HOUSTON (AP) — Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue got rolling just as Rice's 2010 season was ending.
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound McHargue missed eight games with a sprained shoulder, then completed 24 of 37 passes for 345 yards and four touchdowns in season-closing victories over East Carolina and UAB.
The dual-threat star is only a sophomore now and if he stays healthy, he will guide an offense that could put up numbers comparable to the 2008 Owls, who ranked 10th nationally in total yardage (472 per game) and eighth in scoring (42 points per game).
And once again, Rice has plenty of playmakers surrounding its quarterback, like that team had around quarterback Chase Clement.
Michigan transfer Sam McGuffie, now a junior, led Rice in rushing (883 yards) and receptions (39) last season. Also returning are junior tight ends Vance McDonald, who led the Owls with eight touchdown catches, and Luke Willson, the team's leader in yards receiving (425) in 2010.
"We have a very talented team," Rice coach David Bailiff said. "Taylor, he doesn't have to go win a game for us. He's got to take care of the football and keep the chains moving. But he can rely on some really fine running backs, tight ends and receivers to help him."
The Owls allowed 27 sacks last season, but will have four seniors and a junior along the starting offensive line in 2011. Experience alone, Bailiff said, should improve the blocking up front.
"They can identify things, they know how to communicate with one another, they've worked together for years," Bailiff said. "They've learned to see things, they know what to look for. There's something about seniors. It's not only the continuity, but they realize the urgency. They realize they've got only so many more times to put the jersey on, and that makes them work even harder."
McHargue can also take care of himself. He was the Owls' fourth-leading rusher in 2010, despite appearing in only five games.
"He can extend a play with his feet," Bailiff said. "He's pretty swift, too."
The big question for the Owls, though, is whether they can stop opposing offenses. Rice ranked ninth in Conference USA in total defense (449 yards per game), 10th in scoring defense (38.5 points per game) and 11th in against the pass (304 yards per game).
The Owls also ranked last in the league in interceptions, a number that has to rise if Rice is going to be competitive this year. Bailiff hired former Kentucky and Texas A&M secondary coach Chris Thurmond to install a more aggressive philosophy.
"We've got to increase our takeaways," Bailiff said. "We've got guys in camp taking risks to make plays, not sitting back to see what happens, and that's good. We're breaking on balls, going after receivers. Chris has done a masterful job with those kids so far."
The secondary has already been crippled by the loss of senior safety Travis Bradshaw, who suffered a career-ending neck injury early in training camp. Bradshaw had two interceptions and ranked second on the team with 76 tackles in 2010.
But the defense will be buoyed by the return of senior defensive end Scott Solomon, who sat out last season with a broken right foot. The 6-3, 270-pound Solomon led all Conference USA defensive linemen with 63 tackles in 2009.
"He was our best player that year, and he's our best player overall right now," Bailiff said. "He had that year off to reflect and learn how much this game means to him. He's completely dedicated himself to coming back and making a difference. He's had a great camp, and he's one of those guys who raises the level of every guy around him."
The Owls went 4-8 last season, and their nonconference slate will be challenging again.
Rice opens the season Sept. 3 at Texas — the first football game slated for the much-ballyhooed Longhorn Network — then faces Purdue in Houston the following week. The Owls also have road games at Baylor (Sept. 24) and Northwestern (Nov. 12).
Bailiff, starting his fifth season at Rice, said taking on teams from top-tier conferences is necessary in building a program.
"You've got to play those tough teams, it helps you," he said. "It's going to improve your level of play. If you're going against a team that's faster, it changes the leverage you have to use to tackle or block. You have to focus on doing everything well to compete. It all makes you better."