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Rice August drills 2012

Questions abound as Rice focuses on Thursday's season opener with UCLA

HOUSTON (Aug. 26) – When the Rice Owls open their season at Rice Stadium in a nationally televised bout with UCLA Thursday, an even longer list of questions than usual faces the Boys from South Main, their coaches and fans.

UCLA weighs in as a 15.5 point favorite by the bettors, but given the Bruins' adaptation of entirely new schemes under new coach and NFL coaching veteran Jim Mora, this year's Westwood bunch is far from guaranteed to eclipse the 6-7 record which last year earned former coach Rick Neuheisel his walking papers. And it's not unreasonable to expect that the UCLAns will suffer growing pains in early season outings.

So, despite the big name and national reputation, this edition of the storied Bruin clan has to be considered beatable, given an adequate level of preparation and performance by the home team.

But the Owls' history under the present regime has tended to feature especially unremarkeable early season performances – the aftertaste of David Bailiff's first Rice game ever in 2007, a 14-10 inaugural loss to a not good at all 1AA Nichols State team never having fully evacuated Rice fans' craws to this day.

To change that tendency, the Owls will have to answer in the affirmative a daunting list of questions, a list so  little-addressed in prior seasons that history gives even the most loyal of Rice fans much pause, and not  just a huge deal of reason for optimism.

Questions like:

--Will Rice's ever-porous defense finally coalesce under the leadership of new DC Chris Thurmond?

--Will the Rice offense finally utilize the obvious open-field talents of Sam McGuffie via his move to slotback?

--Will starting quarterback Taylor McHargue regain the swagger and confidence he showed once taking over the team late in the 2010 season – but somehow lost last year?

--Will Rice's troika of senior tight end talent be utilized in a material way?

--Will the addition of junior college talent Nate Richards help jell an otherwise young and inexperienced, but more sizable and mobile offensive line?

--Will the Owls' defensive schemes deploy fully the playmaking ability of its talented trove of defensive backs?

--Given injuries, will there be enough warm bodies -- never mind big, talented and experienced players -- to man the defensive line?

--Will the Owls utilize the full extent of the playbook in pre-conference games, instead of ‘saving the equipment' for ostensibly more winnable and more important league contests?

--Will the Rice squad generally be more prepared, precise and consistent than the level previous recent teams have exhibited?

Not to mention: Will Rice fans make the effort to show up at the game?

Wait until Thursday for answers, and hope

One could go on with the list. And you won’t find any answers to those questions in the remainder of this tome.

August drills have not been particularly instructive. The main theme that has, in fact, emerged is the persistence of injuries, which continue to take their toll. Chief among them are among defensive lineman, where Miles Lee (back), Bobby Kieswetter (knee), Josh Skinner (toe) and Dylan Klare (shoulder) are likely out for the season. OL John Poehlman was also reported as suffering a season-ending injury last week. But the news is better regarding sophomore offensive lineman Nico Carlson, who is reported to be most of the way back from knee surgery.

"Nico has a good chance to be back for the UCLA game based on what we heard after he met with Dr. Winston," head coach David Bailiff reported. "He was out here moving around and it was not as serious as they thought."

Then there's a still-healthy OL Nate Richards, who will join incoming transfer Stuart Mouchantaf as a couple of rare JUCO transfers who could make a notable impact for the Owls.  Richards has drawn plaudits for his work during August drills.   Mouchantaf, the former Blinn Junior College standout, is a big and rangy defensive tackle, but he’s behind the curve since, as a new transfer, he wasn’t enrolled in classes this summer and thus couldn’t work out the team. But the way things are going with defensive line casualties, he’ll be in there slogging away.

The Rice head man was quick to admit that the Owls are not exactly functioning at the level of a well-oiled machine, as they turn their exclusive attention to UCLA going into Game Week.

"We have to continue to work on our consistency," coach Bailiff said in a post-practice interview last week. "We had two weak periods where we had a lull and we had to jazz them up a little a the end. We want them out here mentally focused so that they are the ones to jazz themselves up."

Of course in August, that kind of talk is to be expected. The question is, what kind of Rice team will show up, come game day.

UCLA schemes a big question mark as well

Rice staff issued the scout team UCLA-numbered jerseys Wednesday, but it remains to be seen just what kind of specific offensive and defensive twists the Bruins will feature. To get a bit better perspective on the matter, Rice coaches turned to tapes of NFL games coached by new UCLA head man Mora and his assistants.

"We watched NFL tape from where some of their assistants were and we watched some Arizona State tape to see what Noel (UCLA OC Noel Mazzone) did there. You try to prepare for everything, but at the same time you have to worry about our team and be the best at what we do," he added.

