senior George Nyakwol started all 12 games at free safety last year and led all defensive backs in total and solo tackles, after leading all Owl defenders in tackles for the 2018 season.
Junior Naeem Smith, who joined the Owls from the junior college ranks before last season, started the last 11 games of 2019 at strong safety and was tied for the team lead with 2 interceptions. Regardless of whether he starts or not, junior Prudy Calderon (a former San Marcos High Rattler) should play a fair amount in the defensive backfield and had 6 pass breakups last year as a reserve.
At the cornerback position junior Tyrae Thornton had a breakout 2019, as he started 11 games and led all Owls in pass breakups (7). Sophomores Andrew Bird and Tre’shon Devones (a one-time walk on who earned a scholarship in his first fall camp) also both have starting experience at corner.
In a season that will be heavily influenced by the lack of a normal offseason the fact that Rice returns nearly their entire defense intact is a strong positive indicator. There are other variables on this team I am less sure about, but catastrophic regression or injury crisis the Owls should have one of the best two defenses in CUSA next season.
The one area where the Owls will have to replace a lot of faces are the special teams, considering both regular punters and the most utilized kicker from a year ago have exhausted their eligibility (and the kickoff specialist transferred)
Junior Will Harrison is the only returning specialist with experience, making 2 of 5 field goals last year.
Stanford grad transfer Collin Riccitelli is joining the Owls and while he never outright won the kicker job there (he saw some action in 2018), he’s probably a more proven option than Harrison or any of the walk-ons.
The Owls’ primary return guy on both kicks and punts: Austin Trammell, returns after posting solid punt return numbers (9.29 yds/return) last year.
Matching Up with the Coogs:
I realize there is so much volatility and unknown about how these teams will match up in early September, not to mention if this game will even happen on that date.
But I think one of the most interesting exercises in these previews is considering an opposing team and how they could match up with the Coogs. The uncertainty is almost a part of the fun.
The match up of the Cougar offense and the Owl defense could be a really good one. While the 2019 Cougar offense wasn’t exactly a consistent force, on the uncommon occasions Clayton Tune got a clean pocket he looked promising. Not to mention, Marquez Stevenson somehow became more explosive despite all of 2019’s instability.
I’ll be curious whether the Owls improve enough pressuring the QB to force Tune into making a questionable decision. Their defensive front will certainly be a good test of whether Mulbah Car and Kyle Porter can continue the momentum of last year’s boom or bust rushing attack.
When the Owls offense and Cougar defense are on the field, it will be more of a case of
resistible force versus moveable object. If you want numbers: the Owls were 123rd in points per game and the Cougars were 113th in points allowed.
Just looking at points scored/allowed ignores much more informative statistics, but it’s the proverbial canary in the coal mine telling you that both of these units had a tough 2019.
The Cougars return nearly everybody defensively, will get several impact D1 transfers eligible and have a couple junior college spring enrollees who look like good bets to contribute immediately. This is not to say the Owls don’t return intriguing playmakers like Brad Rozner and Austin Trammell, not to mention a big QB with significant D1 experience in Mike Collins who I think will be the Owls’ signal caller.
If I had to handicap it, on paper the Cougars may be a bit stronger defensively than the Owls are offensively. But I am nothing close to wildly confident that this Cougar D can shut down the Owls.
In week 1 of the 2001 season the Cougars lost 21-14 to Rice (en route to a program nadir 0-11 season) and to date this is the last time UH lost at home to the Owls. Deep in the heart of this indefinite offseason I don’t think this streak is going to end in 2020, but I think the Owls are going to present a stiffer test than your average Cougar fan expects.
Asking an Expert:
Finally, we talked to our good friend and repeat Pawdcast guest Matthew Bartlett of The Roost, easily the highest quality and most comprehensive Rice coverage available in any medium.
Who is the player I probably overlooked for this preview that you believe will be a difference maker for Rice in 2020?
On offense it's probably Cam Montgomery or Zane Knipe. Montgomery had fumbling issues last year and Knipe was banged up. Both players possess top-end speed. The Rice offense needs more explosive plays and both of those guys will have opportunities early to be home run hitters.
On defense, De'Braylon Carroll is going to be a monster. He was a Pro Football Focus (PFF)-All Freshman selection last season as a role player behind senior team captain Myles Adams. He'll have a starting job locked up for this fall and could end the year as one of the best defensive linemen in the conference.
The year Rice football finally begins to really look like vintage Stanford is ________ and why?
I guess it depends on what you mean by "vintage Stanford". In my mind that's an elite offensive line an experienced, smart quarterback and a stable of running backs who can move the ball effectively. Rice is building depth on the offensive line. They have some intriguing quarterback options and several running backs who could be long-term answers but none with an extended track record.
Mike Bloomgren spent the majority of his time with the offensive line this spring working hand in hand with new o-line coach Sanders Davis. If the line can come together and the winner of the quarterback battle can move the ball consistently I think you could see the makings of "vintage Stanford" this season with everything truly working in concert in 2021 when the staff has a full four-year recruiting cycle in place and, hopefully, a firm answer at quarterback.
I know it’s a long way off, but whenever we are lucky enough to have college football again what do you think the 2020 Bayou Bucket game looks like and what is the most likely outcome?
I found it interesting that the early over-unders for the college football season were dead even for Rice and Houston, both at 5.5. I find that particularly telling when comparing programs with very different recent history. It wasn't that long ago that Houston was in the Peach Bowl and Rice was hitting the restart button.
I'm pretty confident in the product Rice is going to put onto the field in the Bayou Bucket. The defense will be stout and the offense will be closer to the team that ended 2019 on a three-game winning streak than they were in their early season losing streak.
As for Houston, who is going to show up? Quarterback Clayton Tune has potential but he's never had sustained success (although much of that isn't his fault). Houston has talent, but the crux rests of head coach Dana Holgorsen's ability to put all the pieces together. That very well could happen by midseason, but will the Cougars be firing on all cylinders in game one? I think it's fair to be skeptical.
For those reasons, I think it's going to be a close game, probably closer to 20-17 than 42-35. Since the Rice defense will probably be the best unit on the field, I'd give them a slight edge.