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Pre-season '06    NOTE: Story, interview links below
Hey, fellas, this is supposed to be a walk-thru...
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Owl defender, receiver hit the turf during Friday's workouts which featured play walk-thrus on both sides of the ball (PTH photo)  
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Owls going through the motions, getting offense, defense down pat

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Rice head coach Todd Graham looks slightly disapproving as he walks among his charges while they perform stretching exercises to end Friday's workout  (PTH photo)

HOUSTON (Aug. 26) -- With workouts Saturday and Sunday, the Rice Owls will have completed the athletic equivalent of academic Dead Week, that time between the end of regular classes (read 'two-a-days') and the commencement of the exam period. And the first big exam for the Owls looms ahead, one week from today, in the person of the University of Houston Cougars.

While squads of workers moved about in their respective tasks preparing Rice Stadium for its second debut, Friday the Owls went on a 4:30-to-6:30 schedule in shorts and helmets, carefully walking through what looked like a big chunk of the playbook. It's all part of a plan that involves repetition, to implant firmly in the minds of the players where they need to be on any given play, Coach Graham told us.

"We basically are going to give them three shots," he said. "This week, we had a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday practice. Tuesday was first and ten, run situations, play-actions a hard-count type day. Wednesday was more of a third-down, red-zone type day, and then Thursday was a dress rehearsal, where we ran through what we plan to do, and what we think the other guys are going to do."

That three-day regimen started all over on Friday, and continues Saturday and Sunday over the weekend, Coach noted. "Then we hit it again Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of next week. So we get three shots at it, at getting them prepared for what game week is like, the preparation and meeting time, studying scouting reports; we've got to get all that to them.

It's just a question of the coaching staff's attempt to take advantage of what they believe is its biggest asset, and that is superlative smarts of their players. The time, it seems, is over for mere head-knocking, and battling over spots on the depth chart. Now, while their senior officers check for details, these young paratroopers are massing at Upottery, making sure their silks and cords are tight and getting ready for that first big jump over the hedgerows of Normandy.

It's a time when the whooping and hollering has now been toned down, and everyone involved in the program, from Todd Graham, to Chase Clement, to Major Applewhite, to the graduate assistants, to the guys and gals who keep the towels washed and dried, all are quietly contemplating their respective jobs and getting ready for D-Day, er, make that C-Day.

The team is relatively healthy going into the UH game, Coach Graham said. "We've pretty much got the bumps and bruises behind us, and now we're focusing on keeping them healthy," he added.

The team is eager, he added -- though quietly so.

"The key for us is to get better every single rep," TG concluded, "and I believe these kids have done that."

--P.T.H.           Coach Graham on this week's workouts....wavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes)new.gif (908 bytes)    Day One photo gallery....            Aug. 15 stadium practice pix...   Media Day photo gallery....      Wednesday (Aug. 16)  Rice Stadium workout photos.... Coach Graham's post-practice comments....wavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes)        Photos of Friday's workout, meet 'n greet....       2006 Rice roster....       Tuesday (Aug. 15) post-practice comments from
Coach Graham....
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        Coach Graham on Saturday's game-condition scrimmage....wavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes)     Saturday scrimmage photo gallery....look.gif (907 bytes)   Paul Randolph interview...wavsymbol.jpg (416 bytes)new.gif (908 bytes)   Latest Rice Stadium construction photos....look.gif (907 bytes) 


A little teamwork??
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Owl DL Todd Mohr (91) is literally hemmed in by Rice offensive lineman who's trying to give his ball carrier some running room in Saturday's action  (PTH photo)
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One step closer to season's  kickoff

Coaches proclaim mixed results
in game-condition scrimmage


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Rice QB Chase Clement gets the pitch away to his slotback, Mike Falco, who proceeds to pick up good yardage (PTH photo)

HOUSTON (Aug. 20) – Despite rolling out an offensive display that clearly emphasized the run over the pass, Rice Owls head coach Todd Graham and his staff nevertheless turned a page in the annals of Institute football here Saturday night, as, under what were termed ‘mock game’ conditions, the Owl first teamers ran over the second unit, 19-0.

Partly it was a case of not wanting to show much of the new regime’s deck of cards to prying feline eyes that undoubtedly must have been present among the 350-odd fans who showed up for the evening and presented noisily and enthusiastically.

"Naturally we were pretty vanilla in what we were doing tonight," Rice head man Todd Graham told us afterwards, "but I’m really pleased with how Chase (Clement) is handling the offense. I think we’ve got some great weapons over there that we can utilize."

Better,  it seems, to keep the bulk of them on the shelf and give some guys who are battling for playing time a little chance to shine in the limelight. Consequently, star running back Quinton Smith saw limited action, while a number of defensive players sat it out this night as well.

"Naturally, we held a lot of kids out tonight," Coach Graham said. "We want to get ‘em completely healthy. So we just didn’t take any chances. We played Q limited tonight. And we had seven defensive linemen that we didn’t play very much because they just needed a little bit of rest."

Quinton did figure prominently in the Owls’ first touchdown drive, carrying the bulk of the mail and darting into the end zone from five yards out, the first teamers’ second possession. That was it for the evening for Q., but his backups – and there are several of them – all performed admirably.

For starters, redshirt freshman C. J. Ugokwe, working with the first unit, ran like a house afire, totaling 109 yards rushing on only nine carries. On the first unit’s second touchdown drive, C. J. scored from six yards out after toting the mail down the field. The biggest play on the drive resulted when Chase broke wide, but with running room once he reached about 10 yards down the field in the flat, he pitched wide to C. J., who continued down the sideline for an additional 25 yards, 35 in all. That set up the score, after which Luke Juist nailed the only successful PAT attempt on the night, which made it 13-0, first teamers.

Marcus Knox, moved from wideout to the deep back position, ran hard and had several nice pickups early in the contest. Running with the second team offense, he managed quited deftly to bounce off would-be tacklers up the middle. Early the third quarter he dodged and ran over four would - be tacklers en route to an 18 yard pickup, which he followed next play by another pickup of 9.

Then late in the game, John Wall came in to team up with true freshman quarterback Pierre Beasley, running the second unit, and picked up yardage in huge chunks on his sole series of the night, as well.

"It does look like we’ve got at least a little bit of depth at running back," John told us afterwards. "You know that Q’s going to be starting, but the other guys feel like they’ll be able to back him up really well. A lot of that was because of how hard we all worked this summer. We worked as a unit, and it’s going to pay off for us this season."

Linebackers run ragged, but showed up well

On the defensive side, the linebackers played hard and were perhaps the most out-of-breath bunch of position players on the field, what with the sideline-to-sideline responsibility they bear in the Owls’ new three-man front.

Senior Omeke Alikor shone particularly brightly among the linebacker corps , with eight solo tackles, a forced fumble, and a rather spectacular interception to his credit on the evening.