Starting Monday, Rice goes into regular-season game week mode, and in that regard, Coach Bailiff declared the Owls August Olympic Games closed. "We had a great camp," he said. "Every member of this team came over here every day and were enthusiastic. You walk out on to the practice field every day and see the passion in their eyes. They've set their goals high and you see the older guys taking the time to coach the younger guys when they are on the sidelines."

"We got a little time left before UCLA and there are a lot of little things we need to improve," Bailiff observed. "We just need to keep getting better."

Out Westwood way – or actually out San Bernardino way, because that’s where the Bruins spent their off-campus summer camp – UCLA head coach Jim Mora made some depth chart decisions and announced a key injury status that add to the intrigue of Thursday’s upcoming matchup.

On the latter, Mora  revealed that linebacker Patrick Larimore, a team captain in 2011, was taking a medical retirement on account of repeated concussions suffered. Late in camp, the senior and team leader sustained his second concussion within the past six months. Earlier, offensive lineman Chris Ward announced  he, too, would medically retire.

"Patrick has been a huge part of this team since long before I got here,"Coach Mora said. "He's all those things you love in a football player, and we'll miss that . But because of what's going on in the world of concussions, you have to be extra cautious. When you're a middle linebacker, you can't play the same without a lot of collisions."

Another interesting bit of news emerging from the UCLA camp was the elevation of redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley to the starting spot. Hundley, a five-star recruit out of high school, won out against three other QB hopefuls in Kevin Prince, Richard Brehaut and Jerry Neuheisel.

"All four quarterbacks have raised their level of play significantly since my staff and I took over, and we are excited about all of them," Mora said in a press release. "That said, Brett has consistently demonstrated the qualities we value in a quarterback."

Maybe so, but he comes into the Rice game without ever having taken a snap at the college level.

So it appears questions abound on the gold and sky blue side as well as the blue and gray. All things considered, this opening contest rounds out to be Rice’s most important non-conference game in several seasons. Win, and the Owls get a huge leg up on a plus-.500 season and league championship contention. Lose a close one, and all goals are still in place. Get blown out, and it’s same-old same-old. Stay tuned.

–PTH

'06 Rice-UCLA a marker for progress; now Owls need to take it step farther

By Mark Anderson

HOUSTON (Aug. 29) -- Just shy of five years ago, the Rice Owls, fresh off a 31-30 loss to the Houston Cougars, traveled to the City of Angels to face the UCLA Bruins. It was a game that is difficult to erase from memory. The closeness of this game—which surprised UCLA and anybody else who cared to watch — told of the better things that were coming in 2006.

Sure enough, the '06 campaign culminated in a bowl berth, the Owls' first such reward in 45 years of frustrating seasons.

As one looks back at that '06 Rice-UCLA game, two things stand out. First, there was a Joel Armstrong to Jarett Dillard TD pass that was ruled out of bounds—one that photos say was not. The second was the golden opportunity wasted at the two-yard line after Terrance Austin fielded a forty-yard punt by Jared Scuggs—and then dropped it. Tight end Will Moss fell on it at the two. Quinton Smith plowed ahead for a yard to the one. But then a false start was called on the offensive line, and on the next play, Mike Falco was dropped for a fifteen-yard loss. Luke Juist’s field goal went wide, leaving the score at the time 13-0.

If the Owls had punched it in here, and gotten the call later in the game with Dillard, Rice just might have walked out of the Rose Bowl as a victor.

But such was not the case. The Owls wound up falling to the Bruins, 26-16. Can the result change this time here at Rice?

That depends on a few things.

When asked what Rice would have to do in order to stay with or beat the Bruins, Rice head coach David Bailiff’s first words were, "No turnovers."

But it has to go further than no turnovers. Rice won the turnover battle in the Rose Bowl that night by a four to one count. They won the turnover battle and lost the game—a rarity. Winning the turnover battle won't be enough Thursday night. One might expect Rice will have to play virtually mistake-free football in order to have a chance on Thursday.

The second thing that Rice must avoid is giving up the big play. Rice has to find a way to prevent those long bombs of last season that killed Owl chances of victories. In the defensive secondary, Rice has the talent to do that.

The third thing that has to happen isfor the offense come out of the gate like a high fuel race car. The talent on offense is there, beginning with McHargue at quarterback and looking at every skill position. There is not a single starter—or number two on this offense—where there is any material drop-off.

So will Rice stay in it or win it? We will know the answer Thursday — and most likely, very early. Yes, UCLA is a quality program.

