(Part 4 of a 14-part Conference USA preview series)
A wide open quarterback race and an enterable defense are the focal points of the Rice Owls' preseason camp.
Entering his 11th season, coach David Bailiff welcomed back 54 lettermen when the Owls reported Monday.
Rice (3-9, 2-6) returns its entire offensive line, but lost all six of its skilled starters from an offense which ranked 93rd in the nation in scoring (25.3 points per game), 72nd in rushing (169.7 ypg), 80th in passing (215.2 ypg), 86th in total yardage (348.8 ypg) and 111th with a dreadful minus-7 turnover margin.
Jackson Tyner, a 6-5, 245-pound sophomore, completed 32-of-67 passes for 318 yards with two touchdowns and a pick. He saw most of his action in the final two games while starting the season finale vs. Stanford following an injury to Tyler Stehling. Another sophomore, J.T. Granato, appeared in four games as a redshirt freshman. Also in the mix are redshirt freshman Sam Glaesmann and true freshman Miklo Smalls.
Juniors Samuel Stewart (76 carries, 479 yards, 3 TDs; 15 receptions, 107 yards, 3 TDs), who was limited by injuries last season, and Austin Walter (68 carries, 343 yards, 4 TDs) are contending for playing time at running back, along with sophomore Emmanuel Esukpa (17-56-2).
Sophomore Kylen Granson (33 receptions, 381 yards, 2 TDs in 8 games) is the lone veteran of the receiving cast.
Junior Calvin Anderson, who has started 24 consecutive games at left tackle, is joined on the seasoned offensive line by senior left guard Peter Godber, senior center Trey Martin, junior right guard Cory Klinger and junior right tackle Sam Pierce.
First-year defensive coordinator Brian Stewart inherits a mess as the Owls ranked 114th nationally out of 128 FBS teams in scoring (37.3 ppg), 101st in rushing (216.8 ypg) and 123rd in both passing (287.7 ypg) and total defense (504.5 ypg).
On a positive note, the Owls return their best defensive player, first-team All-C-USA senior linebacker Emmanuel Ellerbee. Besides finishing second in the league in tackles with 118, the Houston Strake Jesuit product accounted for 8 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and an interception. Senior Destri White (59 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 INT) will start at Kat linebacker with seniors DJ Green or Nick Uretsky in the middle.
Several experienced hands return to the front four. Junior Blain Padgett (45 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2 sacks) and senior Brian Womac (23 tackles, 9 TFL, 2 sacks) are the ends, with juniors Preston Gordon (31 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks) and Carl Thompson (22 tackles, 2.5 TFL) rotating at tackle. Junior Zach Abercrumbia (14 tackles, 1 sack), who was on injured reserve for the final eight games, is the nose tackle.
A pair of incumbents, senior cornerback V.J. Banks (37 tackles) and junior free safety J.T. Ibe (42 tackles) spearhead the secondary. Sophomore corner Justin Bickham, who started the final five games in 2015, is back after sitting out last season with an injury.
Junior Haden Tobola, who was 7-of-11 on field goal tries, is being pressed by freshman signee Will Harrison.
Junior punter Jack Fox stayed busy last season, punting 75 times for a 40.7-yard average with 27 kicks inside the 20.
Rice opens the season Saturday, August 26 against Stanford in Sydney, Australia.
2017 RICE SCHEDULE
(All times Central and subject to change)
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Aug. 26 vs. Stanford 9:00
Sept. 9 at UTEP* 7:00
Sept. 16 at Houston 7:00
Sept. 22 FIU* 6:30
Sept. 30 at Pittsburgh TBA
Oct. 7 Army 5:30 p.m.
Oct. 21 at UTSA* TBA
Oct. 28 Louisiana Tech* 2:30
Nov. 4 at UAB* TBA
Nov. 11 Southern Miss* 2:30
Nov. 18 at Old Dominion* 1:00
Nov. 25 North Texas* Noon