Brian Raines and Marcus Rucker also showed up well. But lack of size in the linebacking corps remains a matter of at least some concern, Coach Graham said, which needs to be made up for by way of speed, quickness and smarts. "At the linebacker spot, we’re kind of small," he said, "but there’s no shortage of talent there."

With most of the DL veterans taking the night off, senior Courtney Gordon led the defensive line charge which might have resulted in several quarterback sacks, had the red cross shirts not been worn by the Rice men under.

Perhaps it was only taking what the defense gave him, and perhaps it was because of the play calling by design, but starting QB Chase Clement, while smooth and in command throughout, appeared to have the tendency to abandon the pocket for the flush-and-run fairly readily.

Chase told us that the unexpected pass-run ratio was also merely a matter of taking what the defense gave. "Sometimes, you know, the defense is going to elect to cover all your receivers, but when that happens, you’ve got to be ready when the holes open up," he said. "You’ve just got to get yards however and wherever you can."

The soph QB ran 13 times for 64 yards on 13 carries, picking up only 72 more yards total offense via the airways. But he did account for one touchdown pass on the night, when he connected with Jarett Dillard, who hauled in a perfect toss to the corner of the end zone after making a slick move on his rookie defender. That made it 19-0, late in the third quarter, and ended the scoring, except for some Luke Juist three-pointers during post-game field goal drills which weren’t included in the final score.

In any event, Rice offensive coordinator Major Applewhite said he was pleased with Chase’s performance on the day.

"He took care of the ball extremely well. He did have one interception, but that was off a deflection. He managed the team efficiently; he moved them up and down the field when they needed to. He had good intensity."

"I thought we’ve had good intensity throughout the fall camp, so tonight was a little bit of a letdown. But the guys will respond on Monday. We’ll be ready to go to work .We’ve got two weeks to get ready for Houston, so we’ll be ready to roll when the time comes."

'We just had some basic alignment problems'

Meanwhile, Coach Applewhite alluded to some problems Saturday with the X’s and O’s that were a factor in determining the aforementioned, rather skewed stat page outcome as well. "We had just some basic alignment problems. Obviously we’re going to talk about that in our meetings next week."

Major said he was frustrated with the level of careless penalties. "It’s very difficult when you have to start off first and 15 or first and 20. Our problem is, one guy jumps offsides, and then a different guy jumps offsides, and then a different guy jumps offsides. And that’s three different series that start off first and 15, and the guys only see their one mistake. They don’t see the big picture and realize how everybody’s contributed to the problem."

"But the points are obvious. We’ve just got to get across to them the importance of avoiding basic mistakes as an offense. It’s fixable."

On field goal practice at the end, Luke Juist nailed his first attempt from 30 yards out (he’d previously narrowly missed on 40-yard try during the scrimmage). Luke proceeded, then, to have two tries partially blocked by a leaping John Welch in the middle of the line, one from the 38; another blocked from the 41.

"John can jump really high, as everybody saw," Luke told us afterwards, "but I do need to work on – and I will be working on -- getting the ball lifted up quicker and getting it higher."

As the ball was moved a few yards further back each try, Luke easily converted from 44 yards out, next play, his nicest kick of the day. Then from 47 yards out, he had the distance, but was a bit wide right. Then from 50 yards away, he punched the ball cleanly through the uprights.

Highly touted frosh quarterback Pierre Beasley was used sparingly, but made his first appearance the last series of the night and took the second team right down the field on the ground. First play was a deftly executed counter to John Wall, who picked up 20. Second play, Pierre made a good fake to Wall, burst through off tackle, broke into the clear, was touched and the play blown dead after a pickup of 25. John then burst up the middle for 20 more, running hard.

From that point, Pierre was directed, from 19 yards out, to make three tries for the corner end zone, and, while setting up well, could not quite pull the trigger. But he did appear to have a good, though brief, outing nonetheless.

Coach Graham summed up the outcome: "Bottom line – the team that makes the most mistakes loses that first game. You usually beat yourself in game one. We’re going to be playing a really good offensive footbal team (in U of H), so I’ve challenged our defense: that’s the key for us. It’s our defense, and their productivity. For us to win a championship, we’ve got to continue to make great strides defensively."

"I like this football team; I like how they competed tonight."

"But we’ve got to eliminate the stupid mistakes. The penalties on the punt return put it inside our 15. On the kickoff return, we get a penalty and put it inside our 15. Those are the things that will beat you in game one."

"We really turned the ball over too much, but it was mostly with our second unit. I’m actually really pleased with where we’re at offensively; we’ve come a long way."

Lagniappe:

One of the more encouraging aspects of the evening's spectacle was the presence in the stands of some 150 to 200 Rice students, who presented themselves raucously, many of them carrying large home-made signs, noise-makers, and musical instruments, with some even sporting body paint efforts, something virtually unheard of since the days of the Jungle Gym. 

Groups from several residential colleges had brought over large home-drawn banners that touted and encouraged fellow college members, and led organized cheers that were aimed at the same eventuality.  True, some were a little bizarre, but all in all the display added up to a showing that was more noticeable than perhaps any student performance during the regular season last year. 

Multiply this showing by ten and the result would be both highly entertaining to the grownups, and considerably encouraging to the men on the field.  In fact, the team, after the offense ran post-scrimmage wind-sprints, jointly came over to the west stands and saluted the remaining fans and asked them to continue such level of support during the regular season, starting Sept. 2 against the U of H.

-- Paul T. Hlavinka, with Mark Anderson

Though a formality,
Clement tapped as
starting quarterback

Still battling each other....
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Rice receiver Jarett Dillard outmaneuvers defender Ja'Corey Shepherd in the corner of the end zone in Tuesday's drill (PTH photo)

HOUSTON (Aug. 16) – It’s official. Sophomore Chase Clement has been designated the starting quarterback for the 2006 Rice Owls and will take the field in that position when the Owls tee it up against the University of Houston in the season opener Sept. 2.

"I’ve been really, really pleased with Chase Clement. He’s our starting quarterback. He’s the guy we’re going to go with," Rice head coach Todd Graham told us after Tuesday’s workout. "He’s come back and led the team; he’s really prepared himself physically and mentally, and has really stepped it up. So he’ll be our starting quarterback for this season."

Redshirt frosh John Shepherd and true freshman Pierre Beasley have been splitting time at the number two quarterback spot, and the race for backup at this time would appear to be wide open.

Last year’s quarterback, Joel Armstrong, has been taken out of the quarterback spot on the depth chart, meanwhile, but has been seen all over the place the rest of the field, lining up at flanker, wideout, slotback, punt and kickoff returner, you name it. Rice coaches insist that Joel will get his touches this year – just not at the quarterback spot.

Tuesday Rice Stadium practice centered, once again, around conditioning and play reps, moving from agility drills to 7-on-7s to 11-on-11s – pretty much standing operating procedure for Todd Graham’s staff at this stage of fall drills.

Rice quarterbacks were encouraged to push the ball down the field Tuesday, but the play mix was diverse, including passing plays designed to pick up enough yardage to move the sticks in various third-down situations.

