To order your 2005 Athlon Sports annual and receive $1 off plus free shipping courtesy of SI.com, click here.
With his marriage to the wishbone dating back some 25 years, Rice coach Ken Hatfield wants it known that he hasn't suddenly become Steve Spurrier. Though the Owls plan to introduce a shotgun formation to their option attack, Hatfield made it clear that this offense isn't necessarily new. And, for clarity's sake, just because the Owls have designs on passing the football more frequently doesn't mean the run-and-shoot is in the offing.
"We've expanded our offense to run some more option out of the shotgun, as well as our triple option out of our three-back set," Hatfield said. "Because we think we have two quarterbacks that are extremely intelligent, we think it takes advantage of our ability."
The Owls led the nation in rushing in 2004 at 306.5 yards per game but finished dead last among 117 Division I schools in passing with 75.3 yards per game.
Despite the gaudy rushing totals, the Owls were burdened by their one-dimensional attack, and Hatfield revisited some sets Rice employed with positive results back in '01.
That, and the rousing success Utah enjoyed last season out of its shotgun option, convinced Hatfield that it was time to try something that presented opponents a variety of looks.
Quarterbacks Joel Armstrong and Chase Clement will get the glory or the blame should the new shotgun option offense thrive or sputter. But, the revamped offensive line will have a greater impact on the Owls' fortunes as Hatfield expands the offense. Although Rice graduated six offensive linemen, several returnees either earned spot starts or played vital roles as reserves a year ago. Left guard Cory Laxen made 10 starts at right guard, and right tackle Rolf Krueger started four games.
Mike Falco and Tommy Henderson will make for an exciting duo at H-back, but neither has played the position before. The split end position is wide open, with a number of inexperienced candidates.
A-backs Quinton Smith and Marcus Rucker battled injuries as sophomores, but both are talented enough to make this position a strength for Rice should they remain healthy.
As for Armstrong and Clement, chances are good both will play. Armstrong snatched the starting job away from incumbent Greg Henderson midway through the '04 season, but he has yet to prove himself as an accurate passer. Clement displayed a strong arm while running the scout team, but he lacks experience.
"They're both complete quarterbacks." Hatfield said.
Depending on perspective, the Owls will either benefit from returning seven starters or will struggle once again after allowing 364.6 yards and 34.3 points per game last season.
The defensive front is anchored by senior end John Syptak, a Lombardi Award candidate who led the team with eight sacks last season. The Owls rotate their tackles, but sophomore reserves Jonathan Cary and George Chukwu are candidates for stardom. Junior end Courtney Gordon is the key. If he excels, this unit could be stout.
The linebackers, though smallish, are experienced, and there are plenty from which to choose. Adam Herrin, Buck Casson and Omeke Alikor started a combined 21 games last season.
The secondary should be improved if only for the fact that juniors Chad Price, Matt Ginn, Lance Byrd and Andray Downs are a year wiser. Talented freshmen cornerbacks Ja'Corey Shepherd and Brandon King may eventually work their way into the starting lineup.
Sophomore kicker Luke Juist has supplanted senior Brennan Landry after Landry missed five field goals and three extra points last season. Juist possess the stronger leg, but he missed three of his seven field goal attempts and one extra point as a true freshman.
After enjoying an outstanding freshman season in '03, junior punter Jared Scruggs suffered through a miserable sophomore slump, along with deep snapper Drew Clardy. Both are expected to rebound and help the Owls win their share of field position battles.
Despite the uncertainty that comes with installing new wrinkles to its offense, Rice has reason to be optimistic heading into '05 -- its first season in Conference USA. Four of the five teams in the Owls' division posted losing records in '04.
The Owls could benefit from an element of surprise similar to what Houston enjoyed when first-year coach Art Briles and his quirky offense produced a bowl berth in '03.