The Rice Owls had one of those special seasons last year. A 10-4 record. A conference championship. A second straight bowl game. The defensive unit improved greatly. The offense found ways to score points, usually behind a pounding running game. That was 2013. Players graduate, assistant coaches take new jobs, and 2013 suddenly doesn't matter anymore.
The Owls kicked off practice last week, sights set on for the seasoner opener at Notre Dame before heading off to Texas A&M. Despite being the defending conference champ, the Owls are only picked to finish second in the C-USA West Division. So as the team practices and players look for their roles, here are a few things to which fans should be paying attention.
SPEEDING UP THE OFFENSE
The Owls have operated out of a no-huddle offense for several seasons. Yet there's been nothing more frustrating than watching the Owls rush to the line scrimmage, but instead of snapping the ball, looking over again and again to the sideline as the play clocked ticked toward zero. But things are going to change.
"The big difference is instead of looking to the sidelines as a whole team, we only need [QB Driphus Jackson] to look," new offensive coordinator Larry Edmondson said last Monday. 'And he'll get it conveyed [to the rest of the team] however he needs to get it conveyed."
But there's more than just being fast with the snap. The team has to be careful, to pay attention to what's happening. The players can't outsmart themselves and have to make the right reads. Edmondson's convinced that he has the right players to make this uptempo offense work, starting with new starting quarterback Driphus Jackson.
THERE'S A NEW QB IN CHARGE
Rice fans should be well-acquainted by now with Driphus Jackson. He started games two years ago in place of the injured Taylor McHargue, and it was Jackson who came off the bench to lead the Owls to the Armed Forces Bowl victory over Air Force after McHargue was knocked out by an injury. He's paid his dues, and Edmondson says he's ready to be the boss.
"He's what you want at the position," Edmondson said. "And Driphus and I have talked, and I think Driphus understands that he's the guy that has to get the ball to the playmakers. I don't need Driphus to be a playmaker. He'll automatically become one by getting the ball to the guys by changing a play or making a correct read."
It takes more than just paying dues to run this new offense. The QB has to be intelligent and ready to make quick decisions. And he has to be careful with the football.
"Driphus so far has shown an uncanny ability to make great decisions and take care of the football," head coach David Bailiff said last week. "That's first and foremost, paramount, in everything we do, is taking care of the football." FASTER, QUICKER DEFENSIVE UNIT
The Owls had the 30th best total defense in the nation last season, the 18th best national pass defense, and the country's 42nd best scoring defense, huge improvements over past Rice defensive squads. The squad returns many of its key players from last season which means the players have the system down and everyone's on the same page mentally, and physically. The team has speed, and it has depth.
"We're going to be fast," defensive coordinator Chris Thurmond said. "Our team speed -- we will be faster overall than we were last year...We're going to put guys out there that can really, really run and move around and get to the ball."
Thurmond also noted that the ever increasing speed of the game no longer allows defenses to employ multiple packages consisting of different players for different situations with different sets of skills. He thinks the result is a good thing.
"The game really, really is evolving back to the way it's supposed to be," he said. "It's always supposed to be a players game. The way that we're evolving on defense is that you'll shocked the number of times that we'll give you a base front, a base coverage, and then we let the kids make the call based on the alignment that we get. In fact that's how we play probably 70-75% of the time."
SENIOR CLASS LEAVING A LEGACY
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Last year's seniors left behind a bit of a legacy. Two straight bowl games, a bowl victory, a conference championship. That group proved Rice could not only compete, but that it could win. That squad raised the expectation level of Rice football. But this year's senior squad wants to leave it's own legacy.
"This is an exciting time in Rice football," Bailiff said. 'It builds momentum in a program when you do that -- this team understands from the lessons it learned last year and the year before. How they have to practice. How they have to focus. How they've got to play football for four quarters. It's up to this senior class. They want to leave their legacy like that senior class did last year."
Bailiff has one final message for Rice fans, and for football fans in general: "Your life's better with football, have you noticed that," Bailiff said. "It's the greatest sport there is."
And for Rice fans, life will be better come August 30 in a nationally televised game against Notre Dame.