Rice could be a dangerous team
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of 10 articles previewing Western Athletic Conference football teams. Today, the Appeal takes a look at the Rice Owls.
When coaches around the Western Athletic Conference talk about teams to watch out for, Rice is usually at the tip of everybody’s tongue.
The Owls are a scary football team. Coach Ken Hatfield’s team won four of its last five games to finish the 2003 season at 5-7 overall and 5-3 in the WAC, scoring 215 points in that span, including a 52-42 win over Nevada.
And, they begin the season with 46 returners, including seven starters on offense and defense, which lends credence to Hatfield’s optimism.
“I’m excited about the way we finished, winning four of our last five,” said Hatfield. “We’ll be looking to continue that. They tasted victory and tasted the way we won and the road and played good. That has carried over into good work ethic.
“This is going to be a good year. I don’t think there is a dominant team which is good (for the league). Boise State has done a great job the last two years, and they definitely are a favorite. I just don’t think anybody’s got a dominant team. This is a league where if you take anybody lightly, you will get beat.”
The Owls, who averaged nearly 30 points a game last season, boast tremendous depth at running back with five players – Thomas Lott (98 carries, 714 yards, 3 TDs), Marcus Rucker (49-306-1), Quinton Smith (26-207-0), Ed Bailey (79-294-2) and Joe Moore (34-206-3) – returning. All five were in starting roles at one time or another.
The 5-foot-7 185-pound Lott had three 100-yard games, gaining 128 versus Nevada, 127 against Louisiana Tech and 101 at Duke.
“He got good experience in the Duke game, gaining over 100 yards on the road,” Hatfield said. “We depend on him getting to the outside. He’s a quality back. He’s not just a runner. He did a great job blocking for Moore.
“Quinton Smith had a great game against Nevada (142 yards), but then he pulled a hamstring. He’s healthy now.”
The Owls did lose quarterback Kyle Herm, who accounted for more than 1,068 yards total offense last year.
However, Greg Henderson who started five games when Herm was hurt, is ready to step into the starting spot. Henderson rushed for 615 yards and five scores and passed for 485 yards.
“He had an outstanding spring practice,” Hatfield said. Hatfield said Tommy Henderson, Greg’s younger brother, Joel Armstrong and Chance Clement are the backups.
Junior Marcus Battle returns at wide receiver. He caught just 19 balls, but averaged nearly 18 yards per catch. Ben Wiggins, who averaged 38 yards per reception on his five catches, also returns. Tight end Joe Don Wood, who caught two passes for 51 yards returns. He is primarily a blocker and does a tremendous job sealing off defenders and opening holes.
Rice returns three of five interior line starters, including left tackle Scott Mayhew (6-6, 305), left guard Micah Meador (6-3, 290) and right guard Greg Wilson (6-4, 325). Ross Heubel (6-3, 275) replaces Ben Stephens at center, and Cotey-Joe Cswaykus (6-4, 305) is the new right tackle.
Rice was a dominant running team last season, and must continue that trend to be successful.
While the offense has a plethora of experienced players, the defense is a bit younger. Only three seniors – cornerback Raymorris Barnes, rover Terry Holley and nose guard Jeremy Calahan – have been penciled into starting jobs.
Holley led the defense with 92 tackles, three sacks, four deflections, two fumble recoveries and five tackles behind the line.
“He (Holley) can cover deep and make things happen,” Hatfield said. “He’s an outstanding athlete.”
The key player on defense could be Andray Downs, who was moved to safety last season, and had 62 tackles and an interception.
“He’s such a great player,” Hatfield said. “After I put him in the middle, everything blossomed. He did an outstanding job.”
Barnes, a cornerback, had 50 tackles and a fumble recovery last year. Lance Byrd, the other corner intercepted one pass and made 30 tackles.
The line is led by junior defensive end John Syptak, who had 81 tackles, four sacks and four fumble recoveries. Calahan, 6-3 and 295 pounds, contributed 49 tackles and 2.5 sacks from his nose guard slot.
“He (Syptak) has the ability to make the big, big play,” Hatfield said.
The linebacking corp is led by junior Adam Herrin (6-1, 225), who was a quarterback in high school, and sophomore Omeka Alikor (6-0, 215).
“Omeka has tremendous ability,” Hatfield said. “He has a chance to be a big-play guy.”
“We’ve got talent at every position,” Holley said. “We have much better depth than we did before.”
The one newcomer who could make a difference is freshman kicker Luke Juist, who kicked 23 field goals in his last two years in high school and has 50-yard range. Punter Jared Scruggs averaged 46 yards a kick last season.
College: University of Arkansas 1965
Years at Rice: Starting 11th year
Record at Rice: 51-60-1
Overall Record: 164-122-4
Bowl Games: 10
Of Note: Hatfield’s 164 wins is fifth among active coaches.
Owls in 2004
Sept. 5 at Houston
Sept. 18 HAWAI’I
Sept. 25 at Texas
Oct. 2 at San Jose State
Oct. 9 SMU
Oct. 16 at Nevada
Oct. 23 at Navy
Oct. 30 at Tulsa
Nov. 6 FRESNO STATE
Nov. 13 at Texas El-Paso
Nov. 27 LOUISIANA TECH