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Back from injury, redshirt junior DL Graysen Schantz has been all over the place during August drills; 'we're ready to get after them,' he said (Rice SID photo)

HOUSTON (Aug. 21) – The Rice Owls closed out their August training camp regimen this weekend in anticipation of a return to schoolday scheduling with the commencement of fall classes on Monday.

Camp was broken amid a uniform spirit of optimism, and with a sense that several key weaknesses emanating from last year's disappointing 5-7 campaign have been addressed during the (semi) two-a-days of August -- if not completely. It's a palpable sensation, said the usually sanguine running back, Jowan Davis.

"I like the feeling we have this year," the Sealy senior noted. "It's so much different than last year. Even when we are not at practice, everybody is together, laughing and joking around. We had some of that last year, but this year feels like everybody is on the same page. It's not just one group that is leading. You see a lot of the younger guys coaching each other up."

The fact that this Rice team is now training out of a state-of-the-art, $32 million end zone facility has put some spring in the step, players and coaches alike observed.

"You come popping in here and you can't wait to get to work," Rice head coach David Bailiff said at the commencment of drills. "It shows Rice is committed to getting it done."

But the sixty-four-dollar question lies in whether such brief Era of Good Feeling can be followed up with a corresponding – and immediate – improvement in results on the field., given the lack of an experienced quarterback and the roadblock posed by three tough games to open the season in September.

First comes WKU, then Army, then...

The Flock kicks off on national television the night of Thursday, Sept. 1, against defending league champion Western Kentucky at their house. The Red Towels won twelve games last year en route to a Top-25 national ranking.

But they've lost their playmaker in prolific passing quarterback Brandon Doughty, who as a senior last season picked apart the Owls in a 49-10 blowout at Rice Stadium. Doughty has moved on to NFL pastures and the Kentuckians in August have been auditioning four would-be replacements during summer drills.

Still, WKU coach Jeff Brohm returns seven offensive starters and thinks he should be able to run the ball against porous C-USA defenses this season, Rice's included. "We're not going to be near as good," Coach Brohm said. "But I like the nucleus of this team."

With fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler Stehling making the first start of his career on the road against the ‘Tops, and David Bailiff-coached teams' proclivity for starting of the season in low gear, it's not easy to envision an Owl win in game one.

Then, nine days later comes another road trip, this time to West Point to face the Black Knights of Army, a team the Owls squeezed by last year in Rice Stadium on a last-minute scoring drive.

The Cadets have taken their lumps in recent seasons, including four straight losses to the Owls, yet have high hopes of breaking their 15-year slump against the Naval Academy lads and possibly earning a bowl bid.

But if they want to achieve post-season eligibility they're pretty much going to have to get that cranked up with a win over the Owls.

Enthusiasm dampened at the Point early last week when it was announced that presumptive starting quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw had declined his five-year service commitment at the eleventh hour and thereby separated himself from the Corps. But after a couple of days of drama, the junior from Chicago once again appeared back at practice and the Army brass responded with a "move along, there's nothing to see here" retort to media.

Bradshaw was dinged and played only a few downs in last year's loss to the Owls, a game that saw the locals surge to a quick, 14-0 lead only to be outplayed the rest of the game, insuring the victory with a last-minute ruptured duck touchdown pass, Driphus Jackson to Zach Wright as the rain poured down.

Without an experienced starter, the Cadets would likely be teeing it up with the Owls on equal terms. But with Bradshaw back safely in the fold, the Black Knights would appear to have an edge at home.

In the event, win or lose the week before at Temple, Army's game against Rice looms to be a season-definer for Coach Jeff Monken's team.

Great.

And then the Owls finally get to play a home game six days later against, of all people, Baylor.

We'll resist the obvious temptation to lay on the insulting puns against this team from the Baptist State Penitentiary. Suffice it to say that, with the talent the Bears are returning, even with the off-season departure of run'-em-up coach Art Briles, all the the Sheriff's Mounted Posse and all the Police Chief's men shouldn't prove backup enough for the Owls to keep this one from winding up another uninteresting Rice Stadium loss.

Or maybe not. At least the Bruins won't have former university president Kenneth Starr leading them onto the field this time around. He's ousted, too.