This preseason, the talk emanating from South Main is a bit bolder than before

"We’re excited about this season," Coach Bailiff has said.."I am fired up. I really am."

"I'm a senior," Rice multiple threat Sam McGuffie told press. "It's my last bullet in the chamber."

Running back Turner Petersen was even more sanguine. "We expect to go to a bowl game," he insisted. "We expect to win that bowl game; we expect to compete for the league championship.''

Seems as if the gauntlet has been laid. Thursday night, the Owls have a chance to turn talk into action.

New DC, new attitude
Could this be the year Owl defense finally turns corner?

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Phillip Gaines:  "I like the camaraderie. That makes it better on the field.

 

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Paul Porras: "Coach Thurmond is a great guy. He’s definitely a player’s coach"

 

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Jared Williams:  "He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever had"

 

HOUSTON (Aug. 17) – Onlookers at Rice spring and fall drills could hardly have missed taking notice of a seemingly new-found sense of aggressiveness and abandon on the part of the Owl defensive unit.

That in no small part has taken place thanks to the defensive philosophy espoused by Chris Thurmond, who, in his second season at Rice, has assumed the duties of Defensive Coordinator in addition to continuing to coach the Owl cornerbacks.

To a man, Owl defensive players say the New Attitude can be attributed squarely to Coach Thurmond, and it can be expressed succinctly in a handful of simple sentences: "Be aggressive. Know your job. Don’t worry about making mistakes. And just have fun."

In recent years – seasons in which  Rice’s ‘bend but don’t break’ philosophy was often times carried to seemingly absurd lengths – the Owl defenders perenially found themselves at or near the bottom of NCAA Division 1 defensive statistics, including points allowed.

But this year, look for the Owls to turn a page in the defensive playbook, players said. Check out the litany of positives expressed by top-rank Rice defenders.

Junior cornerback Phillip Gaines: "I love Coach Thurmond. When he came in he brought a lot of that oomph to the secondary in the spring, and now that he’s been named defensive coordinator I expect him to bring that same attitude to the whole defense.

"I like the camaraderie. That makes it better on the field. Somehow it helps us play with more aggression and run to the ball more. We’re going to have a lot more three and outs this year, we’re going to have a lot of sacks this year and we’re going to be up in the offense’s face a lot more this year.

"Coach Thurmond has stressed to us to focus more on first down plays. This season, putting (the offense) in a bind on second and third – that’s what’s going to cause more three and outs. We’re looking forward to being to being able to execute that."

'Fast and fun,' goes the formula

Senior defensive end Jared Williams: "He brought in a deal that says ‘fast and fun,’ and he’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever had. He’s a great communicator; he keeps it light. He reminds you that it’s just a game; there’s not that much pressure, just go out there and play, and if you remember what you’re supposed to be doing, you’ll be fine."

Junior safety Paul Porras: "Coach Thurmond is a great guy. He’s definitely a player’s coach. He lets us command the defense in the secondary; he wants to have fun, that’s what he preaches every day – have fun, just make plays, and live carefree.

"(Under Coach Thurmond ) we’re playing more aggressive; we don’t worry too much about making mistakes. It's all about making plays."

So who is this wry, 58-year-old Oklahoman, who seemed to ride in to town on a white horse, but through the back streets and alleys, and with precious little fanfare?

Coach Thurmond is well-traveled, to say the least. He originally joined David Bailiff’s staff in February, 2011, after spending the previous three seasons at Kentucky. Between stints at Alabama (2001-02) and Kentucky (2008-10), Thurmond coached five seasons in the state of Texas. Highlighted by a trip to the Cotton Bowl following the 2004 season, he was the cornerbacks coach at Texas A&M from 2003-05.

He coached cornerbacks and was the recruiting coordinator for two seasons across town at the University of Houston (2006-07). He helped the Cougars advance to the 2006 Liberty Bowl and in 2007 was the interim head coach for UH when the team played in the Texas Bowl after head coach Art Briles became the coach at Baylor.

During his stint coaching the cornerbacks at Alabama, the 2002 Alabama team led the SEC and ranked third nationally in total defense, posting the best record in the SEC Western Division. Eight Alabama players he either coached or recruited signed National Football League contracts.

Journeyman coach spent 9 years at alma mater Tulsa

Thurmond has also worked at Tulsa (1983-91, 1994), East Carolina (1992-93), Texas Christian (1995, 1998-2000) and Oklahoma (2996- 97), coaching the cornerbacks or entire secondary unit during each of the stints.

