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Spring Preview: Rice Owls

May 2, 2014, 12:38 PM EDT

C-USA Championship Game C-USA Championship Game

Fresh off a 10-win season, it’d be unwise to mistake Rice as a season-opening warm up game. The Owls, winners of Conference USA last season, return to Notre Dame for the first time in 25 years with the hopes of starting the season with a major upset.

With 10 starters returning to head coach David Bailiff’s team, it’s been an offseason of significant transition. To get us up to speed on that, I checked in with Jefferson Powell, the managing edition of Rivals.com’s Owls Insider. He was kind enough to answer a few questions and kickstart our summer reading.

Last year’s 10 win season may have ended with a thud, but the Rice program has been on a steady climb since David Bailiff took over. Was 2013 a peak? Or is the best yet to come?

It’s really hard to imagine the Owls peaking any higher than that. Their goal entering every season is a conference championship and bowl win. They’ll take a conference championship any year they can get it but obviously they would have liked to cap things off with a win in the Liberty Bowl. I don’t know if they can get back there in 2014, but head coach David Bailiff has this program headed in the right direction, so I wouldn’t expect them to fall off too much anytime soon.

The Owls need to replace Taylor McHargue and Charles Ross, two weapons that were critical to the offensive attack. How are the battles are quarterback and running back shaping up?

Driphus Jackson is the named starter at quarterback and has led the Owls to some big wins before, most notably the Armed Forces Bowl in 2012. At running back there isn’t a clear workhorse, and as of now looks like it could be more of a committee approach unless things change this fall, but the two guys at the top of the stable are true sophomore Jowan Davis and redshirt sophomore Darik Dillard, both saw plenty of action in 2013. 

On the defensive side of the ball, coordinator Chris Thurmond has to replace quite a bit of production as well. How do the Owls look on defense heading into 2014?

There has been a lot of movement during the spring and I don’t think the defense will be fully situated until fall camp gets here. It looks like safety Malcolm Hill could slide over and replace the departed Phillip Gaines, while Gabe Baker and Jaylon Finner could step in and replace the two vacant safety spots. The biggest question mark is at defensive end, where the Owls have to find a way to replace two departed starters. This battle is far from over and likely won’t be decided until camp. But I suspect there could be a lot of rotation here as well.

If there’s a playmaker on the offensive side of the ball that should scare Irish fans, who is it? Same thing on the defense, who is the Owls’ best defensive playmaker?

Jordan Taylor will be the Owls biggest threat. I thought he was a bit under utilized in 2013. He’s a 6-foot-5 playmaker that possesses good hands and the ability to break big plays. They have to find a way to get him more involved in 2014.

On defense the name to watch is Christian Covington, a massive defensive tackle that is really coming into his own. Covington is the son of CFL Hall-of-Famer and all-time sacks leader Grover Covington. Covington is a strong and physical defensive tackle that has a great skillset and will be a headache for offensive linemen to deal with. He gets better and better every time I see him and I think he’s due for a breakout year in 2014.

What’s the biggest question mark for the Owls on offense? On defense?

Offense I would have to say the quarterback position. Jackson has won them games in the past, but can he lead this team on a down-to-down basis and get them where they want to go. He has the experience, he knows the offense, it’s just a matter of can he get it done.

Defense, the biggest question mark is the defensive end position which I touched on. They have to find players to replace Cody Bauer and Tanner Leland. Zach Patt, converted wide receiver Derek Brown, Grayzen Schantz and Brian Nordstrom are the top candidates, but I don’t think any of them really separated themselves from the rest this spring.

How big of a game is this for Rice fans? Will a large group head to South Bend for the first game between the programs in 25 years?

Obviously the fans are excited to play a prominent program like Notre Dame, but in all reality for Rice, this is nothing more than a gauge of where the program is at. It’s an important game, yes but a non-conference game against a national program that will be a good gauge of exactly where the Owls are heading into 2014. We will have a much better idea of where the Owls stand following this game.

***

Special thanks to Jefferson for going out of his way to do this. For more great coverage on Rice you can check out the Owls Insider or follow Jefferson on Twitter @JeffersonPowell

  1. mediocrebob - May 2, 2014 at 2:10 PM

    I’m an Irish fan therefore every game scares the living piss out of me. Hope it goes smoother than the Temple game (save the first 5 minutes) but JUST WIN BABY!

    Go Irish. Beat everyone.

    • ndgoldandblue - May 3, 2014 at 2:45 PM

      There’s something we have in common. I can’t remember the last time I felt relaxed and confident going into a Notre Dame game. Actually…you know what? I can. It was the Fiesta Bowl in ’06. For some reason, I thought the Irish were going to stomp the Buckeyes in that game. Boy, was I wrong. Maybe that’s why, now, I’m always uneasy going into games, no matter how low the competition may be.

