Bailiff has high hopes for Rice in 2012
The Rice Owls have won as many games across their last three seasons - 10 - as they did in their breakthrough 2008 campaign.
But coach David Bailiff sees at least some glimmers of hope for 2012, his sixth season leading the Owls.
Rice rolled to a 10-3 record and its first bowl victory in 54 years in 2008, on the strength of one of the nation's most potent offenses. Bailiff sees some offensive potential in this year's group, too, mostly because of continuity.
The Owls have been through three offensive coordinators in four years, but John Reagan is back for a second straight season. So is quarterback Taylor McHargue, who split time with senior Nick Fanuzzi last season. McHargue completed 100 of 174 passes with eight touchdowns and five interceptions as a sophomore in 2011. Fanuzzi finished with slightly better numbers, and Bailiff says McHargue was a victim of his own high standards.
''He wanted to perform to everybody's high expectations,'' Bailiff said. ''When you put too much pressure on yourself, it's never a good thing. He just kept pressuring himself, trying harder and harder and wasn't getting the results.''
Having Reagan back, Bailiff says, will help McHargue this season. McHargue redshirted in 2009, when Ed Zaunbrecher was the offensive coordinator. David Beaty replaced him in 2010, and Reagan took over when Beaty left to become the receivers coach at Kansas.
''We're speaking the same language,'' Bailiff said, ''so we were really able to, in this training camp, to pick up where we left off. It's allowed us to do things at a faster rate, as far as installation. That leads to more reps, and that leads to getting better as a team.''
The top two receivers from last year, tight ends Vance McDonald and Luke Willson, also are back. McDonald led the Owls with 43 catches for 532 yards and five touchdowns and Willson was second on the team in yards receiving (313) and third in receptions (29).
Versatile Sam McGuffie also returns for one more season at Rice. The transfer from Michigan rushed for 883 yards and added 384 yards receiving in 2010, but then missed the final five games of last year because of an ankle injury.
''We can put Sam about anywhere we want,'' Bailiff said.
The Owls averaged only 23 points per game, but they did score on 32 of 36 drives inside the opponents' 20-yard line. The offensive line is rebuilt, although Bailiff says the level of experience is deceptive.
Right guard Drew Carroll started 10 games as a freshman in 2011, and left guard Ian Gray, a redshirt freshman last year, played in eight. The Owls have also plugged in 6-foot-4, 305-pound Nate Richards at center. Richards is a junior-college transfer, a rarity at academic-minded Rice.
''Nate is such a brilliant kid,'' Bailiff said. ''He's able to communicate, gets them in the right protections and our misalignments are way down from camp last year. I actually feel really good about our offensive line.''
Only five starters return on defense, including 2011 leading tackler Cameron Nwosu, a linebacker. The Owls can hardly be worse statistically after ranking 112th against the pass (278.6 yards per game) and 111th overall (462 yards per game).
But three key players return from injuries - defensive end Cody Bauer, linebacker Trey Briggs and cornerback Phillip Gaines. The Owls also get back cornerback Bryce Callahan, who intercepted six passes as a freshman in 2011. Rice was plus-8 in turnover margin, picking up 14 fumbles and intercepting 13 passes last season, and Bailiff says the defense has more speed overall than it did in 2011.
''We had to get faster on that side of the ball,'' Bailiff said. ''The game has changed, to where everybody is playing some kind of a spread (offense), so you need guys who can run. Every year, we've recruited better and every year, those kids mature a little more. So you're getting better each year, just through the maturity of the players you've recruited.
The nonconference schedule is challenging, as always, although the Owls will dodge Texas for the second time in four years. Rice opens at home against UCLA, followed by road tests at Kansas and Louisiana Tech. The Owls play Conference USA opponents the rest of the way, including a late September matchup against Houston at Reliant Stadium.
''I think we're going to be very competitive this year,'' Bailiff said. ''UCLA will help get us better. For us, our goal is still to go to a bowl game and compete for the conference championship. We're going to go into every game expecting to win. I really like our team.''