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(All information as of July 1, 2005)
COACH AND PROGRAM
It is important to keep Ken Hatfield's record at Rice in perspective.
Three winning seasons in 11 years might not sound like much -- and it wouldn't be at Ohio State, Southern Cal or Texas. But keep in mind that Rice had enjoyed just two winning seasons in the 28 years before Hatfield's arrival. And his winning percentage in Houston of 44.3 percent is the best of any Rice coach since Jess Neely ended his 27-year run in 1966.
Of course, Hatfield proved his credentials as a coach long before he came to Rice in 1994. He built a power at Air Force, winning 18 games in his last two seasons there, then moved on to Arkansas, where he guided the Hogs to two conference championships and seven bowls in seven seasons. He averaged eight wins for four seasons at Clemson before coming to Rice and winning a share of the conference title in the next-to-last year of the Southwest Conference.
Hatfield has had to try and sustain his program at Rice in the changing landscape of conference affiliations. Rice was a fixture in the old Southwest Conference, but when the power teams in that league left to merge with the Big Eight before the 1996 season, Rice was left behind.
The Owls landed in the Western Athletic Conference, just as that league was undergoing convulsions, losing the schools that would become the Mountain West Conference.
This year there will be a new league and, Hatfield hopes, a new start for Rice football in the West Division of Conference USA.
"I think it's a big plus for us," Hatfield said. "If nothing else, it's just that the travel is a lot better. We only play in the East or the Central time zone -- no West Coast trips. We get to play Houston -- which we always play anyway -- as a conference game."
Hatfield is also looking forward to the league's new conference championship game.
"I think it helps that we have a conference championship game, like the Big 12 and the SEC," he said. "Ours is going to be a home game for the team with the best conference record. I think that will add interest -- you're not only playing to qualify but to earn a home-field advantage."
It's not farfetched for Hatfield to dream of being in the Conference USA title game, despite last year's mediocre 3-8 record. At least initially, the strength of the new league appears to be in the East Division. To win the West title, the Owls will have to get past Houston and SMU (two teams Rice beat a year ago), and UTEP (which edged the Owls in overtime in El Paso). Tulsa, which topped the Owls 39-22 a year ago, has to visit Rice Stadium, as does Tulane, a newcomer to the schedule.
So can Rice go from 3-8 to a spot in the Conference USA championship game?
Hatfield certainly thinks it's possible.
"The biggest thing is to play real good on special teams ... not just in one or two areas, but all phases," he said. "That's where we came up short last season. That and get consistent play out of the quarterback position. Defensively, we need to tackle better and eliminate the big plays we gave up."
A year ago, Rice started strong, winning three of its first five games, but lost six in a row to close out the season. This year, it looks like the toughest part of the schedule will be early.
"The schedule opens up at UCLA, Texas in Austin and Navy, coming off one of their best seasons, at home," Hatfield said. "That's three tough non-conference games. That's the way we like to have it. It will get us ready for the conference."
If Rice can survive that start, followed by a pair of road games against Conference USA East Division contenders UAB and East Carolina, then the schedule presents the Owls with five home dates in the final six games -- all against West Division teams that Rice ought to be competitive against.
Given Hatfield's track record, it wouldn't be surprising to see Rice make a splash in its first season in Conference USA.
There has been some speculation that Hatfield may make some changes in his trademark wishbone offense this season.
"We're not getting away from it at all," he said. "That's our livelihood. We led the nation in rushing last season. We just need to throw better. We will do a few more things and have a little more variety."
Sophomore Joel Armstrong (5-11, 180) supplanted veteran Greg Henderson late last season, starting five of the last six games. The speedy signal caller was an impressive runner, rushing for 608 yards at an average of 5.3 yards a carry. He was less impressive in the passing game, hitting just 46.4 percent of his 56 attempts for 341 yards and two touchdowns.
But Hatfield is convinced that Armstrong has the arm to be a better thrower.
"He's like a lot of quarterbacks -- he had to earn some things," he said. "We sign our guys to run the ball first. He was more impressive passing the ball this spring."
The Owls spent a lot of time in spring working on the shotgun -- a version of Hatfield's offense that he used extensively in 2001, when Kyle Herm threw for more than 1,100 yards and eight touchdowns for an eight-win team.
"That will help our defense too," Hatfield said. "They got to see a lot of passing game in the spring."
Redshirt freshman Chase Clement (6-1, 185), a celebrated recruit out of San Antonio, shared the job with Armstrong in the spring and is slated to see action this fall.
"Chase had an outstanding spring," Hatfield said. "He ran a 4.4 40 and just missed benching 300 pounds. He can scoot. He'll definitely see some action."
John Shepherd (6-1, 180), an all-state quarterback from El Dorado, Ark., will probably redshirt, but he's next in line if injuries force Hatfield to go three-deep at the position.
The wishbone requires a quality fullback and lots of fleet halfbacks.
Hatfield is not worried about the depth of his talent at the position, but he does have one very big hole to fill.
"We've got a lot of good runners," he said. "But you've got to have a good fullback in our offense and we lost a great one in Ed Bailey. He's one of three backs at Rice to rush for 1,000 yards -- it's unusual for one of our backs to get 1,000 with four to carry it."