Defensively, the players were active and vocal. "Some of our defensive kids still have a tendency to think too much," Coach Graham noted. "But getting them to react is the coaches’ job, and we’re working on that right now."

Coach Graham, indeed, devoted most of his on-field energy Tuesday to assisting the defensive staff with their walk-throughs and coaching defensive players one-on-one. "I’m a defensive guy," Coach noted after practice.

"The main thing is for us to stay healthy. And for the most part, we’re doing that. We’ve just got some bumps and bruises. We’re just not going to have a lot of depth. There are a lot of young kids in the two-deep. Most of our freshman class are in the two-deep. So we’ve got to do a great job of staying healthy."

"But you’ve also got to practice hard. You can see today we took the shoulder pads off of them, to try to get their legs back under them a little bit."

"But I promise you, the intensity doesn’t drop."

Verdict on Sunday scrimmage: a win for the offense

Coach Graham was effusive in his praise of the performance of the Rice offense in Sunday’s scrimmage. "The offense really did a great job. They definitely won the scrimmage," he said.

The Rice mentor singled out QB Chase Clement and running back Quinton Smith for particularly impressive performances. However, he added, things have swung back toward the defense’s favor in subsequent workouts.

"The offense really shined in Sunday’s scrimmage," he said. "And then the next day the defense shined. So if you go back and forth, that’s usually a good sign."

The Owls will run through another full-bore scrimmage on Saturday, time to be announced.

--P.T.H.

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Jarrett
Dillard
shows
his
stuff

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Defensive intensity was high at Friday's workout

Friday's 'Meet the Owls' day a success
Owls fade heat from weather, coaches;
then share ice cream with family and fans

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By Mark Anderson
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HOUSTON (August 13) -- To the naked eye, it seemed that the "Meet the Owls" night was not going to draw all that many fans Friday evening. It looked as if very few fans were in the stadium, at least judging by those who were sitting watching practice. That was before one went under the south stands at Rice Stadium, where there was an enthusiastic crowd ducking the heat and waiting for Coach Graham and his 2006 Owls.

The atmosphere was lively as players, coaches, and fans intermingled, ate ice cream, and shared hopes about the 2006 season. Young fans wearing Rice Owl t-shirts got them autographed by members of the team. And some folks came from a good ways away -- Magnolia and Katy, for instance. Consider the fact that those attendees had to battle Friday rush hour traffic to get there, and the impression is heightened.

Rice's star running back, Quinton Smith, said he was rather impressed with the gathering, noting that it was "twice the size of any crowd we had at this event before," and adding that he hoped that increase in attendance was a precursor of more people in the stands for Rice games this fall.

Coach Graham spoke briefly with the crowd. He then hung around to greet all who came out. He shook hands with long-time supporters of the Owls as well as those who were new to the program or had been discouraged by disappointment on the scoreboard in the past.

Those we spoke with commented on the enthusiasm and the leadership of Coach Graham brings to the program, and the confidence they have that he and his coaches will get this program turned around.

Major remains impressed with Chase's performance

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Senior receiver Mike Falco tucks it away right in the breadbasket

Although this publication was unable to get a reporter over for coverage of Sunday’s scrimmage, we did view Friday's workouts, and spoke with Rice OC Major Applewhite afterwards about  his impressions.

Major observed that Chase Clement only had one bad decision during his reps on Friday. We also inquired about Pierre Beasley’s receiving a number of reps on Friday, and Major answered by saying, "We know what John Shepherd can do. We're still learning about what Pierre can do."

Quinton Smith's efforts on Friday can be summarized in one word: unstoppable. He "scored" several times during the Friday practice and appeared very impressive to all observers. Among the receivers, Jarrett Dillard made several nice plays, including one beautifully timed TD pass. Gary Anderson made several nice plays, as did Andrew Novak, who also scored on a catch and run.

The offensive line's pass blocking scheme seems to be coming along nicely. Anyone who drew Rolf Krueger in drills drew a blank on Friday, as the road grader from Sealy showed that he’ll be a force this coming season by not letting practically anything by him. But the defensive line also seemed to have some moments, especially Travis Mason and Courtney Gordon.

True frosh shine on defense

Defensing the bump-n-run
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Rice freshman redshirt WR Chris Douglas gets hands-on instruction from Coach Jones in Wednesday evening's practice (PTH photo)

On the defensive side of the ball, Joseph Agnew and Max Anyiam, both true freshmen, played impressively. But one of the bigger hits of the days was delivered by Andray Downs, who delivered what fans were calling a "slobberknocker" – to starting quarterback Chase Clement! Clement had run a bootleg, and decided to turn it up the field when much to his surprise he was taken down decisively.

Marcus Rucker impressed at linebacker, as he stepped up with some stand-out stops on Friday. Brandon King also played well, and delivered a hit or two himself. Defensively, the intensity level appeared uniformly high. And when there were turnovers, there was no individual celebration, but rather a celebration by the entire defensive unit.

Friday’s workout might have been something of a baptism of blood, as the weather conditions were as hot and humid as the Owls will ever have to face in a game situation. Water and Gatorade flowed freely throughout practice, both into the players and onto the players.

Practices continue this week, as the Owls can count both on continuing hot weather – and also for Coach Graham and his staff to turn the heat up every day as they prepare the Feathered Flock for the ever-approaching September 2 showdown with the University of Houston Cougars at Rice Stadium.


Owls hit hard in test
of new stadium turf

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DB Ja'Corey Shepherd (9) and WR Jarett Dillard vie for ball like two fighter planes in a dog fight in Wednesday's action (PTH photo)

HOUSTON (Aug. 10) – The Rice Owls put their dancin’ shoes on and tried out the brand new field turf of Rice Stadium here Wednesday evening, in a comprehensive workout that featured helmets, shoulder pads and shorts – the first day for waist-up pads.

Rice coaches broke down the practice session into two halves, the first held on the grass practice fields and the second on the new stadium turf. After an hour and a quarter of agility drills on the grass, the Owls changed shoes and trudged gingerly across the concourse and down the stairs of the east grandstand. It was, in the words of Rice head man Todd Graham, a "semi- historical moment."

The field turf was squishier than usual, because a large number of rubber pellets remained on the surface like so much sawdust after a woodworking job, there to stay until some kind of giant vacuum cleaner comes to slurp it all away.

Even so, the turf was fast, and the going was spirited for the hour or so that the Feathered Flock cavorted up and down the field.

First up came 7-on-7 passing drills, and those came on a day when number one quarterback Chase Clement was sharper than ever.

"Chase has really taken the reins," Coach Graham said after practice. "I’ve been very, very impressed with him the first three days – as regards his decision-making. He’s worked himself, prepared himself; you can tell the amount of work he’s put in, not only in the weight room and training, but in the film room as well. He’s really stepped it up."

