Sean Fresch took his game to new heights this season, earning our highly contested 2023 Rice Football Defensive Player of the Year award.
The 2023 Rice Football defense was filled with standout performers. The entire defensive line played well, veteran linebacker Myron Morrison was a stabilizing for in the middle of the field and defensive backs Gabe Taylor and Tre’shon Devones made big plays in big moments. Picking a Defensive Player of the Year was incredibly challenging, but Sean Fresch ultimately earned the nod partly because of his journey to this point.
A season ago, there were games in which opposing offenses chose to build their entire game plan around Fresch, and not in a complimentary way. They viewed him as a player they could beat, pushing the ball in his direction. Fresch was hunted, not feared, and to some extent, that’s what to be expected when a 5-foot-8 defensive back takes on FBS-caliber wide receivers. That’s where this story starts.
Rice hired Jeremy Modkins to coach corners in the offseason. Through his work with Modkins and a personal rededication to bettering himself, Fresch made a leap players make in their fourth collegiate season. Even before the games began, the buzz around South Main regarding Fresch’s improvement was inescapable.
“Sean Fresch is playing the most outstanding football I’ve ever seen him play,” head coach Mike Bloomgren declared before the season-opening game against Texas. Expectations and pressures were already mounting. Top corner Jordan Dunbar had taken a leave of absence from the team in the week prior to the season, thrusting Fresch into the spotlight. He did not blink.
Fresch began the season strong, tallying three pass breakups in the Owls’ upset win over the Houston Cougars and leading a secondary that would go on to finish second in the AAC in yards per game allowed through the air. Fresch started every game and provided a spark on special teams with his dynamic punt return abilities. Opposing defenses didn’t key in on him anymore. In fact, they started going the other way.
Want More Rice sports news? Subscribe on Patreon
“He doesn’t get the [pass break ups] because he’s covered the guy,” coach Modkins would joke midseason.
Whether the ball was headed his way or not Fresch, played like a new man.
“How I feel. How I play. How I carry myself around this building. How I carry myself with my teammates. The leadership role that I have, I walk around and the confidence is there,” Fresch said. “I’m just playing different.”
Fresch started every game this season, posting career highs in tackles, tackles for a loss, punt returns and punt return yardage. He also had his first sack on a big third down play against Charlotte. He was so amped up that he almost forgot to sprint down to the other end of the field and return the ensuing punt. It soon became just another exciting moment for Fresch in an incredible season.
Modkins, in his first season working with Fresch, didn’t have a full perspective of what Fresch looked like a year ago compared to the player he became under his tutelage. Nevertheless, Modkins says he never doubted Fresch putting together the kind of year that he did.
“He’s a tremendous competitor. He works his tail off. He does whatever you say to do and he wants to get better. He listens. He works,” Modkins said. “The proof is kind of in the pudding with him. I’m not surprised by the results he’s having at all.”
A surprise or not, Fresch’s resurgent season made this defense function at a high level. Defensive coordinator Brian Smith has built his scheme around having two strong cover corners who can win one-on-one battles on the outside. When the corners do that, in this scheme, it frees up the rest of the defense to pressure the quarterback and make plays.
Through it all, Fresch credited confidence and discipline as the driving force for his sustained improvement. “Just trusting that and falling back on my technique every single play,” he said. “Staying disciplined and finishing.”
One needs to look no further than the season finale against Texas State in the SERVPRO First Responders Bowl. Although it wasn’t a banner day for the team as a whole, the secondary held a potent Texas State offense to 150 yards passing with eight three-and-outs. It was a fitting end for Fresch and a strong defensive season.
Subscribe on Patreon for exclusive Rice football recruiting updates, practice notes and more.