Bailey led Rice with 1,021 yards and 12 touchdowns last season.
Junior Andrew Cates (5-11, 220) is in line to replace Bailey, although the junior from Atlanta carried just three times last season. To shore up the position, Hatfield moved senior Joe Don Wood (6-2, 235), who started nine games at tight end last season, back to the position he played in high school.
Sophomore John Wall (5-10, 210) and redshirt freshman Marcus Knox (5-10, 190) will also get looks at the position. There's potential there, but all the candidates together have combined for just 67 career rushing yards.
Halfbacks Marcus Rucker (6-0, 215) and Quinton Smith (5-11, 200) each got more than that last season on just one carry. Rucker, who averaged 7.2 yards a carry, went 86 yards for a touchdown against San Jose State. Smith, who averaged 6.0 yards a carry, added an 80-yard scoring jaunt in the same game.
But they are competing with a number of other players for playing time. In fact, junior Mike Falco (5-11, 220) is probably the Owls' most versatile back. He averaged almost six yards a carry last season, caught seven passes for 163 yards, returned 20 kickoffs for 366 yards and eight punts for 59 more yards.
The most talented halfback on the roster could be senior Thomas Lott (5-7, 180), who is trying to bounce back after an injury plagued junior year. Lott started nine games as a sophomore and rushed for 714 yards, averaging 7.3 yards a carry. That was the second-best average in Division I-A.
But a succession of hamstring and groin injuries limited the Plano, Texas, jet to just 33 carries for 143 yards last season.
"Thomas Lott was hurt all year," Hatfield said. "He never regained his speed enough."
Lott still wasn't full speed last spring, when sophomore Bio Bilaye-Benibo (6-0, 195) and redshirt freshman Tommy Henderson (5-10, 185), who came to Rice as a quarterback and is the younger brother of former starting quarterback Greg Henderson, both turned in impressive performances.
WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
Last season's top two receivers -- Marcus Battle and Ryan Simonak -- are gone, but after watching redshirt freshman Jared Dillard (6-0, 175) shine during the spring, Hatfield feels a lot better about his receiving positions.
"He ended up spring as our best guy," Hatfield said. "He's got a 39-inch vertical leap, he runs well and what I like is the way he competes."
Junior Andy Hall (6-4, 215) brings size and experience to the position. He caught five passes for 73 yards and a touchdown last season.
"Andy Hall is a guy with great hands," Hatfield said. "He made some phenomenal catches for us, like the one he made at Duke [in 2003] on the last play of the game to force overtime."
If Hatfield needs more depth at the position -- and with the wishbone, he rarely plays more than one wide receiver at a time -- sophomore Gary Anderson (6-0, 175), the son of the NFL veteran of the same name, and walk-on senior Nick Aranda (6-0, 195) are available.
With Woods moving to fullback, the tight end job opens up for junior Matt Bolding (6-3, 245) and redshirt freshman Will Moss (6-4, 245) -- two strong, physical specimens who should provide the blocking that Hatfield requires at the position. Moss also has excellent potential as a receiver.
On paper, it looks like Hatfield will have a difficult task replacing three starters off last year's line.
But the Rice coach has a solid group of veterans ready to step in.
"We've got guys who have played," he said. "I just hope they have the endurance and can stay healthy to play all year."
Junior guard Cory Laxon (6-3, 290) and junior tackle Rolf Krueger (6-4, 290) return to anchor the front. Junior David Carter (6-6, 300), who started three games a year ago, will be at the other tackle, while impressive newcomer David Berkin (6-2, 280), a red-shirt freshman from Lake Arthur, La., will open at the other guard.
"David is the only new kid [in the starting lineup]," Hatfield said. "He's one of our hardest workers."
David Perkins (6-3, 275) will start at center for the first time, but he lettered last season as a backup.
Two huge sophomores -- Robby Heos (6-3, 300) and Lute Barber (6-7, 300) -- will provide depth at guard and tackle, respectively.
"The line looks real good," Hatfield said after watching the unit perform in the spring.
He is concerned about keeping his starters healthy.
"Most of the depth there is young," he said. "[The two-deep includes] four redshirt freshman. We signed five offensive linemen. We'll get them all ready to play. I have no qualms about throwing them in."
That could mean playing time for untested players such as red-shirts Nathan Miller (6-3, 285) and Austin Wilkerson (6-1, 275), plus sophomore center Scott Austin (6-3, 265).
Hatfield's linemen are a bit smaller than what is becoming the norm in college football, but that's by design.
"The biggest thing in our system is linemen who can come off the ball," he said. "A lot of teams recruit big guys who sit back, use their hands and pass protect. I like guys who are smaller, can get lower, can get good leverage and can come off the ball."
Brennan Landry (5-9, 185) looked like a standout in the making after his sophomore season in which he hit 34-of-34 extra points and converted six of nine field goals, including a 46-yarder.
But Landry missed five of nine field goal attempts last season and three of 28 extra point attempts. He is now battling sophomore Luke Juist (6-0, 200) for the kicking job.