      • 1historian - May 5, 2014 at 8:16 AM

        Precisely. To me one of the things that means is that teams no longer fear us, in most cases they don’t even respect us.

        In that respect we are no longer among the elite.

    • irishfaithful666 - May 6, 2014 at 12:52 AM

      This rings true to me. Also, next year is our year. I hope this time we can play to our abilities and expectations

  2. fnc111 - May 2, 2014 at 3:03 PM

    Mississippi State dispatched of them rather easily in their bowl game. Rice beat a bunch of nobodies to get to 10 wins. If ND struggles with them then there are major issues with this team. If you can’t stomp on lil ole Rice, how do you expect to beat Michigan the next week?

    • danirish - May 2, 2014 at 5:22 PM

      I’m going to agree with you here. Rice can play tough for a quarter or two but this better be big or we have some issues.

    • jimbasil - May 3, 2014 at 5:29 PM

      Rice was a well coached team last year. Their size might have been more of the issue. They wore down into the second half.

      ND – Kelly has always had difficulty coaching against good coaches and well coached teams. ND’s size should be a big factor but I’m still wary of saying ND should take care of business so easily.

      ND does have an issue and it’s the coach not going after the jugular, or at least full tilt (coaching) winning by bunches and doing it early.

      Gaines for Rice will be gone so ND’s receivers should have a full field to work with but still, Rice will be well coached.

      I’m going to say, ND struggles early and wins it in the latter stages – as in 24 – 21

      • mediocrebob - May 4, 2014 at 12:22 PM

        ND has always had a tough time with well coached teams? Pretty broad statement. They’ve had trouble with Stanford and Michigan under Kelly. Michigan is hardly a team I would consider “well coached”. Kelly has also owned Michigan State who most people would agree is a very “well coached team”. Just because ND has struggled with Stanford, who happens to be a well coached team, doesn’t mean they struggle with well coached teams. Stanford has just had their number. As well as a lot of other teams numbers. Because they’re a good team. And even in that, Stanford only blew the Irish out in Kelly’s inaugural year. Irish have always played them tough. So maybe it’s safe to say that ND is a “well coached team”.

        As for Rice…

        42-17 Irish.

        Go Irish. Beat everyone

      • jimbasil - May 4, 2014 at 8:01 PM

        mediocrebob – At least quote accurately – “Kelly has always had difficulty coaching against good coaches and well coached teams.” The ND in front means Kelly at ND – and no, not so broad in fact accurate.

      • mediocrebob - May 4, 2014 at 9:21 PM

        Explain please…

  3. ndfenian - May 2, 2014 at 5:29 PM

    The last time the Owls stopped by Rocket Ismail ran two kicks back. Maybe that’s what’ll happen, Greg Bryant will run one back, Rice will then get a field goal, the barefoot Owls kicker will try a squib kick, and Bryant will return it again.

  4. dickasman - May 2, 2014 at 6:43 PM

    Are there a lot of Asians at that school? I love me some Steak University!!!

    • shaunodame - May 2, 2014 at 7:20 PM

      Weak.

      • onward2victory - May 3, 2014 at 3:32 AM

        It’s ok, dick is just sticking to his funny-joke batting average of 0.015. After about 15 more posts he’ll say something actually funny.

  5. yaketyyacc - May 3, 2014 at 6:44 AM

    my cousin was a 200 plus bowler. me. top game 139. we bowled three games. I won all three. moral of the story: he did not take me seriously. when you compete, the words blowout, breather do not exist. a word to the wise Irish!

  6. irishdog80 - May 3, 2014 at 12:40 PM

    On paper this is a blow out…only 10 returning starters and questions at QB and on both lines…but I have learned to never under estimate the motivational power that most other teams have–beating Notre Dame at Notre Dame is a once in a lifetime achievement. Years from now players from the 2010 Tulsa Football Team will not be talking about their wins over Houston or UTEP. They will share the story of wining at ND before over 80,000 fans.

    Week in and week out, we have to match the our opponent’s intensity and/or take advantage of the other team’s nerves and protect our home field. Kelly has done a great job of stopping the largely woeful home performances of the Davingham and Weis years. It is now time to make Notre Dame Stadium a feared place to play…a true home field advantage. I have to believe an attacking offense and defense will make a big difference over a cautious ball control offense and bend but don’t break defense. It’s tough to get a stadium fired up when the big plays on offense and defense are far and few between.

  7. nudeman - May 3, 2014 at 8:59 PM

    What is the over/under on audible-decrease-%?.
    I’ll go with 82% and take the over.

    • bernhtp - May 3, 2014 at 11:00 PM

      Golson changes the play more often after the snap than before. I’ll go with your bet.

