As part of our 2022 Rice Football Preseason Preview series, next we’ll examine the offensive line position and discuss the Owls’ plans for that group.
Following years of injuries and inconsistencies, Rice football has now accumulated a surplus of riches along the defensive line. Defensive coordinator Brian Smith will have to decide how he’ll deploy so many proven commodities and that’s never a bad problem to have. Here’s our 2022 Defensive Line Preview.
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Breaking down the defensive line position
Rice football has found itself between a rock and a hard place in recent seasons. The depth the Owls had hoped to have accumulated in the front four simply wasn’t there. That gave way to an ever-lingering dance between rotating in someone who might not be ready and sticking with the same guys for too long and risking exhaustion.
In an ideal world, Rice would be able to play seven or eight defensive linemen significant minutes through a game. At this position, perhaps unlike any other, Rice wants to continuously be bringing fresh legs onto the field. And they may be able to do just that this year.
If they can, they’ll help bolster a pass rush that had already shown its first meaningful signs of progress last season. The Owls’ 2.25 sacks per game ranked seventh in Conference USA and were almost a full sack per game better than their previous three seasons.
The run defense has always been solid, although it remains to be see how the front four will compensate for the loss of Elijah Garcia, who signed with the Los Angeles Rams as an undrafted free agent this offseason. To that end, this unit isn’t without its questions, but there are many more potential answers than there were in recent years.
Projected Starters – Trey Schuman, De’Braylon Carroll, Ikenna Enechukwu, Kenneth Orji
Even though they were missing Trey Schuman and De’Braylon Carroll from practices, the Rice football defensive line put together an impressive showing this spring, At that time, it was Ikenna Enechukwu on the end, with Izeya Floyd and Blake Boenisch in the middle and one of Kenneth Orji or Josh Pearcy flying in off the edge.
That’s six names already mentioned. There are four “starting” spots.
Schuman has struggled with injuries over the last several seasons. It might make sense for him to share time with Enechukwu on the end, although we’ll probably see both on the field at times given Enechukwu’s position flexibility.
Carroll should be the rock the rest of this amoeba forms around. Fully healthy from an injury suffered in the summer of 2021, he’ll be a fixture in the interior of the line. When Enechukwu hasn’t slid inside, Floyd should fill the other spot. He had a fantastic spring after moving back over from the offensive line. He and Carroll were recruited in the same class but haven’t played alongside each other yet. That will change this season.
Then there’s the edge. Nobody wants anyone to lose their job because of injury, but that happened to some degree with Orji who, through no fault of his own, will move into a much more even split with Pearcy. The newcomer made his mark last season and earned more time on the field.
One solution? Play them both. At some point, the Owls will step up to the line like this: Pearcy, Enechukwu, Carroll, Orji. And that leaves quality players like Schuman and Floyd waiting in the wings. Sheesh.
Rest of the Room
Boenisch is probably the odd man out here because of the depth, not because of his ability. He arrived at South Main with an intimidating frame and took significant series with his game this spring. He’s a candidate to earn some specialized situational roles and he will push Floyd for snaps on the interior of the line.
The other name of note here is Quent Titre. The Abilene Christian transfer didn’t pick Rice to ride the pine. He played in 36 games with ACU over the past four seasons and tallied 65 tackles. He expects to play at South Main and should provide some utility along the interior. How he progresses during fall camp will be huge. The position is flush with talent.
Caleb James, Cole Latos and Elroyal Morris would be the third wave of players who could each see a handful of spot snaps on a game-to-game basis.
Player to Watch – Van Heitmann
Barring a wave of injuries, it looks like there shouldn’t be more than a few cameo appearances from incoming freshmen or other underclassmen along the defensive line this season.
Van Heitmann really hasn’t had his name called in his two-year Rice career thus far, but the sophomore defensive end posted a strong outing in the spring game and made a few big plays throughout the course of spring practices. He was a special teamer last season and should see frequent action there again this year. If he continues to play well there, he’ll be in the conversation for more time with the defense as well.
While he might not see much action early, watch out for Davion Carter. The incoming true freshman is listed at 5-foot-11 and 304 pounds. He’s going to be a difference maker.
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