With Chase pulling the trigger, WR Jarett Dillard and DB Ja’Corey Shepherd, both exciting sophomores, put on a one-on-one show for anyone lucky enough to be out there watching. Good friends off the field, those two went at it tooth-and-nail on the Rice Stadium turf, each trying to out-leap, out-grab and generally out-do the other. And it went well for both of them.

Among other receivers who had a chance to catch the ball in traffic were Mike Falco, who ran so hard that he literally blew out a turf shoe and had to go to the sideline for a tire change. Also, a couple of nice catch-and-runs were made by the oft-injured Gary Anderson, who finally appears to be nearing 100 per cent, health-wise, for really the first time in his college career.

The next two quarterbacks in line, John Shepherd and frosh Pierre Beasley, both appeared to struggle a bit with their timing – nothing so much as to cause declaration of a state of emergency, but enough to where it’s clear special attention will need to be devoted to their respective reps by Owl assistants over the next couple of weeks.

One John Shepherd pass completed a play that would have drawn roars from a home game crowd, as Joel Armstrong, having been decked by the cornerback on a pattern where he went ten yards out and curled, caught a pass that appeared to be overthrown – but Joel, lying flat on his back, reached out and grabbed it for a first-down completion. It was an amazing show of athleticism and concentration.

The defense managed to grab two intercepts during 7-on-7s, although neither were off the arm of Chase Clement.  Movement and aggressiveness by the DBs generally earned high B's, though,  if not straight A's, from Rice defensive coaches.

The day’s workout ended with 11-on-11 drills, again emphasizing the passing game, and involving about as much hitting as possible while staying within the bounds of safety. "Naturally we don’t tackle to the ground," Coach Graham said, "but we do go pretty hard."

The Owls are restricted from donning full pads until the fifth practice, and this was practice number three. But somebody had better put some pads on those boys pretty quick, though, because if Wednesday’s practice is any indication, they’re ready to start hitting somebody.

--P.T.H.

Man in the middle....

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Rice quarterback Chase Clement is surrounded by reporters and cameramen during Monday's Media Day luncheon (PTH photo)

Players uniformly say
Owls ready to fly high

By Mark Anderson

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Veteran Rice punter Jared Scruggs was all smiles on Media Day (PTH photo)

HOUSTON (Aug. 9) -- For the last eight months, anyone associated with the Rice Owls has heard Coach Todd Graham declare that the Owls were going to compete for the C-USA title and a bowl championship this upcoming season.  This week, it was the Owl football players themselves’ turn for a little tub-thumping, as a baker’s dozen of them gathered for press interviews at the annual Media Day luncheon which highlights the first day of fall drills.

It turns out that Coach Graham is not alone in his thinking, as the Institute Boys, to a man, chimed in with an “all for one and one for all” approach.

Some Owl fans feared that wholesale position changes occasioned by the complete turnabout in offensive philosophy might have created dissension in the ranks.  But no one we spoke to on Monday said he had any regrets or hesitation about changing positions.

Take Brian Raines, for example.   Brian, originally a linebacker in high school, had bounced from 'backer to secondary before being moved in the spring back to the   linebacker spot.  Why was Brian willing to make such a move?  “It was good for me personally and for the sake of the team,” he said.  “I feel I can contribute more to this team [after the position change].”

The Owl who made ostensibly the biggest sacrifice for the sake of the team is Joel Armstrong.  In the spring,  Joel was asked by the coaching staff to move to from the starting quarterback spot he’d held down all last season, to wide receiver.   Why did he do it with out complaining?  “You’ve got to be willing to do anything,” Joel answered.   “Returning kicks, blocking punts, whatever I can do to help my team out. Anything I can do to help the team, I will do.”

Expectations flying high

For the Feathered Flock, expectations appear to be soaring as the team begins its fall workouts in anticipation of the opening game versus the University of Houston.  “I think it’s going to be a great season,” senior kicking specialist  Luke Juist said.  “Our team has had a great summer.  We’ve been here all summer practicing, and watching the rest of the team practice  -- I’ve seen them grow,” Juist said.  “We’re so much better.  I think this is going to be a great season and there’s going to be a big turnaround,” he continued.  “You’ll be really surprised.  You’ll be happy.”

Joel Armstrong echoed those sentiments. “First of all, as a team, the expectations are high,” he said.  “As hard as we have worked, you couldn’t have anything but high expectations.  We set the bar really high."

Lute Barber was succinct about his expectations for 2006:  “I expect great things. We will win."

Jonathan Cary, meanwhile,   summed up his thoughts in these words:  “I expect to be a lot better.  I expect to win, definitely.  Losing is not an option.”

But Brian Raines was bold when it came to his expectations.  “Nothing short of Liberty Bowl champions,” Brian said. "I do think we can do it, I do believe we can do it and now we’ve jut got to go out and do it.”

Graham attitude yields sea change in player attitude

Every Owl we spoke to stated emphatically that this year would not be like last year. And when asked why, they all pointed to Coach Todd Graham.

When Coach Graham took the job on January 1, 2006, he met with his players.  Nobody really knew what was said in that first meeting and over the course of the next few weeks with the players.  Today, we do.  Graham made the players a promise – that things would change drastically by the time football season rolled around in the fall. 

Some of those things promised were changes included the new field turf and the jumbotron.  Coach Graham told the team that their weight room would become the best, and that they would have the technology to go with it.  As each of these things on Coach Graham’s list got checked off,  team members said, they tended to buy into Coach Graham’s philosphy more and more.

“He’s kept every single one of (his promises),”  Luke Juist told us.  “ It means an awful lot that a coach can promise so much and come through with it—especially how great it looks.  That’s not just any kind of promise—a promise this big shows he can do something.”

“We have 100% confidence in Coach Graham,” DL Dietrich Davis said,  “and everything he has said he was going to do he has done.  We’ve learned that if he tells you something, you can take it to the bank.”

Lute Barber added, “If he tells you he’s going to do something, its going to get done.  Individually and as a team, we know that if he says something, he means it.  He’s not going to walk away.  He’s not going to tell you something different.  We can have a belief in this program.”

Defensive lineman Jonathan Cary noted,  “It gives us a belief.  He gave us a concrete something to look at rather than being abstract.  He gives us something to look at and believe that he says we’re going to win, we’re definitely going to have the opportunity to win.”

Jonathan talked further of another transformation, which involved learning to trust his teammates.  “It’s just the way we act around each other,” he said.   “In the past, we weren’t really close.  Going through the off-season, and everyone staying in school, it brought us together as a team.”

“This is the first time we got to stay here together.  That means a lot.   We’re here around each other every day, talking together, and still are.”

Luke Juist also echoed those sentiments, saying, “We’ve come a lot closer as a team.  Our bond is incredible.  I could fall back on any one of my teammates and they would step up for me.”

Joel Armstrong added another facet that’s come to light.  “We take matters into our own hands now,” he emphasized.  “You do something behind the coaches’ back, the players deal with the other players on this team.  Accountability is a big thing.”