  8. nudeman - May 4, 2014 at 10:02 AM

    Some early Sunday a.m. thoughts while watching The Sports Reporters and getting ready to argue with my daughter about going to Mass:
    1. Nobody’s saying it but Golson will likely have some serious rust and it will show. All the talk about a year off, more muscle, a year spent with that QB guru, a year studying the playbook – wonderful. But he’d be a better QB right now and against Rice if he’d played last year. In my opinion he looked average in the BG game.

    2. It was nice to read that the ND degree means a lot to Josh Atkinson. After his bro bolted and after his dad dumped on them, I’d half expected him to be gone.

    3. From other boards it’s pretty clear that Diaco was a lousy recruiter and had mentally checked out this past year on that aspect of the job. I have high hopes for BVG in this area as among other things, his son is coming to ND as a walk-on QB. That tells me he really believes in ND and isn’t here just waiting for the next NFL job to come along.

    4. I was certain Kelly was a short timer and said so many times. I don’t feel that way anymore. I think he’s at ND for at least another 4-5 years.

    5. Guys I’m dying to see play: Nyles Morgan, Torii (sp?) Hunter, Bryant, Corey Robinson.

    6. Random non-ND note: Blackhawks in 5.

    • whodabigdog - May 4, 2014 at 5:24 PM

      Wow nudie, did not know u had offspring. As for EG,s perfomance at the bg game. He had the third string center and two other lineman who will never play in real game time. Plus I don’t think he showed the game plan 100%.

      • nudeman - May 5, 2014 at 10:54 AM

        He also was able to stand in the pocket and know he wouldn’t be hit.
        You can’t blame a backup guard for several poorly thrown passes.
        I’m 50/50 as to whether his performance was irrelevant or more meaningful. I love the guy and believe he has a chance to be special. But after missing all of last year you’d think he’d come out as sharp as possible and jacked up. I didn’t see that.

        Again … irrelevant? Or another indication of his lack of focus and maturity? You decide.

    • shaunodame - May 4, 2014 at 6:49 PM

      This is the first I’m hearing about Diaco tuning out his recruiting responsibilities. Where’s this coming from? I know the defense wasn’t as good, but I didn’t know his recruiting efforts were lacking. Fill me in guys

    • ibleedirish - May 4, 2014 at 8:54 PM

      Nude, any details worth delving into re: the Diaco recruiting thing? It shocked me that after 2012’s defensive showing that we couldn’t parlay that into some bigger name defensive studs in the 13/14 classes. I think we got some quality players, but just thought there would be more. Your comment doesn’t sound too far off.

      Why the change of heart on Kelly?

      • nudeman - May 4, 2014 at 11:50 PM

        I don’t have any further details.
        Diaco has been a whipping boy on Rivals for a while now, particularly his recruiting. Sometimes that crap gets out of hand with idiots wanting a coach fired if he loses a game. But interestingly the moderators overwhelmingly confirmed the Diaco-as-a-lousy-recruiter thing.
        Seems it was fairly well known around the inners of the ND program

      • ndgoldandblue - May 6, 2014 at 1:39 PM

        Kelly and/or Diaco shot the moon with Darby, Shephard, Anzalone and Vanderdoes, and someone else played the Ace of Hearts, so they got nothing. You had to love their ambition but not their foresight. If there’s a possibility that a five-star might bolt shortly before (or after in Vanderdoes’ case) signing day, it might be a good idea to have some other options. I guess that leads to oversigning. I know it’s not ethical, but no one ever sees Nick Saban, or other coaches of his ilk, with defensive depth problems. If someone de-commits, they always have someone else they can bring in and fill that spot nicely.

        But hey, if you ask goat, he’ll tell you that Kelly should only shoot for the blue-chippers, and no one else. If they choose another college over Notre Dame (perish the thought), the Irish should just make do with what they have. Apparently, players with lower recruiting rankings, a la Luke Kuechly, are beneath Notre Dame standards.

  9. bernhtp - May 4, 2014 at 10:57 AM

    I’ve heard the Golson rust thing, but I don’t know if there is significantly more rust after 2 years than 1. He’s been coached while off, had spring ball and will have the fall camp. I’m not giving any excuses. Zaire is obviously more rusty.

    I think Diaco might have been a bit burnt, but mostly he lacked the passion for the 2013 team he had for the 2012 group. 2012 had a lot of very special players, especially on defense, that fed into Diaco’s belief/family-based coaching style. 2013 had a clear lack of leaders. Gone were Manti, KLM and Motta who all exerted strong leadership and belief. This absence was particularly apparent with Nix and Tuitt.