Owls need to grab a win or two early

So let's hypothesize that the first three games of the season follow the form charts, and despite the Owls' most strenuous efforts, they come out of the September starting blocks 0-and-3.

We flunked out of Math 100, but we can count well enough to figger it would take the Feathered Flock's going 6-3 the rest of the season to even sniff at a bottom-rung post-season bowl engagement. That, as Mayor Giuliani would say, is the reality of the situation.

But there's no gloom-and-doom amid the corridors of the spanking new Brian Patterson Sports Performance Center. "As far as the season and the team go; I'm really excited," Coach Bailiff has insisted. Why? "We've got 16, really almost 17 starters back when you include Graysen Schantz, who was starting for us early in the year at defensive end before he got hurt."

The team has learned a hard lesson from last year's disappointments. "After going to three straight bowls, all of a sudden we don't go to a bowl game.," DB observed. "As hard that was on us, there is power in failure. It forced us to focus. It forced us to analyze. It forced me to analyze everything we were doing in this program, from offense, defense and special teams."

"It forced this football team to really look in the mirror and see that they are willing to recommit and dedicate themselves to living to the expectations that we expect. We expect to compete for conference championships. We expect to get a bowl game slot. After doing it for three straight years and you're sitting at home in December; bowl season is not fun when you're not in one."

"Those are the goals for this year."

Still, the Owls quite easily could have gone 7-5 or even 8-4 in 2015, had just a bare handful of plays gone the other way. Rice was playing with a wounded quarterback in senior Driphus Jackson, whose throwing shoulder was in bad shape but who gamely played hurt all season with it.

"The guys did well last year with what they had," the aforementioned, returning defensive end Graysen Schantz said. "They didn't have much experience. But now that everybody has a year under their belt. We're ready to get after them this year and really start putting the pressure on."

Coach Bailiff elaborated. "To have Darrion Pollard back, to have Lance Wright back, to have Connor Patterson in the O line back, to have Brandon Dawkins back in the O line... We missed those guys last year, which led to a lot of those true freshmen, which will hopefully pay dividends this year from the growing pains last year."

2016 schedule front- and back-loaded, but not killer

And truth be told, the overall 2016 schedule should prove to demonstrate no greater degree of difficulty than did last year's card. True, a middling Texas team was replaced on the schdule by a season-ending bout at Stanford, a pre-season consensus Top-Ten selection. But the three league teams that so embarrassed the Owls by rendering them one-side home losses in 2015 – WKU, LA Tech and Southern Miss – are all at least somewhat shallower in the overall talent pool due to graduation – er, make that 'de-matriculation.'

"I have really liked the work ethic and the way they've come out here," Coach Bailiff said of his charges last week. " They've come out here with a great mental attitude. They're crisp. They're sharp. They're focused. What I really like is how our seniors are encouraging the young guys. You see them coaching the guys, trying to accelerate they're learning out here. I'm pleased with the ball security. I'm pleased with how hard the defense is chasing the football."

Restored-to-health senior Connor Patterson was philosophically analytical, as is so often our Institute Boys' wont.

"After three bowl games, I honestly think we got complacent," he said. "We thought it was just going to be given to us because we were the new version of Rice Football. Last year we kind of fell off. So now understand that we've had those highs and we've had the lows. Going into the year the goal is to focus on the highs and eliminate the lows."

--P.T.H.

Optimism as to on-field prospects are mirrored by gratifying results in the business office, Rice coaches and officials reported Wednesday at St. Arnold's

HOUSTON (Aug. 24) – Rice Athletic Director Joe Karlgaard and Head Football Coach David Bailiff shared the emcee duties at Wednesday evening’s annual Rice Football Reception at St. Arnold’s Brewery.

A slightly smaller than usual crowd – about 125 were in attendance – belied the real progress that it seems has been going down at the Rice Athletics business office.

According the AD Karlgaard, football season ticket sales thus far this season have hit a high for recent years. “I can’t tell you yet exactly how many season tickets we’ve sold,” Joe K. told the studio audience. “But I do know that, since I first got here in 2013, in any given year we’ve haven’t sold as many season tickets for football, baseball and basketball, combined, as we’ve sold for football only thus far this season. And we’re still selling them.”

