Rice’s opener against Stanford provides glimpse into program’s future
Rice ended last season with a 41-17 shellacking at the hands of Stanford. The loss punctuated an injury-riddled season for the Owls in which some wondered whether coach David Bailiff might be around much longer for a program that moved further and further from the 2013 Conference USA championship he brought them.
While Rice’s coaches aren’t putting too much stock into Saturday’s season opener against No. 14 Stanford in Sydney, Australia, it offers them an opportunity to observe what an offseason of changes and a renewed team attitude means heading into what might be a pivotal year for Bailiff.
“Stanford’s an elite football team. We knew that when we put them on the schedule, and at the same time I think it’s one where you want to start with an elite football team because it shows us where we’re strong at and … what we need to work at,” Bailiff said before departing for Sydney.
“Strong football teams expose weaknesses, and we’re going to need to get them corrected. We’re going to be open, then we play UTEP, and we need to have them corrected by the time we get to El Paso.”
Rice quarterback Sam Glaesmann is anticipating pressure in his first collegiate start. He’ll lean on an offensive line that returns four three-year starters, as well as junior receiver Lance Wright, who returns after last season was cut short by an injury, to help him make plays.
Expect to see tight end Robbie Wells III and Kylen Granson get looks, too, although Granson may have trouble getting open against a secondary that’s both deep and talented.
Redshirt sophomore Nahshon Ellerbe is expected to have an expanded role at running back after serving as a return man and special teamer a season ago. Ellerbe averaged 27.8 yards on returns in 2016.
After the Walter brothers flip-flopped positions (Austin is now at receiver), expect to see Aston getting snaps at running back behind starter Sam Stewart. Emmanuel Esukpa - at 5-111/2, 230 pounds, the bruiser of the group - also is expected to contribute.
“Look, we’re a different team,” Bailiff said. “A lot of guys that didn’t play in it last year are going to play against Stanford this year.”
Rice’s defensive struggles from last year are well documented.
Players have taken the spring and summer to understand the new defensive scheme and said they’re energized to prove that they’re better than last year’s struggles.
While linebacker Emmanuel Ellerbee leads the front seven, it’s the secondary that’s worth taking a closer look at. Senior corner V.J. Banks leads a unit that, despite losing D’Angelo Ellis to a wrist injury, has been swarming in practice.
Justin Bickham, who replaces Ellis, picks up where he left off as a C-USA all-freshman selection before a leg injury ended last year’s campaign before it started. His transition has been aided by veterans like Banks and rangy safety, J.T. Ibe.
“I’m very confident heading into the game,” Bickham said. “Our defensive coordinator (has a lot of confidence in us and he creates an energy that makes everybody want to come out here and play.”
Stanford faces its own questions at quarterback although Keller Chryst - who ran for a 62-yard touchdown against the Owls last year - has been named the starter. He’s expected to be pushed by a talented group of signal callers throughout the season, though redshirt freshman KJ Costello may see time in Australia.
Stanford starting tackle A.T. Hall didn’t make the trip to Sydney. With highly touted freshmen at both tackle positions, the current Stanford front is considered talented but unsettled.
Receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside is also out for the game for the Cardinal. Expect a new-look Rice front seven to see plenty of tight ends, too, as Dalton Schultz, a preseason All-Pac 12 selection, headlines that group.
“We’re going there to see a new culture and probably go to a place most of us will never travel to again,” Banks said ahead of the trip to Sydney, “but also we’re there to win a football game.”