Rice football is three games into the 2018 season. Here’s how the Owls’ special teams grade out entering the Owls’ bye in Week 3.
First off, Jack Fox is a stud. Mike Bloomgren has been saying it all season, and it certainly is worth repeating. Fox’s impact on the Owls this season is hard to quantify, but the Ray Guy watchlist candidate has blasted 14 punts so far with only one rolling into the endzone for a touchback.
The value Fox provides to this team was made crystal clear in the fourth quarter against Hawaii. With the Owls trailing 28-22, a Rice drive stalled out on the 35-yard line. Next, Fox boomed a 64-yard punt all the way to the Hawaii 1-yard line. The defense had already forced a safety on the 1-yard line earlier in the game, putting the momentum squarely in the Owls’ favor. In that instance, the defense faltered and surrendered the winning touchdown. Nevertheless, Fox did his job — and then some.
Fox’s 45.0 net punting mark is tied for the sixth-best in the nation. He’s the only CUSA punter inside the top 15 in that metric and will be a weapon for the Owls as they enter conference play.
Mike Bloomgren is traditional as far as college football goes in several ways. His approach to the kicking game is not one of them. Fox can drill the ball from deep, that’s not secret, but rather than give him exclusive work as the team’s primary punter and kicker, Rice has employed a tandem field goal crew.
According to the analytics, the team gathered this offseason, Hayden Tabola is more accurate from the right hash at closer ranges. Bloomgren has said he’ll trust Fox with anything longer than 45-yards out, but he’s going to continue to give Tabola work in those situations. Against
The Houston game was the only real blemish on this duo. Fox missed two long kicks and Tabola failed to convert one of his tries. That left nine points on the board in a game that was within one score midway through the fourth quarter. Together, Rice is 7-of-11 in their field goals, which is right around the national average. Considering the amount of talent this duo has, the results will be expected to trend upwards in the next portion of the season.
Punt and Kickoff Returns Defense: A+
The efficiency of the return defense speaks is quite literally second to none. Rice has allowed one punt to returned this season, and the return man lost two yards. The punt return unit also has a fumble recovery to their credit, courtesy of a long blast off the foot of Fox that Houston return man Bryson Smith wasn’t able to haul in.
The defense on kickoff returns has been nearly as impressive. Rice ranks 24th in the nation in that metric, allowing 15.7 yards per kickoff. When you have Fox drilling balls to the edge of the endzone, a 15-yard return isn’t all that impressive and usually sets the Owls’ opponents up for mediocre field position at best.
Punt and Kickoff Returns: B-
Where the Owls do stand to improve is their own return game. Rice has only had the chance to return two punts, and collectively netted -2 yards on those opportunities. There hasn’t been space created by the return unit to give their playmakers the chance to make plays. Austin Trammell, the team’s primary punt returner has the elusiveness to get downfield. He just needs to be given the chance.
Kickoff returns have been a different story. Through two games the Owls were doing well in this aspect of special teams, but Austin Walter helped elevate this grade with a tremendous outing against Hawaii. The Owls gave up some points against the Rainbow Warriors, but the kick return unit spotted the offense excellent field position. Walter averaged 29.4 yards per return that game with a long of 46 yards.
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