July 18, 2007
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The Rice Owls soared to heights, both individually and collectively, in 2006 that no one dared to predict as they entered the season.
Led by the individual heroics of wide receiver Jarett Dillard, who vaulted from unknown to All-American thanks to leading the nation with 21 touchdown catches, Rice won its final six games, three on the final offensive play of the game, to finish second in the C-USA West and earn a date to play Troy in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.
The Owls head into the 2007 season faced not only with the task of building on the momentum created last season, but also with the challenge of meshing with a new coaching staff and a change in defensive scheme, as David Bailiff takes over the reigns and brings with him the change to a 4-2-5 defensive alignment.
Normally, such challenges would have been substantially addressed during Spring Practice, but Bailiff's staff never got the chance to fully evaluate all the returning talent, since a number missed the spring period recuperating from injuries. Only 53 of the 65 players were able to participate in the bulk of drills, leaving the depth chart assignments heading into the fall up for major renovations, thanks to a fully healed returning squad and a talented 23-man freshman class that will likely be asked to step up into several key roles.
Offensively, the Owls will retain the spread attack that confounded many prognosticators in 2006. The general assumption in the summer of 2006 was that the radical change from the run-based option attack to the passing of the spread would fall victim to the lack of players suited to such an approach. In reality, the Owls found many of the skill players on hand were a perfect match for the new system and the Owls scored over 100 more points as a result.
This was no more apparent than in the record book assault authored by quarterback Chase Clement and his favorite target, Jarett Dillard.
Despite being limited to just eight starts because of injuries, Clement tied school records with 21 touchdown passes and 25 touchdowns produced, while throwing for 1,707 yards (fifth best total in school history). He rushed for another 481 to finish with 2,188 yards of total offense (fourth best in school history) and his average of 273.5 per game would have ranked third in the conference and 11th in the country, but he fell one game short of the games needed to make the rankings. The Owls were 6-2 in Clement's starts and averaged over 30 points per game with him at the helm. He hit in 57.7% of his passes and threw just five interceptions in 265 attempts.
Clement spent the off season bulking up for the demands of the job, and comes into the fall at a stout 205 pounds.
Former option quarterback Joel Armstrong, who made the successful jump to wide receiver last spring, was called on in relief of Clement when injuries struck, and was equally impressive. He set a school record by completing 58.6% of his passes and just missed giving the Owls a pair of 1,000 yard passers, finishing with 948 yards. That said, the strength of the Owls is maximized when Armstrong is split out wide, looking to build upon the 24 catches he had last season. The backup to Clement is redshirt sophomore John Thomas Shepherd, who made the start at UCLA when Clement was hurt and teamed with Armstrong to rally the Owls against ECU late last season. He completed a pair of passes for 51 yards to set up the winning field goal.
On a national scale, the story of the Owls was the emergence of Dillard, who vaulted himself into elite company during a season in which he obliterated every Rice receiving record, while also setting NCAA and conference marks as well. Those who had paid attention took note of his freshman year production inside the Owls run-first attack, and he blossomed when the pass became a featured weapon in 2006. He caught 91 passes for 1,274 yards and 21 touchdowns, to become the first Owl to top 1,000 yards in receiving. His 91 receptions were better than any Rice team had compiled since 1993.
He set school season marks in all three categories, in addition to setting the Rice career mark for TD catches. His 21 TDs also set a conference season mark, and he set an NCAA record by catching one in 13 consecutive games in a season. He enters the 2007 season with an overall streak of 15 straight games, and is just three shy of Larry Fitzgerald's NCAA mark. He became the first Rice wide receiver since Buddy Dial in 1958 to earn All American recognition and he came from the back of the pack to be named a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award. While Dillard's gaudy numbers were hard to miss, an equally important development was that fact that he was not the only Owl who turned out to be suited to the new passing attack.
Five players caught at least 20 passes, and three of them (Dillard, Tommy Henderson and Joel Armstrong) return in 2007.
Henderson was relegated to a special teams role at the start of the year, but took advantage of the opportunity when Mike Falco was hurt to showcase his skills and wound up third on the team with 31 catches. Armstrong added 24 catches despite making three starts and playing a majority of two other games at quarterback.
True freshmen Corbin Smiter and Toren Dixon worked their way into the rotation as the season progressed, both turning in key catches in late games as the Owls streaked to a bowl bid. They then combined to catch nine passes against Troy in the bowl game. Another true freshman, Andrew Novak, made a pair of starts before being sidelined with an injury. Redshirt freshman Pierre Beasley moves from QB to receiver and brings size (6-3, 210) and great raw athletic skills to the position.