Let me tell you what I want...
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Rice defensive coordinator Paul Randolph communes with Owl linebacker Vernon James during
Monday's initial workout of the 2006 season (Mark Anderson photo)

Owls impress staff
in first fall workout

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Owls strrrretch their coffee-break prior to hitting the line of scrimmage in Monday's workout (Mark Anderson photo)

HOUSTON (Aug. 7) – The Rice Owls picked up right where they left off in April as new head coach Todd Graham welcomed some 88 hopefuls on the grass practice fields of Rice Stadium for Monday morning’s inaugural workout.

The team practiced in shorts, but the action was fast and furious considering it was the first time the team had met as a group in over four months. But ameliorating any hint of rustiness was the way in which the team had stuck together and worked out informally during the summer months.

"We had a great summer, the whole team, working out together," senior punter Jared Scruggs told us. "We’re just really excited – everything here is new, new equipment, new everything," had added, gesticulating to the new turf, scoreboard paraphernalia, and other visible trappings of construction in Rice Stadium.

Defensive anchor Chad Price echoed the Owl punter’s sentiments. "The whole team is excited about this season," he said. "We feel we’ve grown stronger through the workouts we did this summer together. We’ll definitely be both mentally and physically prepared, starting with the first game of the season."

The new look acquired by so many facets of the Rice football program have communicated to the players that there are some folks out there who are interested in Rice football, besides themselves, Jared said.

"Just seeing what Coach Graham and his staff have accomplished up to now," he added, "it shows that people care about the program. We’re confident that there are going to be more fans in the stands now, so it’s going to be up to us to prepare, so we’re ready to perform for them."

Hear that, folks?

Agility drills quickly gave way to 11-on-11

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Joel Armstrong (R), now in role of wide receiver, wraps up pass in Monday's workout action (Mark Anderson photo)

The team went through agility drills for the first part of the workout but quickly graduated to 7 on 7s and 11 on 11s that exhibited the occasional glitch but also some inspired play on both sides of the ball.

For instance, the Rice defense counted three turnovers in about 45 minutes of work, including a couple of acrobatic intercepts. Rice defensive coaches have instilled a heretofore-unseen level of enthusiasm in their charges, and it showed on the practice field Monday.

The Rice offensive brain trust, at the same time, was uniformly pleased with the passing touch and overall performance of quarterback Chase Clement. "We were really, really impressed with the progress that Chase has made (over the summer)," Coach Graham said after the workout. "I thought he had an outstanding day today, throwing the football and running the offense."

"We’ve got to have a quarterback who manages the game and doesn’t turn the ball over. That’s big. We don’t need somebody who can thread the needle, that stuff – but then doesn’t manage the game. And I really, really was impressed with Chase today from that standpoint."

But what was perhaps just as pleasing to the staff was the shape in which Owl running backs and receivers showed up for fall drills – all toned like race horses. But Coach Graham doesn’t want any Barbaros in his stable this year. An important aspect of working up muscle tone over the summer involves the ability to stay healthy in the fall, he said. And of that, so far, so good.

"I thought we did a great job today staying off the ground and staying up. We’re learning how to practice with speed while staying in control. I think the better you are athletically, the easier it is to stay off the ground, so I think we’re a lot better in that respect. The strength staff has done a tremendous job getting our guys in peak shape."

"I really feel like our team reported to camp looking almost completely different, condition-wise, from where we started back in the spring," Coach Graham added.

The Rice mentor said the team looked faster than it did in the spring. Part of that, he added, was due to the addition of some speedy frosh to the squad.

"The young kids coming in – I felt really good about the way they looked today," he noted. "We’ve had them in conditioning all summer long, from June on – and it’s been a big help, to be able to get them acclimated."

Whole host of Owls appear before media

After the workout, some 20 Owl players came up to the R-Room with the coaching staff for a quick lunch and some face time with a large number of local media who surfaced for Frankie B’s chow and some interviews. TV cams and local talking heads descended upon Chase Clement as if he were, er, David Carr or somebody like that – at least for a moment or two.

But the whole crew expressed a sense of satisfaction and enthusiasm when quizzed about their experiences with the Graham Administration thus far, and prospects for the coming season.

We’ll have comments from a number of the players posted, including audios and photos, as two-a-days play out during the next three weeks.

Meanwhile, it’s time to play some football...

--Paul T. Hlavinka

Come meet the Owls this Friday

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Sammy sez.....

HOUSTON (Aug. 9) -- Fans of Rice athletics are invited to the third annual Meet The Owls Ice Cream Social sponsored by Memorial Hermann on Friday, Aug. 11,  at 6:30 pm at Rice Stadium. Fans will be able to meet the players and coaches of Rice's football, soccer and volleyball teams, in addition to enjoying great ice cream courtesy of Stucchi's.

ESPN 790's Charlie Palillo will be broadcasting live from Rice stadium, where fans will get their first look at the new turf and bleachers. Rice football season ticket holders may pick up their tickets at the stadium, and college football fans will also have their opportunity to purchase season tickets.

The action begins early as the football team invites everyone to watch practice from 4-6 pm. First-year head coach Todd Graham will be joining Palillo on the air beginning at 4:45 pm. After the team has a quick break, fans will have the opportunity to join the football, soccer and volleyball teams on the field for photos and autographs.

Head soccer coach Chris Huston will be introduced at 6:30 pm, and head volleyball coach Genny Volpe will be introduced at 6:45 pm. Graham will then be introduced at 7 pm. The Owls will be available until 8 pm.

Part one:  A rise above circumstances
Up close with Todd Graham

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Graham:  'I see myself as a teacher'

By Mark Anderson
X

HOUSTON (August 7) -- It’s a long way from Mesquite, Texas to Rice Stadium.

It’s an even longer journey if you are Todd Graham, the new head coach of the Rice Owls. Some would even say that based on his background, it is a practically impossible journey.  But it is no accident that Coach Graham is where he is today.  In spite of the long odds against him, Coach Graham followed his passion -- football.  He received inspiration and encouragement along the way.  His story is one about rising above circumstances to live out his dream as the seventeenth coach of the Feathered Flock.

The start of that rise to where Graham is today began in a pasture where Mesquite and Balch Springs merge in the southeast Dallas area.   That pasture was where Todd Graham was introduced to the game of football when he was five years old.  He and his brothers played football in that pasture.  “I started playing football in the pasture behind my house from the time I can remember, “Graham said.  “Football has always been a part of my life.”

Graham explained that he not only played football, but baseball as well in that pasture.  While he played and enjoyed both sports, it was football that captured his imagination.  Coach Graham said that the one thing that made football his favorite sport was the physical nature of the game.  When he was in grade school, he began playing Pee-Wee football in the third grade.  “Football has been my passion my whole life," Coach Graham said.

But things didn’t come easy for Todd Graham.  “I had three older brothers, and we grew up in the Balch Springs area growing up,” Graham explained.   “I came from a broken family, and my mom had to work three jobs,”said Graham.

