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Texas vs. Rice preview: Experienced Owls look to hang with the Horns

Mike Bloomgren brings transfers and a veteran class of seniors to Austin for Rice’s first kickoff as a member of the American Athletic Conference.

NCAA Football: Rice at Houston Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Steve Sarkisian kicks off his third season as the head coach of the Texas Longhorns against the Rice Owls on Sept. 2 at 2:30 p.m. Central on FOX in Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium with what seems to be his most talented roster yet.

However, this Rice team doesn’t profile as the same brainy band of misfits Texas has seen in the past — Mike Bloomgren enters his sixth season as head coach of the Owls, who seem to be trending in the right direction after their return to postseason play last year and their move to the American Athletic Conference this year.

“We’ve got a veteran opponent coming to town,” Sarkisian said on Monday. “This is a team that has a great deal of experience, returning a lot of starters, especially on the defensive side of the ball.”

The Owls defense, which returns 62 percent of its starters, is headlined by their linebacker core, led by redshirt junior captains Myron Morrison at Will linebacker and Josh Piercy at rush end in a multiple scheme designed to highlight that linebacker room, which also features Chris Conti, who led the team in tackles with 75 last year.

“We get challenged by Rice in two ways,” Sarkisian said. “Most notably one, their style of play is intricate in all three phases. They’ve got really good coaches. And then in the way they play — they play hard, they play tough, they’re relentless in that way, so we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

The Owls also added quarterback J.T Daniels behind center, a familiar visitor to DKR. The once highly-touted five-star recruit out of California bounced around from USC to Georgia and then to West Virginia before finally landing in Houston for his final collegiate season with Rice.

“They’ve got a quarterback that’s played with a ton of experience,” Sarkisian said.

Daniels first played against the Longhorns in 2018 with Trojans, a 37-14 win for Texas in which Daniels was 30-of-48 passing for 322 yards and an interception. Last season, Daniels returned to Austin with the Mountaineers in a 38-20 loss that featured Daniels throwing for 253 yards and a touchdown.

Bloomgren has certainly used the transfer portal to his advantage bringing multiple new faces to this Rice offense alongside Daniels such as senior transfer wide receiver Luke McCaffrey from Nebraska, senior transfer offensive lineman Brant Banks also from Nebraska, and senior transfer offensive lineman Lavel Dumont from Toledo.

The favorite target for Daniels this season will likely be McCaffrey, a former four-star quarterback and tghe younger brother of standout San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey. The younger McCaffrey switched to wide receiver last year, leading the team in receptions (58) and finishing second in-all purpose yards (903).

“He’s an unbelievable football player and unbelievable athlete, but he’s selfless, too,” Bloomgren said at Rice’s American Football media day. “He just wants to win football games and he wants to do whatever that looks like.”

The combination of Daniels and McCaffrey will be a good early-season test for defensive coordinator Pete Kwaitkowski and a Texas secondary led by seniors Jerrin Thompson, Jalen Catalon, and Ryan Watts.

With a talented secondary, linebacker Jaylan Ford in the middle, and a strong interior defensive line, the Longhorns and Kwaitkowski typically run a 4-2-5 defense with multiple defensive backs in rotation. That secondary should be well covered against any passing attack that Rice offensive coordinator Marques Tuiasosopo tries to draw up for Daniels and McCaffrey.

The greatest concern for Bloomgren and the Owls should be how they plan to stop the talented Texas interior defensive line led by Byron Murphy and T’Vondre Sweat. With the departure of two starting offensive linemen, including center Shae Baker, Bloomgren and the Owls looked to the transfer portal to re-tool the unit, bringing in Banks from Nebraska and Dumont from Tulane.

“I believe that this team will go as far as our offensive line, our defensive line, and our special teams take us,” Bloomgren said. “I’ve always believed football is a line of scrimmage game at its core.”

