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.