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Sunday Morning Quarterback

Sunday Morning Quarterback

Friday, June 09, 2006

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SMQ spins the wheel for a hastily-rendered but not too-soon look at a random school's prospects for the fall, sans inevitable academic and criminal suspensions, sudden transfers, debilitating injuries and other miscellaneous misfortunes of the long summer

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New coach, new scheme, new attitude - but actual wins?

PAST FIVE SEASONS: 21-36 (16-24 WAC/C-USA) - 2005: 1-10 (1-7 C-USA)
STARTERS BACK, ROUGHLY: 15 (9 Offense, 6 Defense)
WHAT'S CHANGED: The Owls' Spring preview (PDF) lists the basic offense as "spread," and it's described elsewhere as "featuring triple wideouts, one back, no backs, dozens of passes, big catches" and the crowd-pleasing like. Suffice to say, the static playbook and determined nostalgia of the Ken Hatfield Experience, wallowing annually at the bottom of the nation's passing rankings as the option itself generated diminishing returns, would not have had a quarterback throw 43 passes in the Spring game.

Wielding the broom is a defensive guy, Todd Graham, who's bio shows turnarounds and improvements at stops as an assistant at Division III East Central (Okla.), West Virginia and Tulsa, the latter two each registering the nation's best turnaround in terms of wins Graham's first year there. But again, he's a defensive guy, so running the new offense? None other than Texas legend Major "Babyface" Applewhite, coming off a short stint as quarterbacks coach for Syracuse, where his boys responded to the adorable former star's tutelage by throwing for more than twice as many interceptions (15) as touchdowns (6), finishing 115th in pass efficiency - two spots worse than even the Owls' barely exisitent air game - and generally playing so poorly that a Google search for the former Big Twelve newcomer and co-offensive player of the year comes back with www.firemajorapplewhite.blogspot.com on top (although Major probably prefers that to this).

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Major Applewhite hits puberty, demands new players respect his authori-teh!

WHAT'S THE SAME: The personnel handling this sea change is pretty much the same bunch of guys who only completed a tad over 40 percent of its pass attempts last year, which actually climbed amidst a steady string of blowout losses to a little over 19 per game. Two quarterbacks got in on the action, both of whom played in every game, and both of whom return. Chase Clement never topped 100 yards in any game but threw for 371 in the Spring game and will be the presumptive starter despite averaging less than five yards per attempt last year. Joel Armstrong was the running quarterback, and hence will be moved to a receiver-like position listed on the depth chart (PDF), mysteriously, as "IR-F." Armstrong's much better penchant for the big play (he had almost the same yardage as Clement even while throwing 40 fewer passes with about the same completion rate) still had him taking some snaps, though.
LET'S GET OUT THERE AND CRACK THE TOP 100!: Rice was awful in a lot of ways other than throwing the ball, most of them defense-related. Much of this comes with just being bad - and if you finish in the bottom ten in every major category, as the Owls did in '05, you are very, very bad - but the failure to produce any sort of pressure on the quarterback (Rice had 11 total sacks all year, good for 114th, only four of which are coming back) and to produce a turnover, any turnover (again, only 11 all season, the main reason for finishing next-to-last in turnover margin nationally). New coordinator Paul Randolph, ex-ends coach at Alabama, figures to be more aggressive, which will help those numbers, but improving a base defense that gave up a stunning 40 points per game is going to take more than the stray zone blitz.
HE DOES KNOW YOU ONLY GET 11 PLAYERS, RIGHT?: Graham apparently is going to maintain some notion of balance in the offense, if a post-spring depth chart that still includes a tight end and fullback along with the indecipherable "IR-F" and "IR-R" positions ("Inside Receiver," as in the slot guy? What would the 'F' and 'R' mean?) is any indication. Leading rusher Quinton Smith returns after a decent 900-yard season, though SMQ has no choice but to root for his backup, unproven and alliterative junior Bio Bilaye-Benibo. Last year's other productive back, John Wall (538 yards, seven touchdowns), is listed second at fullback behind redshirt freshman Trey Hopson, an OK recruit from SMQ's neck of the woods, but not a guy he would expect to overcome a presumably entrenched starter after only a redshirt year.
NEVER A GOOD SIGN: For the record, despite all the proposed fireworks, the best player on the team will still probably be punter Jared Scruggs.
OVERLY OPTIMISTIC POST-SPRING CHATTER: Not only did the Owls come out looking like Texas Tech or one of the old Houston teams from across town, but look out, cuz it was only the tip of the iceberg:

It was an entirely new look for Coach Todd Graham's Owls, and the surprisingly large crowd, said to be in excess of a thousand Owl fans, appeared to be appropriately impressed in observing their flock performing heretofore unobserved feats of derring-do.

But apparently they ain't seen nothing, yet. At least that's what Rice coaches say.

"We were really, really Plain Jane tonight," Coach Graham told us afterwards. "We just wanted to keep things basic, because I'm sure there were people here tonight watching us."

Spies aside, Graham also got the tiny, private school to spring for new computers in the football offices, Field Turf at Rice Stadium, a 60-foot scoreboard/video screen, a contract for equipment and uniforms with Adidas and a new Extra Point Club - already up $3 million - to bring in the money for all of it.

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A surprisingly large crowd, said to be in excess of a thousand Owl fans, wonders: what the hell are these guys doing? Is it legal? I've seen other teams do it, but...

REASON FOR HOPE: New scheme, new attitude, new optimism, etc. etc. We've seen complete overhauls, especially of the high-flying variety, lead to short-term results before.
REASON TO BE AFRAID, VERY AFRAID: Obviously. The talent level here is very low, and even decent improvement from 1-10 is still pretty bad.
HONESTLY, WITHOUT LOOKING AT THE SCHEDULE, SMQ'S THINKING... There appears to be a legitimate, major upgrade in every off-field area here, which could help push the team to three or four more wins on the field. Not a threat to get into even the teensiest of bowl games, but moving in the proverbial right direction.

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June 3: Boston College...June 4: Arkansas State...June 6: Hawaii...June 8: Virginia

April 3: Central Michigan...April 4: BYU...April 5: Kentucky...April 7: Bowling Green...April 8: Southern Cal...April 11: Rutgers...April 12: Marshall...April 13: Florida State...April 15: San Diego State...April 16: Alabama...April 19: Oregon State...April 20: Buffalo...April 21: N.C. State...April 23: Arizona...April 24: Memphis...April 25: Louisiana Tech...April 28: Iowa...April 30: Toledo...May 2: Ohio State...May 3: Mississippi State...May 5: Southern Miss...May 7: Louisiana-Lafayette...May 11: Akron...May 12: North Carolina...Michigan State...May 15: Air Force...May 17: Stanford...May 18: Georgia Tech...May 21: Connecticut...May 23: Purdue...May 24: Navy...May 27: UCLA...May 28: New Mexico State...May 29: Tennessee

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12:53 AM

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