Unfortunately for Bloomgren, the trenches will likely be dominated by Texas tackle Kelvin Banks on offense and Murphy and company on defense — the season opener could be a great opportunity for Bo Davis to showcase his highly-touted interior defensive line against this patchwork of transfers assembled by Rice to replace the departed veterans.

Going into week one Texas has remained relatively healthy, despite the injury to junior linebacker Mo Blackwell, which will sideline him for several weeks will certainly affect the rotations at Will linebacker. As Texas primarily runs a defensive scheme with two linebackers, it will be up to freshmen Anthony Hill, Liona Lefau, and S’Maje Burrell to relieve senior David Gbenda and flank Ford.

Will this be enough to upset the promising season for the Longhorns in Week One? Simply put, no.

Despite the additions to this Owls offense that could potentially make a splash in the AAC, their defensive secondary still leaves a lot to be desired that Sarkisian and quarterback Quinn Ewers should be able to pick apart.

As Ewers steps into his second season with the Longhorns, many are excited to see his potential progression into a Heisman-caliber quarterback.

“I think Quinn being a second-year starter, he’s definitely in command of that first unit,” Sarkisian said earlier this month. “We need to keep pushing consistency in that unit.”

The highs and lows were certainly apparent for the talented but green five-star quarterback Quinn Ewers last year. Consistency out of the sophomore quarterback will be essential for Texas to live up to this year’s expectations. Surrounded by skill position talent such as AD Mitchell, Xavier Worthy, and JT Sanders, look for the Longhorns to put some air under the ball and showcase what many hope to be one of the most talented offenses in the nation.

However, one of the major question marks on this talented Texas offense is the running back room. With the departure of Bijan Robinson and Roshon Johnson, the question remains who will take over this Texas backfield?

“When you lose two players in Bijan and Roschon who carried such a bulk of the load for us a year ago, what’s that going to look like? How’s that going to feel? I think that’s going to be a little bit of a process for us, and that’s okay. I think that we’ve got a good group there but ultimately [we’re] finding that out… I’m looking forward to watching that group play.”

Jonathan Brooks has seemingly emerged as the number one back for this Texas offense based on these statements by coach Sarkisian, look for the Longhorns to rotate throughout the talented group of young backs to see if any can emerge as the clear cut leader of this backfield. Texas certainly has an embarrassment of riches in this room with talented backs such as five star freshman CJ Baxter and the Rice game could be an opportunity to better understand what the offense has in Baxter, Jayden Blue, Keilan Robinson, and Savion Red to complement Brooks in this Texas backfield.

Despite the tremendous talent that Texas has at right and left tackle with future NFL draft picks Kelvin Banks and Christian Jones, the team seems to have some question marks at the interior line positions. Left guard Hayden Connor, center Jake Majors, and right guard Cole Hutson should all see improvement with another season with the Longhorns. There’s also an group of young players in the wings that are eager to get on the field, including the number one interior offensive line prospect of the 2021 class, sophomore DJ Campbell, who Longhorn fans should be very excited about.

With the offensive line a priority for the Sarkisian regime, this could be the season that Campbell breaks his way into the starting rotation and this Week One matchup against a three-man Rice defensive front will help determine whether Campbell is ready to break into the starting lineup and maintain the job.

Texas led the nation in hurries last year, but only totaled 27 sacks — the goal against this veteran transfer offensive line will be to see how leaders on the defensive line can not only put pressure on quarterback JT Daniels, but also get home and finish plays with sacks.

And with the threat of this new Daniels-McCaffrey connection, the emphasis for Texas on defense should be to shut down the passing game by pressuring the quarterback andblanketing McCaffrey.

On offense, Texas should have no issues protecting Ewers in the pocket. Therefore, the emphasis for this Longhorn offense should be to dominate the line of scrimmage, see how much Ewers has progressed in his second year, and showcase the talented skill positions that Longhorn nation has heard so much about this offseason.

Texas is a 35-point favorite against Rice, according to Draft Kings.

Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See for details.

Written by Billy Shank