The Rice AD lauded the work of Shu Muthyala, Rice’s GM for Ticket Sales and Service, who was in attendance at the event and busy at work handing out season ticket packets to attendees.

Some more good news in the fiscal department, this regarding the new Brian Patterson EZF.....”We wound up putting in right at $33 million on the project,” Joe K said. “But we actually had it overfunded, so we came in right on budget.”

It’s clear that the television broadcast situation is going to be a bit complex and potentially confusing for Owl fans, JK added. “If you have Apple TV or anything similar, you should be able to get all of the games on your big screen,” he said. “For the most part, there’ll be opportunities to backtrack or get the game videos after they’v e been archived.”

“If you can’t get the game on your TV you still will be able to watch it online.”

Yet, each production source will have a slightly different set of viewing complexities, so the AD said he’d make sure and get Owl fans written instructions and guidelines for viewing. Broadcast sources for the Southern Miss game in Hattiesburg are yet to be determined, he noted. The homecoming game with Prairie View may wind up being produced in-department only; and the regular season-ending Stanford game is not yet scheduled, but, as the Trees are projected as a Top Ten team, it’s virtually certain the game will be picked up, quite probably nationally.

Thus were the main points of the business department concluded; meanwhile, Coach Bailiff also came on to do a bit of tub-thumping for ticket sales. “How many season tickets have you bought?” he quizzed several of the attendees personally. When the answer came back, his response in each case was, “well, you need to get two more.”

And the thing is, as the attendees filed out afterwards, several Owl fans were waiting to sign up for more season tickets.  Shu pointed out that extra season tickets can be bought, and then contributed for distribution to youth groups; the ticket office is handling that production as well.

Clearly, with the potential realignment looming, a huge  issue to be addressed lay in "B.I.T.S." -- rear ends in the seats -- and the new crew is tackling the matter head on with a gratiftying degree of success.

The first thing Coach Bailiff did when it was his turn at the mike was to  deliver a dose of his usual, pre-season enthusiasm. “It’s very humbling to be a head coach at Rice,” he said, mainly in reference to the considerable measure of success exhibited by recent Rice football grads who have come back to visit the program during fall drills.

DB labeled the just-completed fall camp as “unbelievable.” The Rice head coach, now in his tenth year, cited particular satisfaction with the August performances emanating from several sources. First, defense generally: “With the players returning, and the experience picked up by some of the guys we just had to get out there last year as freshman, we’re now faster, stronger. We run to the ball better, we tackle in space better.

He also expressed enthusiasm over the kicking game. Looks like the staff has Jack Fox lined up to do the punting, and Hayden Tobola for the place kicking. Both looked good in drills, he said, waxing particularly positive over Fox's punting improvement.

Somebody needs to run over to West to pick up some of grandma’s kolaches, because a few of those little yeast rolls would appear to be all the sophomore place kicker needs to get his place kicks elevated over outstretched enemy defenders.  Kolache Factory won’t cut it, though – those are bogus.

During question time, queries inevitably arose about the quarterback position. Coach Edmondson expressed satisfaction over the performance of Tyler Sterling, who he said matured considerably, and in a hurry, once it became clear he was tapped out for the starting job. His play calling, checks and other quick-decision, line-of-scrimmage moves were most impressive, Coach Edmondson said.

A back bencher asked Coach Bailiff about quarterback depth, and received a cheerful response. He noted that quarterback turned flanker/wideout Nate German had seen limited snaps at the QB position during August due to a finger injury, affecting his ability to throw the ball, but apparently not to catch it.  So he’ll be down on the depth chart, it seems, with Jackson Tyner and John Granato prepared to come on in relief, probably in that order. Both fared well during two a days, DB said.

Then there was true freshman Sam Glaesman. “Sam is uncanny out there,” Coach Bailiff said. It was as if he was more mature, more experienced than you’d expect a true freshman, especially when it comes to understanding the offense.

Rice's new Man Mountain of a DL Coach, Frank Okam, had high praise for returning sophs Blaine Padgett and Zach Abercrumbia. Apparently the techniques the new DL coach is using are more like those employed in the NFL – and the cerebral Rice players are fulling capable of grasping it. DL will be a strength this season, Coach Okam said, adding “And that’s where it all starts on defense.”

--PTH