Rice football is three games into the 2018 season. Here’s how the Owls’ offense grades out entering the Owls’ bye in Week 3.
Midway through fall camp, this was a three-man race. Wow has the position come a long way. Entering the bye Rice has their starter and a competent backup with a defined role. Not only have the Owls solidified their depth chart, they’ve uncovered a hidden gem in Shawn Stankavage.
Against Houston, Stankavage posted the best performance by a Rice quarterback since Tyler Stheling lit up Prairie View in 2016. Stankavage threw for 204 yards and three scores against the Cougars. Then he one-upped himself, tossing two touchdowns in a 299-yard performance against Hawaii. Stankvages’s 546 yards through three games are just shy of last year’s leading passer Miklo Small. He threw for 623 yards through the air in 2017, a total which he accrued in six appearances.
Having Jackson Tyner‘s power arm in reserve is icing on the cake. Tyner came in cold against Houston and dropped a 36-yard dime to Austin Walter to convert a big third down. That poise under pressure is uncommon and gives this coaching staff confidence in a position that entered the fall with lots of question marks.
Running backs: A+
Emmanuel “National Noise” Esupka enters the bye week second in the nation in rushing yardage, trailing only Heisman Trophy hopeful Jonathan Taylor of the Wisconsin Badgers. Coach Bloomgren hinted during the offseason that he’d be heavily involved in the offense, but the volume of carries he’s received is tremendous.
Esupka is averaging 22 carries per game, a pace that’s almost two carries higher than Heisman-runner up Bryce Love averaged in Bloomgren’s Stanford offense in 2017. Are you noticing a trend? If Esupka continues to hear his name mentioned alongside the likes of elite playmakers like Taylor and Love the Rice offense is going to be in good shape.
A star tailback would be enough, but the complementary pieces make this backfield one of the best at its position in Conference USA. Austin Walter has stepped up in big moments too, as has his brother Aston. It was Aston, who converted a crucial third down against Prairie View that enabled the Rice come-from-behind victory, their first win of the season.
Offensive line: C+
SEC transfer Andrew Mike’s inability to crack the two-deep this fall was surprising, giving reason to be optimistic about the Owls’ depth along the line. Shea Baker has been a bright spot at center, but the rest of the unit has had their ups and downs. Collectively, the push at the point of attack needs to be more consistent.
Power running is supposed to be the hallmark of this team’s offensive identity. Rice faced fourth-and-inches on the goalline against Hawaii and failed to convert. The ball got into Esupka’s hands, but he was met in the backfield and dropped just short of the endzone. That one anecdotal story doesn’t completely convey three game’s worth of play, but it’s part of a picture that needs improvement.
Rice allowed 21 tackles for a loss over their first three contests, a rate of seven TFLs allowed per game. The Owls are tied for 93rd in the nation in that mark, giving further color to their struggles up front.
Pass blocking has been fairly consistent — Rice has allowed six sacks over their first three games. Some hiccups are to be expected as a new unit gels together, but it hasn’t come anywhere near the point of concern. When Stankavage or Tyner drops back to pass they have enough time to survey their targets and make the throw. On that front, the line has done just fine.
Tight Ends and Fullbacks: B-
The heavy personnel is a new wrinkle to the Rice offense in 2018. Gone are the four wide receiver sets, instead the Owls have employed more two-back sets and more than once have lined up without any wide receivers on the field. Both Jaeger Bull and Jordan Meyers have grabbed touchdowns, but the biggest contribution from this position group has been on the ground.
From a run blocking perspective, it’s challenging divorce the fullback from the performance of the offensive line without diving deep into the film. For the most part, Will Phillips and UCLA transfer Giovanni Gentosi and have been able to put a hat on a hat and open up running lanes for Esupka and Co. The struggles on that front rest more on the offensive line than the fullbacks. The same can be said for the tight ends.
Wide receivers: B-
The success of the Rice wide receivers has been more a byproduct of great quarterback play than game-changing performances by any one player. Rice had one returning pass catcher that registered more than four catches in 2017, leaving the position wide open for someone to become the go-to guy. So far, the Owls are still looking.
Through three games a few wideouts have had moments, but no one has emerged as the type of game-breaking target that can take this offense to the next level. As for who could step up in the remaining weeks, both Aaron Cephus and Brendan Harmon have plenty of big-play potential. Harmon hauled in a redzone score against Houston but hasn’t been much of a factor in the Owls’ other games to this point. As he learns the offense his touches should go up.
In the near term, it’s Cephus who stands the best chance to break out. A year removed from leading the nation in yards per reception, Cephus ranks 15th the same metric among players with 10 or more receptions in 2018. Raw talent has never been the issue for Cephus, it’s been consistency. When he’s locked in, he can snatch the ball away from anybody. His jump ball ability will be utilized more and more as the offense progresses.
Sophomore Austin Trammell has been a much-needed safety net over the middle, racking up 17 catches for 190 yards, primarily out of the slot. His contributions on special teams and on third down shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle of other big plays.