Rice regroups after historic season

HOUSTON [SPORTS BLOG: Read the latest from the Eyewitness Sports team]

This season, it's time to rebuild again after losing record-setting quarterback Chase Clement, receiver Jarett Dillard and versatile James Casey, the trio that helped Rice blossom into one of the nation's top offenses.

Coach David Bailiff will pick from a trio of candidates in fall camp to find a successor to Clement, who threw 44 touchdown passes and ranked seventh in pass efficiency in 2008.

Senior John Thomas Shepherd played in eight games last season, but threw only 15 passes. Nick Fanuzzi, a former high school star in Texas, transferred to Rice from Alabama. Redshirt freshman Ryan Lewis played well enough in spring practice to be considered.

"It comes down to their decision-making," said Bailiff, entering his third season. "In the spring, one day, one of them would be 25-for-30 and make great decisions and then the next day, he'd be 5-for-30. We've just got to continue to give them reps and hopefully, one of them will separate and help us make the decision."

The Owls ranked 10th in total offense (470.9 yards per game) and 16th in scoring (41.3 points per game) last season. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman left for Iowa State and Bailiff hired former Purdue quarterbacks coach Ed Zaunbrecher. But Bailiff said the offense itself will remain the same.

"Our kids believe so much in what we do, we didn't want to change the language or anything," Bailiff said.

Casey and Dillard both topped 1,300 receiving yards to rank among the nation's top 10 in 2008.

The next receiver on the depth chart was Toren Dixon, who made 50 catches for 598 yards as a junior. Dixon had eight catches, including a touchdown, in Rice's 38-14 win over Western Michigan in the Texas Bowl.

"Toren will be able to fill a lot of the void there," Bailiff said. "I think we're talented there, young but talented. Now, it's my job to turn this into a team as soon as possible. We may have some tough times, but we are talented there."

Rice had to win several high-scoring shootouts in 2008 because the defense ranked 111th nationally, giving up 452 yards per game.

The Owls have eight starters back on that side, including defensive ends Scott Solomon and Cheta Ozougwu, linebacker Terrance Garmon and safety Andrew Sendejo, the Owls' leading tackler last season.

"We have experience on defense, so we can let them play fast and let play confident," Bailiff said. "There's not going to be any indecision on what to do, and that's critical. They don't have to think about what they're doing anymore, they can just react."

Rice has a demanding early schedule, with road trips to Texas Tech and Oklahoma State in the first three weeks, followed by home games with Vanderbilt and perennial Conference USA favorite Tulsa.

"It'll challenge us and test us mentally from day one," Bailiff said. "We'll see right away how we pull together when the obstacles hit."

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