A life-changing encounter

Many people in that kind of situation let the circumstances end up dictating their lives, but not Todd Graham.  He had a life-changing experience while in the seventh grade.   He played football under Coach Buddy Copeland.   It was through Buddy’s influence that Graham began to dream big.  He described Copeland as “the toughest man I have ever known in my whole life.  He could chew you out and hug your neck in the same sentence.”  

Graham explained Copeland’s influence by saying, “The way I looked at him, I knew that he loved us, but worked us hard and taught us about mental toughness—hard edge.  He gave us that tough love that we needed.  But the way I looked at him, he inspired me.  I knew I wanted to be just like Buddy Copeland,” Graham said.  “That’s why I wanted to be a coach, and I’ve known that my whole life.”

While the seeds of Graham’s dream were sown in the seventh grade, they were fertilized and grew while at North Mesquite High School.  Under Coach Childress, Graham began to flourish.  Graham was a starter on the varsity his sophomore year.  By his senior year, he was an All-State selection as a defensive back, not to mention All-Strict and All-Metro.

But those honors for Graham came with a price tag attached to them.  He actually had to walk to practice and to his job after practice at the Shell station located nearby.  “I worked until 11:30, and I had to work a lot.  We didn’t have much, and I had to work to help provide,” Graham explained.

At the crossroads

During his senior season at North Mesquite, Todd Graham began to feel like he was at the crossroads of his life.  His goal was still to be a head coach and to play in the Southwest Conference.  Because he was only 5’9”, no Division I schools were offering him a scholarship.  As Graham put it, “I grew up watching Southwest Conference football—Rice, Texas, Texas A& M, back in the hey-day of Mustang Mania. . . Mike Ford was from Mesquite [actually North Mesquite, the same high school Graham attended].  I used to watch him.   I remember the great games, and wanted so bad to play in the Southwest Conference.”

All the Division I schools told Graham the same thing—go to junior college and then maybe they would consider him.   That’s when graham began to consider a third alternative.  “Actually, I was thinking my senior year of high school of being a Marine,” Graham revealed.   Graham knew he wanted a college education.  

Coach Childress was instrumental in not letting Graham give up on his dreams.  Graham, in reminiscing back to those days, recalled, “Gary never let me give up on my dreams.  He taught me that if you can visualize it, speak it out of your mouth, have a positive attitude, and don’t listen to what everyone else says.”  Graham learned from Childress not “to let people put parameters on you, and you can do anything you set your mind to.  He always inspired me that I could do anything I set my mind to, and if I set my mind to it, there was nothing I couldn’t accomplish.”

“You’re going to play college football”

When he told Coach Childress of this idea of going into the Marines, Childress would hear none of it.  Childress told Graham, “Marines?  You’re going to play college football and get a scholarship.”   And Graham did get a scholarship—but not from a Division I school.  He received a scholarship to East Central Oklahoma in Ada, Oklahoma.  Graham said of that development in his life, “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.” 

Graham made the most of the opportunity at East Central University.  He start forty-seven consecutive games and twice was an All-American.  Graham felt he had been slighted because of his size when it came to Division I football.  After being invited to te St. Louis Cardinal’s training camp as a free agent, it was even more perplexing—and still is. Graham mused, “I’ll never understand why I was good enugh to do that but not good enough to play Division I football.” 

Inportant life lessons learned

Todd Graham not only played football—he learned important life lessons from football,.  The first life lesson he learned was from Buddy Copeland, his seventh grade coach.  “You have to inspire people,” Graham said about the lesson learned from Copeland.  “You’ve got to inspire your coaches and your players every day, with great enthusiasm and energy.”

Graham picked up a second life lesson from his high school coach, Gary Childress.  “Gary Childress taught me how to be a student of the game,” Graham explained.  “He was a great teacher.  I see myself as being a teacher.”

One lesson he learned form both coaches was what Graham referred to as the secret of winning.  “”The key to winning that I learned in both Coach Copeland and Coach Childress’ system is conditioning—mental and physical conditioning.  That involves training and working hard,” Coach Graham said.

Another life lesson came from his college coach at East Central University, Pat O’Neil.  “The tough people win in life and persevere in life,” Graham stated.  “From my college days, I learned from Pat O’Neil about character.  It’s not just about working hard—it’s about doing things right.”

Another life lesson that Graham pointed to was one he learned under Gene Stallings while at training camp with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1987.  “Coach Stallings taught me about the hard edge,” Graham explained.  “We went kickoff to kickoff live—he’s a tough guy.  He’s a Bear Bryant guy. . . .He taught me that only the tough people win in this game.”

Coach Graham also mentioned two other former NFL head coaches that have helped teach him life lessons.  The first is Tom Landry, former coach of the Cowboys.  “The guys I grew up admiring, like Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi, are guys I think are what a coach should be.  I’m definitely not stoic like Tom Landry, but Coach Landry was all about character.   He was also innovative and a teacher.  He didn’t listen to what everyone else said.  He invented things to give hos players a chance to win,’ Graham recalled.  When it came to Lombardi, Graham said, “He epitomizes the hard edge—toughness, tough love, get to enjoy the physical nature of this game.” 

Inspiring story— Now for the future

Coach Todd Graham’s life is one that is inspiring.  For Graham to rise above the odds and sit where he sits now says a lot about who he is on the inside.  But it also says a lot of what he expects of every player that puts on a Rice uniform.  Graham didn’t offer any excuses for his life to this point, and expects the same from his players.  

Graham believes the Rice football program is ripe for a turnaround.  “This s a big deal to me to be at Rice,” Graham said.  “I remember the Southwest Conference days, when Rice was on top.  That’s one reason I am excited to turn this program around.”

End of part one

Graham era begins for keeps
with commencement of fall drills

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Chase Clement started spring game as number one QB and went 32-of-43 passes for 371 yards and three touchdowns -- but will be challenged for the starting spot by all comers, Coach Graham said

HOUSTON (July 30) – You can put on your old grey bonnet with the blue ribbon on it, and we’ll hitch ol’ Sammy to the shay – because after seven months of hullabaloo and anticipation, now it’s time to start playing for keeps.

New head coach Todd Graham opens the field gates to newly-revamped Rice Stadium August 7 as he sends his Rice Owl team out onto the pristine new turf for the first of an NCAA-mandated 29 maximum workout sessions in anticipation of the season opener at home against the University of Houston Sept. 2.

A lot of off-field action has come down the pike since Coach Graham’s January 1 hiring, not the least of which emanated from the new mentor’s enthusiastic fundraising efforts over the past six months, which insiders say amounted to a haul of right at $4 million.

That’s a lot of dough for little ol’ school like Rice, but what the heck – it’s easy come, easy go, as the cash appears to have been invested immediately in a wholesale host of improvements to the physical plant.

Owl fans who make it out to Rice Stadium this fall will feast their eyes, and backsides, on a new field, new aluminum seating, a huge jumbotron scoreboard presently being mounted in the north end zone, revamped restroom and concession facilities, and the list goes on.