The nine cumulative years he spent at Tulsa marked a return to his alma mater – yes, this new DC is a "TU" man. Oughta be able to scheme a defense that will enable the Owls to break their five-year losing streak against the former Rice whipping boy, then?

Talk to Chris Thurmond, and what comes out is a bit of Lou Holtz, with a dash of Bobby Bowden and a smidgen of R. C. Slocum.

Enthusiasm is the primary motivator, he told us. But enthusiasm is of little use unless it is combined with the ability to impart a broad range of both strategies and tactics.

"What I hope we are, what we strive to be, is you've got to be a great teacher first," he said. "And to be a great teacher, you've got to be motivated enough and confident that your message comes across."

"If your message comes across as blase , vague, not definitive, then it's hard to create much excitement. But if your message comes across bang-bang-bang, then now guys get excited."

And they’re inclined toward better execution, the idea goes.

Coach Thurmond does not give short shrift to the concept of "Mens sana in corpore sano," either.

"We try to talk about a lot of things, not just football," he pointed out. After all, among his players, Thurmond, like any Rice football assistant, might well encounter accomplished musicians, champion debaters, Eagle Scouts, future engineers, lawyers and physicians.

Not a "Parks and Recreation" major in the bunch.

"We call that being a Renaissance Man," Coach T pointed out. "The ultimate compliment we can give anyone, is that he's well rounded. And the one thing we try to talk about every day, is that football is the most important thing when you come over to the stadium, but there's more to life than just football. We try and blend all personalities and interests together to create the complete person."

Speaking of blend, the task before Rice’s defensive mentor will be to combine and blend together existing experience with greenhorn talent. The raw ingredients are there to enable the Rice "D" to make substantial strides. But that will require leadership on part of the veterans, and a steep learning curve by the less experienced, but nonetheless physically talented, Owl defenders. And in that regard, there’s no use, really, in getting too psyched up over the depth chart.

"When the season gets going, nobody wants to hear about ‘OK, we've got a lot of experience here, and we've got this and that.’" Coach Thurmond said. "When the game starts, nobody gets to hold up a sign that says, ‘this is the first time Iv'e been out here.'"

"We try to get everybody to play at the highest level. One thing we talk about is, don't worry about making a making a mistake. Get lined up and play a thousand miles an hour, because if you play fast, most people won't even know you've made a mistake.

"So those are some of the things we're trying to talk about," he continued. "As for experience, we're blessed in some areas where we have quite a lot, whereas in others, not as much. But what we've got to do now is get together and plug the gaps and accentuate our strengths."

"I guess I'm fortunate in that I really like the kids, and the kids, so far, so far they really like me," Coach Thurmond confided. "I guess that's a good thing."

--PTH 

Media Day shows display of enthusiasm, confidence, maybe even a bit of swagger this time around


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Sam McGuffie:  "All the pro-active work I’ve been doing this summer, I expect will help knock out those silly injuries that I was having

HOUSTON (Aug. 5) – Hope springs eternal, and about this time every year it pokes its head above the turf of Rice Stadium, where, as soon as the NCAA fathers allow, Owl coaches, players and fans commence their annual Easter egg hunt for positives and reasons for heightened expectations on the gridiron.

No different this year, it turns out. The unspoken thought that passed around the R Room during Saturday's kickoff Media Day was, "Can this season be another ‘08?"

Another ten-win season like that one would be cause for delirium on South Main, but at the end of the day Saturday, there was substantial evidence that this year’s version of the Owls just might be one to break over the .500 mark, compete for the league crown, and go bowling.

Call it quiet intensity mixed with just a little bit of sub rosa swagger, but veteran Rice players to a man say it's time to put up or shut up.

"There are no more excuses for us," presumptive Owl starting quarterback Taylor McHargue said. "This is a team that can absolutely compete for this conference championship."

"And a bowl game is the minimum expectation," he added.

Rice head coach David Bailiff said he feels a renewed confidence in the junior signal-caller, who season before last closed the season strongly to earn the starting position, but who faltered at times during last year’s campaign.

"We’ve have no doubt of his ability to take command of the game," DB said. "He's got his confidence back, and a little swagger back."

Summer conditioning program made its mark

At least part reason for such relatively lofty expectations lay in the physical condition attained by the Rice players during a vigorous summer conditioning program.

"You can’t get involved in their summer workouts, but coming back to the stadium and seeing what kind of shape they’re in gives me goose bumps," Coach Bailiff insisted. "Our strength coaches have simply done a great job."