Juist has a stronger leg -- he handles the team's kickoff duties -- and last year converted on four of seven field goal tries.
But neither kicker made one from 40 yards or longer as they combined to miss all six long-range tries. The job will be up for grabs going into preseason practice.
"We need one of them to be consistent," Hatfield said.
Defensive end John Syptak (6-2, 255) is probably the Owls' best player, a proven pass rusher who earned first-team All-WAC conference honors last season.
"He's really an aggressive player," Hatfield said. "He's got great speed off the ball."
The senior from Bellville, Texas recorded eight sacks last season and 15 tackles for loss. In two seasons as a starter, he's piled up 169 tackles, 12 sacks and 29 tackles for loss.
"We've just got to find another end just like him," Hatfield said.
Hatfield is hoping Courtney Gordon (6-4, 250) emerges as the bookend end to balance Syptiak. The junior from Gladewater, Texas started four games last year and recorded five sacks.
He's battling senior Rob Daniel (6-4, 245), who has recorded 56 career tackles, for the starting job. Red-shirt freshman Dietrich Davis (6-3, 245) was also impressive in the spring and should see action at end.
One inside spot will be anchored by returning starter DeJaun Cooper (6-3, 305). The junior from Sugar Land, Texas had 24 tackles last season, including four tackles for loss.
"He is one of the best we have, Hatfield said. "He started out as a defensive end, but he gained so much weight we decided to move him inside. I'm extremely pleased with him."
Junior Will Wood (6-3, 300), who recorded six tackles in a backup role last season, is slated to start at nose-guard. Sophomore George Chukwu (6-1, 305) is also battling for playing time in the middle, along with sophomore Jonathan Cary (6-3, 285).
Hatfield's system uses just two linebackers and the Owls return four players with starting experience for those two spots.
Hatfield expects a lot from projected starters senior Adam Herrin (6-0, 225) and sophomore Buck Casson (6-1, 215).
"Adam Herron played quarterback in high school and led Celina [Texas] to three state championships," Hatfield said. "He's a great leader. Buck Cassan is a neat guy who really studies the game."
Herron led Rice with 74 tackles last season, including 51 primary hits and seven tackles for loss. Cassan had 35 hits, five tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and an interception.
He actually shared the starting job with junior Omeke Allikor (6-0, 210), who started six games and recorded 40 tackles. Sophomore Jared Gilbert (6-0, 230) started one game and had 14 tackles on the season.
However, the sleeper in the group may be redshirt freshman Vernon James (6-0, 215), a converted defensive lineman that Hatfield calls, "probably our most talented physically."
The off-season proved to be a competition between Hatfield's veteran returnees and three red-shirt freshmen with impressive physical skills.
As it now stands, the veterans are slated to start. Certainly Chad Price (6-0, 205) is going to be the man at Bandit, a hybrid position that's a cross between a strong safety and an outside linebacker. The junior from Bay City, Texas started all 11 games last season and recorded 66 tackles, including five tackles for loss and had two interceptions last season.
And junior Audray Downs (5-9, 185) is set after two seasons as the team's starting free safety. He's coming off a year in which he had 70 tackles and an interception. Junior Matt Ginn (5-9, 180), who started two games last season, appears to have the edge on red-shirt freshman Aubrey White (6-1, 195) at the Rover position.
There's more competition at cornerback, where junior Lance Byrd (5-11, 185) and sophomore Jon Turner (5-9, 185) are trying to move up into starting roles. They are being pushed by redshirt freshman Ja'Corey Shepherd (5-11, 175) and Brandon King (5-9, 175).
Along with Bencil Smith (5-11, 185), they are the future of the Rice secondary.
"They all had great springs," Hatfield said of the three young defensive backs. "They're going to be good players."
Further depth will come from senior cornerback Dustin Haynes (5-10, 190).
Just as Landry slumped last year as a place-kicker, junior Jared Scruggs (6-2, 190) slumped as the Owls' punter.
"Scruggs has a gifted leg," Hatfield noted. "He was fourth in the nation two years ago."
Indeed, the Hutto, Texas product averaged 45.9 yards a punt and was a first-team All-WAC choice as a freshman. But last year, he managed just 37.7 yards a punt and 16 of them were returned for 340 yards, leaving the Owls with a dreadful net average of 31.0 yards a kick.
Juist, who already handles kickoffs and is competing for the place-kicking job, is the team's backup punter.
Ask Hatfield about his special teams and he's blunt.
"We were terrible last year," he said. "The year before, we were as good as we've been with the same people."
He can only hope Scruggs and Landry (or maybe Juist) do the job as kickers. He's planning to use his depth at linebacker to shore up his coverage teams.
Rice has a lot of options when it comes to returns, Both Falco (eight punt returns for 59 yards) and Byrd (12 punt returns for 98 yards) did a solid job returning punts last season. Falco and Downs combined to return 38 kickoffs for 803 yards. Plus, Hatfield is thinking of trying out some of his speedy young defensive backs on kickoff returns.
One area is solid -- long snapper Drew Clardy (6-6, 280) is excellent.
"He's a big kid who zips it back there," Hatfield said.
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 119 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college football, the 2005 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).