Anyone who’s ever been remotely witness to a Rice football game must know by now that the 2006 Owls will present an entirely new look on the field, as well, starting with a new set of color-coordinated uniforms and ending up with entirely new offensive and defensive packages.

Forty-six lettermen return, including nine offensive and six defensive starters, as the Feathered Flock commences its 95th consecutive season on the gridiron.

Still a lot more to accomplish in August

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'I’m excited about the recruiting class'

But Coach Graham states that even more territory than usual needs to be covered during fall drills. By the time he deals with the continuing assembly of a completely new offensive and defensive playbook, and adds in the murderous non-conference schedule the Owls will be facing in September, it's easy to see that there’s just so much more that remains to be accomplished under the blazing August sun.

And there’s another thing to take into account, as well, Coach Graham told us.

"Perhaps it was indicative of the (previous) strength program, but there were an awful lot of kids who did not practice in the spring, because of surgery, injuries, all those things," he said. "We’ve got four guys projected into the offensive line’s starting rotation who did not work out (in the spring). We held out (Mike) Falco, you know. We used Jarett (Dillard) sparingly."

In other words, a lot of guys who will be considered essential cogs in the machinery this fall still haven’t had a taste of the Graham coaching method in full pads, and are going to have to make up for lost time in the coming weeks.

Then there’s the matter of incoming freshmen. Rice coaches believe that, as a whole, the group is sufficiently talented to produce at least a couple, if not more, immediate producers on the field.

"I’m excited about the recruiting class that we’ve seen out here," Coach Graham said. "We’ve got a very talented bunch, who’ll be interesting, competitively, in August."

Too, the jockeying for position – both on the depth chart, and at the line of scrimmage – will continue unabated. Consider, if you will, the man-under position. Chase Clement started in the spring game, and last year’s starter, Joel Armstrong, spent that evening at wide receiver.

"There is not a starting quarterback," Coach Graham insisted. "Joel Armstrong is not going to be a full-time wide receiver. We put him in there in the spring to see some of the things he might be able to do for us at wideout, and he didn’t disappoint. But he’ll come in and play both positions in the fall."

Rice offensive coordinator Major Applewhite says he’ll continue to stress the importance of physical conditioning, adding that the Owls were somewhat deficient, as a team in that category, during spring workouts.

But even today, in the blistering, 1 p.m. heat, about two dozen Owls were seen working out on their own on the grass practice fields. That’s a start, Major said – that, and "understanding what wins games – ball security."

'We're going to play great defense'

But Todd Graham is essentially a defensive mastermind, and that’s what he, himself, will be primarily focusing on in August. "How we’re going to win football games this year is, we’re going to play great defense," Coach Graham insisted.

An utterance of some bravado, it seems that was, coming in regard to a defensive squad that returns only half its starters from last season’s 1-10 slate, in which the Owl defenders gave up an average 40 points a game.  But progress, indeed, has been made.

"I’m pleased with where we were defensively at the end of the spring," the Rice mentor dead-panned. "Now the key is going to be to build on it."

"The kids understand the intensity and the discipline that we’re going to be asking of them, both on the practice field and on the playing field. I’d say that, going into fall drills, we’re about 75 per cent the way there, on that."

Let’s see, 25 per cent in, how many, 26 days of time from the beginning of workouts to opening night? Looks like the Rice defenders need to improve by a factor of one per cent a day. Sure enough, when one breaks down the necessary components into discrete, daily, even minute-by-minute tasks, the mountain does appear to be much more surmountable.

--P.T.H.

 

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If Rice is to succeed on the football field, Paul Randolph will be a major reason why (Mark Anderson photo)

New DC brings intensity, desire to win
"This is big-time football"

By Mark Anderson

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Paul Randolph was an imposing figure on the practice fields during Rice's spring drills

HOUSTON (July 13) --When Paul Randolph left the University of Alabama to accept the job of defensive coordinator earlier this year at Rice, it undoubtedly left a few scratching their heads and asking, “Why?”

Paul Randolph answered that question with two words:  “Todd Graham.”

The relationship between Paul Randolph and Todd Graham is not one that is superficial—it is very real.  “Right off the bat we were two peas in a pod.  I liked Coach Graham and knew I could work for him,” Randolph said as he recounted his days under Graham at West Virginia University.

“He told me about his beliefs and his convictions and what he thought, and there was no doubt—mine were exactly in line with his.  I didn’t have a crystal ball and had no idea that four years later he would be calling me.”  Randolph added, “No question about it, knowing the man and knowing what the man stands for, knowing what he believes in, there’s no doubt in my mind that this university under his leadership will win.  That’s why you leave a place like Alabama to come here.”

But there’s a second part of that answer as to why he could leave the University of Alabama to come to Rice.   “Wherever I was coaching, that was big-time,” Coach Randolph explained.  “When I started coached at UT-Martin [University of Tennessee-Martin], it was big time.   When I dropped down to Valdosta, that was big time. And here at Rice, it is big-time football.”

Randolph certainly didn’t start “big-time” in football.  Football for Coach Randolph began the same place it has for many youngsters:  watching the NFL on TV.  Sundays after church, the boys would gather and try to emulate what they had seen on the tube.

“I remember more NFL on TV than college.  Me and my friends, the neighborhood kids, after church we would all get together and watch it [football] on Saturday and Sunday and try and emulate the guys.”

Randolph recalled watching the Green Bay Packers play in snow.  And one January, he recounted, it snowed in Gainesville, Georgia.  The players spent an hour marking the field, went back inside to get warm, then got out and played football in the snow.

When Coach Randolph was growing up, he was influenced a great deal by those closest to him--his uncles.  “Those guys played high school football at the high school level, and wanted me to play at that level.”

But he also recalled, “I had a great defensive coordinator who coached my uncles and my cousins and also coached me.”

Randolph hardly a sought-after schoolboy player

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Coach Randolph has mentored an encouragingly intense group of young defensive coaches

Still, nobody came knocking on Paul Randolph’s door for him to play at the college level.  His story of how he became a part of the UT-Martin football team is something that sounds like it was written by Walt Disney. 

Coach Randolph tells the tale. “Coach Hardigree was a north Georgia boy himself and he was actually in Gainesville at the city school recruiting, looking at a running back.  And he just so happened to watch all my game film against the city school.  He came to my coach and asked him, ‘Well, how fast is he?’  And Coach said, ‘Well, we don’t know, we’ve never timed him’—which is true, because I had never run a 40—ever.  He told him, ‘He’s the fastest guy from tackle to tackle, that’s all I can tell you.’” 

Paul Randolph went to UT-Martin, and saw playing time as a true freshman, both as a special teams player, and as a spot player on defense.  “I think it was because I was humble and my hustle that caught his eye.” Randolph recounted.

