The Rice football secondary has been reworked and is learning on the fly, braving a “trial by fire” every week they take the field.
It’s been a challenging year for the Rice football secondary. The Owls’ seeming ever-changing combination of defensive backs took their turn at the buzzsaw that is the Western Kentucky offense last weekend and came out of it roughly the same way every other college football secondary has faired to this point: beat up.
Zappe and Co. threw for 495 yards against Rice, almost 150 more yards through the air than the most Rice had given up any previous games this season. Zappe threw for five touchdowns with just one interception, which came on Western Kentucky’s first drive of the game.
“I knew how good he was going into the game,” Rice football head coach Mike Bloomgren admitted, “but watching him in person, he was phenomenal.”
The good news for Bloomgren and Rice? They don’t have to play Zappe ever again. The bad news? Western Kentucky exposed the patchwork Rice secondary, revealing it as a little bit more “work-in-progress” than the Owls would have liked to admit. The flames of the “trial by fire” Bloomgren alluded to in the week prior to the Western Kentucky game have yet to simmer down.
But the show must go on. And the Rice coaching staff hopes that these past few games will serve as valuable teaching tools for young players who could soon become household names
Those new faces like Gabe Taylor and Plae Wyatt are on the field, in part, because Rice football has been without safeties George Nyakwol and Treshawn Chamberlain for the better portion of conference play. Neither is expected back on the field anytime soon. That’s put the burden on the up-and-coming defensive backs to learn on the job.
Taylor only played football his senior year of high school and was a “COVID freshman”, a phrase used around the locker room for those that endured their first season of college ball amid so many challenges. He said he worked out three times a day for a month when he got home after last season. The drive was there, he just needed the technique, the understanding. Now he’s fifth on the team in tackles, trailing only Naeem Smith in the defensive backfield.
Wyatt’s emergence took a bit more time and a switch from safety to the hybrid “Viper” role. Bloomgren noted the Western Kentucky game was a turning point for him. “I thought he just made a big impact on the game when he got in,” Bloomgren said. “He’s getting more comfortable. Against Western Kentucky, he forced his first career fumble and registered a career-best four tackles.
Fellow safety Kirk Lockhart is quickly becoming a veteran presence. He led the team in tackles against the Hilltoppers and registered his second interception of the season. All three of those young faces — Lockhart, Taylor and Wyatt — have been forced to learn on the job, and with that has come its share of highs lows.
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Safeties coach Collin Spencer has seen as much. “You knew the ability was there,” he said of those up-and-coming defensive backs, “You just had to keep bring them along so that you didn’t have to worry about the mental aspect of it and you could allow them to just play and use their natural ability.”
Spencer did note the Owls have faced “some really good quarterback play” in recent weeks as the staff tried to determine which man should play which spot. They’re all smart dudes, so they can learn it. That’s not the problem,” Spencer said. “Basically the challenge is they might be learning something completely opposite at one position than the new position they’re learning, so having the discipline to stick to their new rules [is key].”
Wyatt and Lockhart both moved to the Viper position during the season from true safety spots. Freshman linebacker DJ Arkansas has transitioned into the secondary as well. Several players are in relatively new positions, and the growing pains are real.
There isn’t expected to be any further shuffling from this point onward. The Owls know what they have. Now those new faces have to take the next step. The final two opponents on the schedule, UTEP and Louisiana Tech, rank seventh and fifth, respectively in passing offense in conference games. They’re not at Western Kentucky levels, but both teams will take shots through the air.
Rice football wants to finish the season strong. The offense has scored 21 or more points in five of their last six games. The defense has given up 30 or more in four of those six contests, including 12 touchdowns through the air in that span. There’s no better time than the present to drive that touchdown number down.
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