    • nudeman - May 4, 2014 at 11:59 AM

      I think that Tuitt and Nix hurt the D and the team very badly last year. Both underperformed (Tuitt to a ridiculous degree) and were out of shape all year.
      More importantly, both were in a position to exhibit leadership and didn’t, Nix even saying outright “I’m not a leader”. That must have absolutely galled Kelly.
      So now I keep reading writers and commenters say how much they’re going to miss these guys. 100% disagree. I’d rather have a couple guys who aren’t as accomplished but play like their hair is on fire and encourage teammates to do the same vs. a couple guys who are playing out the string of their college years.

      • bernhtp - May 4, 2014 at 1:31 PM

        Some of their problem certainly was injury, but I think most of it was not having Kap pushing them every day,

        With that said, an 80% Nix or Tuitt is worth 110% of what else is available (excluding Day).

      • mtflsmitty - May 4, 2014 at 8:49 PM

        Nude, who won the argument re mass? The timing of your posts suggests your daughter may have used her father’s powers of persuasion against him.

      • 1historian - May 5, 2014 at 8:25 AM

        I remember Chris Zorich from the championship years. He played with ferocity and it was said more than once that his teammates played with the same ferocity because they were afraid of what he might do to them if they did not.

        That works for me.

      • 4horsemenrideagain - May 5, 2014 at 9:27 AM

        some players are natural leaders and others simply aren’t. I always got the sense that while nix and tuitt were not vocal “rah rah” types, that they could still be effective leaders if they decided to set the right example. call it “fake it ’till you make it” or “act as if…” it’s the same idea; talented upperclassmen have to provide leadership in some form, vocal or otherwise.

        showing up to camp overweight and staying overweight all year made it all but impossible for nix and tuitt to set the right example. you could see it on the field nearly every game. when things went sideways, the defense looked around for someone to get them back on track, someone to settle them down and keep them focused. the void left by te’o graduating was never filled.

    • ibleedirish - May 5, 2014 at 2:55 PM

      bern, by “burnt” did you mean that his “energy bucket” was empty? Must be too many “energy vampires” hiding in the long shadows around the basilica.

  10. ndfenian - May 5, 2014 at 12:16 PM

    One thing that kind of rubs me the wrong way is that Nix lost a bunch of weight before the NFL combine. If he felt (or was told) that he would be a better nose tackle in the NFL if he lost weight, why didn’t the ND coaches demand the same before the season? Water under the bridge now.

    Here’s my question for the board. I’ve gone back and watched some 2012 highlights, focusing on Golson and the offensive style we might see again. Why didn’t the 2012 offense run more option with Golson? From what I can remember, we didn’t see much of the zone read at all. Correct me if I’m wrong there. One answer given was, “he is still learning the playbook”, but is the zone read really that difficult to master? I’m trying to see what we can expect to see in 2014.

    • 4horsemenrideagain - May 5, 2014 at 2:06 PM

      My assumption was that BK didn’t want running the ball anymore than absolutely necessary. A designed roll-out that led to a run was ok, as were all those times where the play broke down/EG couldn’t get through his progression and he scrambled away from pressure. BK must have figured he was going to have to live with 5-6 of those type plays per game, so why increase the hits on EG and odds of injury with zone reads.

      even though opposing defenses eventually figured out BK wasn’t going ask EG to run the ball 8-10 times a game, the fact that EG was elusive enough to do so made him a sufficient threat for BK to reap the benefit of a mobile zone read QB without having to risk the wear and tear of actually using EG as that sort of QB.

      I hope EG’s hiatus has helped his mental toughness. in ’12 and in the BG game to an extent, EG’s facial expressions, body language and general demeanor ranged from dismayed to frustrated to downright rattled and its a terrible message for the QB to be sending to the troops.

  11. irishdog80 - May 5, 2014 at 2:03 PM

    My theory would be that Golson was still undersized…played at around 180 or so…and couldn’t take the pounding on a regular basis. Even then Golson was hurt several times in 2012. And add in that we have Tommy Rees as the backup and you can understand why they wanted to protect Golson from injury.

    With Zaire as the backup, I would bet that we see more of the zone read–Zaire is supposed to be even better at it than Golson.

    • ndfenian - May 5, 2014 at 5:46 PM

      I see your guys’ point on Kelly not wanting Golson to get injured in 2012, especially with Rees as the limited backup. I also assume that Rees was getting a lot of the 1st team reps in the spring of 2012 and throughout the season, so Kelly focused on the plays that both quarterbacks could run in a game. They did run that roll-out, play-action scheme quite a bit with Golson, and it did help the running-game. The One Foot Down blog did a nice breakdown showing how edge defenders would zero in on Golson, allowing the running back a lane.

      But with Zaire as a capable dual-threat backup, I see no reason why Kelly wouldn’t want to open up the option playbook. Golson runs the ball well, and some zone read would really help open up those inside/outside zone handoffs they so often run. I would like to see Golson average 9 or 10 rushing attempts per game, and that will include the scrambles.

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