“You’re a freshman, you’re going into college and you think you know everything.  And you figure out that you really don’t have much.  It’s a maturation process, it really is, and of course to look back on what I was as a freshman to what I was when I finished playing, when you look back on it, it was truly a mind-boggling experience.”

After his playing career at UT-Martin, Randolph signed a free agent contract with the Kansas City Chiefs.  In KC, he had what he refers to as “two cups of coffee,” lasting until the final cuts of the 1990 pre-season.

Once he was set free by the Chiefs, he went from having two cups of coffee to becoming the glue of the Winnipeg Blue Bomber defense in the Canadian Football League.  Randolph played for eight seasons, and then finished his playing career with two seasons at Montreal.

When asked who in the NFL he would compare himself to, he answered, “I’d say probably like a Jessie Tuggle .   He was the Falcons’ leader, he wasn’t flamboyant, he didn’t dress up and do all those type things.  I thought about him because I played against him in college.   When he was a senior, he was first team, and I was second team-- right behind him, dang gone it.  But he was a whale of a player in college also.”

Rice DC wound up enshrined in two football Halls of Fame

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'
I notice missed tackles.  I didn’t pay attention to the turnovers.  I notice missed tackles because missed tackles ended up giving up a whole lot of touchdowns.  So my focus was tackling.' (Mark Anderson photo)

Randolph earned a reputation as a no-nonsense type of player.  His approach to the game earned him something he never thought would happen—enshrinement in not one, but two Halls of Fame.

The first enshrinement was to the Blue Bomber Hall of Fame in 1998, followed by enshrinement into the UT-Martin Hall of Fame a year later.  His reaction?  “I’ll tell you what—that was a surprise to me.  I guess I was a pretty good player,” he said with a chuckle.

“ But when they called me to let me know I was going to be inducted, I was laughing just like we are right now.   That was for me, as far as football, probably one of the greatest honors. . . It was a tremendous honor.  And I also know that it wasn’t just because of me.  We had great teams.  I also believe that my personality and what I stood for had a lot to do with that.”

During his playing days, Randolph got the tag of “coach” because he knew the Blue Bomber defense inside and out.   But that turned out to be more than a tag—it was Randolph’s passion.  Randolph knew that he wanted to go into coaching after he retired from his playing career.   But he was torn as to which direction to go—whether to the high school ranks or the college ranks. 

Coach Randolph explained how he made that decision.  “And my thought was, ‘I can help more young men in high school than I can college,’ because I thought by the time young men get in college, they have their minds set and they were going to be who they were,” he explained.

“I was probably about a month or two torn between which one—to help more or go to college and do what you really want to do.  I thought my calling may have been to high school, but as it turns out, the Good Lord put me where He wanted me, which was college.  I found out you also have an influence on the college-aged guys, too.”

When UT-Martin gave him his first coaching job, Randolph became convinced that he could influence the lives of the young men in the college ranks.  Immediately, Paul Randolph became recognized as an “up and comer” in the coaching ranks. 

The next year, he took another coaching job at Valdosta State.  The year after that, he was at Illinois State.  The year after that, he coached for Toledo.  “I don’t know what my wife was thinking,” Randolph recalled with a hint of amusement.  “We lived out of a suitcase year to year.”

Randolph fit Todd Graham's specifications

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Rice's franchise running back, Quinton Smith, goes down, but he doesn't go down easily, en route to 154 rushing yards in this year's Spring game (Paul T. Hlavinka photo)

In 2002, Coach Randolph decided to interview for a linebackers coach job opening at West Virginia University.  And to hear Randolph tell it, Todd Graham knew exactly what he was looking for.  He recounts, “He was looking for someone that was over thirty, a Christian fellow, sturdy in his beliefs, and a good coach.  I came in and interviewed, and of course, I’m prepared and I’m having a good time.”

“And I think for some reason we just hit it off.  To me, in my way of thinking, it wasn’t anything but a blessing to me because I believe that every path I’ve taken and every road I’ve taken has been ordered.” 

“Todd was the defensive coach,”  he added.  But little did Paul Randolph realize that day the importance of this encounter with Todd Graham.  “I didn’t have a crystal ball and had no idea that four years later he would be calling me,” said Randolph.

In 2004, after leading WVU to a turnaround and bowl appearance,  Randolph accepted the defensive coordinator job at Alabama under newly-named head coach Mike Price.  Price’s story of his fall from the Alabama head coaching job is well documented.  An already difficult time for Alabama—being on probation—became even more difficult with Price’s firing. 

Even after Mike Shula was hired as Price’s replacement, it was tough sledding, as the 4-6 record indicated.  But that would change in 2005.  “By then Coach Shula had been there for a year, and his vision took over, and you see them in the Cotton Bowl,” Coach Randolph said of the Tide’s turnaround season.

Randolph pointed to one factor that he maintained brings change to a football team—leadership.  And that’s what he expects that he and Todd Graham will bring to this football program, he added.

Randolph explained about the leadership qualities he saw in Coach Graham while at WVU and today at Rice when he said, “His leadership, what he stood for—he walked it every day.  To me, that’s the greatest ingredient of leadership.  What you ask of them to do you do yourself.”

“There’s no job too small or too big for you.  Coach Graham demonstrated that from day one when I hired in.  He was the leader of the defense and doesn’t ask anything of us that he’s not willing to do.  I believe that, and I would bet on that, and I know our players do too.”

Just as importantly, Coach Randolph sees that leadership being passed on to the players.  Leadership is something that is taught and modeled, according to Randolph.   Once the coaches have established leadership, their next job is to teach, he said. “From there, it’s teaching young menhow to be leaders.  If they don’t know how to lead then you’re still in trouble, because they have to lead each other.”

"We're going to tackle"

Coach Randolph also pointed to another important change that he hopes to see on the field this year—fewer missed tackles.  As Randolph looked at game tapes from the 2005 season, the one thing that stood out to him was missed tackles.  Randolph explained what he meant.  “Missed tackles turn into touchdowns.  If you miss two in one play, they’re normally going to score.  If you miss three in one play, there’s no doubt it’s probably going to score.   So I notice missed tackles.  I didn’t pay attention to the turnovers.  I notice missed tackles because missed tackles ended up giving up a whole lot of touchdowns.  So my focus was tackling.”

“You put emphasis where emphasis is needed.  To me, if you want turnovers, we can do all the turnover circuits and all those things, but if that’s all we do—if we don’t preach it, teach it, and talk about it in everything we do—then what you’re working on is for naught anyway.”

Randolph summed up the biggest change that fans would notice this season in four words:  “We’re going to tackle.”

Coach Randolph is convinced that as these changes on defense happen, effort on the field will translate into wins.   One thing on Coach Randolph’s office wall—and every  Rice coach’s office wall—are three words:  WE WILL WIN.

Sounds like a slogan, but not in the eyes of Paul Randolph.   When asked what he envisioned the 2006 season would hold in store, he looked the reporter straight in the eye, and, with serious mien and disposition, repeated what was on the wall: “We…will…win."

 

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