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David Bailiff, head coach of the Rice Eagles, thrives on positivity and enthusiasm. Over the last few years, not only has Rice brought a positive attitude to the field, but they have also won games. What’s more, they have convinced the school to spend money on football. The Owls are here to stay, and sooner rather than later they could vault from the second tier of Conference USA into the first.
Quarterback play is arguably the most important singular aspect of football at any level. Fortunately for the Owls, they have a darn good one in Driphus Jackson. Jackson puts up big numbers in the air and on the ground, scores touchdowns and protects the football. There isn’t much more you can ask of your quarterback. If there’s any criticism of Jackson’s game it is his 57.7% completion rate, which isn’t bad but it could be better.
Jackson shouldn’t have to do it all though. Rice returns its five leading rushers from last year, including Jackson. The top two of those, Jowan Davis and Darik Dillard, combined for 1,600 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Andrew Reue and Caleb Williams return at guard and tackle, respectively, and they ought to make up a very good right side of the line. Reue is a two-year starter and a preseason all-conference pick by many. Williams is a three-year starter who is less heralded, but equally as effective. They’ll need to step up because the rest of the line only has one career start between them.
The receiving corps is a little depleted after the loss of leading receivers Mario Hull and Jordan Taylor, but there are several solid receivers ready to step up. Dennis Parks, Zach Wright, and James Mayden all flashed some deep threat ability, but all need to improve their catch rates going forward.
Alex Lyons returns at linebacker to lead a unit that should be the strength of the defense. Tabari McGaskey will replace James Radcliffe at the other linebacker position, and after seeing time in every game last season should be able to step into the starting lineup without much drop off, if any.
Last year, the pass rush was the strength of this Owl defense, but with 24.5 sacks from last season gone that probably won’t be the case again. Stuart Mouchantaf does return after missing last season with a knee injury, but at defensive tackle he’s more of a run stopper than a pass rusher. The most reliable source of a pass rush is Graysen Schantz, who had three sacks last year, and in an expanded role he should do even more this year. That being said, someone else will have to have an impact or this team will woefully struggle to get to the quarterback.
The defensive backfield is facing some of the same issues that the defensive line. CB Ryan Pollard is the only returning starter in the secondary, but he did lead the team with eight pass break-ups and tied for team leader with two interceptions. Another guy to keep an eye on is Cole Thomas. Thomas saw limited action in every game last year as a true freshman, and could be ready to break out as a starting safety this year.
Even with trips to Texas and Baylor on the schedule, eight wins is a more than reasonable expectation for this team. Driphus Jackson has a lot riding on his shoulders, but he is more than up to the task. It also helps that of the conference heavyweights, Rice gets Louisiana Tech and Western Kentucky at home, and misses Marshall completely.
Credit Cover Photo to Marco Garcia/USA TODAY Sports