To the outside world, the Rice football offensive line is an unknown commodity. To those at South Main, it’s a unit evolving into something great.
Every summer the preseason magazines roll out. There’s a lot of fantastic work being done by journalists across the country (and by the way, you should pick up the 2019 Rice Football Season Preview from The Roost if you’ve been delaying).
In those previews, the “Returning Starters” stat draws plenty of eyeballs. Phil Steele digs a step deeper and charts returning starts among offensive lineman for every team in the nation. Rice ranks notably low in that metric, checking in at 120th with 31 returning starts.
On first glance, one might be tempted to translate the low rank into a dismal outlook on the Owls’ efforts in the trenches in 2019. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Setting aside the value of returning starts or starters, the real question discerning fans should be asking is this: how capable will the 2019 unit be?
The productivity of the offensive line hinges on several factors, with talent and experience being two of the biggest indicators of success. Good players who’ve been doing it for a long while produce the best results. Getting five guys to have those positive results simultaneously is the key.
Rice has talent. Shea Baker is one of the best centers in Conference USA and Clay Servin is already drawing attention from NFL scouts — he’s played four games of college football.
Rice has experience. Incoming transfers Nick Leverett, Justin Gooseberry and Brian Chaffin have played more college football than any other returning player the Owls’ had on the roster.
All that’s left to do is marry that talent and experience into one cohesive unit.
Incorporating the new additions
Offensive coordinator Jerry Mack calls it as he sees it. “At times it was musical chairs back there last year at offensive line,” he admitted, “but now we feel like we’re more stable, we have a better foundation.
Offensive line coach Joe Ashfield inherits the challenge of turning that foundation into a high-caliber line in the span of a few short months. Leverett enrolled early and was on campus for spring practice. Gooseberry and Chaffin arrived in June and have mere weeks of on-field reps with their teammates.
“Being in a D1 program is new to me,” Gooseberry said when speaking on his transition from Ouachita Baptist to Rice. From the workouts to the meetings, everything runs a bit differently. It’s taken him some time to adjust he admits, but Gooseberry says he couldn’t have done it without his new teammates. “They helped me come along,” he said, “They all just welcomed me.”
That welcome hasn’t come without a challenge. Gooseberry is battling with Uzoma Osuji for the right tackle spot. The newcomer has abundant athleticism. The incumbent has experience with the Owls scheme, working as a starter for Rice last season.
Gooseberry hasn’t let the battle sway his focus. “They’re going to play the best five, period, regardless of the position,” he said in reference toward the right tackle competition, ” I feel like my competition level and [Uzoma’s] competition level are rising.”
Learning from experience
The same is true for the younger players as well. Servin, who will be the team’s starting left tackle this season redshirted last fall. “These graduates that have so many games under their belt, it’s been amazing,” Servin noted, “them being mentors, their experience helping the younger guys out like me and Cole [Garcia] with technique stuff. It’s just been huge.”
The coaching staff routinely reminds the entire group to focus on their one-eleventh. As each player perfects his individual game, the level of play of the line as a whole continues to rise.
The trio of Leverett, Gooseberry and Chaffin haved played in 97 combined games making 69 career starts before coming to South Main. That’s more than double the experience of the players Rice had on its roster prior to their arrival.
Their impact hasn’t gone unseen. The line is winning battles in the trenches and opening up lanes in the running game. Quarterbacks have time in the pocket and the freedom to move around as they scan the field. The play up front isn’t perfect, but it’s coming together.
As Chaffin sees it, “a lot of guys want to do the right thing. They just need a little guidance.”
Finding the best five
Alongside the battle at right tackle, the right guard slot is a bit up in the air. Chaffin, who was recruited by Bloomgren to play center at Stanford, has been working at the position. He’s challenged Cole Garcia, who shined as a true freshman at that spot last year. Baker could slide there as well and did some cross-training at guard in the spring.
The Owls’ first game against Army is two weeks away. That gives them a handful of practices to solidify a starting five and develop a plan to rotate the other pieces throughout the grind of a four quarter game. That’s a lot to do in a short window of time.
If Rice had to play a game tomorrow, the starting five would probably look like this: Servin (LT), Leverett (LG), Baker (C), Garcia (RG) and Gooseberry (RT) with Chaffin and Uzoma spelling coming in as relief. However the final result shakes out, those in the midst of the competition aren’t too concerned.
“[There are] a lot of guys who are just willing to work and ready to come and help the team however they can,” Chaffin remarked, sizing up the offensive line group as a unit. That oneness, in the midst of the one-eleventh, has been the rhythm which has produced early results. One that the Rice offensive linemen expect to carry forward into the 2019 season.
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