Since 20 of 22 players on last year’s two-deep return, the Owls will depend on defense to keep them in games while they settle matters at quarterback and offensive line.
While Mike Bloomgren is high on each unit under the direction of coordinator Brian Smith, he saves his highest praise for Blaze Alldredge and Antonio Montero, linebackers in what most often against air-oriented Conference USA foes will be a 4-2-5 look.
“We think Blaze (102 tackles, four sacks in 2019) not only is the best in our conference, we will put him in the conversation with anybody nationally,” Bloomgren said. “He is exceptional, and Antonio has gotten better every game.”
Redshirt Myron Morrison, who Bloomgren said benefited from nine spring practices before the COVID-19 shutdown, will back up Alldredge on the weak side while Garrett Grammer, a special teams standout, backs up Montero. Transfer Jeron Banks and true freshman Geron Hargon could contribute.
Rice’s wild card in the secondary may be incoming freshman Gabe Taylor, the younger brother of late NFL and University of Miami star Sean Taylor. Taylor, who signed in February, had 10 interceptions in his first football campaign since eighth grade, returning five for scores.
Among the veterans in the secondary, Bloomgren is highest on free safety George Nyakwol, a potential NFL prospect and “our big, bad wolf in the middle of the field.” Treshawn Chamberlain, who returns at the viper position, will have coverage duties in most configurations against C-USA teams.
Naeem Smith, who landed a starting job last year as a JC transfer, sets an example for teammates with his work habits, Bloomgren said. Kirk Lockhart, who played as a true freshman, also lines up at strong safety.
Rice caught a break when cornerback Tre’shon Devones’ Big 12 and Pac-12 chances dissolved, and he opted for Air Force before walking on at Rice and starting the last four games. Jason White will back him up and see action in dime coverages.
Tyrae Thornton started 11 games in 2019 at boundary corner and will share duties with Andrew Bird, who Bloomgren said, “is this ginger, red-haired white dude playing corner, and someday people are going to throw at him and he’ll have three picks in a game. He’s a rare athlete.”
The front four has depth and experience. Sophomore De’Braylon Carroll slides to nose tackle and will share time with senior Ja’Vante Hubbard. Rush ends Kenneth Orji and Kebreyun Page “play violent and fast and are assignment sound, which is what we need them to do,” Bloomgren said.
The Owls will rotate Ikenna Enechukwu and Trey Schuman, who missed the spring with injuries, at end and senior Elijah Garcia and Cameron Valentine at tackle. True freshman Cole Latos “fills up a doorway,” Bloomgren said, and could earn playing time.
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