Lanky Taylor Wardlow (6-6, 230) met the challenge of playing last year at 205 pounds and showed good hands while playing at tight end. Former starter Will Moss, who missed most of last season with an injury, is moving to the defensive line, with former professional pitcher James Casey, who worked out at defensive end in the spring, one of many looking to earn playing time.
Departed senior Quinton Smith produced a season that might be better appreciated in retrospect than it was in execution. Smith accounted for 91% of the carries by Owls running backs last year (211 of 231) and produced the fourth-best rushing total in school history (1,096), along with 12 touchdowns. In addition to his durability with the ball (he did not lose a fumble in his last 197 carries), Smith also proved invaluable as a receiver, finishing second on the team with 40 catches.
Redshirt sophomore C.J. Ugokwe emerged as the leader in the battle to replace Smith in the spring and is the only returning running back with any 2006 action (6 carries for 17 yards). Senior Bubba Heard, who made two career starts in the backfield before switching to defense last year, will return to the offensive side of the ball as will senior Bio Benibo. Sophomore Marcus Knox as well as the Owls group of incoming freshmen may also figure into the competition.
While the Owls returned a veteran unit along the offensive line in 2006, they were tasked with a total reversal in the style of blocking that was required of them. That alone was a daunting challenge, but then injuries struck and the veteran unit that started together in the opener did not return intact until Game 8 against UCF.
While LT Rolf Kruger has graduated, the four other starters return, led by left guard Robby Heos, an Outland and Lombardi Award candidate, who has been a consensus pre-season All-C-USA pick. Junior center Austin Wilkinson is a Rimington Award candidate who has started every game since his freshman year (24 straight) while right tackle Lute Barber started every game last year. Right guard David Berken made a total of 12 starts, including three at left tackle while Kruger was hurt. Senior David Perkins made five starts at the guard spots to fill in when injuries hit. Junior Jimmy Miller also saw considerable action all year.
Defensively the Owls enter the fall knowing they must improve on last year's efforts. They also face the challenge of moving to the 4-2-5, which places a premium on the development of defensive linemen.
Senior George Chukwu was a steady performer last year, starting all 13 games and earning honorable mention All-C-USA honors. He set a career high with eight tackles for loss and also showed his versatility when he dropped back to play middle linebacker against Tulsa. Senior Jonathan Cary also saw extensive playing time last year. Defensive end Deitrich Davis was moved to linebacker last year before injuries ended his season. He moves back to end in the four-man front. Moss will get a chance to put his size and strength to good use. Reserves Chris Ptaszek, Victor Brooks and Todd Mohr will all look to fill the available spots.
The Owls opted for newcomers at linebacker last year, with three first-time starters taking the field for the opener. This year, they return a wealth of experienced players who will battle for one less linebacker position as the Owls switch from the 3-3-5 to a 4-2-5 configuration.
Junior Brian Raines was an All-C-USA pick by the media while racking up 118 tackles, the most by an Owl since Larry Izzo totaled 121 in 1995. He finished third in the conference in total tackles, while leading the loop in solo stops (85) and forced fumbles (5). He topped double-figures in tackles six times.
True freshman Terrance Garmon continued to develop during the year and stepped into a starting spot for the final three games. Over that final three-game stretch, he totaled 25 tackles and picked off a pair of passes. He and Raines will battle it out for playing time this fall. Junior Vernon James made a total of four starts and finished last year with 40 stops last year then emerged from the spring as the starter at the other slot.
The Owls said goodbye to a pair of familiar faces when safeties Chad Price and Andray Downs graduated after starting 41 consecutive games together in the defensive backfield. Cornerbacks Ja'Corey Shepherd and Brandon King both intercepted a pair of passes and each broke up six more, but each also battled down time with injuries.
True freshman Andrew Sendejo was in the starting lineup for the opener and made a total 11 starts while earning All-C-USA freshman honors last season at the spur position in last year's configuration. Seniors Bencil Smith and Gary Anderson both saw playing time at corner last year.
Walk-on Clark Fangmeier took over the placekicking chores by the second game of the year and went on to earn All-C-USA freshman honors by converting all 35 PATs as well and finishing 8-11 on field goals. He earned C-USA Special Teams Player of the Week honors with his game-winning, 40-yard field goal against ECU. His 35 PATs without a miss were the most in the nation by a freshman. His 35 PATs matched the second-best total in school history and tied the best mark for an Owl freshman.
Senior Luke Juist handled the kickoff chores last season in addition to converting four of seven field goal attempts from beyond 40 yards. Four-year starting punter Jared Scruggs has graduated, and the Owls may added Clay Joseph as a late signee to contend for the job.