Senior Owl key man Sam McGuffie said that conditioning wasn’t merely a matter of pumping iron and building up, but instead included a great deal of ‘soft-tissue work’ designed primarily for the prevention of injuries. He’s a hundred per cent, and so are the lot of his teammates, he noted, after a 2011 campaign that saw casualty figures rise rather dramatically as the season droned on.

"All the pro-active work I’ve been doing this summer, I expect will help knock out those silly injuries that I was having, just bad enough to keep me from playing," Sam told us.

Coach Bailiff hinted, albeit perhaps a bit jokingly, that he might take a page from the ‘08 playbook and boost Sam as another James Casey. What the heck, he might even play him at all eleven positions.

"We're going to be playing Sam everywhere," Coach Bailiff said with a grin. "We've even worked him a little bit at guard – because he's really quick at pulling and trapping on those linebackers."

In fact, a primary object of frustration for those who follow the Blue and Gray has been the frequency in which the Rice offensive game plan provided for Sam McGuffie to smash into a ton or two of beef on the hoof for attempted short yardage, when his considerable skills and tools would have been better put to use, say, one-on-one in the flat.

Now, for his senior season, Rice coaches have moved Sam from running back to slot receiver, and, you bet, the whole idea is to get him isolated and allow him to use some of that speed, elusiveness and –  almost forgot about it --  leaping ability, in order to aggravate enemy defenses.

"That’s mainly what brought on this move," Sam said. "That way, I can get more wideout touches, motions, give a lot of different looks. That’s just because it helps me get into space and sets up others for big plays as well. So whether I touch the ball or not, it’ll help the team."

Defense will exhibit heightened enthusiasm, aggressiveness

On the ‘D’, look for a new attitude, members of the Owl defensive unit insisted.

The elevation of former cornerbacks coach Chris Thurmond to Defensive Coordinator appeared to demonstrate immediate changes on the practice field this past spring. There was a sense of abandon and a willingness to take risks on part of Owl defenders – key missing ingredients in years of Rice’s wandering in the defensive wilderness, at or near the bottom of the statistical charts among BCS schools.

Even last year, the Rice defensive secondary appeared to have ramped up the aggression factor under Coach Thurmond’s tutelage. But the results were inconclusive, largely because the injury bug struck Owl D-backs particularly hard.

This season, the DB larder is well stocked with the return of a cast of characters including the likes of Phillip Gaines and Bryce Callahan. The intent is to throw a lot of different looks at opposing offenses. That means the 4-2, Cover Two base schematic will be augmented by an assortment of 3- and 4-man fronts.

Added to that, Coach Thurmond summed up to us a central coaching philosophy of his. "Don’t worry about making a mistake," he said. "Get lined up and play a thousand miles an hour; that way if you make a mistake it’ll go by so fast nobody’ll even know it."

Still and all, August drills are a time for honing and sharpening, Coach Bailiff noted. So it’s possible to come out of the blocks with perhaps a little excess exuberance that needs to be shaped and tailored, he said.

After Saturday afternoon’s initial workout of the season, he said "the guys actually were a little too competive out there, for not being in pads."

"When you’re not in pads, you don’t want to be on the ground, diving at balls." The idea, he pointed out, was the bring focus and up the intensity level gradually over the next four weeks, looking forward to the season opener on national television against UCLA.

But a few holes that are going to have to be plugged with relatively green wood require that several new or youngster Owls will have to be groomed for immediate on-field contributions. "We want to try to accelerate some of the young guys’ learning," DB said, "because we think they’re physical enough to be able to mature."

"When you get on the field, you don’t go out there wearing a sign that says ‘Experienced,’ Coach Thurman dead-panned. Or not.

Lagniappe: An exception to the general rule that the Owls reported for fall duty in tip top shape lay in the announcement Saturday that wide wide receiver and retun man Mario Hull will be out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle he sustained recently in the weight room. Arrrgh. The guy was only a freshman All-American, according to the Sporting News. Later in the season, he broke in as punt returner and turned heads while finishing fourth in the league and 21st in the nation with a 10.2-yard return average average on 16 punts. The plan, we’re told, is to petition for a medical redshirt for Mario, which, if granted – and one must assume it would be – would allow Mario to commence duty next year as a sophomore, giving him three remaining years of eligibility.

Another couple of men  on the red cross team include redshirt freshman DE Miles Lee and veteran DT Hosam Shanin. Miles is reported to have suffered a ruptured disc and Hosam sustained another one of those  pectoral muscle injuries. The jury’s still out on those two, but they’re sorely needed in an always-thin list of defensive front players.

--P.T.H.

(Back to Main Page...)

 

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