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C-USA Champ, Rice, Springs to the field

By NATE GRIFFIN, Sportsradio 610
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(credit AP)

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HOUSTON (CBS Houston)Armed with new turf, a sunny day, and roughly 75-degree weather, Head Football Coach David Bailiff and his championship team hit the field at Rice Stadium Tuesday afternoon in preparation for the upcoming 2014 season.

This is a team that hosted its first C-USA Championship game December, 2013, and soundly defeated Marshall, 41-24, for their first outright championship since 1957. The Owls look to do the same in 2014. Just watching from afar, it didn’t seem as though they had lost any momentum which made for a good first day of spring practice according to the Head Coach.

“I’m walking off here really pleased,” said Bailiff. “I love the competition we have at a lot of positions. I like the way Driphus had the offense operating today. He looked like a veteran quarterback and, Jordan Taylor, and the guys you expect to make plays, were making them. The intensity level was really good.”

Keeping the intensity level from last season will be key as 23 seniors have departed including quarterback Taylor McHargue, running back Charles Ross, center Nate Richards, and speedy wideout Donte Moore who’s currently preparing for next week’s NFL Pro Day at Rice.

Defensively the Owls must replace All-C-USA defensive back Phillip Gaines who ran the second fastest 40-time at this year’s NFL combine, defensive ends Cody Bauer and Tanner Leland, linebacker Michael Kutzler, and safety Paul Porras. It will take yeoman’s work to replace kicker Chris Boswell, who finished his illustrious collegiate career with 359 career points and 62 career field goals.

The good news is the Owls return 20 lettermen on defense, 21 on offense, and a pair of specialists from a squad that tied the school record for wins with 10 against 4 losses. The better news is they enter spring drills with Driphus Jackson as the starting quarterback who is primed and ready to step into the leadership position.

EARLY EVIDENCE SUGGESTS JACKSON IS READY

The toughest task for most coaching staffs is replacing a starting quarterback. Taylor McHargue was a four-year starter. Jackson is his replacement. He has the talent and the physical tools to succeed. Probably one of the strongest players on the team pound-for-pound at 6-feet and 205 pounds, he’s exciting to watch.

The team began spring practice in helmets and shorts and quite frankly it’s easy to get excited watching plays being made. That said, obviously, projections are better judged when players are dawning pads and participating in ‘live’ action.

But even without pads, there’s the quality of practice, a gear, timing, and situational elements that coaches want to see when they’re getting their teams ready for spring, summer, and fall, especially at the quarterback position. According to newly-named co-offensive coordinator, Larry Edmondson, his junior quarterback is ready.

“No doubt about it – without a doubt! He knows it and he wants it to be his team. Our weight coaches – we do those senior group deals, (leadership sessions), he jumped in there and said ‘I’m in this’ and he had never seen it. But the weight coach, (Kevin Yoxall), loved it. But, he told David and he’s in there. So, when you see our senior committee, there will be a junior in there with ‘em.”

Jackson has had his shining moments as a leader on the field. One of them was as a freshman in the 2012 Armed Forces Bowl against Air Force. Starting quarterback Taylor McHargue was knocked out of the game following a helmet-to-helmet collision after a five-yard run with roughly 5 minutes remaining in the first half. Jackson’s first series of plays ended with a fumble after a bad pitch near the goal line ending a chance to tie the game at 14 with seconds remaining in the half.

However, in the second half, it was a different ballgame. Jackson completed 15-of-21 for 264 yards and 2 touchdowns in route to a 33-14 bowl win, their second since 2008-09.

EMBRACING THE LEADERSHIP ROLE

But with the start of spring practice, the difference is evident. Jackson walks with a quiet confidence and is very business-like on the sidelines and while running plays. He can be heard calmly, but firmly, barking out instructions to his teammates; leading.

“I feel like it’s a longtime coming,” said Jackson. “I’ve waited my time. I see how it’s supposed to be done especially with last year’s group. I feel like the guys we have this year are quite capable of repeating and also taking our team to the next level. So, I’m just happy to be at the helm of it.”

Asked whether or not he realizes this is his team, his response was fitting.

“It hasn’t really sunk in that this is my team yet. But, it will and when it does we should see a dramatic change from it.”

The Owls are 2-1 in bowl games and 1-0 in conference championship games after seven seasons with David Bailiff as head coach. The questions is, what’s next for the Rice Owls?     

Follow me for the latest on twitter @coloranalyst. 

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